The poetics of nembutsu
In his book of essays, Earth House Hold, Gary Snyder writes that Buddhism is a 2,500 year “conversation,” a “gentle human dialogue…on the nature of human nature and the eternal Dharma,” the eternal truths of the universe of which we are a part. It is a “quiet” conversation, as much internal as external, as much with our selves as with others.
It is “gentle” because its flow is naturally inquisitive—it is not about positions or beliefs. Yet it is vigorous, never lacking vitality, because at every turn it challenges the presumptions of the human mind with myriad “practical methods of realization
Snyder is a poet, interested in language; and the notion of a human conversation is, to my way of thinking, poetic. Though too quick of a read here might suggest that he separates the “methods” he speaks of, from “the conversation.” After all, Buddha Dharma is beyond words, about silence; we hear this all the time
But this perspective is not full enough. The point is not silence vs. words, but awareness. Shin Buddhism is rooted in language—realization is hearing and speaking Buddha’s Name (Namuamidabutsu, known as the nembutsu); that hearing and speaking itself is the heightened awareness of the significance of words in human life. A more full perspective is that “the conversation” includes methods, and that conversation is one of the methods.
Our most casual, unguarded conversations reflect, if we are attentive, both our conscious and unconscious presumptions and assumptions. We all readily assess others by the words they speak and how they are spoken; turning that attention around to see the inner face of our own words is awareness of the true nature of our own mind. “The nature of human nature” unfolds quite naturally during the course of our everyday lives, as we speak, as we are; but we are most often inattentive, unaware.
With awareness, simple attentiveness to the inner face of our own words, within the ongoing conversation—both internal and external--that is our human life, comes not only the realization of the truth of our selves, but the undeniable sensing of the ever present silence that embraces it all—words of suffering, of fear, of joy and courage, words of hate and greed, words of unstinting love and compassion, all arising from and returning to the abiding silence of the Eternal Now.
The fullness of this awareness is nembutsu, one expression of which is Namuamidabutsu. But stopping here, as we usually do, arbitrarily restricts this fullness. To repeat, nembutsu is the fullest implications of this awareness itself, which includes all words expressing this awareness. This awareness is the mark of a life in nembutsu; the dynamic, living truth of human experience in and through words. It is also the field of what we might call nembutsu poetics—the beauty and music of true and real words, arising from, partaking of, the fullness of the truth and reality that is our common humanity.