It is not uncommon for people to misunderstand the nembutsu, seeing it as no more than an auxiliary practice for persons of inferior capacities.
However, as the brilliant Zen Master, Muso Kokushi (a.k.a. Muso Soseki), has explained:
…recitation of a Buddha name could hardly be called a lesser vehicle. The masters who set up Pure Land Buddhism understood the profound principle of the Great Vehicle … they were not ignorant…
Confusion regarding this topic stems from a mis-understanding of the simplicity of Buddha-remembrance (Buddha-anusmriti, Skt, or nembutsu, Jpn) and its removal from the realm of self-power merit acquisition into that of Other-power merit transference.
Using the language found in the Amida Scripture (Skt. Amitabha Sutra, Ch. Amituo jing, Jp. Amida-kyo – aka the shorter Sukhavati Vyuha Sutra) we may see that:
- Amida Butsu (or, Buddha of Limitless Light and Life) need not elicit the notion of an external savior, but may instead be seen as referring to the universal availability of Wisdom and Compassion (or ‘Buddha-Nature’). This nature is only ‘Other’ in relation to one’s false sense of being a unique, discrete and independent being who engages in self-serving calculations.
- Nembutsu does not refer to the simple matter of moving the lips and tongue, rather it indicates a merging with the essential reality of the Name (i.e. Namu Amida Butsu) such that awareness of the limitless light of Amida (Buddha-Nature) and the limitless life of the Primal Vow wells up inside one in a manner that is “single-minded and without confusion.” That is, we remember and show our gratitude for Amida by immediately calling the name, Namu Amida Butsu‘) the moment when we have—through deep hearing—become conscious of the Name-that-Calls and are made to realize that we have been grasped never to be abandoned, and are simultaneously bequeathed Shinjin – Amida’s deeply trusting heart.
- the phrase ‘their minds will not fall into delusion‘ has reference to a movement from representation to presentation: naturally shedding gross conceptual notions about Amida and the Pure Land the moment we entrust ourselves to Amida with sincere gratitude for being grasped by the Primal Vow, never to be forsaken. This has reference to the attainment of the stage of non-retrogression.
- the phrase ‘attain rebirth in Amida Butsu‘s Land of Ultimate Bliss‘ does not necessarily refer to an external place somewhere in the cosmos (nor a heavenly realm) to which one goes only at the time of corporeal death, but may refer to immediately partaking in the Pure Mind of Buddha-Nature which is bequeathed to us in the one-thought-moment in which Shinjin is bequeathed.