You might have wondered the meaning of doing gassho (pressing palms) and reciting the nembutsu (Namu Amida Butsu). In this article, I'd like to give a brief explanation about them.
At funerals and Buddhist memorial services in Japan, it is common to see people joining their palms together in reverence to the Buddha (gassho) and reciting the nembutsu. But what exactly is the meaning of "gassho" and the "nembutsu"?
"Gassho" consists of two Chinese characters. "Ga"(合) means joining, and "sho"(掌) means the palms of one's hands. People in Japan join their palms together towards a person they want to ask a favor to; however, this act originally comes from Buddhism. It shows the highest level of reverence towards Buddha. Gassho is used as a type of greeting amongst Buddhist friends, too. Depending on whom you face, the length and depth of the bow varies. We bow in an especially respectful manner to those whom we respect or to whom we owe a lot. In our case, the one who we should respect the most is Amida Buddha, the master of all the buddhas in the universe.
Amida Buddha has made a promise (vow) to save all sentient beings into absolute happiness without fail. Amida Buddha promised to save all of us sentient beings, who have never done even a single day of harsh ascetic training, into everlasting happiness. Even across the whole universe, there is not a single buddha other than Amida Buddha who has made a vow such as this. This is the reason why all buddhas call Amida Buddha "the original master and the original buddha of all buddhas." When we comprehend the greatness of Amida Buddha, we cannot help joining the palms of our hands together and bowing at the maximum length and depth.
The "nembutsu" is the recitation of the words “Namu Amida Butsu.” In Japan, many people think saying the nembutsu will ward off bad luck or grant wishes, but this is wrong; it is not a charm with magic powers.
The nembutsu that Master Shinran taught is an expression of gratitude towards Amida Buddha. If somebody gives you something, you say a word of thanks to them. We use different words depending on who we are speaking to. For example, to a Japanese person we would say, “Arigatou”; to an American we would say, “Thank you”; to a Chinese person, “Xie xie.” Likewise, we say “Namu Amida Butsu” to Amida Buddha to show our appreciation to him. In Master Rennyo's The Letters, we find the following:
“From then on, saying the nembutsu is an act of paying the debt of gratitude to Amida Buddha for having been made certain of birth in the Pure Land.”
----The Essence of Master Shinran's Lifetime Teaching,
The Letters Fascicle 5, Letter 10
Some of you might think that the recitation of the nembutsu is only for those who have already been saved by Amida Buddha. However, that is not true. The reason why we were born into this world and why we are living now is to attain absolute happiness and have our birth in the Pure Land settled. We can never achieve this purpose without Amida Buddha's Vow-power. Day and night, Amida Buddha has been working tirelessly for countless aeons to guide us into absolute happiness. Thanks to this constant nurturing since the distant past, we, who have been lost in delusion for so long, are now able to listen to Amida Buddha's Vow. When we become aware of this, we cannot help but recite the virtuous nembutsu in heartfelt gratitude.
The Letters: A compilation of letters by Master Rennyo.
Master Rennyo (1415-99): Master Shinran's descendant and a prominent master of True Pure Land Buddhism. Through his letters (collected as The Letters) and sermons, he transmitted Master Shinran's teachings faithfully to a vast number of people across Japan, bringing about a revival of True Pure Land Buddhism. Having been made certain of birth in the Pure Land: Having gained absolute happiness.
Summary: ■Gassho, or placing one's palms together, is a show of deepest
reverence to Buddha. ■Let us chant the nembutsu as much as possible with gratitude
in our hearts.