When I provide my Dharma message, I often mention that our loved ones who have gone to the Pure Land, have become a Buddha. They are always with us whenever and wherever, through the Nembutsu.
When I talked about this to a family, they told me that they thought their parents who had passed away come back to this world from the Pure Land only during Obon time. They believed this, because it’s a very popular custom to visit the cemetery and to hold a Buddhist service in front of their loved ones’ graveside during Obon time.
Obon is a day to remember those who have gone before us with gratitude for allowing us to exist and to encounter Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. Therefore, we show our respect to them through Gassho at the cemeteries. However, Shin Buddhism believes our deceased loved ones come back from the Pure Land as a Buddha anytime. Or I could say, they are always with us as Nembutsu.
When I was working as a minister in Osaka, I met a woman who didn’t follow Buddhism or any spiritual ideas. When I visited her parents’ house to do a Buddhist memorial service, she just continued with her housework. Only her parents attended the service. In fact, one day she excused herself saying she needed to do the dishes, but when I went to the washroom, I saw her lying on the couch watching TV. I came to accept that she was just not interested in Buddhism. But a couple of months later, she attended our Buddhist service. After the service she asked me “What is Buddha?” I answered “Buddha has great Compassion and Wisdom.” “What is great Compassion and Wisdom?” I said “When you feel sad or lonely, your friends or family may give you kind words and a gentle smile. But Buddha’s compassion is when you feel suffering Buddha also suffers with you. And Buddha’s Wisdom lets us know the truths of our life.” “What are the truths of our life?” With that question, I recommended she visit the temple, because I had to visit other houses that day.
A couple of days later, she visited the temple. She told me why she had suddenly become interested in Buddhism. Actually, she had lost her best friend before my last visit to her parents’ house. She was wondering where her best friend has gone. I understood her questions, because if we could see the Pure Land or Amida Buddha’s existence, we would easily believe and understand what Buddha and the Pure Land are. However, the Pure Land and Amida Buddha are invisible things.
Please think about it. If we cannot see something, can we say it doesn’t exist? I don’t think so… We know there are so many stars in the sky at noon even though we cannot see them. Even though we cannot see them in the day, we don’t think they have gone away. We know there is wind outside even though we cannot see it. When a tree moves, we know there is wind outside. We cannot see spring, because spring doesn’t have a form. But when we hear birds’ chirpings or flowers starting to bloom when warm sunshine illuminates us, we can feel and know spring has come.
Even though I cannot see the sound of Nembutsu, we can feel Amida Buddha’s compassion. The Nembutsu is Amida’s activities that allow us to know its wisdom and compassion. Humans have five senses. Eyesight. Smell. Touch. Taste. And Hearing. One of my senseis told me that Amida is the sound Buddha, because we encounter Amida through sound and listening.
Let’s say, if Amida Buddha were the scent Buddha, we would have to smell something to feel Buddha’s compassion, but we would not say “Namo Amida Butsu” because Amida is the scent Buddha. Or let’s suppose, Amida Buddha became the touch Buddha, we would have to wash our hands to touch Buddha statue to feel compassion. If Amida Buddha became the taste Buddha, we would have to lick or kiss the Amida Buddha’s statue to feel compassion. However, when we feel Amida Buddha’s compassion today, we say “Namo Amida Butsu” because Amida is the sound Buddha.
When I heard this teaching, I asked my sensei “But what about people who cannot hear well? They cannot say or hear the Nembutsu easily.” He didn’t answer the question but he asked me “Before you eat food what do you do usually?” I said, “I do Gassho and say Namo Amida Butsu”. Then he asked me “Do you always really appreciate Amida Buddha all the time?” I didn’t say “Yes” with confidence, because when I was starving, I just said “Namo Amida Butsu” very quickly so that I could start eating sooner. There was no feeling or respectful mind in that Nembutsu. I just said it – it was not from my heart.
If people feel Amida Buddha’s compassion, they say Nembutsu from their hearts not their mouths. Today we can hear many people’s voices say “Namo Amida Butsu” but how many people say it from their heart. There is no distinction between people who are deaf or not. We are equal in Amida Buddha’s compassion. When I was a student, I lost my grandmother. She had a stroke and she lost her ability to speak. When the time of death came close for her, my family visited her room, but I couldn’t find any words to say to her at that time. Then I heard my grandfather’s voice. He said “Nanmandabutsu.” My father and my old brother also said Nembutsu. When I heard this, I noticed I didn’t have to find any words to her, because she was already in Amida Buddha’s compassion. The compassion reached not only her but also my whole family in that difficult time. I saw her mouth move 3 times. While I didn’t hear “Namo Amida Butsu” from her mouth, I could hear it from her heart.
I explained all of this experience to the women who met in Osaka, and by the time I finished, it was already dark outside. There were so many stars in the sky when we looked up. She said “We cannot see stars in the day, even though they are there. We can see beautiful stars at night because it is so dark.” She also said “If my best friend had not passed away before me, I would never have cared about the meaning of my life or after my life. Now I want to appreciate my best friend for giving me this opportunity.”
Since that day, she has decided to attend the Buddhist service with her parents. I asked her “When do you think of your best friend?” She said she remembered her best friend when she listened to her best friend’s favorite song, and when she walked along the riverside which was her friend’s favorite place. And when she places her hands together, she always recalls treasured memories of her.
Some of you might have a similar experience as hers. When you think of the memories of your loved ones, your hands come together in Gassho in appreciation of the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha. And as you may know, when you think of their smile or warm heart, you can feel your loved one’s compassion, because they are always part of your life as a Buddha.
Rev. Yoshimichi Ouchi
Dharma Talk – May 2023