Amida Shu is a form of Pureland Buddhism. It derives from a tradition of Buddhist teaching that started in India, matured in China and flowered in Japan. In all probability to derives mostly from teachings that Buddha gave to lay people. There is, therefore, relatively less emphasis upon renunciation, meditation and the monastic life. However, different strands of Buddhism have influenced each other down the centuries and we are all trying to follow the original teachings of Shakyamuni. In China there was a good deal of interaction between Pureland and Zen and also between these forms of Buddhism and Taoism.
There are three foundations of Amida Shu. These three are like the legs of a tripod. Each depends upon the other two. These three are the Trikaya Nature of Buddha, the bombu nature of the practitioner and the practice of nembutsu.
Nembutsu literally means “mindfulness of Buddha”. It refers particularly to calling the Buddha’s name. In Amida Shu this is usually done in the form “Namo Amida Bu”, but there are a number of variants in different languages and rhythms. It is intention that makes a particular form of words into nembutsu. It is nembutsu if you sincerely mean it to be so. Nembutsu is the Amida Shu way of taking refuge. We particularly call the name of Amida Buddha, but to call one Buddha is to call all Buddhas. Taking refuge is the very heart of Buddhism. In his very first teaching, given to two merchants whom he met on the road, Buddha taught refuge. In his dying words, Buddha said that if you want to shine a lamp in the world, make the Dharma your lamp. So refuge is the alpha and omega of Buddhism and in Amida Shu it is expressed as nembutsu. This means that we try to keep the Buddhas always in mind and reference everything that happens back to them.
The bombu nature of the practitioner means that in Amida Shu we admit that we are ordinary human beings, that we have emotions, mixed motives and limitations, that we are “foolish beings of wayward passion” and do not have control of our fate. We are fallible and do not expect perfection. This means that basic attitudes of Amida Buddhism are gratitude and humility. These make a sound basis for practice and for community. One day, if we continue to have faith in the Buddhas and their Dharma, we shall all be Buddhas and bodhisattvas ourselves, but we don’t expect it in this lifetime and in the meantime there is still plenty to do. Amida Shu tends, therefore, to be a rather socially engaged approach because we are aware that we bombu humans are not making a very good job at looking after the planet nor, sometimes, even at looking after each other. The bombu paradigm leads us to engage with such issues rather than retreat from them. It also means that one can understand how troubles arise. Compassion springs from fellow feeling.
The Trikaya Nature of Buddha means that we think of Buddha in three ways: as the teacher who appears in this world, as the spiritual manifestion that comes in dreams and visions, and also as an ultimate truth that is unborn and eternal. This is the basic framework of religion: to receive the teachings as practical advice, as spiritual inspiration and also as ultimate truth. As ultimate truth, Buddha is timeless and universal and so is like a light that shines throughout every possible universe. As a spiritual presence, Buddha inspires each of us and bestows a special blessing upon each individual. As a living teacher Buddha is the source of our tradition. These three dimensions are the basis of our faith. We believe that the practice of the nembutsu way leads to birth in the Pure Land of Buddha. Those who are born in the Pure Land naturally attain the samadhi of being always in the presence of all the Buddhas. Since the Pure Land also has trikaya nature, we can think of it in three ways. Ultimately, the Pure Land is not separate from the perfect Dharma. Spiritually, the Pure land is the sacred realm where everyone receives exactly what they need. Concretely, Buddhas are always in the business of creating better conditions in the relative sphere. As devotees, we are also caught up in the work of the Buddhas to make this world and this life into a Pure Land. We shall not achieve it today or tomorrow, but we are all, in one way or another, dedicated to the bodhisattva path of benefiting all sentient beings.
Different people proceed differently.
Some may begin with a practice of nembutsu chanting and only gradually come to realise the importance of the Amida Shu attitudes toward the Buddha, the Pure Land and toward the person.
Some may begin with a confrontation with their own nature, a sense of contrition or realisation of a need for help. They may then turn to the Buddha, and the nembutsu then comes as the desperately needed prayer connecting them.
Others, again, may find that they have a natural spiritual sense that there is something much greater than ordinary mundane life and may have an experience of grace that lightens the heart. For these, humility comes naturally and the nembutsu simply puts some shape and sound to a longing that has been in their heart all along.
It is characteristic of the Amida way that the practice works differently in different people. Saying the nembutsu one day one may be moved to tears. Another day, one may be more cerebral and thoughtful. Another time, one simply enjoys the company singing together. One is not here trying to attain a specific preordained state of mind or, indeed, any kind of spiritual attainment. Amida Shu is not a path of self effort. Realising our bombu nature we know that it is pointless thinking that we can become enlightened by our own effort, or by adopting this or that practice. We simply have faith in the Buddhas and say the Name without expectation. It is enough in itself. This simple practice and unassuming attitude makes for a wonderful sense of sangha community. Bowing to the Buddhas in our hearts and raising our voices to them, love for one another naturally flowers and Amida’s golden chain stretches round the world.