Attend to All & Each: A Dharma Talk

Dharma Talk
Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship 2020

I want to start our dharma talk with a poem I wrote, one that we recite each Sunday before we chant. Here is the poem,

Come as you are
Is the call of Buddha
Just as you are

Namu Amida Butsu
Is the invitation we give

To ourselves
To others
To all living beings
To the totality of our lives – just as we are.

So come, come as you are,
Attend to all and each
Namu Amida butsu

Stop torturing yourself
With all those made-up stories
Of who you think you are

and aren’t, regardless
of who you are or
are not

Of what you have done or
left undone

and enter the gate of boundless compassion
Namu Amida Butsu.

My writing of this poem was an attempt to convey what namu Amida butsu – or nembutsu means to our community. In it, I am trying to take something from a much different place and time, Medieval Japan, and infuse its meaning and healing power in a way that can speak to our lives right here and right now.

As with much of art – poetry is translation, an attempt to give words to the wordless, that which is beyond concept or language but is present in the heartbeat, the pulse, and breath.

Over the past months, we have spoken to some of the teachings in these verses. We will talk about them again and again from different angles and at different times. Just like an open field or a hidden canyon will reveal their secrets to those willing to be still in the changing light, so too with the Buddha’s teaching. We look at the same teachings repeatedly through the changing light of our lives, and new truths are revealed. As Gyomay Kubose Sensei has taught, “truth is forever revealing itself in all forms and phases of life.”

Today I want to focus mostly on one verse from the poem,

So, come as you are,
Attend to all and each
Namu Amida Butsu

Attend to all and each; this is what I want to talk about today.

The heart of these few lines is the answer to what we do after accepting the invitation to come as we are. We attend to ourselves as part of the whole; we attend to others as a part of the whole. This is the Buddha’s teaching that spiritual friendships are the whole of the way – that the refuge of the sangha, the third jewel of Buddhism – is the whole of the way. We need one another to be able to awaken.

Our fellowship is has found great inspiration in Pure Land Buddhism, but we are not a Pure Land sangha; we are trans-sectarian in nature. That being said, the Pure Land Buddhism of the Dobokai Movement in Shin Buddhism has had a significant influence. One thing that has attracted me to the traditional story of Amida Buddha – the archetypal Buddha – the mythic Buddha of boundless compassion is his and our interdependence.

The mythic Amida Buddha makes a series of vows as he starts his bodhisattva career to help all beings attain supreme enlightenment. His compassion is so boundless that he vows that if any living being is unable to awaken, then he will not attain enlightenment and become a Buddha.

I love this story because it shows how we are all interrelated and connected and interdependent. Now let me be more direct; we are dependent on one another to awaken. As Emerson has written,
“All are needed by each one.”

So what does it mean to attend to one another and ourselves? The English word attend comes from the 14th century, French atendre – to pay attention to stretch toward something or someone. To take care, to attend, and to be present with or for. At the heart of attending and tending is attention – presence.

When we answer the call of namu Amida butsu, come as you are, we respond with the very same invitation, and by this simple act, we are tending to one another. Still, the reciprocal invitation to come as we are needs to be more than just the words. We demonstrate it by our presence, in our courage to show up, again and again for our life, for others, willing to show front and back, to listen deeply to ourselves and others without judgment. Through this reciprocal invitation and our showing up, we show our aspiration to attend to give our attention to what life is right now in the flow of now and not waste energy on how life is supposed to be. It is attending to all of our lives, ourselves, each other, and our wounds that dance around one another. It is also attending to our joy, love, and our aspiration for healing and wholeness and the myriad ways these manifest. We tend to another person just as they are, just as we are, in the midst of the ever-changing and unimaginably unique locus of becoming we each are.

What makes this possible? There is something about this holding of space, this acceptance and compassion that we have so longed for, that unfolds the intricate origami of who we think we are. Such simple words – come as you are – just as you are. When we accept the invitation, there is an unfolding and opening up, a softening of boundaries, and a natural freedom that comes from learning to let go of the shame of thinking we need to be someone else than who we are to be loved. This opening, this attending, this tending to each other, is what I see as the naturalness of who we really are, our innate Buddha-selves born out of “come as you are” – Namu Amida Bustu. Here is where the healing energy of nembutsu is found. In this opening space, revealed by this invitation, we find the space to become who we really are from moment to moment – an awakening, a ripening. As Rilke, the poet has written,

“All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things, and they
come toward me to meet and be met.”

Our attention, intention, and presence are necessary for all becoming. It makes it possible for us to finally meet each other as we are and not through the myopia of the given and borrowed stories that have defined us.

Why the invitation from the Buddha to come as you are? We need the invitation for many of us; we need the Buddhas to say it’s ok to be ignorant, wounded, and beautifully broken because it’s in the midst of our ordinariness that we wake up. As Koyo Kubose Sensei writes, “Every spiritual journey begins in the dark. Responding to the call, we can let go of all the stories of who we are and are not, of who we think we are supposed to be, or the weight of all the things we have done or left undone. Underlying all things is the invitation. In a very practical way, everything can be a bodhisattva can be a teacher. Darkness and devils can be Buddhas helping us to wake up. Even our screwed-up lives can be a gift of awakening.

We have heard the call, and our first steps are tentative and maybe for a long time. The first step is accepting, tending to, embracing our lives, just as they are. But this is no passive acceptance, no giving up, quite the opposite. This acceptance is an acceptance that does not makes excuses for apathy, nihilism, or bad behavior. This is not the acceptance that gives an excuse to an abuser’s actions, but the acceptance that comes with, at times, a heart-crushing realization that my lover is an abuser and I need to leave or that I am a perpetrator and need to get help.

The hardest part is the acceptance of our wounded selves. Whatever it is inside us that we are running from, this is what needs our attention, intention, and presence. Our wounded selves need our compassion. The Buddha extends boundless compassion in the words namu Amida butsu. This phrase’s mythic purpose is to show us how what we have become and all the things we have experienced have brought us to this point, to the point of hearing the dharma. It tells us that we are already whole, one and not separate, isolated as we think. The invitation opens up in me space where I can begin to tend to the darker sides of myself, the wounded sides of myself. With the words Namu Amida Butsu, I know that I am embraced, never to be abandoned just as I am. Because of this, we can finally attend to that which needs attending. Because of this, we can begin to embrace our inner wholeness. As Jung said, “I would rather be whole than good.” This is the meeting, of gathering in an open field, in the Pure Land, out beyond good and evil.

When we attend to ourselves and others, we take the journey into all the places we have hidden our suffering and our woundedness from view and bring it as an offering to the Buddhas. This tending to one another is not so much a needing someone to go with you or of you needing to go with someone, but it is the knowledge that someone is there, without judgment, waiting for you to return with open arms.

This acceptance is in the spirit of moving towards – moving towards wholeness, healing, and awakening. As Gyomay Kubose Sensei has taught that, acceptance IS transcendence; it is our freedom. This moving toward is our pilgrimage. I love this from Philip Chircop,

“On our pilgrimage towards wholeness, in a gentle act of hospitality, we’re challenged and invited to name and welcome all the bruised and broken pieces of our marvelous and beautiful story. In the process, we will slowly integrate all the different voices within us, competing for attention, learning to love out of the unity of voices that we are.” [2]

Here I want to interject a word of caution for those raised by our families, either intentional or not, to be caretakers. We, caretakers, have to be vigilant because we have a habitual tendency of tending to others’ feelings while ignoring our own. Avoiding our feelings are a way to avoid responsibility for them, as Dr. Margaret Paul has taught, as we try to fill the void of our self-abandonment.

Coming as we are, is the first step on our pilgrimage toward wholeness; it is the invitation of Buddha – of all Buddhas. And hearing the call of Namu Amida Butsu, come as we are, we aspire to cultivate attention, presence. It is a call to be alive. That is what our regular meditation practice helps us do. Cultivating our intention, our capacity to be present, we stop living on the surface of things. Sometimes I am so on autopilot; I forget that I am actually living a life. As the essayist Maria Popov has written, “to fully feel life course through us, indeed, we ought to befriend our attention.”

To befriend our attention requires intention. But simple attention is not enough. Most of our habitual attention is not focused on that which needs healing. In general, our default attention is not intentional but habitual and unconscious, at that the service of some story we are telling in our heads. As Gregg Kretch writes in his book on Naikan, “How often is our attention wasted on judging, criticizing, and correcting others while we neglect the examination and lessons of our own life?” We tend to use our attention to justify or validate our script. We are talking about the kind of attention we are talking about is intentional, self-reflective, honest, humble, and simple but not self-centered or self-absorbed. As Gregg Kretch goes on to write, “Our attention is our life. Shifting our attention opens us to reality and reveals what has always been there.” It is shifting our habitual attention toward what attention, intention, and presence are the heart of this attending – this is the tending we are talking about.

Part of this tending is developing the capacity to hold space with paradoxes within ourselves and others. Andrew McAlister talks about this in one of his essays. It is the simultaneity of our woundedness / shame / self-loathing and our essential goodness. Coming as we are, gives us the space to hold these two at the same time. He writes,

“Something deep in us says we are not good, that we don’t deserve to be good. And yet, the more we practice attending to the depths of us, the more our already given goodness is lavished upon us.

As attention on the mantra (ours would be Namu Amida Butsu (added)) is deepened, clarified, and focused (thanks to a regular practice), the paradox that is woundedness and essential goodness experienced together becomes, over time, resolved.”

This quote reminds me of these lines from the poem,

…stop torturing yourself
with all those made-up stories
of who you think you are

and aren’t, regardless of who
you are or are not, regardless
of what you have done

or have left undone
and enter the gate of boundless compassion.

Come as you are is an invitation for us to tend the garden of our hearts in the refuge of the dharma and the sangha and the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha. I would like to close with these words from Jack Kornfield,

“You have in you the seeds of great compassion, the seeds of wisdom, and care for others. Meditation then is not to make some special experience, but it is to learn how to tend the garden of the heart and to water the seeds of kindness and presence in your own heart.”

Do let us attend to each other
To our lives, to all of life,
As it is, as you are

Right here
Right now.
Namu amida butsu

Christopher Kakuyo Sensei