The Nembutsu as Music

The delicate, wondrous sounds of jewel-trees in the jewel-forests
Are a naturally pure and harmonious music,
Unexcelled in subtlety and elegance,
So take refuge in Amida, the music of purity.1

MUSIC ECHOES FROM THE PURE LAND! That is what Shinran Shonin teaches us in this beautiful hymn. Amida Buddha is none other than the "music of purity," whose very Name is like art itself, the spontaneous self-expression of truth making itself known in our lives. Pure and harmonious, this music resonates within our hearts and minds, giving expression to our most deeply held hopes and wishes.
We connect with the world around us through a variety of sensations - sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. Often, unfortunately, those sensations serve as the objects of our desires; all too often they become the motivation for our self-centered attachments and craving. And yet, those same sensations can also serve as gateways to a world beyond the self.
Here, with Shinran's words as our guide, let us think about the importance of sound. It can be said that our connection to the world of sound is often direct, emotional and very moving. A simple melody can move us to tears. A leader's words can sometimes move us to action. When we really hear a sound, music or a voice, something resonates within our hearts in a way that we cannot ignore and doubt. "I hear you." When we really hear something we cannot help but take it in and let it take root within us.
For that reason, Buddhism often talks about "hearing." The way to enlightenment is described as the path of hearing the Dharma. Shinran, moreover, urges us to hear the Name of Amida Buddha, "Namu Amida Butsu," for as we do so we are able to hear the origin and fulfillment of the Primal Vow and be without doubt. I take this to mean that just about anything within the world of sound - cries in the wilderness, the sounds of the city, or the voices and songs of persons we meet in life - can sing to us, like music, of life's wish to become itself and give itself to us so that we might live. Or, as Shinran states in a note to the hymn above, "things that work and move...all, without exception, produce the sound of dharma."2
In particular, music can often reveal something to us of our own lives. At times, the lyrics and melody of a song can make us think longingly of those who have gone before. An ancient chant can reveal something of ourselves that we had not known before. A sonata can inspire us to venture out onto a path long-avoided. Or, a lullaby can remind us of love that endures and supports us always. Within music, we are often able to encounter the timeless wish of life and realize the infinite potential of our own lives.
In this sense, we can appreciate Shinran Shonin's declaration that music echoes from the Pure Land. The wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha is at play within our lives. It takes the form of Name, of sound and music. The music of the Pure Land resounds within our hearts and minds. We hear the nembutsu as music and, as we do, our lives also become works of art, singing songs in praise of Amida, the music of purity.

Namu Amida Butsu
Rev. D. Matsumoto
December 2008

1 Hymns of the Pure Land, 39, CWS, 334.
2 Ibid.