The Nembutsu (Nien-fo in Chinese) is the heart of the Pure Land philosophy. It is usually understood by contemporary followers of the school as the Utterance of the Name of Amida Buddha. This interpretation of the Nembutsu goes back to certain teachers of the Pure Land Buddhism, especially Shan-tao (613-681) in China and Honen (1133-1212) in Japan who taught that the Utterance of Amida’s Name was, for those who were unable to practice the various difficult disciplines, the easiest and most excellent way to be born in the Pure Land and to attain Enlightenment. (Ryosetsu Fujiwara, The Way to Nirvana, p. 17)
When you live in a fairly remote part of the world, and belong to a small but cherished Sangha, and find the cost of travel to larger nembutsu Sanghas — or even a proper temple — too expensive to undertake very often if at all; then, books by great teachers surely gain in value. They, like those who write them, become very special friends.
For me, such a person is the late Professor Ryosetsu Fujiwara. He was born in Japan in 1905, educated at Ryukoku University in Kyoto and, at one stage was professor to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkley, California. He was a Shikyo, Director of Studies to the Hongwanji in Kyoto, so he is a highly respected authority on the nembutsu teaching.
The best photo of this revered Dharma Master (for me, at any rate) is the one on this page. I would love to have a better one.
Professor Fujiwara is associated with two really valuable, even priceless, works. The first is the 1962 publication by the Ryukoku University of a translation of the Tanni Sho. For this endeavour Professor Fujiwara had oversight and I understand that it is largely his work. It certainly is a remarkable publication. If this was the only book on Jodo Shinshu that you had, you would be fully informed about the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin.
The second book was published in 1974. It is entitled The Way to Nirvana, The Concept of the Nembutsu in Shan-tao’s Pure Land Buddhism.
In this book Professor Fujiwara takes us on a wonderful and detailed journey from the beginnings of the Nembutsu Way during the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, through its development as a path that was often travelled by great sages, like Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, to Shinran Shonin himself.
As the title suggests, the main concern of the book is the Chinese Pure Land Master Shan-tao. In his careful review of Shan-tao’s life and writings, Professor Fujiwara brings to light the way that Shan-tao himself gradually came to see the immense significance of saying the nembutsu for the deliverance of ordinary people like you and me. It is, indeed, the Way to Nirvana for us.
[A question to Shan-tao]: Why do you not have a person perform contemplation but rather directly encourage solely saying the Name?
Answer: Because the hindrances of sentient beings are grave and, though objects of contemplation are subtle, their minds are course, their souls are agitated and their spirits fly aloft, so it is difficult for them to fulfil contemplative practice. For this reason the Great Sage [Shakyamuni Buddha], taking pity on them, directly encourages them solely to say the Name. Saying the Name is indeed easy; accordingly [availing oneself of Amida’s Primal Vow] one continues in it and attains birth [in the Pure Land]. (Shan-tao, Kyo Gyo Shin Sho II, 24)