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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 63-76

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Formal Practice:
Buddhist or Christian

Robert Aitken
Diamond Sangha

In this paper, I write from a Mahayana perspective and take up seven Buddhist practices and the views that bring them into being, together with Christian practices that may be analogous, in turn with their inspiration. The Buddhist practices sometimes tend to blend and take on another's attributes and functions. I name them according to their usage in Western Buddhism.

  1. The Nembutsu (Ch. Nien-fo, "Recalling Buddha") is the pronouncement
    of veneration to Amida Butsu (Ch. A-mi-to-fo, Skt. Amitabha Buddha), an appeal to his salvific power, and sometimes an endeavor to unify with him.
  2. The ekomon (Ch. hui-hsiang-men, Skt. parinamana) is a verse that transfers merit back to Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and past teachers for their further empowerment to bring beings to the way of the Buddha.
  3. Zazen (Ch. tsao-ch'an, Skt. dhyana) is focused meditation intended to enable the student to personalize the realization and way of the Buddha.
  4. The vow or expression of aspiration (J. gan, Ch. yuan,Skt. pranidhana) pronounces a determination to make realization possible for the self and others.
  5. Sange, or zange (Ch. chang-hui, Skt. kshamayati), is the confession of personal responsibility for bad karma in the past and repentance for it.
  6. Mudra(J. in, Ch. yin) and dharani(J. darani or ju, Ch. chou) are ritualized presentations of realizations and their dharma. They can be gestures, hand positions, or postures; dharaniare esoteric formulas or texts.
  7. Sutras and sutra services, from the Sanskrit (J. kyo,Ch. ching), traditional Buddhist chants and texts.

The Nembutsu

The Nembutsu invokes Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life and the Lord of the Pure Land, a powerful savior by dint of vows he took while still in his Bodhisattva Dharmakara incarnation. He is venerated across Asia—in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Chinese diaspora. The Nembutsu formula, "Namu amida butsu," or the equivalent in the other languages ("Veneration to 'Amida Butsu'"), is repeated devotionally, bringing promise of a joyous afterlife, and for some, intimacy with Amida, [End Page 63] the spiritual oyasama, or parent, an effect not unlike that of Christian mysticism. 1 The Myokonin (Pure and Happy People), the Pure Land movement of Japanese who take it upon themselves to practice the Nembutsu moment-to-moment, set forth their experience in artless poetry that is poignant and metaphysically clear:

I thought it was all due to my self-power,
That [the Nembutsu] was uttered;
But it was not so, it all came from the power of Oya.
What I was imagining to be the other power
Was no other than the self-power itself.
Wishing to shun the evil path
And ever hoping for the Pure land—
The very thought was no other than the self-power.

I have been designing all the time,
Saying, "Is this the way, or that?"
But there was no designing after all,
All was given fully, and freely
How grateful I am! Namu amida butsu! 2

Interior repetition of the Nembutsu hundreds of times a day brings the fulfilling gift of spiritual intimacy with the oya, and the Christian analoy is clearly the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," or its shortened version, "Lord have mercy" ("Kyrie eleison"). 3 Yet there is more than a shade of difference between devotion to a savior empowered by his original vows for his all-embracing compassion, and devotion to the one who inherits the power of an omnipotent God. In the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, "God is almighty. His power has equaled His will; and so He can do everything that pleases him. The less I understand this, the more I believe it and the greater the devotion it arouses in me. Blessed is He forever! Amen." 4

The Ekomon

In contrast to the Nembutsu, the ekomon is not an appeal for redemption but a return of the "auspicious power" (J. fukutoku, Ch. fu-tu, Skt. punya) of the sutra or sutras just recited to...