Nembutsu, an integral part of Pure Land Buddhism, is a seemingly simple yet profound practice that has attracted millions of followers around the world. Rooted in the core teachings of the Buddha, Nembutsu focuses on reciting the name Amitabha with the aim of relying on him to be reborn in the Pure Land after death.
Definition – What does Nembutsu mean?
Nembutsu is a fundamental devotional practice in the Pure Land school of Buddhism, especially prevalent in East Asian countries like Japan and China. The term “Nembutsu” literally translates to “thinking on Buddha” or “recalling Buddha.” It refers to the practice of reciting the name of Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, as an act of mindfulness, devotion and gratitude.
This mantra or chant, “Namu Amida Butsu,” holds deep significance within the tradition. The phrase can be broken down into components to understand its meaning:
- “Namu” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Namas,” which means to pay homage, to devote oneself, or to take refuge.
- “Amida” is a Japanese term for Amitābha or Amitāyus, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. “Amida” is a combination of two Sanskrit words: “Amita,” which means infinite, and “Abha,” which means light.
- “Butsu” is the Japanese term for Buddha.
Hence, the phrase “Namu Amida Butsu” symbolizes the devotee’s faith in and reliance on the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha.
The Nembutsu practice is based on the concept of the 18th Vow of Amida Buddha, as described in the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, one of the central scriptures in the Pure Land tradition. According to this vow, anyone who invokes his name with sincere faith and aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land will achieve this goal, ultimately leading to the attainment of perfect enlightenment or Buddhahood. It is believed that this invocation creates a spiritual link or connection with Amida Buddha, enabling the practitioner to receive the Buddha’s boundless merit and wisdom.
The Nembutsu practice is characterized by its simplicity and accessibility. Unlike other more complex Buddhist practices, Nembutsu does not require extensive meditation or rigorous monastic discipline. Instead, it is a practice that can be incorporated into everyday life, with the recitation being a means to maintain constant mindfulness of the Buddha.
However, the significance of Nembutsu extends beyond the simple act of recitation. It represents a fundamental shift in the practitioner’s approach to spiritual realization. Instead of striving for enlightenment through self-powered efforts, practitioners rely on the “other-power” of Amida Buddha, manifested through his Primal Vow. The Nembutsu practice, therefore, stands as an expression of entrusting faith (Shinjin) and a deep sense of gratitude for the Buddha’s compassion and vow.
Benefits of practicing Nembutsu
The practice of Nembutsu within Pure Land Buddhism, invoking the name of Amida Buddha through the phrase “Namu Amida Butsu,” has been celebrated for its multiple spiritual, psychological, and even social benefits. The simplicity and accessibility of the practice make it conducive to individuals across various socio-economic and cultural contexts.
From a spiritual perspective, Nembutsu is considered a direct path to attaining enlightenment, as it enables practitioners to connect with Amida Buddha’s infinite wisdom and compassion. This connection is based on the 18th Vow of Amida Buddha, which promises rebirth in the Pure Land to those who recite his name with sincere faith. This leads to the ultimate spiritual benefit of achieving Buddhahood, characterized by the realization of perfect wisdom and infinite compassion.
Psychologically, the practice of Nembutsu offers several benefits. Regular recitation can promote mindfulness and concentration, both of which are pivotal aspects of Buddhist meditation practices. The repetition of the mantra can provide a focal point for the mind, helping to reduce scattered thoughts and promote mental clarity.
Moreover, the devotional nature of Nembutsu can cultivate feelings of comfort, peace, and gratitude. It provides practitioners with a sense of hope and purpose, as they place their trust in the benevolence and compassion of Amida Buddha. This faith-based practice can lead to increased resilience in the face of life’s challenges and suffering, fostering emotional stability and psychological resilience.
From a social standpoint, Nembutsu serves as a uniting factor among practitioners, fostering a sense of community and belonging. The shared practice creates a bond among individuals, promoting mutual support, empathy, and understanding. It also encourages the embodiment of Buddhist virtues such as kindness, generosity, and compassion in daily life, leading to harmonious interpersonal relationships and contributing to societal peace and cohesion.
Furthermore, as Nembutsu does not require a significant investment of time or resources, it makes spiritual practice accessible to all, irrespective of their socio-economic status, thereby promoting inclusivity and equity within the Buddhist community.
How to practice Nembutsu
Nembutsu practice is relatively straightforward, emphasizing simplicity and accessibility. Below are the steps on how to practice Nembutsu.
Find a quiet place: Although Nembutsu can technically be practiced anywhere and at any time, it may be helpful, especially for beginners, to find a quiet, comfortable place where they can focus without distraction. This could be a dedicated meditation space or any other serene location.
Adopt a comfortable position: Nembutsu does not necessitate a particular physical posture. One can practice it while sitting, standing or walking. The key is to choose a position that allows for relaxation and focus. If sitting, one might prefer the traditional lotus or half-lotus position, sitting on a cushion, or simply sitting in a chair.
Begin the recitation: Start by taking a few deep breaths to calm and center the mind. Then, begin to recite the phrase “Namu Amida Butsu.” This can be done out loud or silently, depending on your comfort and the circumstances. The phrase should be repeated with a gentle, rhythmic cadence that helps foster concentration and mindfulness.
Maintain focus: While reciting, maintain your focus on the words and their meaning. The phrase “Namu Amida Butsu” signifies taking refuge in the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. Reciting this phrase is a means of expressing faith in, and gratitude for, the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.
Cultivate a receptive mindset: In line with the principles of Pure Land Buddhism, the act of Nembutsu should not be performed with the expectation of personal gain or with a calculative mindset. Instead, it should be practiced with a receptive and entrusting heart, viewing it as an opportunity to connect with the infinite wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha.
Regular practice: For the maximum benefits, it is suggested to practice Nembutsu regularly. However, there is no strict rule regarding the frequency or duration of the practice. The aim is to incorporate it into your daily routine in a way that is comfortable and sustainable for you.
Remember that Nembutsu is more than a simple repetition of a phrase; it represents a deep spiritual practice, a demonstration of entrusting oneself to the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha. As such, sincerity and mindfulness are crucial elements of the practice.
Is Nembutsu a form of meditation?
In the broadest sense, meditation refers to any practice that cultivates heightened awareness, mindfulness and mental clarity. Nembutsu aligns with this description, as the repetitive recitation of “Namu Amida Butsu” provides a focal point for the mind, fostering concentration and mindfulness. In this respect, it shares similarities with mantra meditation, a form of meditative practice where a word or phrase is repeated to aid in concentration.
However, Nembutsu diverges from other forms of meditation in its primary objective. While mindfulness and concentrative meditations are often practiced with the aim of achieving mental calmness, insight, or the realization of one’s own Buddha-nature, Nembutsu is fundamentally a practice of devotion, surrender, and connection to Amida Buddha. Its purpose is not self-powered enlightenment but rather an entrusting oneself to the Other-Power of Amida Buddha, expressed through his Primal Vow.
In the context of Nembutsu, the act of mindfulness is not directed towards one’s own bodily sensations, thoughts, or emotions, as in other forms of Buddhist meditation. Instead, mindfulness is directed towards Amida Buddha and his attributes of boundless wisdom and compassion. This cultivates a sense of spiritual connection, gratitude, and entrusting faith (shinjin), which are central to the Pure Land tradition.
Additionally, while many forms of meditation require a quiet environment and a specific posture to minimize distractions, Nembutsu is designed to be a more accessible practice. It can be performed anywhere, at any time, and in any position – sitting, standing or walking.
How does Nembutsu differ from other Buddhist practices or traditions?
Nembutsu holds a distinctive place within the broader Buddhist tradition due to several unique features that set it apart from other practices.
Simplicity and accessibility: Unlike many Buddhist practices that require extensive study, meditation, or monastic discipline, Nembutsu is known for its simplicity and accessibility. The practice involves reciting the name of Amida Buddha, which can be done by anyone, at any time and in any place. It does not demand adherence to a rigorous meditative schedule or ascetic lifestyle, making it accessible to laypeople, not just monastics.
Focus on other-power: While many Buddhist schools emphasize self-reliance or self-powered effort for the attainment of enlightenment, Pure Land Buddhism and the practice of Nembutsu emphasize reliance on the “Other-Power” of Amida Buddha. The recitation of Nembutsu is seen as an act of entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha’s infinite compassion and vow to save all sentient beings. This orientation towards “Other-Power” signifies a distinctive approach to spiritual realization.
Rebirth in the Pure Land: Another distinguishing feature of the Nembutsu practice is its focus on being reborn in the Pure Land, an ideal realm where attaining enlightenment is said to be easier. This aspiration is seen as a direct result of sincere Nembutsu recitation. While other Buddhist schools also speak of Pure Lands, the aspiration to be reborn in Amida’s Pure Land is a particularly central theme in this tradition.
The role of faith and gratitude: In the Nembutsu practice, faith (Shinjin) and gratitude play prominent roles. The practitioner is not trying to gain enlightenment as an accomplishment but rather expresses entrusting faith in the compassion and vow of Amida Buddha and gratitude for the Buddha’s promise of salvation. This emotional dimension is deeply ingrained in the practice of Nembutsu.
Universality: Nembutsu is based on the universal salvific vow of Amida Buddha, who promises to save all beings who invoke his name with sincere faith. This gives the practice a universal quality, as it is open to all individuals, irrespective of their social status, gender, moral virtue, or intellectual understanding.
The practice of Nembutsu involves the repetitive recitation of this phrase, either audibly or within the mind. This is done with a sincere heart and an attitude of reverence, mindfulness, and gratitude. The exact method and frequency of recitation can vary based on individual preferences and the specific teachings of different Pure Land sects.
However, you must to note that Nembutsu is more than mere repetition of a phrase. It represents an expression of faith, a means to establish a deep spiritual connection with Amida Buddha, and an avenue for manifesting the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion in one’s life.
While “Namu Amida Butsu” is the primary mantra associated with Nembutsu, in some variations of Pure Land Buddhism, longer versions of the recitation might be used, such as the Amida Kyo, which is a sutra dedicated to Amida Buddha.