Attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the teaching. [Kyogyoshinsho, II: 35]
From mid-July to mid-August we celebrate Obon, or Ullambana.
The origins of Ullambana are given in the Ullambana Sutra, which tells us that one time, at the end of the rains retreat, a disciple of the Buddha, Maudgalyayana, discovered, in a vision, that his mother (who had died) had been born as a hungry ghost and was suffering terribly.
So the Buddha suggested a remedy – a special act of huge generosity in which everyone donated the finest food to the monks. Such an act would result in Maudgalyayana’s mother being saved from the terrible torment she was experiencing. Everyone brought the finest offerings available and soon enough Maudgalyayana was able to see that his mother had been freed and was happy in the afterlife, freed from birth-and-death.
Then the Buddha decreed that at the end of every rains retreat such acts of generosity and offerings of the finest food would bring about the salvation of seven generations of our ancestors.
But how generous do we need to be? How perfect does the food need to be? How much food has to be gathered and offered? What if the food offered is not pure enough? What if the food is offered in the wrong spirit, trying to show how wealthy we are or that we are better cooks than anyone else?
I think that the real purpose of Ullambana is to encourage us to become people of entrusting heart and nembutsu. Let me explain:
On the question of how we should consider the needs of our departed ancestors, Shinran Shonin said,
I have never said the nembutsu even once for the repose of my departed father and mother. For all sentient beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in many states of existence. On attaining Buddhahood after this present life, we can save every one of them. (Tanni Sho 5)
So there is a third way to see Ullambana: the nembutsu way.
Shinran really says two things in that quote: That all living beings are or were related to us so closely that they are like our parents. I believe that’s true.
Our mother nurtures us in her womb and then our parents lovingly raise us into adulthood – teaching us how to survive and live in this world, ultimately alone and without their help. But all of us, our parents included, are nurtured by living things: trees that give us shade and oxygen, plants that provide grain and fruit, animals that give us protein – dying (never willingly) so that we may live. The depth of gratitude that we owe such beings is far too profound for any sense of indebtedness to have much meaning. It’s beyond expression; and how paltry are any gifts we may give in return? That we can repay such immense debts surely stretches the bounds of absurdity.
So Shinran is right to say that we should become Buddhas and help all living things, through true wisdom, to become free from suffering in birth-and-death. What does that mean? It means to accept the entrusting heart, shinjin, and follow the way of nembutsu.
Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism was given a very simple definition by Fa-chao, a Chinese sage who lived from 766-822 AD:
Attainment of Buddhahood through the nembutsu is the true essence of the dharma. (quoted in Kyogyoshinsho II:35)
The very best way we can repay our indebtedness – not only to our ancestors but also to all of life that sustains us – is to become Buddhas ourselves and help them with perfect wisdom.
And how do we do this? Well, as we have seen: through absolute single-minded nembutsu. And what kind of life is that?
I will let the words of Shinran’s wife, Eshin-ni Sama, who knew Shinran better than anyone else, speak for themselves. She is writing to her daughter about her father, Shinran.
[Your father] visited Honen daily, rain or shine, for one-hundred days, regardless of the obstacles that he confronted.
– Yes – in our time we face obstacles too – scepticism, distractions created by marketers, a myriad claims by competing religious teachings and ideologies, and so on. But, to continue with Eshin-ni’s letter:
[Shinran] heard the Master teach that when it came to the matter of salvation in the after-life, there was no difference between a good person or evil person, for only the single-hearted nembutsu was necessary in order to become liberated from the suffering of birth-and-death. [Letters of Eshin-ni 3]
What is needed is singlehearted nembutsu, the entrusting heart, shinjin. To be truly liberated is to become a Buddha. That is the true way to help our parents and all suffering beings.
Ullambana, then, is a skilful means provided by the Buddha to lead us into the way of nembutsu. To become Buddhas so that we can help all beings, including our parents and other ancestors.