What is the Nembutsu? A Not-So Brief Overview

(A reprint of Honen’s calligraphy, which I found in a Jodo Shu liturgy book)

For anyone who’s come across the Pure Land tradition in Buddhism, they will have almost certainly heard like terms “nenbutsu”, “nian-fo” and such. Pure Land Buddhism is a long, broad tradition within the even broader Mahayana Buddhism. But if I had to distill it into a 30-second explanation, the tradition is based on devotion to Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who vowed to rescue all beings and enable them to also reach enlightenment in the safety of his Pure Land. In the original Sanskrit, this Pure Land is called Sukhavati.

(warning: this post is a bit long … sorry)

Since Pure Land Buddhists are devoted to Amitabha, and aspire to be reborn in this Pure Land, a major focus is on how to get to the Pure Land. The Buddhist sutras that focus on the Pure Land offer a number of overlapping explanations, with some contradictions (more on that later). While all Pure Land Buddhists agree on the compassionate nature of Amitabha Buddha and the potential for Enlightenment for anyone reborn there, when we get to specifics, things get tricky.

Nowadays, the most common tradition is through reciting something called the nembutsu (Japanese) or nian-fo (Chinese), etc. Usually this a stock phrase such as:

  • Nāmó Ē-mí-tuó-fó / Nāmó Ā-mí-tuó-fó (Chinese)
  • Namu Amida Butsu (Japanese)
  • Namu Amita Bul (Korean)
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật (Vietnamese)

…and so on. These all mean the same thing: “Hail to Amitabha Buddha”, but are just recited in different languages. Technically it’s not reciting the name only, and there are even other, more elaborate variations to this phrase, but this is the most common practice for devotees to the Pure Land.

The basis for this practices comes from two places, among others. First, in the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (a.k.a. “the Larger Sutra”) the 18th vow out of 48 of the Buddha-to-be is:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.

translation by Rev. Hisao Inagaki

and also the Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra, which at the very end lists the 9 grades of followers who will attain rebirth in the Pure Land:

‘…On the eve of death he will meet a good and learned teacher who will, soothing and encouraging him in various ways, preach to him the excellent Dharma and teach him the remembrance of Buddha, but, being harassed by pains, he will have no time to think of Buddha. Some good friend will then say to him: “Even if you cannot exercise the remembrance of Buddha, you may, at least, utter the name, “Buddha Amitayus.” Let him do so serenely with his voice uninterrupted; let him be (continually) thinking of Buddha until he has completed ten times the thought, repeating the formula, “Adoration to Buddha Amitayus” (Namah Amitabha Buddhayah, Namu Amida Butsu). On the strength of his merit of uttering that Buddha’s name he will, during every repetition, expiate the sins which involved him in births and deaths during eighty million kalpas. He will, while dying, see a golden lotus-flower like the disk of the sun appearing before his eyes; in a moment he will be born in the World of Highest Happiness….’

translation by J. Takakusu 

So, when most people think of Pure Land Buddhism, this is what they think of: reciting the nembutsu/nianfo and aspiring to reborn in the Pure Land. This is how I understood it for a long, long time, too.

However, while reading my new book, I came to realize that this is only part of the story! It turns out that for much of Pure Land Buddhist history reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha was only part of the practice. For example, early proponents and teachers of Pure Land Buddhism in both China and India focused on Pure Land Buddhism as a form of meditation and visualization. Verbal recitation was supplemental.

This was, as with verbal recitation, also based on the same sutras. The Contemplation Sutra cited above is almost entirely devoted to detailed visual descriptions of the Pure Land and of Amitabha Buddha, among other things, and the benefits of fixing one’s mind on them in meditation:

‘When this perception has been formed, you should meditate on its (constituents) one by one and make (the images) as clear as possible, so that they may never be scattered and lost, whether your eyes be shut or open. Except only during the time of your sleep, you should always keep this in your mind. One who has reached this (stage of) perception is said to have dimly seen the Land of Highest Happiness (Sukhavati).’

translation by J. Takakusu

The verbal component, despite being singled out by later commentators, only occurs at the very end of the sutra.

Elsewhere, in the Amitabha Sutra (a.k.a. “The Smaller Sutra”), is the following line:

Shariputra, if there be a good man or a good woman, who, on hearing of Buddha Amitayus, keeps his name (in mind) with thoughts undisturbed for one day, two days, three days, four days, five days, six days, or seven days…

translation by Nishu Utsuki, The Educational Department of the West Hongwanji (1924)

And finally, the historically oldest Buddhist sutra that talks about Amitabha Buddha, the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra, says:

The Buddha said to Bhadrapala, “If you hold to this method of practice, you will attain the samadhi in which all the present Buddhas appear before you. If a bhiksu, bhiksuni, upasaka or upasika wants to practice according to the prescribed method, he or she should strictly observe the precepts, dwell alone in a place and contemplate Amida Buddha of the western quarter where he lives now. According to the teaching received, one should remember: ten million kotis of Buddha-lands away from here, there is a land called ‘Sukhavati.’ Contemplate this land with singleness of mind, for a day and night up to seven days and nights. The seventh day having passed, one will see it.

translation by Rev. Hisao Inagaki

Examples of this in practice started in early Chinese-Buddhist history with the famous monk Zhiyi who founded the highly influential Tiantai school. Zhiyi wrote a treatise called Mohe Zhiguan (摩訶止観, “The Great Contemplation and Abiding”) in which he laid out multiple practices for attaining samadhi (deep insight and concentration). One of these was called the “constantly walking samadhi” which involved circumambulating around a statue of Amitabha Buddha for 90 days without rest without stopping constantly reciting the Buddha’s name while holding a very detailed image of the Buddha preaching in the Pure Land.

Later, the focus shifted toward a more devotional practice in China starting with Tanluan (曇鸞, 476–542), one of the pioneers of Pure Land Buddhism. Tanluan wrote that in addition to arousing the aspiration to be enlightened:

If a son of good family or daughter of good family cultivates the five gates of mindfulness and perfects their practice, they will ultimately be able to gain birth in the Country of Peace and Bliss and behold Amida Buddha

translation by Robert F. Rhodes, “Genshin’s Ōjōyōshū and the Construction of Pure Land Discourse in Heian Japan”

Later, Daochuo (道綽, 562–645) reaffirmed the importance of awakening the aspiration for enlightenment, in addition to reciting the Buddha’s name at the time of death, and also by attaining the “nembutsu samadhi”. Robert F. Rhodes implies that this “samadhi” was a combination of reciting the Buddha’s name as a tool for fixing one’s mind on the Buddha.

This practice extended into medieval Japan. The picture above is from an early work of Japanese Buddhist art attributed to a Nara Period-era monk named Chikō (智光, 709 – 770 or 781) who belonged to the Japanese branch of the San-lun (Sanron in Japanese) sect of Buddhism.

The “Chiko Mandala” (智光曼荼羅) depicting the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, attributed to Chikō. This version is a copy made in the Kamakura Period, while the original was made centuries earlier in the Nara Period.

Chikō wrote in the Muryōjukyōron Shaku (無量寿経論釋, “Commentaries on the Treatise on the Sutra of Immeasurable Life”):

There are two types of nembutsu. The first is the mental nembutsu (shinnen 心念) and the second is the vocal nembutsu (kunen 口念)….As for the vocal nembutsu, if you lack the power (to undertake the mental nembutsu), use your mouth (to recite the nembutsu as a means) to remain mindful of the buddha and to prevent your mind from becoming distracted. In this way, you can achieve mental concentration.

translation by Robert F. Rhodes

What’s interesting is that all of these monks, both in China and in early Japanese history, focused on Buddhist practices that focused primarily on visualization in keeping with the sutras, but that the verbal recitation as a complementary or support practice. This is further complicated in Asian languages because the Chinese characters for nenbutsu/nianfo are 念仏1 whereby 念 refers to the mind (e.g. thoughts, feelings, etc) and 仏 is the generic term for a Buddha. So, this can mean things like “bringing a Buddha (usually Amitabha) to mind”, or “recalling a Buddha”, or “holding a Buddha in one’s thoughts”.

To further complicate things, as we’ve seen above, this recalling of the Buddha is often conflated with the Buddha’s name since that presumably requires one to think of the Buddha as one is saying. This often happens so much so that when most people talk about the nenbutsu/nianfo, they’re talking about the verbal recitation only. This trend was further accelerated in 12th Century Japan when populist Buddhist movements started such as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. In order appeal to as many people as possible, meditation aspects of the Pure Land were eschewed and complete reliance on the name of Amitabha (e.g. verbal nembutsu) in some way or another became the core practice. At times in Japanese-Buddhist history, the name itself has become an object of meditation, but only so much. Pure Land Buddhist became much more widely popular after this time, but at the cost of the streamlining the practice to the verbal nembutsu only, then justifying this approach retroactively in various writings.

One thing that we haven’t touched on yet is the fact that many of these practices were written by, and practiced by, the monastic community. The monastic community was the target audience since the monastic community comprised of bikkhus (monks) and bikkhunis (nuns) who had given up worldly pursuits in order to devote themselves full-time to practicing the Buddhist path full time. While the history of Buddhist monasticism even to the present day is full of scallywags, there were monks and nuns who really did try to put these various meditation exercises, circumambulations, and verbal+visual practices to use.

But this leaves us with a problem: what is the Nembutsu? Is it the meditative practice, or the recitation?

It’s clear from the early tradition that the visual/meditative nembutsu was the intention, but it’s also clear that over time this proved elaborate and impractical, hence later generations have emphasized the verbal nembutsu, even though the meditative nembutsu is more inline with the overall Buddhist tradition.2. This leaves a tricky conundrum: expediency vs. efficacy (or doctrinal orthodoxy).

My $0.02 as a non-ordained, amateur Buddhist with too much time on my hands (and who doesn’t want to get sued) is that both are still needed. Mahayana Buddhism in the early years seems to have suffered a tendency of trying to “out-do” itself over and over in the literature until the practices and levels of attainment simply weren’t realistic anymore. A look at the Sutra of the 10 Stages within the massive Flower Garland Sutra will frighten all but the most dedicated Buddhists. Not surprisingly, as these teachings established roots in China (and cultures on its periphery) which was culturally different than India, reaction movements like Zen and Pure Land and Nichiren arose to basically “fix this”. Like software patches to fix the initial release.

But I think the core essence of the Pure Land tradition is still important and we can still learn from it, but not necessarily be bound by it. Nor do we have to follow the strict orthodoxy of newer “populist sects” either. They were products of their time, and outlook on the world, and not all of it applies to now.

In any case, meditation practice is still one of the most fundamental practices in Buddhism, and it doesn’t have to be a terrible slog either as described in places like in the Contemplation Sutra. In the excellent book The Way to Buddhahood, but the late Venerable Yin-Shun, he spent some time explaining how basic visualization meditation works. I’ll post this in a separate article, but the gist was that one should hold an image of Amitabha (or any Buddha or Bodhisattva) that one has seen (e.g. from a work or art, etc) in mind as they meditate. This is similar to mindfulness of the breath, but visually oriented. One can also supplement with reciting the verbal nembutsu as well.

At the same time, it’s easy for this practice to get in the way of itself. People who are perfectionists or suffer from “imposter syndrome” will begin worrying about their inability to focus their mind, doubt that they’re making progress, etc. In other words, their self-doubt and unrealistic drive to perfection will get in the way. This could happen just as easily with any other form of Buddhist practice, though. It does require a little bit of, dare I say it, faith in the practice and the Dharma, but also faith in oneself. 😉

Because Buddhist practice has a therapeutic side to it, I think it’s important to keep the practice simple, realistic, flexible and even a little pleasant. Not pleasant in the sense of whacked-out mental states, but in the sense of a calm, abiding joy. Find an image of Amitabha Buddha you like, find inspiration in the beautiful images of the Pure Land described in the Amitabha Sutra, find a reasonable period of time in your day (3 minutes, 5 minutes, whatever) and just try it. You can refine the process as you go, so long as you keep the right intentions in mind.

Meditation, like all Buddhist practices, is a process of emotional growth, insight into things, and fostering goodwill toward others. As long as you keep these things in mind, the rest will work itself out one way or another.

May the Light of Amitabha Buddha shine upon all beings! Namu Amida Butsu.

1 in traditional Chinese characters, it is written as 念佛. You’ll see this in places like Taiwan, but even in Chinese/Japanese temples and sources that predate the reformation of Chinese characters.

2 meditating on Buddhist figures is nothing new. Even Shakyamuni said there was some value in contemplating his own form, though he also downplayed the devotional side quite a bit.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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