When I was just starting to practice the nembutsu, I was working as a maintenance helper at a skilled nursing facility. Behind the building, near the maintenance shop door, the air was always moving. It seems that the wind would often be caught at that corner of the facility. It was there that I experienced something quite profound.
It was a habit of mine to recite the nembutsu while I was at the back of the building while there was no one around. One rather breezy day, the wind picked up as I walked back to the shop after putting away some equipment in the facility’s shed.
Just as I made it up to the door I began reciting the nembutsu. At the same time, the wind crashed against the building. I was nearly knocked off my feet and, within that moment, my perspective changed.
My mind was only aware of the nembutsu, my breath, and the wind. The three phenomenon combined into one object and my mind was filled with that object.
It was all one intimate encounter.
I was not having the experience.
The experience had me.
For the first time that I could remember, I had a taste of what it was like to be completely absorbed in something greater than myself. Since then, I’ve had an association with Amida and air. I would later cultivate this association through zazen practice by combining the nembutsu with the rhythm of my breath. Little did I know how relevant this association was in Buddhism.
I would eventually learn in Yoshito S. Hakeda’s Kukai: Major Works, that Kukai, the founder of Shingon, associated Amida with the wind element, based on the tradition of the Mantrayana master Pu’ Kung. Kukai’s Buddhism, also known as Esoteric Buddhism, influenced much of Japanese spirituality, including the Tendai school where it seems Amida’s relationship with the wind element was also present.
In another book, No Abode: The Record of Ippen by Dennis Hirota, I found a passage attributed to Ippen’s teacher Shoku who, like many Pureland ancestors, was trained in the Tendai school.
Amida is originally wind. Wind is the body (tai) of boundless space. Boundless space is the original body, the true body, of Dharma-body Tathagata….At the moment [the Buddha] enters into the minds of all sentient beings, our life is breath. Breath is wind. Further it is boundless space. Hence, the minds of beings are wholly the body of Amida.
It seems that Shoku and Ippen placed a strong connection between the breath and nembutsu. Ippen himself would go on to say:
When breath expended
in saying the Buddha’s Name
is drawn again
you sit on a lotus in the Pure Land.
This was just one of the ways Ippen, who trained in both Zen and the Tendai school, connected the breath with the nembutsu and birth in Sukhavati. For Shoku and Ippen, Amida likely sits at the very cusp of that which is unborn, acting at a gateway to wisdom. To find that Amitabha’s relationship to wind was already a subject of Dharma discussed by old masters was a wonderful confirmation of my experience at my old job.
For me, to remember the breath is to remember the Buddha. When I feel a gentle breeze, that too is the Buddha. Amida is not some far away deity but a teacher that’s as close as the air that fills our lungs and dances on our skin. Though these thoughts aren’t original, as all practices can be a form of nembutsu, it helps to be reminded of these things from time to time.
I did some very light research on how many breaths a human takes daily. According to Ann Brown in a 2014 post of the EPA Blog, “The average person takes between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths a day. That’s a lot of breaths.”
With faith, that’s a lot of nembutsu.
Namo Amida Bu
Image from Pixabay