We live to hear the Name

Even though the great thousand-fold world be filled with fire,
Pass through immediately to hear the Buddha’s Name!
Those who hear the Name, rejoice, and praise,
Will attain birth in that land. (CWS, p. 34)

Jacarandas line hundreds of suburban streets in Adelaide. They flower between mid-November and mid-December and signify … end-of-year exams!

These are the words of the Chinese Dharma Master Shan-tao, who lived from 613 to 681. He was the teacher who first used the term ‘True Teaching of Pure Land Buddhism’ – Jodo Shinshu.

Shan-tao is a very important teacher in the Pure Land lineage, which is quite distinct from the Path of Sages. For us Amida Buddha is a living, present Buddha, who teaches and guides us to the truth with his light (wisdom) and Name.

This verse, which Shinran Shonin quotes in the second chapter of The True Teaching, Practice and Realisation, asks us to consider the most vital and important matter for us all: Why was I born? His answer is straightforward: It is to hear the Name, the Primal Vow, of Amida Buddha, rejoice and praise.

We do not live just to ‘say’ the Name, but to hear it.

‘The great thousand-fold world filled with fire’ reminds us of what it is to be an unenlightened sentient being. The imagery of fire suggests our evil passions, love and hate, blind hearts, unable to do much but react in ways that fuel our desire and our insatiable, intractable egos. Fire also alludes to rapid change. Not only are we embroiled in the world of greed, hatred and folly but there is little time in this life to do much about it.

In the Larger Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha explains that the reason why all Buddhas ‘praise the Name of Amida Buddha’ is due to the fact that all those who hear the Name dwell in the stage of non-retrogression.  In other words, their destiny of becoming a Buddha is certain.

I think that hearing the Name means something like the old saying ‘I hear what you are saying,’ meaning ‘I know, share, understand, experience it’. Shinran says that ‘hearing’ means to hear the Primal Vow and be free of doubt. He says that hearing ‘indicates shinjin’, entrusting heart. (CWS, p. 474)

If someone is speaking to us, very often we resist what they want to tell us.  Instead of listening we are working furiously at rejecting them and their ideas. But sometimes, just sometimes, we nod our heads in agreement and calm acceptance; maybe even joy.

Sooner or later, if not already, that is how we receive the Name of Amida Buddha.

Namo Amida Butsu

Author: George Gatenby

George Gatenby, a retired Australian businessman, has been a follower of the nembutsu teaching of Shinran Shonin (1173-1263) since 1977. He became a member of the Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia when it was founded in 1993 and was ordained as a Shin Buddhist priest at the Nishi Hongwanji, Kyoto, the following year. He is the author of the blog sites, Notes on the Nembutsu and The Udumbara Flower, and convenes a Shin Buddhist sangha in Adelaide.