This is the first of a weekly series of teachings about the chants that have guided my path over the last twenty years and which still sustain me as I work amongst organisations in London. Most of the chants are in the Amida “Nien Fo” collection of chants. Many contain teachings from a variety sources that contain useful reminders of the Buddha’s teachings. Some are the simple repetitive chants that provide a backdrop to my life as a Pureland Buddhist. I start with the one that touched my heart and grabbed me at the beginning of my journey with Amida – “ Namo Amida Bu”.
Twenty something years ago I was rethinking my life and facing my past so that I could move forward in my fifth decade into a more useful and healthy lifestyle. It was painful facing my past, but I was determined; because as I emerged from some years of depression after my parents died I started seeing the world in a new light. I saw the suffering around me and I saw how I needed to do a lot of work on myself to be able to help others. I had been a “drop out” at twenty and so needed to study for a psychology degree in order to do the work I felt called to. I also needed counselling to support me as I faced the past and the defensive habits I had learnt which were borne out of some horrible traumas.
I was fortunate. I was accepted on an Open University degree course, found a good job helping people with alcohol problems and I found a good therapist. But I still lacked faith, in people and religion. However, as my mind opened, I realised I might be wrong about rejecting religion and in looking at religions discovered Buddhism. In therapy, as well as facing my past, I also struggled with my antipathy towards religion. it is not easy for an angry atheist to change their mind. At work I came across Buddhist psychology from reading papers written by David Brazier and in 1993 I was fortunate to be funded to go on one of his courses. Even more fortunately, a couple of years later they funded me to go for more training - a groupwork certificate involving residential courses in Amida Newcastle.
Just in time! My old dangerous habits had started to re-emerge, drinking and pot smoking were helping to mask my pain, and cloud my thinking. In Amida Newcastle I found good friends, students and teachers who helped me face my past and find my way forward into a different life. But still, it was almost too difficult until “NAMO AMIDA BU” grabbed me.
I could not understand “Namo Amida Bu”. Chants were very alien to my experience. But I could feel something. When I heard it chanted something soothed and refreshed me. As I investigated Buddhism I also started to practice and to chant myself. I asked many questions of Dharmavidya when I was at the residential weekends and steadily I became sure that the Buddhist path was for me and stayed over for the Monday meetings. I was interested in all the chanted teachings however coming to know “Namo Amida Bu” was the most important thing of all for me at that time. I carried the chant back with me to Scotland and it helped me get through many difficulties.
How do we “know” Namo Amida Bu”? I think we would, perhaps, all explain it differently. All I can do is share a little of what it means to me. Over the years my appreciation of Namo amida Bu has grown. It is the heart of my practice. From the beginning I have experienced the Namo as this little me calling out to the measureless Buddha. I could deeply understand how living a life without measure is being free and how experiencing a person who does not measure is just wonderful, even when there is not a person standing in front of us, rather an imagination of the perfect Buddha. Since then I have called out in fear and joy, sadness and happiness and all the states of mind that make up this little, foolish person. Above all I call out in gratitude.
As some of you know, eighteen years ago, I gave up my earlier life to devote my life to doing the Buddha’s work and became an Amitarya in the Amida Order. Namo Amida Bu has been with me as I have travelled and worked for the Amida Trust – along the Bush roads of Zambia, facing the graves in Bosnia, the oppression in India and the confusions of life here in the UK. Namo Amida Bu has helped me to speak out again and again, despite my fears, and cry my tears for the foolishness of humanity. And, above all “Namo Amida Bu” has enabled me to voice the joy of being in this beautiful world with good companions and guided by a very special teacher, Dharmavidya.