Finding Your Spiritual Practice Is Just In The Way of the Name

Surrendering to the unknown is less frightening if you have faith that something will catch you when you fall—whatever name you call it by.

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Surrendering to the unknown is less frightening if you have faith that something will catch you when you fall—whatever name you call it by.

The first thing I do on waking is say, Namu-amida-butsu. It is the same every morning. Somewhere between sleep and waking, a certain ground-level awareness begins to creep in. I could call it by different names: a feeling of smallness in the face of the universe, an awareness of the inevitability of death, or—increasingly these days—a parental concern for the son and daughter still sleeping in bed nearby.

When I was younger, I could sometimes wake without this feeling. Now it is my constant companion. Some people insist that peace of mind be the fruit of spiritual practice. There is truth in that, but it isn’t the kind of peace that refuses to acknowledge the basic situation you find yourself confronted with in life. Eventually all that you love and all that you hold onto will simply pass away. I am reminded of a verse from the Psalms: “His breath goes forth, and he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Ps.146:6). That is why I wake saying Namu-amida-butsu: “I entrust myself to Amida, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life.” There’s nothing else to do.

The Way of the Name

Of course, reciting the name of Amida is a matter of personal conviction. I arrived at that practice after a decade-long struggle, during which I called on all sorts of other names—from Jesus to Tara, Allah to Avalokiteshvara. In retrospect, any of them would have worked had I been able to surrender to them. For me, in the end, it was Amida, the primordial Buddha who, according to the Pure Land Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, vowed countless eons ago to save all beings without distinction—without regard to whether they were good or evil, wise or foolish, happy or sad.

That was the key point for me. I had lived long enough to know how often in life I acted against my better nature and how powerless I was in most cases to act in any other way. That was what the Buddha called karma, and I was quite certain, after 20 years of Zen practice had failed to eradicate it, there was no way I could ever become free of it on my own. I tried taking my karma before various different “names,” but for whatever reason I never had the sense that any of the deities or bodhisattvas they signified were willing to accept me as I was. Until Amida. Amida seemed to say, “Come as you are.” And for some reason I could, and I did. I make no special claims for Amida. The “name” you surrender to is an individual matter.

Having said that, I think it is important to find some kind of name to call on and some way of calling on it. Otherwise you are likely to find yourself surrendering to “the will of the universe” or some other kind of daytime talk-show abstraction. To surrender, you have to have something to surrender to; it doesn’t work surrendering to something you can’t call out to and from which you can’t reasonably expect a reply. This is one reason why meditation practices the world over, if they don’t already consist of the mantra-like repetition of a divine name, find some way of incorporating such a name—in their liturgy at the very least.

Think of it this way: If you fall forward, you can always catch yourself by putting a foot forward. In fact, that is exactly what you do when walking. You fall forward and catch yourself over and over again. That is how you accomplish most things in life, walking here or there under your own power, doing whatever it is you do. But what about falling back? When you fall backward, it is impossible to catch yourself. If you are to be caught, someone or something else must do the catching. This is an excellent metaphor for death—physical or spiritual. To die in either case, you must fall backward—into a realm you cannot see. To do this you must have the sense there is something there to catch you, some “other power” that can save you when you cannot save yourself. Otherwise your fear of annihilation is too great to allow for such a fall.

Naturally, there are those times when you fall because you can’t help it, and sometimes that is how you come by your “name.” Twelve Step meetings are filled with stories like this. They are common as well among born-again Christians, who frequently talk about being saved by Jesus when they least expected or deserved it, usually as the result of a personal crisis or some other kind of “fall.” That is not the kind of falling backward I am talking about here, however, because it is impossible to practice that kind of fall. It happens or it doesn’t, and in either case you have no say.

There is another kind of falling back in which you do have a say because you have a practice, and that practice is saying the name. This type of practice, which I think of as the “Way of the Name,” exists in some form or other in virtually every major spiritual tradition, and so there is no need to convert to Buddhism to practice it. You could as easily say the Jesus prayer of Orthodox Christianity (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) or the Hail Mary of the Catholic Church, both time-honored ways of falling backward into the arms of God. In Islam there is the practice of reciting the 99 names of Allah, and there are variations of this same practice in Hinduism and Sikhism. Nearly all of these practices, including the nembutsu (the recitation of Namu-amida-butsu), make use of prayer beads of one kind or another, either as a way of keeping track of how many prayers one says or simply as a reminder to pray. It is here that the Way of the Name finds its most practical, hands-on expression.

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Counting the Ways

In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, such beads have two names—juzu and nenju—each of which suggests a different approach to the Way of the Name. The word ju means “bead.” Zu means “to count,” and nen means “thought.” Thus, juzu are “counting beads,” whereas nenju are “thought beads.”

Counting beads are used as a way of extending and maintaining one’s practice of the Way. You begin by reciting the name a given number of times each day (often on the advice of a master or spiritual friend), then increase the number gradually until you are saying the name more or less continuously throughout each day. A famous example of this style of practice comes from the nineteenth-century spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, in which the anonymous author begins reciting the Jesus prayer 3,000 times a day on the advice of his staretz, or elder, using a knotted “prayer rope” to keep track of how many times he says it. After a few weeks, the staretz gives him leave to say 6,000 prayers a day, and shortly after that, 12,000. At that point he instructs the pilgrim to recite the prayer as often as possible without bothering to keep track of the number of recitations: “Simply strive to devote every waking moment to prayer.”

At its best, bead-counting practice results in an every-moment awareness of the Divine. Like the vine that begins as a small shoot and by midsummer covers the entire length of a fence, these counted prayers have a natural way of multiplying themselves until suddenly, after some months or years of practice, it seems one’s whole life bursts into flower. But it can also become a purely mechanical exercise, in which case it does little more than tranquilize the mind.

For a while I said the Jesus prayer as many as 12,000 times a day. It wasn’t possible to do much else on days when I said the prayer that many times. And then, paradoxically, it was actually harder to keep my mind on Jesus than when I was saying a more modest number. I kept calculating how many times I had said it—say, by noon—and wondering if I would make it to 12,000 by the end of the day. Finally I felt too foolish to continue in this way. Unlike some of the other practices I’d undertaken, I lacked a spiritual director for this experiment, and it seemed wise to forego such an unauthorized assault on heaven.

Not long afterward, I discovered the nembutsu (nem is a variation on nen—thus, nem-butsu means “to think on Buddha”). In the nembutsu tradition of the Jodo Shin-shu (“True Pure Land School”) of Buddhism, the beads are called nenju, and generally are not used for counting.

Similar in most ways to the “power beads” that became popular in America a few years ago, they are worn on the left wrist during religious services or private devotions. When one chants the nembutsu, the hands are brought together, palm to palm, with the beads encircling both hands. While chanting Namu-amida-butsu, one makes no conscious effort to enter into a meditative state through mantra-like recitation, nor is there any effort to visualize Amida Buddha seated on a lotus throne in his Pure Land. One simply expresses gratitude for Amida welcoming all beings just the way they are. In this way the meditation happens on its own—less the result of intention than of simple trust.

It is here, in my opinion, that the Way of the Name finds its ultimate expression—not in nembutsu practice per se, but in any practice which, through faith, accepts as already given that which we seek, whether it be called mercy, rebirth in the Pure Land, divine union, or oneness with reality as it is. If surrender is what is called for in the end, then there is nothing to do but fall. There is no need to put it off by counting to a million. The Way of the Name consists in saying it—and believing it—here and now. It is not really hard. You fall anyway in the end. The difference between falling then and falling now is a life of gratitude, humility, and love.

See also Seeing the Spirituality in Everything from OM​ to OMG

About our author

Clark Strand is a former Zen Buddhist monk and the author of Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey and The Wooden Bowl: Simple Meditation for Everyday Life. He is the founder of the Koans of the Bible Study Group, an ecumenical spiritual community that meets in Woodstock, New York, and St. Paul, Minnesota.

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