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The Nembutsu: Answering the Two Challenges 

Two separate challenges to the propagation and realization of the Dharma were identified. The first was the fact that Sakyamuni Buddha had died. This can be described as the challenge of having the path towards Buddhahood closed. It doesn’t matter what treasures can be found inside if access to the storehouse is lost. The Buddha’s death meant that one could be born too late to encounter the Dharma.

During his long career of propagating the Dharma, Sakyamuni Buddha revealed many different paths towards Enlightenment, based in part on the needs of the listener. The second challenge following the Buddha’s death was finding the universal meaning behind the 84,000 paths. For Dharma seekers, the challenge was how to discover and decide upon one’s true path for personal salvation. These two challenges, taken together, can be described as the challenge of discovering how the Truth of the Buddha’s Enlightenment becomes Real in one’s own life.

Shinran Shonin faced the realization that he had been born too late to hear, receive and share the Dharma. However, the obstable of being born in the Final Dharma Age was canceled out by the power of the Nembutsu. In his general preface to the Kyogyoshinsho, Shinran describes the meaning of Sakyamuni Buddha’s teaching, stating that,

"Among all the teachings the Great Sage preached in his lifetime, none surpasses this ocean of virtues."

Shinran describes the type of human beings we are in the Final Dharma Age, what we are struggling against to discover the truth and find the meaning of our lives, and how we should embrace the Nembutsu teaching:

"Let the one who seeks to abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure; who is confused in practice and vacillating in faith; whose mind is dark and whose understanding deficient; whose evils are heavy and whose karmic obstructions manifold…let such persons embrace above all the Tathagata’s exhortations, take refuge without fail in the most excellent direct path, devote themselves solely to this practice, and revere only this shinjin."

Shinran Shonin repeats again and again his joy in having found shinjin, or faith, and in being able to meet with the Dharma difficult to meet.

"Ah, hard to encounter, even in many lifetimes, is the decisive cause of birth, Amida’s universal Vow! Hard to realize, even in myriads of kalpas, is pure shinjin that is true and real! If you should come to realize this practice and shinjin, rejoice at the conditions from the distant past that have brought it about."

The distant past that Shinran Shonin refers to is the time when Sakyamuni Buddha opened up the Dharma of Amida Buddha to Ananda, for all of us to hear. We are reminded of Ananda’s words, "With joy in my heart, I wish to hear the Dharma."

Another part of the first challenge of the Final Dharma Age is the quality or potential of the seeker. The inability to pursue the Dharma, the inability to consistently perform practice, is a distinguishing characteristic of beings living in the age of Mappo. Shinran Shonin further describes our dilemma:

"But if in this lifetime still you are entangled in a net of doubt, then unavoidably you must pass once more in the stream of birth-and-death through myriads of kalpas."

He concludes that it is for the benefit of just such a person that the Dharma of the Nembutsu was meant:

"Wholly sincere, indeed, are the words of truth that one is grasped, never to be abandoned, the right dharma all-surpassing and wondrous! Hear and reflect, and let there be no wavering or apprehension."

We discover that the joy that was expressed by Sakyamuni Buddha, Ananda and Shinran Shonin is a joy that we can share.

We are reminded that it is not too late for us to hear the Dharma. The reason for the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha was to allow all of us to meet with the Dharma that embraces and does not abandon. We are reminded that the Dharma of the Nembutsu is not just for the few who were born during the time of the Buddha; that it is a truth open to even those of the Final Dharma age, a period where it is far too easy to conclude that the Dharma and Enlightenment have nothing to do with us. We discover that the joy that was expressed by Sakyamuni Buddha, Ananda and Shinran Shonin is a joy that we can share. Their joy was also expressed because they knew that we would be able to share it even long after their deaths. The Dharma is not closed by death. Instead, we are able to share the timelessness of the Dharma and express our joy through the Nembutsu; the voiced Name of Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Life and Immeasurable Light. The Nembutsu, then, is also an expression of our joy and gratitude upon our realization that the Dharma is not just open for us, but embraces us as well.

How does the Nembutsu answer the second challenge of determining which of the 84,000 paths is the path for each of us? We can easily become lost in the number of choices available. It should be kept in mind that selecting a path is no trivial matter, given that the goal of Buddhism is to become Enlightened; the goal of a Buddhist is to become a Buddha. This point is not lost by Shinran Shonin when he writes, "Attainment of Buddhahood through the Nembutsu: this is the true essence of the Pure Land way.