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NIANFO The Chinese term nianfo (Jpn., nembutsu ) is a translation of the Sanskrit word buddhānusmti. Anusmti is a feminine noun derived from sm -, a verbal root, with the prefix anu - meaning following, toward, or along. English translations of anusmti include holding in one's mind, remembering, thinking of [upon], contemplating, and reciting. Most of the definitions refer to aspects of meditation, whereas the last definition, reciting, means the repeated oral recitation (of a particular formulaic utterance), or the mental recitation of this same formula. This usage gave rise to the recitative nianfo that became an important practice in East Asian Buddhism from about the fifth century ce.

Primitive Nianfo

In its earliest form, nianfo referred to buddhānusmti, a simple remembrance or thinking about Śākyamuni Buddha, as in reverence to a teacher. First mention of nianfo is found in the initiation ceremony of the Buddhist order held while Śākyamuni Buddha was still alive. This simple profession of faith in the Three Treasuresthe Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sagha (the Buddhist order)encouraged members of the order to put trust in, worship, and adore Śākyamuni Buddha as a teacher. This type of nianfo gradually became practiced by believers even far removed from Śākyamuni in time or place as a means of asking for his protection in times of crisis. From this, the ten titles of Śākyamuni, the ten faculties of the Buddha, and the thirty-two features of the Buddha came to be regarded as the object of remembrance. By the constant and incessant anusmti the early disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha thus kept alive the memory of their master.

Meditative Nianfo

The simple practice of remembrance, adoration, and trust in Śākyamuni Buddha gradually developed into an actual visualization of his features and virtues. Such meditation was directed not only toward Śākyamuni but also toward such Buddhas as Amitābha (Jpn., Amida), Bhaiajyaguru, and Mahāvairocana, and such bodhisattva s as Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya. One of the earliest sūtras to advocate such a practice was the Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra (Chin., Banzhou sanmei jing ). In this sūtra (as well as in many other scriptures) the subject of nianfo came to be Amitābha and other Buddhas rather than Śākyamuni, and birth in Amitābha's Pure Land rather than in the various Buddhist heavens. The practice of nianfo directed toward Amitābha Buddha is also emphasized in the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Chin., Wuliangshou jing; Sūtra on the Buddha of infinite Life), the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (Chin., Guan wuliangshou jing, or Meditation sūtra on the Buddha of immeasurable life), and the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Chin., Emituo jing ; Sūtra on the Buddha Amitābha). These three scriptures are known in Japan as the Triple Sūtra of the Pure Land.

The Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra preaches the practice of nianfo for the laity and the doctrine of emptiness (sūnyatā ) for monks. It teaches that one can see the Buddhas of the ten directions by attaining the meditational consciousness of emptiness. This is accomplished by keeping the precepts and meditating on the Buddha Amitābha for a period of from one to seven days and nights. The sūtra also declares that it is possible to be born in the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha by wholeheartedly meditating on his name for a period of from one to seven days.

Within the Pure Land tradition, a number of different types of meditative nianfo were introduced. These included nianfo with a concentrated mind for those of advanced capacities, nianfo with a distracted mind for people of lower spiritual capacities, nianfo of formless principle, nianfo of a Buddha's form, single-hearted nianfo on Amitābha alone, nianfo on other Buddhas, nianfo through self-power, and nianfo through other-power.

The Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra states that a person who single-heartedly bears the name of Amitābha in mind from one to seven days will see Amitābha at his deathbed and obtain birth in his Pure Land. This thought is presumed to derive from the nianfo of the Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra. The characteristic point of the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra is that birth in the Pure Land takes place at the moment of death, not while visualizing the Buddha in one's daily life. Moreover, what is borne in mind here is the Buddha's name, not his figure or characteristics as was the case in meditative nianfo of the Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra.

Traditionally, the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra has been considered the basic text of Pure Land teachings. The most important section of the sūtra is the description of Amitābha's vows, in which Amitābha sets forth the conditions that he shall fulfill before achieving final enlightenment. In the Wei dynasty translation of this sūtra (252 ce), the all-important eighteenth of Amitābha's forty-eight vows states: "If, when I shall attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the ten quarters who have sincere mind, serene faith, and desire to be born in my country should not be born there even after (directing) ten thoughts (to me), may I not attain Perfect Enlightenment." Various interpretations of the precise meaning of the term ten thoughts have been given. Basically, the words may be taken to refer to the continuity, for a certain period of time, of sincere mind, serene faith, and desire for birth in the Pure Land.

The Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra teaches thirteen methods of meditation on the features of Amitābha and his Pure Land. Through the successful accomplishment of this meditative nianfo the aspirant may be born in the Pure Land and see all the Buddhas of the ten directions. In addition to these thirteen meditations, in the latter portion of the text another way of birth into the Pure Land is expounded for those with distracted minds. This section of the sūtra teaches that even the lowliest beings, those who have committed such misdeeds as the Five Grave Sins or slander of the Dharma, can be born in the Pure Land by uttering the Buddha's name ten times at the last moment of life. For Pure Land Buddhists, the importance of this sūtra lies in the teaching that birth in the Pure Land by means of ten recitations of the name is assured even to beings of diminished spiritual capacities. This concept is pivotal in the historical development of nianfo thought. Thus, all three Pure Land sūtras played a decisive role in the transformation of the concept of nianfo from meditation to simple recitation of the name of Amitābha.

Recitative Nianfo

Although early nianfo practice was primarily meditative, oral recitation of the Buddha's name was often used concurrently as an aid to concentration. Thus, two types of nianfo, meditative and recitative, began to be used in all schools. It was generally believed that recitative nianfo was easier, though inferior, to meditative nianfo : the former was regarded as a mere accommodation to those not qualified to practice meditation or other forms of mental cultivation. The practice of recitative nianfo as an independent and self-sufficient discipline, however, was developed later, in the thought of several important Buddhist thinkers: Nāgārjuna (c. 150250) and Vasubandhu (c. 320400) in India; Tanluan (476542?), Daochuo (562644), and Shandao (613681) in China, and Genshin (9421017), Hōnen (11331212), and Shinran (11731262) in Japan.

Nāgārjuna divided the Buddha's teachings into difficult and easy practices for the attainment of enlightenment. This latter path, better suited to beings born in an age of the five corruptions, requires only that one hear the name of Amitābha and utter it with sincerity in order for the devotee to achieve a state of spiritual nonretrogression in the Pure Land and thereafter attain enlightenment. Vasubandhu taught that the practice of the wunian men (five devotional gates: worship, praise, aspiration, perception, and the transfer of merit) would bring about birth in the Pure Land. The disciplines set forth under the Five Devotional Gates, however, were intended more for the sake of sages (i.e., the spiritually advanced) than for the ordinary person, as they were difficult to accomplish in the proper manner.

Tanluan interpreted Vasubandhu's teachings to mean that even the most sinful person could practice the Five Devotional Gates insofar as the power to perform these practices originates in Amitābha's sacred vow to save all sentient beings, not in the devotee himself. Tanluan asserted that birth in the Pure Land is ensured by means of ten utterances of the name.

A major concept contributing to the transformation of nianfo practice from that of meditation to recitation was consciousness of the historical degeneration of the Buddha's teachings. Traditionally, Buddhism has postulated three periods of the Buddha's Law. These are known in Chinese as chengfa (the era of the righteous law), xiangfa (the era of the counterfeit law), and mofa (Jpn., mappō ; the latter days of the law). It was held that the Era of the Righteous Law was a five-hundred-year period following the decease of Śākyamuni during which the Buddha's teaching, the aspirants' religious discipline, and their enlightenment all flourished. The Era of the Counterfeit Law is a period in which the teaching and practice remain, but none actually attains enlightenment. During the third period, the Latter Days of the Law, there is neither practice nor enlightenment. Only the Buddha's teachings remain.

Concerning the duration of the three periods, Daochuo writes in his Anluo ji (A collection of lines concerning the country of peace and happiness) that the Righteous Law taught during Śākyamuni's lifetime had lasted for five hundred years, the Counterfeit Law would prevail for one thousand years, and the Latter Days of the Law for ten thousand years. Daochuo lived during a period in which people were highly conscious of how the religious climate of their own age differed from the one in which the influence and the personality of Śākyamuni were directly felt by the sagha. In particular, the Chinese of the seventh century were vexed by the perceived depravity of the Buddhist world, the episodic oppression of Buddhism by the secular authorities, and the inferior capacity of contemporary members of the Buddhist order with regard to the practice of monastic discipline.

Daochuo complemented Tanluan's teachings by emphasizing that a lifelong sinner could be born in the Pure Land by means of the infinite compassion of Amitābha. This concept took into account the fact that people of the latter two stages of the Law's degeneration were less capable of undertaking strict meditative practice than those living in the Era of the Righteous Law. Shandao, the third Chinese Pure Land patriarch, emphasized a further point, that an ordinary person could be born in Amitābha's true Pure Land rather than a provisional Pure Land where additional practice would be necessary before supreme enlightenment is attained. He also stressed that the recitation of the name itself is the true cause of entering nirvāa. But this overall concept of the primacy of the recitative nianfo did not take permanent root in China, as evidenced by the fact that after the middle of the Tang dynasty the Pure Land tradition gradually embraced a combined regiment of meditation, discipline, and recitation of the name.

In Japan, however, the doctrine of recitative nembutsu flowered through the teachings of Genshin and Hōnen. Genshin stressed the belief that of all the teachings of Śākyamuni, the most important for people of the Latter Days of the Law, was recitation of the name. He taught that the ordinary person, eyes blinded by passion, was constantly enveloped by the infinite compassion of Amida Buddha, thereby assuring his or her salvation, Hōnen reemphasized the point that for the defiled person the only way to attain enlightenment was to recite the name. At the same time, he insisted that mere recitation of the name would not assure birth in the Pure Land unless supported by sincere faith in Amida. Shinran took Hōnen's teachings a step further by maintaining that more important than recitation of the Buddha's name was the true and real faith underlying the recitation. He taught that true faith could only be an endowment from Amida Buddha.

In the history of the recitative nianfo many special forms of practice emerged. For example, the wuhui nianfo (Jpn., goe, five-toned, nembutsu ) was introduced into Japan from China by the Tiantai monk Ennin (749864). This form of nianfo later developed in Japan into fudan nembutsu (incessant recitation of the name) and inzei nembutsu (chanting of the name with a prolonged voice). There also appeared such nembutsu forms as yūzū nembutsu (nembutsu of the interpenetration of all beings), kan nembutsu (midwinter nembutsu ), uta nembutsu (chanting the name in song), and odori nembutsu (dancing nembutsu ).

Today, Pure Land devotees comprise the largest single Japanese Buddhist group. Daily worship of Amida Buddha before the family altar, including recitation of his name and the chanting of Pure Land scriptures, is a widespread practice. Recitation of the name is heard during funerals and worship services and on radio and television programs. The same recitation is heard coming from the lips of devout believers when they are walking, working, and resting. Through the recitative nianfo, Amida Buddha is as close to the believer as the movement of the lips.

See Also

Amitābha; Jingtu; Jōdo Shinshū; Jōdoshu; Mappō; Pure and Impure Lands.


Andrews, Allan A. The Teachings Essential for Rebirth: A Study of Genshin's Ōjōyōshū. Tokyo, 1973. This translation and study of Genshin's text provides detailed information on the nembutsu teachings of the Japanese Tendai sect.

Fujiwara Ryōsetsu. Nembutsu shisō no kenkyū. Kyoto, 1957. A comprehensive study of the historical development of the concept of nembutsu.

Fujiwara Ryōsetsu. Ōjō raisan gaisetsu. Kyoto, 1962.

Izumi Hokei. Bombun Muryōjukyō no kenkyū. Kyoto, 1939. English and Japanese translations of the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra.

Mochizuki Shinkō. Bukkyō kyōten seiritsushi ron. Kyoto, 1946.

Robinson, Richard H., trans. Chinese Buddhist Verse. London, 1954. Contains translations of two short Pure Land works attributed to Nāgārjuna.

Takakusu Junjirō, trans. "Amitâyur-dhyâna Sûtra." In "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 49. Oxford, 1894. Reprinted in Buddhist Mahâyâna Texts (New York, 1969).

Tsujimoto Tetsuo. Genshi Bukkyō ni okeru shōten shisō no kenkyū. Kyoto, 1936. Includes an excellent discussion of the differences in the Buddhist understanding of rebirth in heaven and in the Pure Land.

New Sources

Bloom, A., K.K.i. Tanaka, and E. Nasu. Engaged Pure Land Buddhism: Challenges Facing Jodo Shinshu in the Contemporary World: Studies in Honor of Professor Alfred Bloom. Berkeley, 1998.

Carter, J. R. The Religious Heritage of Japan: Foundations for Cross-Cultural Understanding in a Religiously Plural World. Portland, Ore, 1999.

Hōnen and Senchakushu English Translation Project. Hōnen's Senchakushu: Passages on the Selection of the Nembutsu in the Original Vow. Honolulu, 1998.

Tanabe, G. J. Religions of Japan in Practice. Princeton, 1999.

Wright, Dale S. "Koan History: Transformative Language in Chinese Buddhist Thought." In Koan: Texts and Concepts in Zen Buddhism, edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, pp. 200212. New York, 2000.

Fujiwara RyŌsetsu (1987)

Revised Bibliography