An entire year has passed living in a global pandemic, and like everyone else, I grapple with a life derailed by a virus. It is difficult to cope with letting go of expectations and life plans. To live in the circumstances we did not choose. In many ways, we’ve also had to become beginners in what used to be on autopilot, and this can be stressful. I’ve been a teacher for seventeen years and thought I had mastered my craft even in my sleep, yet I have spent the past year learning new ways to do my job. I grew up in the 90s and was on the cutting edge of a generation who got to use AOL chat rooms and instant messaging, but even I feel forlorn in this current reality.
Technology has allowed us to attend Sunday services on YouTube, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity. But often after a service, I close my laptop and sit with a feeling that something is amiss. Thanks to Zoom and YouTube, I can hear Dharma talks online whenever I want. I can learn through the EVERYDAY BUDDHIST Course Pathway, arguably more than I did in that previous life before the pandemic. Of course, I miss seeing people, and I definitely miss dropping my kids off at Dharma School and having coffee and snacks during adult study. But if I had to boil it down to one thing, I’d have to say hearing everyone chant together in the hondo is that missing element. Chanting. The one thing I once swore I would never do.
Committed to attending family service weekly with my children and baby, I noticed that I would leave on Sundays feeling great, but by Monday there would be something stressing me out again. Something to be angry about. Sadness. Jealousy. You know, more real life to deal with.
This helped me understand Shinran’s emphasis on frequent practice. Namuamidabutsu. Repetition. Affirmation. Reciting Nembutsu so us laypeople, overwhelmed in our regular lives and problems, had a way to regularly express our wonderment. A reminder to open our hearts and return to the center of an existence that is constantly being pulled into a million different directions. Most importantly, reciting Nembutsu allows us to express gratitude, which helps us channel positive emotions instead of drowning in the negative ones. This transforms our journey.
For me, it feels like a release. Like a type of detox, letting the negative aspects of my humanity out, leaving space to sit with my neutral self.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about “releasing our baggage.” He said that “zero can be positive,” like clearing credit card debt. Sometimes, nothing can be a good thing. In matters of money, we don’t want a balance. I just paid my taxes, and it feels good to have mailed my checks and be in the clear. Likewise, I don’t want to accumulate anger, anxiety, loneliness, stress, or any other negative emotions we experience as human beings. I want to let it all go.
Reciting Nembutsu is a way to release our baggage. During this pandemic, there are many reasons to feel the weight of the world on our shoulders. The past year has been riddled with anger and fear. There are numerous unknowns and changing variables, and many people have experienced terrible loss. Now more than ever, we need a release.
For me, practicing Buddhism was initially a way to cope with my grief after the unexpected loss of my husband, but I have found in life there is always going to be another problem. You are never one and done. When quarantine happened, I leaned even harder on my practice, and felt gratitude that I had already walked through difficult times and found Buddhism to make this new bump in the road more manageable.
I leave you with a poem by Myokonin Saichi, reminding me why I recite Nembutsu, and why it helps me navigate challenging times in my life:
Nothing is left to Saichi
Except a joyful heart, nothing is left to him
Neither good nor bad has he, all is taken away from him
Nothing is left to him!
To have nothing – how completely satisfying
Everything has been carried away by the ‘Namu-amida-butsu’…
All my cravings are taken away…
None of my evil passions, as many as 84,000 remain with me
Every one of them has been taken away…
Saichi has nothing – which is joy
Outside this there’s nothing
Both good and evil – all’s taken away
To have nothing – this is the release, this is the peace