Enlightenment of the Cosmic Buddhas

Through the Pure Land practice of nembutsu, explains Mark Unno, we “foolish beings” entrust ourselves to the full awakening of Amida, the primordial Buddha of Infinite Light.

Mark Unno
13 February 2022
Amida (Sanskrit: Amitabha) embodies the primordial enlightenment that is our true nature. By entrusting ourselves to him, karmic beings like us can realize our own buddhanature. “Welcoming Descent of Amida Buddha and Twenty-five Bodhisattvas,” 1668. Bequest of Lettice Sands Phelps Stokes / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Mahayana Buddhism, two of the key moments relevant to awakening are the arising of bodhichitta and the realization of bodhi. Bodhichitta, the mind of aspiration for awakening, is the heart and engine of the bodhisattva vow to bring all beings to liberation. Bodhi is the full awakening realized by all the cosmic buddhas, including Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light.

In Shin Buddhism, the largest of the Japanese Pure Land schools, bodhichitta and bodhi are realized through the practice of the nembutsu. By invoking or chanting the Name of Amida Buddha—Namo Amitabha Buddha in Sanskrit, or Namu Amida Butsu in Japanese—the practitioner says, “I, this foolish being filled with blind passions, entrust myself to the awakening of infinite light.”

Through the nembutsu, practitioners open themselves to the illumination of emptiness, the deep flow of the oneness of reality, and the formless buddha manifest within each of us as the Buddha of Boundless Compassion. Namu Amida Butsu embodies both the bodhisattva vow of universal liberation and the buddhas’ fully realized awakening.

The “foolish being” refers to us who are filled with attachments, or “blind passions” (klesas). We tend to overidentify with the level of form, of our ideas and this world of appearances. The foolish being is the karmic self. “Amida Buddha” expresses the illumination of emptiness, the truth beyond, or actually, before words. Amida expresses the emptiness of self, the formless dharmakaya or buddha body.

The relation between bodhi and bodhichitta can be understood as follows: “Already, but not yet.” Each of us is already the manifestation or self-expression of the deepest reality of emptiness and Amida Buddha, but we cannot see or sense this yet because of our blind passions and attachments. In the practice of the Name, we receive the bodhisattva vow that arises from our deepest, truest self, the Amida self, the reality of awakening. It is because we are already one with all reality in the heart of the universe herself that we aspire to break free from the illusion of separateness. The Name, Namu Amida Butsu, signifies the fact that “all beings are one with me, and thus, I am moved to become one with all beings.”

Bodhi, awakening, is about seeing the truth, in the way we use the word “insight” to denote wisdom or knowledge. But in Shin Buddhism, there is even greater emphasis on “hearing the dharma.” That is because, due to our delusions and blind passions, it is difficult for us to see the truth of oneness. Yet we sense it is there, something deeper and larger than our tiny egos.

It is the Name, issuing forth from the dharmakaya, that stirs our heart and brings us to realize our full awakening. Blind passions are called out by the bodhisattva vow stirring deep within. Klesas, bodhichitta, bodhi—all are realized in the call of Namu Amida Butsu. This is the heart of awakening in Shin Buddhism.

Mark Unno

Mark Unno

Mark Unno is an ordained priest in the Shin Buddhist tradition and an Associate Professor of Buddhism at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light, and the editor of Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures.