Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yombul
NENBUTSU (CHINESE, NIANFO; KOREAN, YŎMBUL
Nenbutsu, also transcribed as nembutsu (Chinese, nianfo; Korean, yŏmbul), is the religious practice in Pureland Buddhism of chanting or invoking the name of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit, AmitĀbha or Amitāyus; Chinese, Amituo). There are many buddhas whose names can be chanted, but in practice, nenbutsu typically refers to chanting Amida's name. In Japan, the practice consists of reciting the six-character formula Namu Amida Butsu (Chinese, Namo Amituo fo), "Homage to Amida Buddha." This invocation can be spoken once or repeatedly. Commonly it is intoned as a melodic chant, but can also be uttered in ordinary intonation. It is sometimes used as an ancillary practice in meditative trance or visualization, but more frequently it is performed as an independent and self-contained practice. Buddhist liturgy, especially of the Pure Land tradition, typically contains sections or interludes of nenbutsu chanting.
Religious chanting, which was common in Buddhism from an ancient period, no doubt influenced the development of the nenbutsu. But another influence was the practice of reflecting or meditating on the Buddha. In fact, nenbutsu literally means thinking on the Buddha or keeping him in mind (Buddhānusmṛti). To that extent, it does not explicitly denote verbal activity. But since chanting sacred syllables or names often accompanied meditation, the practice of intoning the Buddha's name coalesced with the idea of keeping him in mind. Over the centuries there emerged two primary views of nenbutsu chanting: One treated it as an aid to visualizing the Buddha, which was considered a practice leading to enlightenment; the other treated it as an act resulting in birth in Amida's Pure Land paradise. The two, however, often overlapped. In Japan, the verbal practice eventually overshadowed visualization, so that nenbutsu came to mean invoking Amida's name without necessarily meditating on him, though mental awareness of the Buddha was always considered one aspect of saying his name.
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James C. Dobbins