As noted in a recent post, I've been playing around with using the Buddhist mantra, Namu Amida Butsu.
I like the way it sounds. I'm attracted to Buddhism, so long as it is stripped of extraneous supernaturalism. I don't believe that Namu Amida Butsu is anything special. It's simply a way for me to focus and calm my mind.
That mantra is part of the Shin aspect of Buddhism.
I have some familiarity with Shin, also known as the Pure Land tradition. In 2005 I talked about Namu Amida Butsu in "Mantra meditation: what's in a word?" In 2013 I wrote "Interesting take on how Shin Buddhism supports social activism."
Here's an excerpt from the 2005 post.
D.T. Suzuki, a noted Zen adept, says that there are two ways of conceiving the purpose of a mantra.
In the first case the name itself is regarded as having a wonderful power, especially over human affairs; it is a magic formula…In the second case, the name is pronounced not necessarily as indicative of things that are therein suggested, but in order to work out a certain psychological process thus set up.
He is speaking here of “namu amida butsu,” but the principle applies to every variety of mantra. When we repeat certain words over and over, is it with an outward or an inward intention? Are we trying to influence someone or something out there that is separate from us, or is it we ourselves in here who is affected by the repetition of the mantra?
In every religion there are outward-directed and inward-directed followers. For example, in Buddhism the Pure Land believers consider that repeating “namu amida butsu” brings all kinds of benefits from various deities:
When we say "Namu-amida-butsu," the countless Buddhas throughout the ten quarters, surrounding us a hundredfold, a thousandfold, rejoice in and protect us.
OK. Maybe. I doubt it, but everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.
I find that the Zen approach to mantra meditation makes a lot more sense, for it is psychological rather than theological. D.T. Suzuki says that when “namu amida butsu” is repeated without regard to the meaning of the words, or envisioning that countless Buddhas are hearing the invocation, a profound alteration in consciousness may occur.
Psychologically considered, the aim of the vocal Nembutsu is to do away with the fundamental dualism which is a condition of our empirical consciousness. By achieving this the devotee rides over the theoretical difficulties and contradictions that have troubled him before. With all intensity of thought and will he has thrown himself into the deeps of his own being.
And what is found in those depths, ultimately, is Buddha nature. So the Pure Land devotee and the Zen practitioner seemingly arrive at the same destination via different avenues. Zen, however, takes a more direct path, since the journey doesn’t involve any appeal to beings or entities separate from the devotee’s own consciousness.
Wanting to better understand what Shin is all about, I bought a book by Taitetsu Unno, "River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradtion of Shin Buddhism."
Well, actually this is the second time I've bought the book, something Amazon reminded me of when I went there just now to get a link to it. I recall that I gave the book away because it didn't resonate with me as much as my other Buddhist books.
But on my second reading, I'm taking a different attitude toward "River of Fire, River of Water." That attitude is in line with the Zen approach described in the above excerpt from my 2005 post.
Meaning, psychological rather than theological.
I don't believe that repeating Namu Amida Butsu causes countless Buddhas to rejoice in and protect the person reciting those words. However, this mantra, as with any mantra, has an effect upon the person speaking it.
Thus if we find that a mantra produces some good quality in us, this is wonderful. We just shouldn't believe that the quality entered into us from the outside, from some corner of the cosmos.
For example, Unno says in his book, "To bring about such a transformation is the sole purpose of the Primal Vow of Amida, the working of great compassion that courses through the universe."
When I read those words, I thought about disease, hurricanes, tsunamis, birth defects, and all the other nasty stuff that seems incompatible with a compassion that courses through the universe. Then it struck me that compassion isn't out there. It is in here.
Almost everybody is compassionate. Not all the time. Not to everyone deserving of it. But at least to some people, to some living beings, some of the time. Which naturally includes ourself, for compassion begins with self-compassion.
And we can learn to become more compassionate through a variety of means, including Buddhist practices.
Thus we shouldn't be led astray by the familiar habit of believing that a feeling we have is produced by an external force. When I was a member of a guru-centered religious organization, people would return from seeing the guru and say, "He made me feel so wonderful."
No, he didn't.
The proof of this is that other people can see the guru and feel nothing, or even a negative emotion. Likewise, a movie doesn't make us cry, or laugh, or scared. Our own mind produces those sensations, stimulated by the movie. Someone else may feel no sadness, humor, or fear from the same movie.
That's why I'm confident that the universe doesn't have compassion coursing through it. Our mind can, though. And if repeating Namu Amida Butsu makes us feel more compassionate, or more relaxed, or happier, that's a wonderful thing.