Prayer and Nembutsu
by Rev. Shoko Masunaga is Minister of the San Mateo Buddhist,Church San Mateo.
The word "prayer" has different meanings but in the God-centered religions like Christianity prayer is a channel of communication with God. Through this channel of communication the way is opened for God, through the Holy Spirit, to make fuller use of human life and thereby achieve his Purpose. The outstanding feature of such religions can be viewed in its inmost essence as a service of prayers. By these services the communication between God and the devotee is made and God takes the initiative to bring all of the devotees into communion with him.
Prayers involve many phases---adoration, thanksgiving, confession, repentance, supplication and petition- -which may be considered the mood and intention that govern our entrance into communion with God. But before we are accepted in the life of prayer there are several important prerequisites that must be fulfilled on the part of the devotee. We must first of all acknowledge our sins and wrongs and set them right; the impurities and self-indulgences must be rooted out and tempers controlled and attitudes replaced. In our relations with our friends, we have to make full repair of our broken friendship with gifts, apologies, and words and deeds of kindness, so that our offenses are forgiven. What is true in our fellowship with another holds true to an infinite degree in our communion with God. The acceptance and restoration of our fellowship with God, his forgiveness, his cancellation of our sins and wrongs, and his willingness to begin anew are all important. As long as sin separates us from God, we cannot get Into the life of prayer. Our supplications and petitions to him for forgiveness of sins committed are the first steps in being brought back into the grace of God. This is all possible because in the Christian religion God is omnipotent (all powerful, omniscient, all-knowing), and the creator of the world.
The supplicator in the "God-centered religion may petition for intercession by God in the form of moral and spiritual help in changing the external condition and course of events and also ask for health, happiness, prosperity, and other needs of daily life.
The Buddhist religion rejects the above form of prayer since the basic teaching rests on the Law of Cause and Effect. Buddhism declares that happiness and unhappiness are alike results of actions; that prosperity and adversity are also results of individual actions, words and deeds. Wrong can only be undone by doing Good, which will overcome the effects of wrong deed. Sin in Buddhism does not mean that one has transgressed against God's Commandments but all sins are man-made and the well being of human life is dependent upon the consequences of self-effort, directed by each person working within the Law. No miracles, magic or prayers can change the course of events.
In the Shin doctrine prayers are not rejected since they come from the hearts of men and women who are weak and ignorant of the Law. But Saint Shinran finds that prayers of supplication and petition, asking forgiveness for the sins, are not necessary in the life of a Shin follower. This is because Amida Buddha, the Highest Truth, is not a God, a creator of the universe, a being who stands outside of man and the world, or the power that judges the action of man. Rather, Amida Buddha is the living compassion, free from all limitations, and living in the Highest Truth, Oneness. Amida's compassionate actions are directed to all beings in order to free them all from the world of illusion and ignorance and lead them to Pure Land. His actions and desires are in accordance with the Highest Truth. His power is so great and his aims are so clear that there is no limitation attached to his compassion. It is the absolute-non-discriminatory compassion, directed to all, just as the sun's rays pour light upon this world without discrimination. No supplications or prayers are needed on our part since the heart of compassion is the prayer of Amida that all will be safely directed to the Pure Land. Man is being uplifted, embraced, even when he is falling deeper into the cycle of birth and death.
What is wrong with man's prayer? Man's prayers, being limited in time and space, are finite and weak. Such prayers are always centered on things we like to have like material goods or physical well being. In other words, we pray for things very close to our hearts. Now if these things we pray for were everlasting and satisfying in nature then we will have no cause for regret. But it seems that our hearts are never satisfied, for once we have gained one thing, we wish to have something better. Our desires and wishes are always changing and there is no satisfaction in things that change. Therefore in Buddhism we do not pray. for man's actions expressed in prayer, even in a good prayer, are tainted with the poison of selfishness and egocentricity, which goes against the fundamental teaching of Buddha.
Therefore, for such a man, Amida has made the 48 vows and especially the compassionate 18th Vow. This 18th Vow, which is the King of all Vows, reaches the heart of all sentient beings and his entire labor of love for all beings is compressed in the Name. Through this relative form of Name the absolute Amida is able to communicate with the relative man. Thus the highest values and qualities of Amida--purity, truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom and peace--are implanted in the hearts of all sentient beings. This is the prayer and wish of Amida and all beings, upon hearing his Name, Namu Amida Butsu, will accept this without doubt. This is faith, when Amida's heart of prayer that all shall be saved from the ocean of birth and death, become one with us. The imperfect "1" can never communicate with Buddha; Amida communicates with us through his Name.
Upon being awakened to the great Compassionate Heart, the two qualities of Thankfulness and Gratefulness become a life pattern of the Shin followers, When we enter the company of the faithful, we will be fired with zeal to put into practice his teaching every day of our lives. We will strive to avoid the sinner's way and model ourselves in our conduct according to the teaching. This is done not to please the Gods but merely as our expression of the Joy of being included in the company of Shinran's followers.