Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 114

'The Tathagata of Light that Surpasses the Sun and Moon
Taught me the nembutsu-samadhi.
The Tathagatas of the ten quarters compassionately regard
Each sentient being as their only child.'


Samadhi is a Pali and Sanskrit word that means, literally, 'concentration' - 'the mental state of being firmly fixed.'1 The word consists of three parts which indicate an adamantine state of mind. Traditionally the word is used to describe the part of the three-fold division of the path (Sk. marga) which has to do with effort, mindfulness and concentration. Samadhi may lead to absorbtion (zen, Sk. dhyana), if it is in a transcendent form and it encompasses the conditions associated with enlightenment. There is also a 'weak', so-called 'worldly' form of samadhi; something akin to what we mean when we speak of serendipity, or 'things coming together' for us.

In the Abhidharma we discover that formal dhyana practice is not a neccessary condition for samadhi because concentration can occur unexpectedly, at any time. Samadhi does not contribute to proper awakening unless it is 'wholesome' (Sk. kusala) and free of taints and attachments. In traditional Buddhist practice, physical objects were often used as a focus of samadhi. Colours of the 'light-object' (Sk. kashina) were selected to suit the temperament of the person using it to induce concentration. Mantras and koans are also used to induce concentration; and work, or any activity which so concentrates one's mind as to bring about a state in which one 'forgets oneself', can also be a kind of samadhi.

The emptying of oneself and the concentrated focus on a single object or activity is very often a blissful condition and the Buddha Dharma's interest in it has spread beyond its own confines to influence other religions and paths. The martial arts, ikebana (flower arranging), sumi-e (brush-painting), music, tea-ceremony, calligraphy and, in Japan, haiku and Shinto, have all taken up the idea of samadhi as a phase of their respective crafts. Samadhi extends even beyond this to manufacture and study of other kinds.

A medical practitioner once told me that when he began practicing his craft he was always feeling stressed and a complete failure. One day, however, he suddenly discovered that if he stopped thinking about life outside the surgery, his family, worry about the future or himself, and so on, and focussed on each patient as they presented themselves one by one - just living for and concentrating on each one - his stress and sense of inadequacy completely fell away. This is a kind of samadhi. In our work we will find that we do it more effectively in direct proportion to our absorbtion in it. A really well-organised work-place in which the day's activities are planned, concentrated upon in turn and ticked off a list one by one - and in which one works in silence - is demonstrably happier and more effective than a disorganised and disoriented one.

The idea of the practical significance of samadhi in daily life probably has its origins in a sutra in the Agamas. In the Pali Tipitika it is the thirty-third of the Digha-Nikaya. It suggests that the development of concentration brings four blessings to those who practice it. The first is a feeling of happiness. In the second, one pentrates the meaning of things with one's mind and goes beyond mere definition and notion. Also there is a growing awareness of the evanescence of feelings and thoughts; that is to say, ideas and emotions which are outside the sphere of one's focus fall away easily, and one tends to lose one's attachment to them.

In this verse, Shinran Shonin reminds us of the samadhi of the enlightened ones in which they see each individual alone with complete focus. In this and the next few verses the 'child' spoken of is an infant: a babe-in-arms. The kind of samadhi is that of a father holding his first child for the first time. A newborn baby in our arms is a source of extreme concentration, in which one is conscious of nothing else in the world but it. In that sense, the one-child image is a good one.

The reference in this and the following verse, however, is not to parent-child relationships as such. Sometimes it is suggested that Amida Buddha is our father or mother, and in Japan a parental emphasis has become strong. However important such interpretations may be, the fact is that what is being discussed here is a specific moment in parental relationships, and it is a moment that can occur in any relationships of any kind. In parent-child relationships it speaks of mutual focal transference - something that is not a common occurrence. It is the moment when two become one; when their concentration, or focus, is such that there is nothing else but the other. Each in the relationship has become momentarily the other, while, of course, inherently retaining their own identity.

When shinjin moves us to say Namu-amida-butsu, that, too, is a kind of samadhi.

1: Buddhist Dictionary, Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines by Nyanatiloka, 1970, revised & enlarged, p. 155.

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