Rennyo Shonin was discussing matters with two visitors, Kyoken from Mikawa, and Kuken from Ise. “The meaning of namu is kimyo, an anticipation of future rebirth. Kimyo is awareness of the fundamental vow-power’s transference of merits.”
Literally translated, namu means “homage” or “praise,” while kimyo signifies taking refuge. In this conversation, Rennyo Shonin references the writing of Zendo Daishi (the Chinese master Shan-tao or Shandao). In his Commentary, Shan-tao clarified that namu and kimyo had essentially the same meaning: that of taking refuge through the one thought-moment of trust in Amida’s Vow. This passage in particular is one of Rennyo’s favorites, and he quotes it often throughout his many letters. For example, in Rennyo Shonin Ofumi, Fascicle Four, Letter 8, the following passage appears:
Shandao explained long ago in his commentary: “‘Namu’ means ‘to take refuge.’ It also signifies aspiring to be born and directing virtue. ‘Amida-butsu’ is the practice.”
Though the “anticipation of future rebirth” that Rennyo refers to has always been an integral element of Jodo Shinshu teaching, it is a fact that many Shin Buddhists today fail to recognize this “other-worldly” aspect of faith. Be that as it may, without the certainty of being reborn in the Pure Land at the point of death, faith would ultimately be meaningless—a self-delusion and nothing more. Some scholars, who apparently have not read The Collected Works of Shinran in its entirety, are of the opinion that Master Shinran did not discuss the afterlife, and that this idea was introduced by Rennyo as an attempt to popularize Shinshu among the masses. One need only read the Founder’s writings, however, to see that his interpretation and Rennyo’s are in fact one and the same. The passages dealing with this are numerous; the following is representative of what Shinran’s position was on this important matter:
But the person who purposely thinks and does what he or she should not, saying that it is permissible because of the Buddha's wondrous Vow to save the foolish being, does not truly desire to reject the world, nor does such a one consciously feel himself a being of karmic evil. Hence such people have no aspiration for the nembutsu nor for the Buddha's Vow; thus, however they engage in nembutsu with such an attitude, it is difficult for them to attain birth in the next life.
It is only through the entrusting heart of shinjin, therefore, that we become fully aware of Amida Buddha’s Vow to save us, of the eons of practice required to accomplish this Vow. We also become aware of the influence of Other-Power (tariki) in our lives, prompting us to give up all pretense and leave everything to Buddha. This is what “taking refuge” means in Shinshu. It is Amida’s directing of virtue for our going forth to the Pure Land, and for our subsequent return to this world.
Speaking personally, ever since I first took refuge in the Primal Vow, I have become aware of how my life before (and no doubt past lives) was like a prelude or a prologue to that event, giving meaning to otherwise-unrelated thoughts, people, places, even obsessions and blind passions. I became aware of how, behind the scenes, the Buddha was constantly working to pry open the heavy lid of my mind and let in the Light. There is a definite kind of awe that is felt when one realizes that some of the most annoying, even painful, circumstances of one’s life have occurred for a reason. For me, and for uncountable millions of others, the Pure Land teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha has given a true purpose for my current as well as past existence. This purpose is nothing other than becoming a Buddha—a truly free, awakened person—through hearing Amida Buddha’s Name. The promise of the inconceivable birth that awaits in the Pure Land gives people of shinjin the determination to live with confidence and joy, no matter what their present situation may be.
In one of his many poems, Master Rennyo expressed the following:
Whatever karmic transgressions
You have committed till today,
You are freed from their retribution,
If you put your trust in Amida.
Simply by hearing the Name of Amida Tathagata and relying entirely on His Vow, which is altogether trustworthy, the heavy burden of our evil past actions is lifted. I believe that this Dharma medicine is capable of curing the spiritual illnesses of people today, just as much as when Shakyamuni walked the earth.