Amida’s Beloved

The Poor and the Criminal


Taking Life but Gaining Birth

When Honen reached the coast of Takasago on his way into exile in the spring of 1207, many people turned out to see the famous monk. Among these was an old couple, a man over seventy and his wife over sixty years of age, who said to him, "We are fisher folk who live in these parts. From childhood it has been our business day and night to take the lives of fish for our living. We have been told that people who kill living things must go down to hell and suffer there, but we want to know if there isn't some way of escaping this?" As they spoke their minds, they folded their hands before Honen and began to break down in tears. Honen looked compassionately upon them and spoke kindly, "If you but repeat ‘Namu Amida Butsu’, you will by virtue of Amida's compassionate Vow be Born in the Pure Land.” On hearing this, they wept for joy and thereafter kept repeating the sacred name all the time as they continued their fishing by day. Then, to the great astonishment of their neighbors, their voices could be heard all night reciting the nembutsu. Finally, when they came to die, it was with great composure that they realized their ojo. Honen afterwards hearing of it said, "This proves that anyone may attain ojo by practicing the nembutsu."



The Robber’s Mind of Practice

In the province of Kawachi near present day Osaka, there lived a man called Shiro Amano who was the leader of a gang of thieves. He passed most of his life murdering people and stealing their goods. But after he had grown old, he came under Honen's influence and gave himself over to a spiritual life, taking the name of Kyo Amidabutsu. Sometime later he found Honen in the main hall of the temple and said to him, "I have no relatives in the city, so it’ll be hard for me to stay here much longer. I have a friend living in the province of Sagami near Kamakura, and I’m intending to go and ask him to let me stay with him. As I’m already an old man, it’ll be hard for me to come and see you again. Of course, I’m only an ignorant person, so even if I were told all the deepest teachings of the Dharma, it wouldn’t be of much use to me since I wouldn’t understand them. I’d like just one word from you about what I should do to make sure of Birth in the Pure Land, and that I’ll try to remember all my life."

      Then Honen spoke as follows : "First of all, notice that there is nothing so extremely profound in the nembutsu at all. The only thing to know is that everyone who calls upon the sacred name is certain to be Born into the Pure Land. No matter how educated a scholar may be, he has no right to assert that there are things in our school which really do not belong to it. Do not by a great effort of your mind try to make yourself think that there is something so very subtle in the teaching. As calling upon the sacred name is such an easy practice, there are many who do it. But the reason why so few actually attain ojo is that they are ignorant of this old well-known truth of the certainty of Birth to all who believe.”

“Last month when you and I were here alone together, I got up in the middle of the night and was practicing the nembutsu. Did you hear me?" Kyo Amidabutsu replied, "I thought I heard something like the sound of your voice during the night." Then Honen said, "This is the very nembutsu that definitely brings ojo. The nembutsu of a hypocrite or of someone practicing it for show does not lead to the Pure Land. Someone who wants to make sure of it must not practice it for show but with a sincere heart. A person does not act for show in the presence of little children or animals but only in front of his friends and companions or the members of his household who are always with him. The ordinary person (bonpu) who lives among his friends is not without this egotistical heart. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are our intimates or strangers, nor whether or not they are high or low class - there is no greater enemy to our attainment of ojo than our fellow beings. It is because of the presence of others that our vanity is awakened within our hearts, and so we fail to attain that Birth (ojo) after death. And though that is so true, none of us can live absolutely alone. So how then is it possible to practice the nembutsu with a sincere mind (shijoshin) and not with a mind which tries to do things that will please the eyes of others? Someone who is always living with other people and takes no time for quiet reflection is forever living a feigned life. Now if there’s no one to see or hear him and he still quietly rises from his bed in the middle of the night to practice the nembutsu a hundred or a thousand times to his heart's content - this is the kind of nembutsu which is not practiced for show but is in harmony with the mind of the Buddha and definitely leads to Birth in the Pure Land. As long as one practices it with a mind like this, it doesn’t matter whether or not it is done in the night time or in the morning, at noon or at twilight. We must always do it as if no one were listening.”

      “Basically, what I mean by a mind that longs for certain Birth into the Pure Land and calls upon the sacred name in all sincerity is like the mind of a thief who wants to steal another's property. Deep down in his heart he means to steal, but as far as his outward appearance is concerned, he doesn’t show the slightest indication to others of his purpose by look or gesture. As others know absolutely nothing about the purpose to steal that is in his mind, we can say that the purpose is for himself alone, without any reference whatsoever to outward appearances. Such an undivided mind as this is necessary in the person who wants to make sure of Birth in the Pure Land. You must never for a moment allow yourself to forget what you are about by letting others know that you are calling upon the sacred name – not even by the slightest facial expression even though you are in the middle of a crowd of people. At such a time, should anyone except Amida Buddha know about your practicing the nembutsu? If only Amida Buddha knows, why have any doubts about Birth in the Pure Land?"


Two Kinds of People

To this Kyo Amidabutsu replied, "I can now really see what the teaching about certain Birth in the Pure Land means, and I can fully understand it. If I hadn’t heard these words, I might have missed Birth in the Pure Land at last. But it seems to me from what you have said that it is wrong to tell the beads of the rosary or to move one's lips in prayer before others. Isn't that so?" Then Honen said, "No, you are mistaken on this point. The most important thing is to continue the practice of the nembutsu without ceasing. This is why it is said you must always continually keep your mind on this one thing. To show what I mean, we can say that there are two kinds of people in the world, the brave and the timid, though outwardly they all seem the same. Even when there is nothing at all to be troubled about, the timid person is frightened at the slightest appearance of anger in another person and runs away and hides. Yet even when a fierce enemy appears who really endangers their life, the brave person doesn’t help himself by running away and hiding. Rather, he is not in the least afraid and doesn’t shrink from him an inch.”

“In the same way, there are the two kinds of people, the true and the false. With the false, it’s natural for them to fake a thing that is so small there isn’t the least need for it. But on the other hand, the true tell no lies even when it might be to their advantage and don’t think about their own personal gain. They are true to the core and never fake it even in the slightest degree. This is truly their inborn disposition. Now if such true-minded people desire Birth in the Pure Land and devote themselves to the nembutsu, it doesn’t matter where they are or in whose presence they practice it. Since they never fake it at all, their calling upon the sacred name is genuine and sincere, and is sure to lead to Birth in the Pure Land. So why should it be prohibited? Now take the case of a person who is false by nature and does a few things insincerely so as to look good in the eyes of others. Say that he comes in contact with a pious monk and has a believing heart awakened in him so that he develops a strong purpose to attain Birth in the Pure Land. If he makes up his mind to keep on repeating the sacred name without ceasing, it doesn’t matter where he is or in the presence of what people. He will just go on repeating it with an undiverted mind and with all earnestness. This is a case of downright genuine nembutsu, and such a person is sure of Birth into the Pure Land. There’s no need at all to forbid him to practice the nembutsu before others if he does it in this way.”

“What I’ve said now refers to one of the Three Minds (sanjin), the absence of any one Shan-tao has said will prevent Birth in the Pure Land. Since a sincere heart (shijoshin) is so particularly hard to have awakened within person, that’s why I’ve spoken as I have so as to awaken it in you. This being the case, how could I not encourage you to keep up the practice of the nembutsu even at ordinary times from day to day?”

      Kyo Amidabutsu questioned again, "When you practice the nembutsu at night, as you were saying, should you always get up out of bed and do it? And should you always have your rosary and robes on?" To this Honen replied, "The nembutsu may be practiced whether you are walking, standing, sitting or lying. So it can be left to everyone according to their circumstances to do it either reclining or sitting or in any way you choose. And as to holding the rosary or putting on robes, this also should be decided according to circumstances. The main point is not the outward manner at all but the fixing of the mind on the one thing - firmly determined to gain ojo and with all seriousness calling upon the sacred name. This is the all-important thing."


Kyo Amidabutsu’s Ojo

At this Kyo Amidabutsu jumped for joy, putting his hands together in worship as he went away. The next day he went to the house of Honen’s disciple Shinku to say good-bye. He told him that Honen had instructed him yesterday about how he could be sure of Birth in the Pure Land, and now he had no more doubts about it. So with great joy in his heart, he departed and turned his face eastwards. After this, when Shinku met Honen, he asked him if this conversation had actually happened, and Honen said, "Yes, I heard he was an old robber, and I instructed him as I thought his case required. He seemed to thoroughly understand what I told him." So Kyo Amidabutsu went down to Sagami and lived there the rest of his life. When after a long illness, he was drawing near the end. He told his friend he was sure of Birth in the Pure Land, and it was all due to his having believed what Honen had taught him. His last words were, "Go and tell Honen of my Birth in the Pure Land.” Without a single doubt and with his hands folded in prayer, he repeated the nembutsu over some tens of times with a loud voice, and then passed away. So his friend went up to the capital and gave Honen a detailed account of his last days at which Honen remarked, "Well, no doubt he did understand. This is fine."

Honen’s Instructions: Nembutsu and Daily Living
Q: If we only put our trust in Amida's Original Vow, there is no doubt whatever about our future destiny. But what are we to do with the present world?

Honen: Well, the thing to do is to make the nembutsu practice the chief thing in life and to lay aside everything that you think may interfere with it. If you cannot stay in one spot and do it, then do it when you are walking. If you cannot do it as a monastic, then do it as a layperson. If you cannot do it alone, then do it in company with others. If you cannot do it and at the same time provide yourself with food and clothing, then accept the help of others and go on doing it. Or if you cannot get others to help you, then look after yourself - but keep on doing it. Your spouse and children and domestics are for this very purpose - to help you practice it. If they prove to be an obstacle, then you should not have any. Friends and property are good, if they too prove helpful. But if they prove to be a hindrance they should be given up. In short, there is nothing that cannot help us to ojo as long as it helps us to go on balanced through life undisturbed.
    People take the very best care of their bodies and refuse to cast them off, even though they know they are destined to return to the three unfortunate realms. So how carefully should we care for our bodies, and how earnestly should we practice the nembutsu, when we know that our destiny is Birth into the Pure Land. Anyone whose one object of desire is to care for the body only for the enjoyment of the present life and not to support nembutsu practice is doing what really belongs to the three unfortunate realms. But if someone's object of desire is to care for the body to promote a blissful ojo, they will find it contributes to that end.

The Five Forms of Prayer (gonemmon)-
These are the essentials of the devotional life stated in the great Indian master Vasubandhu's Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Ojo-ron): 1) prostrating oneself before Amida Buddha (raihai), (2) praising Amida's sacred name in terms fitting the Buddha of boundless light and wisdom (sandan), (3) desiring to be Born into the Buddha's land (sagwan), (4) meditating upon Amida and the things of the Pure Land (kanzatsu), and (5) feeling compassion for the suffering and wishing to save them by directing all one's own accumulated merit to them (eko). These five are called “gates,” because through them a wayfarer goes in and out of the Pure Land. Through the first four one attains Birth (ojo), while the last enables one to return to the world of life and death to guide fellow beings who still wander in the forest of delusion.

Q: Should we repeat the nembutsu even during conversation?

H: Silence is excellent, but it’s wrong to suppose that there’s less merit in repeating the nembutsu while talking to others than even when silent. The nembutsu is like gold. When burned in a fire, its color only improves, and it won’t be ruined by being thrown into the water. In the same way, the nembutsu is not defiled when distractions arise, nor does it lose its value when you are in conversation with others. If you keep this in mind, it’s all right to increase the number of nembutsu repetitions at your discretion without mixing them with
the words of your conversation. If when you are in the act of talking to someone, you might all of a sudden think to yourself, “Darn! The nembutsu I was just reciting is all to no purpose.” But don’t allow yourself to think that for a moment. It doesn’t matter how you say it, because there’s enough merit in it to result in ojo.   

    Even though you may be doing something else, let it be done while you go on with the main work of life, the practice of the nembutsu. Don’t let this be a sort of side work to anything else. Sometimes a person dies from choking on his food when taking a meal. So I tell you, call upon the sacred name every time that you chew your food and swallow it.

Q: Is there any merit in fasting from noon until dawn [as traditional monastics do], and should one try to practice it?

H: There is merit in such fasting, especially on the six days of fasting appointed for each month. But in the case that there is some matter of great importance, or if you are sick, it isn’t necessary. Only repeat the nembutsu, and you will thereby get free from the cycle of transmigration (samsara) and attain ojo.

Q: Is it a sin to drink sake (Japanese rice wine)?
A: Definitely you shouldn’t drink, but, you know, it’s the way of the world.

Q: When bad thoughts keep arising within the mind, what should you do?
A: The only thing to do is to repeat the nembutsu.

The Four Modes of Practice of the Nembutsu (shishu)
These are taught by Shan-tao in his Hymns in Praise of Birth (Ojo raisan): 1) show reverence to Amida Buddha and the bodhisattvas in the Pure Land in the form of prostrations before their images and other similar acts of veneration (kugyo), 2) exclusive practice, which means wholehearted recitations and meditation on Amida Buddha alone (muyo), 3) uninterrupted practice, especially as regards the recitation of the nembutsu (muken), 4) long-term practice, that one pursue this kind of practice throughout one's whole life (joji)