There was a time when I was very enthusiastic about sitting meditation, particularly in the style demonstrated by Soto Zen followers. I would sit as still as possible. My hands would be in the proper mudra and while I counted to ten. And I would try to do it all perfectly.
There was a real rigidity to my practice. I was worried that I wasn’t doing it properly, and that, for every moment I wasn’t doing it properly, I was wasting my life away. I also became addicted to the occasional euphoria that would arise during practice, thinking “This is it! This is where I need to be!”
After a while, meditation became a chore and a hell.
It was about this time that I had also learned about the nembutsu. In an attempt to calm my mind, as counting no longer worked, I began to repeat the nembutsu in my mind while I sat. To my surprise, it worked far better than any amount of counting or attention to the breath. Even when my mind was at its most turbulent, I could find a rock in the nembutsu and sit on that rock until the storm passed.
Eventually, I grew to revere the nembutsu as I realized that the space provided in seated meditation was the same space provided when I was just going about my business, uttering an occasional “Namo Amida Bu.” It didn’t matter whether I was still or engaged, the refuge was the same.
With reverence came faith and a realization that every bow, every candle lighting, every ceremonial gesture, and every nembutsu was a moment of refuge. There was no need for rigidity when I could simply trust the Buddhas.
This is not to say that meditation has no use. It was through both meditation and nembutsu that I found a common thread. Both practices have taught me much about the spiritual life.
Nowadays, I don’t quite sit as I used to. I no longer sit “properly” with my hands in a mudra, trying to attempt a state of perfection. I just sit with the Buddha and with faith that there is nothing else that needs to be done.
Namo Amida Bu
Image from Eleusis