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Japanese monk Kūya reciting the nembutsu, each of the Chinese characters represented by a small figure of Amida emerging from his mouth

The Nianfo (Chinese: 念佛; pinyin: niànfó), alternatively in Japanese as 念仏 (ねんぶつ, nenbutsu), Korean염불; RRyeombul, or in Vietnamese: niệm Phật, is a Buddhist practice central to the tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, though not exclusive to it. In the context of Pure Land practice, it typically refers to the repetition of the name of Amitābha in a ritualized form, though in some contexts it can refer instead to a more meditative practice. It is a translation of Sanskrit buddhānusmṛti (or "recollection of the Buddha"[1]).

Recitation and Practice

Indian Sanskrit Nianfo

The Sanskrit phrase used in India is not mentioned originally in the bodies of the two main Pure Land sutras. It appears in the opening of the extant Sanskrit Infinite Life Sutra, as well as the Contemplation Sutra, although it is a reverse rendering from Chinese, as the following:

namo'mitābhāya buddhāya[2]

The apostrophe and omission of the first "A" in "Amitābha" comes from normal Sanskrit sandhi transformation, and implies that the first "A" is omitted. A more accessible rendering might be:

Namo Amitābhāya Buddhāya

In the Siddhaṃ script:

A literal English translation would be "Bow for the sake of Amitābha Buddha". The Sanskrit word-by-word pronunciation is the following;

[n̪ɐmoːɐmɪt̪ɑːbʱɑːjɐbud̪̚.d̪ʱɑːjɐ]

While almost unknown, and unused outside of the original Sanskrit, the texts provide a recitation of Amitābha's alternate aspect of Amitāyus as;

namo'mitāyuṣe buddhāya[2]

Again, a more accessible rendering might be;

Namo Amitāyuṣe Buddhāya

A literal translation of this version would be "Namo Buddha of Infinite Life". Other translations may also be: "I pay homage to the Enlightened One immeasurable" or "I turn to rely on the Enlightened One immeasurable".

Nianfo in East Asia

The six Chinese characters of the Nembutsu, resting on a lotus, flanked by Sakyamuni and Amitabha

As the practice of nianfo spread from India to various other regions, the original pronunciation changed to fit various local languages.

Language As written Romanization IPA
Sanskrit नमोऽमिताभाय बुद्धाय

नमोऽमितयुसे बुद्धाय

Namo'mitābhāya Buddhāya

Namo'mitāyuṣe Buddhāya

[n̪ɐmoːɐmɪt̪ɑːbʱɑːjɐbud̪̚.d̪ʱɑːjɐ]

[n̪ɐmoːɐmɪt̪ɑːjʊʂeːbud̪̚.d̪ʱɑːjɐ]

Chinese Traditional: 南無阿彌陀佛
Simplified: 南无阿弥陀佛
Mandarin: Nāmó Ēmítuófó[3]
Cantonese: naa1 mo4 o1 mei4 to4 fat6
[nä˥˥ mu̯ɔ˧˥ ˀɤ˥˥ mi˧˥ tʰu̯ɔ˧˥ fu̯ɔ˧˥]

[naː˥˥ mɔː˨˩ ɔː˥˥ mei̯˨˩ tʰɔː˨˩ fɐt̚˨]

Japanese Kanji: 南無阿弥陀仏
Hiragana: なむ あみだ ぶつ
Namu Amida Butsu [na̠mɯ̟ᵝ a̠mʲida̠bɯ̟ᵝt͡sɨᵝ]
Korean Hanja: 南無阿彌陀佛
Hangul: 나무아미타불
Namu Amita Bul [na̠mua̠mitʰa̠buɭ]
Vietnamese Chữ Hán: 南無阿彌陀佛
Quốc ngữ: Nam mô A-di-đà Phật
Nam mô A-di-đà Phật [naːm˧˧ mo˧˧ ʔaː˧˧ zi˧˧ ʔɗaː˨˩ fət̚˧˨ʔ]

In China, the practice of nianfo was codified with the establishment of the separate Pure Land school of Buddhism. The most common form of this is the six syllable nianfo; some shorten it into Ēmítuófó/Āmítuófó.[4] In the Japanese Jodo Shinshu sect, it is often shortened to na man da bu.

Other Nianfo variants

In the Jodo Shinshu tradition in Japan, variant forms of the nianfo have been used since its inception. The founder, Shinran, used a nine-character Kujimyōgō (九字名号) in the Shoshinge and the Sanamidabutsuge (讃阿弥陀佛偈) hymns:

南無不可思議光如来

Na mu fu ka shi gi kō nyo rai

"I take refuge in the Buddha of Inconceivable Light!"

Further, the "restorer" of Jodo Shinshu, Rennyo, frequently inscribed the nianfo for followers using a 10-character Jūjimyōgō (十字名号):

帰命尽十方無碍光如来
Ki myō jin jip-pō mu ge kō nyo rai

"I take refuge in the Tathagata of Unobstructed Light Suffusing the Ten Directions".

The latter was originally popularized by Shinran's descendant (and Rennyo's ancestor), Kakunyo, but its use was greatly expanded by Rennyo.

Purpose of Nianfo

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Mushono-Dainembutsu amulet paper

Regarding Pure Land practice in Indian Buddhism, Hajime Nakamura writes that as described in the Pure Land sūtras from India, Mindfulness of the Buddha (Skt. buddhānusmṛti, Ch. nianfo) is the essential practice.[5] These forms of mindfulness are essentially methods of meditating upon Amitābha Buddha.[5] In most Pure Land traditions, mindfully chanting of the name of Amitābha is viewed as allowing one to obtain birth in Amitābha's pure land, Sukhāvatī. It is felt that this act would help to negate vast stores of negative karma that might hinder one's pursuit of buddhahood. Sukhāvatī is a place of refuge where one can become enlightened without being distracted by the sufferings of our existence.

In Chinese Buddhism, the nianfo is specifically taken as a subject of meditation and is often practiced while counting with Buddhist prayer beads.[6] In China, Pure Land practices (including nianfo) was historically performed alongside practices from other traditions such as Tiantai and Chan in an eclectic manner as opposed to any strict sectarian delineations.[7][8] The modern Chan revitaliser Nan Huai-Chin taught that the nianfo is to be chanted slowly and the mind emptied out after each repetition. When idle thoughts arise, the nianfo is repeated again to clear them. With constant practice, the mind progressively empties and the meditator attains samādhi.[9]

Various Pure Land schools in Japan have different interpretations of the nianfo, often based on faith in Amitābha rather than on meditation. In Jōdo Shinshū, the nianfo is reinterpreted as an expression of gratitude to Amitābha. The idea behind this interpretation is that rebirth into Sukhāvatī is assured the moment one first has faith in Amitābha.[10] This notion was propagated by the 12th century Japanese monk Honen, who wrote extensively about it in his extant writings, such as in the One-Sheet Document (Japanese: 一枚起請文; Rōmaji: Ichimai-kishōmon). Honen, in turn, attributed this teaching (that only nianfo was necessary to obtain rebirth in the Pure Land) to the 7th century Chinese monk Shandao. However, modern academic analysis and dissertation has challenged this traditional narrative. Critical reviews of Shandao's hagiography has shown that he expounded on a variety of methods for attaining rebirth, not just exclusive practice of nianfo/nembutsu.[11][12] For example, in one tract, "The Meritorious Dharma Gate of the Samādhi Involving Contemplation of the Ocean-like Marks of the Buddha Amitābha" (Chinese: 阿彌陀佛相海三昧功德法門; Pinyin: Ēmítuófó xiāng hǎi sānmèi gōngdé fǎmén) Shandao prescribes a specific set of rituals and practices (including samādhi meditation and visualization techniques) for helping dying Buddhist devotees avoid “evil destinies” and procure successful rebirth in the Pure Land, which contradicts the notion of faith and nianfo/nembutsu as being a guarantee of unconditional salvation.[8] In another example, Shandao expounded on many dangers that he believed could hinder dying aspirants' rebirths in the Pure Land in his tract, "Correct Mindfulness for Rebirth at the Moment of Death" (Chinese: 臨終往生正念文; Pinyin: Línzhōng wǎngshēng zhèngniàn wén), and other similar records from him also reflect a concern regarding various more complicated requirements for rebirth in the Pure Land, including but not limited to recitation of Amitābha's name on one's deathbed specifically. These reflect a nuanced approach and goes beyond the belief in unconditional salvation as claimed by traditional narrative assumed in Pure Land sects like Jōdo Shinshū and Jōdo-shū.[7][8]

Origins of the Nianfo

Early Mahayana Buddhism

Andrew Skilton looks to an intermingling of Mahāyāna teachings with Buddhist meditation schools in Kashmir for the rise of Mahāyāna practices related to buddhānusmṛti:

Great innovations undoubtedly arose from the intermingling of early Buddhism and the Mahāyāna in Kashmir. Under the guidance of Sarvāstivādin teachers in the region, a number of influential meditation schools evolved which took as their inspiration the Bodhisattva Maitreya. [...] The Kashmiri meditation schools were undoubtably highly influential in the arising of the buddhānusmṛti practices, concerned with the 'recollection of the Buddha(s)', which were later to become characteristic of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the Tantra.[13]

Buddhānusmṛti directed at other buddhas and bodhisattvas is also advocated in sūtras from this period, for figures such as Akṣobhya and Avalokiteśvara. The practice of buddhānusmṛti for Amitābha became very popular in India. With translations of the aforementioned sūtras as well as instruction from Indian monks, the practice rapidly spread to East Asia.

Textual Origins of the Practice

The earliest dated sutra describing the nianfo is the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra (first century BCE), which is thought to have originated in ancient kingdom of Gandhāra. This sutra does not enumerate any vows of Amitābha or the qualities of his pure land, Sukhāvatī, but rather briefly describes the repetition of the name of Amitābha as a means to enter his realm through meditation.

Bodhisattvas hear about the Buddha Amitabha and call him to mind again and again in this land. Because of this calling to mind, they see the Buddha Amitabha. Having seen him they ask him what dharmas it takes to be born in the realm of the Buddha Amitabha. Then the Buddha Amitabha says to these bodhisattvas: 'If you wish to come and be born in my realm, you must always call me to mind again and again, you must always keep this thought in mind without letting up, and thus you will succeed in coming to be born in my realm.[14]

However, the most frequently cited examples include the 18th vow from the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, the 18th vow of the Buddha-to-be states:

設我得佛。十方衆生至心信樂。欲生我國乃至十念。若不生者不取正覺。唯除五逆誹謗正法

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.

— Taisho Tripitaka, #360, translation by Hisao Inagaki

And this passage in the Amitabha Sutra:

舍利弗。若有善男子善女人。聞説画像阿彌陀佛。執持名號。若一日。若二日。若三日。若四日。若五日。若六日。若七日。一心不亂。其人臨命終時。阿彌陀佛與諸聖衆。現在其前。是人終時心不顛倒。即得往生阿彌陀佛極樂國土。

Shāriputra, if there is a good man or a good woman who hears spoken ‘Amitābha’ and holds the name, whether for one day, two days, three, four, five days, six days, as long as seven days, with one heart unconfused, when this person approaches the end of life, before him will appear Amitābha and all the assembly of holy ones. When the end comes, his heart is without inversion; in Amitābha’s Land of Ultimate Bliss he will attain rebirth.

— Taisho Tripitaka, #366, translation by Buddhist Text Translation Society

Translation Ambiguity

When Sanskrit Buddhist texts pertaining to the Pure Land were translated to Chinese, the term buddhānusmṛti was translated using 念 (niàn) which had ambiguous usage:[15]

Pure Land Buddhists tended to favor one interpretation or another. For example Tanluan stressed the mental, contemplative approach (e.g. a samadhi), while Shandao advocated the verbal recitation.[15]

History of the Nianfo

Nembutsu-ban

A reprint of nembutsu (nianfo) calligraphy composed by Honen, founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Printed in a Jodo Shu liturgy book.

The term nembutsu-ban is applied to the event in Kyoto, Japan in 1207 where Hōnen and his followers were banned from the city and forced into exile. This occurred when the leaders of older schools of Buddhism persuaded the civil authorities to prohibit the newer practices including the recitation of Namu Amida Butsu.[16] The ban was lifted in 1211.

Nianfo in modern history

Thích Quảng Đức, a South Vietnamese Mahāyāna monk who famously burned himself to death in an act of protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic President Ngô Đình Diệm, said the nianfo as his last words immediately before death. He sat in the lotus position, rotated a string of wooden prayer beads, and recited the words "Nam mô A-di-đà Phật" before striking the match and dropping it on himself, continuing to recite Amitabha's name as he burned.

References

  1. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2013, p. 580
  2. ^ a b Buddhist Temples, Tri-State (1978). Shinshu Seiten Jodo Shin Buddhist Teachings (First ed.). San Francisco, California: Buddhist Churches of America. pp. 45, 46.
  3. ^ "阿彌陀佛". 25 June 2023.
  4. ^ 淨業持名四十八法
  5. ^ a b Nakamura, Hajime. Indian Buddhism: A Survey with Bibliographical Notes. 1999. p. 205
  6. ^ Wei-an Cheng (2000). Taming the monkey mind: a guide to pure land practice, translation with commentary by Elder Master Suddhisukha; New York: Sutra Translation Committee of the U.S. and Canada, pp. 18–19
  7. ^ a b The Wiley Blackwell companion to East and inner Asian Buddhism. Mario Poceski. Chichester, West Sussex, UK. 2014. ISBN 978-1-118-61035-0. OCLC 881387072.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  8. ^ a b c Sharf, Robert H. (2002). "On Pure Land Buddhism and Ch'an/Pure Land Syncretism in Medieval China". T'oung Pao. 88 (4/5): 282–331. doi:10.1163/156853202100368398. ISSN 0082-5433. JSTOR 4528903.
  9. ^ Yuan, Margaret. Grass Mountain: A Seven Day Intensive in Ch'an Training with Master Nan Huai-Chin. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, 1986
  10. ^ Jodo Shinshu : a guide. Jōdo Shinshū Honganji-ha. Kyoto, Japan: Hongwanji International Center. 2002. ISBN 4-89416-984-3. OCLC 154512074.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ Pas, Julian F. (1995). Visions of Sukhāvatī : Shan-tao's commentary on the Kuan Wu-liang shou-fo ching. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-585-04595-X. OCLC 42854968.
  12. ^ The Pure Land tradition : history and development. James Harlan Foard, Michael Solomon, Richard Karl Payne. Berkeley, Calif.: Regents of the University of California. 1996. ISBN 0-89581-092-1. OCLC 35319329.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. 2004. p. 162
  14. ^ Paul Harrison, John McRae, trans. (1998). The Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sutra and the Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sutra, Berkeley, Calif.: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. ISBN 1-886439-06-0; pp. 2–3, 19
  15. ^ a b Jones, Charles B (2021). Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice (Buddhist Foundations). Shambhala. p. 52. ISBN 1611808901.
  16. ^ Esben Andreasen (1998). Popular Buddhism in Japan: Shin Buddhist religion & culture. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press.

Bibliography