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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 93-99

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Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu

Taitetsu Unno
Smith College

As a Shin Buddhist of the Pure Land tradition, I find the practice of Jesus Prayer in Eastern Orthodox Christianity fascinating, because so much of it resonates with my own experience in the saying of Nembutsu or the Name—namu-amida-butsu. 1 One calls on the Name of Jesus, and the other on the Name of Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. Both may be called the "Way of the Name." 2 Some appreciation of the Jesus Prayer may help us understand the depth of Nembutsu experience, for the similarities are striking, but there are also fundamental differences.

We begin with four definitions of prayer as given by the Orthodox scholar Kallistos Ware. 3 The first may be called external prayer, which includes some form of verbally addressing God, including petitions for favors to be granted. Second is prayer understood simply as standing before God. Here there is only silence, negating all discursive activities. In both of these cases the focus is on the human and not on the divine.

In Buddhist terms these two forms of prayer are dualistic, the subject standing apart from the object and the act centered on the human subject. In Pure Land language both are acts of self-power. In the case of Nembutsu it may also begin as a self-generated act, but it must be superseded. True prayer, as we shall see, is nondualistic with the initiative coming from the side of the divine. In Pure Land terms it is the manifestation of the working of Other Power.

Buddhist meditative practice may also begin in a dualistic mode with personal benefits as the goal, but ultimately it becomes a nondualistic experience, whereby conceptual distinctions of subject and object disappear, so that a deeper reality is realized. The Soto Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama sums up this awareness: 4

In our zazen, it is precisely at the point where our small, foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of the self functions. It is precisely at the point where we become completely lost that life operates and the power of Buddha is realized.

The third and fourth definitions of prayer, based on Saint Gregory of Sinai, highlight the core experience in Jesus Prayer. The third sense of prayer, according to Ware, is [End Page 93] an inner act. In his words, "True inner prayer is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God." 5 Here, silence is not mere silence but the openness to hear the wordless voice of God. The initiative comes from the divine: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20) and "He must become greater, I must become less" (John 3:30).

Fourth is prayer as "the manifestation of Baptism," not baptism as a ritual act but as the embodying of the divine. This is the state of grace that is brought "to the point of full spiritual perception and conscious awareness when we experience and feel the activity of the Spirit directly and immediately." 6

These two connotations of prayer may be helpful in understanding the writings of Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, who lived in thirteenth-century Japan. 7 The English translations of his works, coming from an entirely different cultural tradition and written in an alien language, sometimes defy easy comprehension. To take one important example, Shinran states at the beginning of the Chapter of Practice in his major opus, translated as "True Teaching, Practice, and Realization of the Pure Land Way," as follows: 8

The great practice is to say the Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light. This practice, embodying all good acts and possessing all roots of virtue, is perfect and most rapid in bringing them to fullness. It is the treasure ocean of virtues that is...