The Name is meant to be easy to say for the person unfamiliar with even a single character and ignorant of the lines of discourse in the sutras and commentaries … (The Tanni Sho 12; CWS, p. 668)
One wonderful and succinct guide to the nembutsu way is a short letter by Rennyo Shonin. It is a brief summary of Jodo Shinshu entitled Matsudai muchi sho – Those lacking wisdom in the latter age. You can find it on page 61 of the Jodo Shinshu Service Book.
Laymen and laywomen in the latter age who lack wisdom should deeply rely on Amida Buddha with singleness of heart, entrusting themselves single-mindedly and unwaveringly for their emancipation, without turning their thoughts to other matters.
This translation makes it sound as though Rennyo is speaking as a priest to sangha members who are not ordained. However, in Jodo Shinshu we are all ‘true friends and fellow followers of the path’ (dobo, dogyo). In Jodo Shinshu, there is no intrinsic difference between priest and lay.
In fact, Rennyo is addressing people who have little or no knowledge of the Buddha Dharma at all – its scriptures and philosophy. And I think he is speaking to me, because knowledge is a conceit that may even hinder us from accepting Amida Buddha’s entrusting heart (shinjin). The truth is that we are all ignorant when it comes to the enlightenment of a Buddha.
The ‘latter age’ is mappo, the age of declining Dharma. We know we live in the ‘latter age’ because the three ‘foundations’ — greed, anger and delusion — pose as virtues. We are constantly bombarded with marketing strategies that are intended to inflame our desires and appetites, so we are encouraged to compete for everything; public life is based on constant argument and hostility, so we are invited to be angry all the time; and we are encouraged to believe that we should try not to get old and frail, so we may become deluded about the realities of old age, sickness and death.
Knowing that we lack wisdom is the first hint of the working of the light of Amida Buddha in our lives. It is liberating; it brings brightness. It also means that we are more inclined to seek wisdom in others and less likely to be hostile and argumentative. We know we are not always right, and that other people are not necessarily always wrong. Living in harmony becomes more possible.
If we know we lack wisdom, we are more willing to turn towards its absolute source: Amida Buddha. We become ready to listen to the Dharma, and to hear the call of his Primal Vow in Namo Amida Butsu. Eventually, through hearing the Dharma, beings come to know that they can entrust themselves unwaveringly in Amida Buddha and not seek any other source of spiritual light in their lives.
However deep and heavy their evil karma may be, Amida Tathagata unfailingly saves them.
Amida Buddha takes in beings of evil karma, unwise and foolish, just like this, just as they are, without the slightest hesitation or discrimination.
Then they enter the joyous, free and fruitful life of nembutsu.
Rennyo concludes this wonderful summary of the Dharma by saying:
This is the essence of the Eighteenth Vow that assures our birth in the Pure Land through the nembutsu.
Once our heart is thus settled, we should say the nembutsu, whether awake or asleep, for as long as we live.