‘And again, O Ananda, in the ten quarters, and in each of them, in all the Buddha countries equal in number to the sand of the Gangâ, the blessed Buddhas equal in number to the sand of the Gangâ, glorify the name of the blessed Amitâbha, the Tathâgata, they preach his fame, they proclaim his glory, they extol his virtue. And why?
‘Because all beings who hear the name of the blessed Amitâbha, and having heard it, raise their thought with joyful longing, even for once only, will not turn away again from the highest perfect knowledge.’ (BMT2, p. 45)
I still remember the exact location, my posture, and the light outside. That is how it is for all of us in supreme ‘Aha!’ moments. I was standing, holding the open book in both hands, facing the window. But I was transfixed by those words; words that have never left me. At the time, I knew about the nembutsu, and practiced reciting it as often as I could, but this was the first time that I learned about ‘hearing the Name.’ … Just ‘hearing it’.
I knew nothing much about Shinran, I had not read a word of his, only commentary by D. T. Suzuki, I think it was. That book did not really tell me much that–as a hopelessly inadequate and flawed human being–I could appropriate or use in the quest for deliverance. The writing was too obscure for me. But this passage in the Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra tells us everything we will ever need to know.
I also did not know the full significance of the Sutra I was reading at the time. It was a translation from the Sanskrit by the nineteenth century Oxford scholar, Professor F. Max Müller. Ever since that day, I have felt great gratitude for Professor Müller and the publisher Motilal Banarsidass.
Indeed, the particular sutra I was reading is not The Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, or the Larger Sutra, which is one of the three sutras that comprise the traditional Pure Land Buddhist canon of scripture. However, it is consonant with it, and further qualifies the teaching of the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.
The passage from that sutra–with which I began this essay–is a declaration about the fulfilment of the seventeenth and eighteenth Vows of the canonical Larger Sutra. Its purpose is to explain the seventeenth Vow: Why is it that all the Buddhas praise the Name of the blessed Amitabha? It is, says the sutra, because all beings who hear the Buddha’s Name and awaken joyful trust will attain the ‘stage of the truly settled’, and will definitely attain Enlightenment.
Until I read this passage, I had imagined that in order to develop the necessary virtue we had to recite the Name, the nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu, constantly–or as often as possible. Now, in a flash, it became clear that it was ‘hearing’ that mattered.
At that time, I did not know anything about the way that ‘hearing’ is more fully interpreted in our Shin Buddhist tradition. I am not really sure if it was already clear that the Buddha’s Vow to become Amitabha was the significance of this passage for me at the time. However, what we do ‘hear’ amounts to knowing that ‘hearing’ this Buddha’s Name in joyful trust can certainly deliver us from the thrall of birth-and-death. It was enough to know the reason why ‘all Buddhas glorify the Name of the blessed Amitabha.’
From those events, almost forty years ago, I have come to see that Amida Buddha will look after us if we trust ourselves wholeheartedly. Without question when we do, Namo Amida Butsu transforms from being a chore to a cry of profound and enduring appreciation.
All we need to do is to leave everything, including our questions, to Amida Buddha.