The Power of Goodwill and the Nembutsu

From time to time, I am reminded of the importance of goodwill, or metta, in Buddhism, and as an example of this the famous Circle of Hierocles, which I wrote about here. Lately, I’ve been inspired to recite the nembutsu1 not so much as a personal practice but for the sake of sharing a bit of goodwill toward the world.

The practice of sharing goodwill or good karma with the world is a very common practice in Mahayana Buddhism, that is all Buddhism found in places like Japan, Tibet, China, etc. It is also mentioned in an number of sutras as a practice that bodhisattvas do, to say nothing about regular Buddhist disciples. However, the focus of Pure Land Buddhism, in particular, is typically to help one achieve rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha2 in order to progress along the Buddhist path more easily and eventually to help one another.

However, chanting the nembutsu as a means of helping others is not entirely unheard of either. About 100 years before the monk Honen started the Pure Land Buddhist movement in the late 12th century, there was another offshoot of Tendai Buddhism called the Yūzū Nembutsu-shū which I would translate as the “All-Inclusive Nembutsu Sect”.

This sect was started by a Tendai-Buddhist monk named Ryōgen (良忍, 1073-1132) while during a period of Pure Land ascetic training beheld a vision of Amitabha Buddha who was said to have uttered the following phrase (with my rough, rough translation):

一人一切人 One person in all beings
一切人一人 All beings in one person
一行一切行 One act in all acts
一切行一行 All acts in one act
十界一念 One nembutsu for all 10 realms3
融通念仏 The all-inclusive nembutsu
億百万編 encompasses countless (lit. 101,000,000)
功徳円満 tranquil merit

This concept of “all in one, one in all” is a core teaching of the massive tome, the Flower Garland Sutra, as well as Mahayana Buddhism in general and basically revolves around a concept that we’re all inter-connected one way or another. So what one does, thinks or wishes, ultimately affects others. In the same way, what they do also affects us in one way or another.

A classic Buddhist example of this is the parable of the Jeweled Net of Indra. Indra is one of the primary deities in Indian religion, and was roughly analogous to figures like Odin or Zeus in that he is the king of the other gods.4 In Indian mythology Indra (sometimes a different deity, Brahma) has a great net strung inside of his palace, and each node of the net has a great shining jewel inside. Thus, the light of each jewel shines the light of every other jewel.

The implication of this isn’t hard to imagine: when we think or do something wholesome, it affects others, improving the quality of life that much more. Conversely, when we think or do something rotten or selfish, it degrades the quality of life that much more.

So, the Yūzū Nembutsu sect takes this to its logical conclusion: when we recite the nembutsu, it benefits us, but also benefits countless other people as well. This is encompassed in the phrase: 一人の念仏が万人の念仏に通じる (hitori no nembutsu ga mannin no nembutsu ni tsūjiru) which means “the nembutsu of one person becomes (lit. “spreads to”) the nembutsu of 10,000 people”.

In reality, the Yūzū Nembutsu sect is very small and has never really had the mass-appeal that the later Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu sects have attained. Ryonin probably was a little ahead of his time, but the important thing is that concept of the nembutsu for the benefit of others has historical precedent.

Further, this is not limited to the nembutsu. Nichiren Buddhists frequently recite the odaimoku (namu myoho renge kyo) for similar reasons. And of course many Mahayana Buddhists include a “dedication of merit” whenever they complete a home service or a service at their local temple. One of the most famous and commonly-used verses used was composed by a Chinese monk named Shan-dao (善導, 613-681) and are:

Original ChineseJapanese RomanizationEnglish
願似此功德Gan ni shi ku do kuMay this merit I accumulate here
平等施一切Byo do se is-saiBe equally distributed to all beings
同發菩提心Do ho tsu bo dai shinSo that we may all awaken the Bodhi Mind
往生安樂國O jo an raku kokuAnd dwell together in the Pure Land

Anyhow, all this is to say that in these crazy, turbulent times of pandemics, petty politicians, protests and a pervading sense of powerlessness,5 you can leverage your Buddhist (or even non-Buddhist) practice, whatever it is, and send out goodwill and good thoughts to others and work for a better world. This isn’t just empty wishing either, because as far as Buddhism is concerned, all of it counts for something.

1 When I recite it, which is admittedly inconsistent… 😅

2 What exactly that means is often up to personal interpretation, not to mention the various schools of Buddhist thought.

3 The ten realms have nothing to do with the Thor Marvel comic universe. 😅 These are the ten realms of existence in classic Buddhism: the Hell realm, the realm of Hungry Ghost, the realm of animals, the realm of the Asuras (roughly analogous to Titans), the realm of humans, the realm of the Devas (lit. gods with a small “g”), the realm of the Buddhist monastic disciples (lit. “voice-hearers”), the realm of private Buddhas, the realm of the Bodhisattvas and the realm of the Buddhas. These are/were interpreted as both literally realms of existence, but also mental states which a person might transition to in the course of one’s life or even one day. It’s a lengthy subject and too large for this post.

4 The shared Indo-European linguistic and cultural ancestry of northern India with Europe probably implies more than just a casual similarity between these deities, but that’s a topic too large for this post.

5 The alliteration was unintentional, but I am kind of glad I did it. 😉🏆

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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