It is prophesied in numerous texts that the teachings of the Buddha will one day disappear from the world. The prophecies differ on how long the dharma will remain after the death of the Buddha; some say only five hundred years, some say two thousand. But all describe a gradual process of decline, not in the quality of the doctrine but in the quality of the disciples; the monks will be lax in their maintenance of their vows, the laypeople will be complacent, and the general fortitude and intelligence of practitioners will decline.
In China, Buddhists often despaired of their ability to make sense of the mass of disparate texts, doctrines and practices that reached them from India. From the fifth century onwards, the decline of the dharma became a consistent concern of Chinese Buddhist thought and practice. Some concluded that they were living in the last stage of the decline of the dharma and thus were constitutionally incapable of making progress on the path that the Buddha had set forth.
Perhaps the most influential response to the disappearance of the dharma in East Asia was Pure Land practice. Devotion to Amitabha and the prayer to be reborn in his pure land was a common element of many Chinese Buddhist schools. However, in the sixth century, some monks began to argue that in the time of the decline of the dharma it was no longer possible to follow the path traversed by the great arhats and bodhisattvas of the past. The monk Daozhuo (562-645) said that there were two paths: the path of sages and the path of rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss (see Chapter 8). Only the latter was accessible to beings living in the degenerate age because Amitabha had made a vow to deliver all who sincerely sought it.
The central practice in China was called nianfo, a term that means buddha contemplation’, ‘buddha intonation’, and buddha invocation’.
It is a translation of the Sanskrit term buddhanusmrti, literally ‘mindfulness of the Buddha’. This practice had clear Indian antecedents and took a number of forms. The Sutra on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Infinite Life (Guan wu liang shou jing) – presented as an Indian sutra, but in fact of Chinese or Central Asian origin – prescribes ‘ten moments of single-minded and sustained recitation of the Buddha’s name’. Popular preachers such as Shandao (613-681) extolled the practice and organized mass recitations of Amitabha’s name in the capital.
In Japan, the practice of reciting Amitabha’s name (called nembutsu in Japanese) was one of a number of meditative and ritual practices to secure rebirth in his pure land espoused by the various Buddhist sects. Honen (1133-1212), a learned monk of the Tendai sect, inspired in part by reading Shandao, became convinced that the recitation of the name (in the phrase namu-amida-butsu, ‘Homage to Amitabha Buddha’) was the most appropriate form of Buddhist practice for the degenerate age. He set forth his views in a work called On the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow (Senchaku Hongan
Nembutsushu) selections from which appear here. The title refers to the vow made aeons ago by the bodhisattva Dharmakara (called Dharma- Repository here) that he would become the buddha Amitabha, create the Land of Bliss, and deliver there those who called upon him.
Honen cites Shandao on a number of important points. For example, he contrasts *right practice’ and the ‘practice of sundry good acts’. The former are all forms of worship of Amitabha, the most important of which is the recitation of his name. The latter are ordinary virtuous deeds Buddhists are enjoined to perform, but which clearly lack the efficacy of *right practice’, an efficacy that derives from the grace of Amitabha. Indeed, the power of his vow is so great that those who sincerely recite his name do not need to dedicate their merit towards rebirth in the Land of Bliss (although both the shorter and longer sutras seem to say so); recitation naturally results in rebirth there. Honen goes on to explain that each bodhisattva makes specific vows about the particular practice that will result in rebirth in his buddhafield. Some buddha-fields are for those who practise charity, others for those who construct stupas, others for those who honour their teachers. Amitabha, while he was the bodhisattva Dharmakara, compassionately selected a very simple practice that would lead to rebirth in his Land of Bliss: the recitation of his name.
Honen regarded these teachings to be dangerous if widely espoused and instructed that this work not be published until after his death. He allowed only his closest disciples to read it and copy it. His teachings gained popularity in a number of influential circles, but were considered anathema by the existing sects of Buddhism in Japan because of his promotion of the sole practice of reciting the name. His critics charged him with denigrating Sakyamuni Buddha, with neglecting virtuous deeds other than the recitation of the name, and with abandoning the meditation and visualization practices that should accompany the chanting of the name. Some years after Honen’s death, the printing blocks of the text were confiscated and burned as a work harmful to the dharma. However, by that time the teachings of Honen had gained a wide following among both aristocrats and the common people.
On the Nembutsu Selected in the Primal Vow
Daozhuo established the division of the Buddhist teachings into two gateways: the path of the sages and the path of birth into Amida Buddha’s pure land. His intent was to encourage people to abandon the former and pursue the latter. There are two reasons for this. First, we are now far removed from the time when the great sage Sakyamuni was alive. Second, the truth is profound, but the capacity of beings to apprehend it is now meagre.
The master Shandao states that although numerous forms of practice may lead to birth in the pure land, they may all be distinguished as either ‘right practice’ or ‘practice of sundry good acts’.
Right practice may be grasped by first disclosing it as five specific forms of practice, then grouping these into two basic types. The five forms of right practice are: recitation of Pure Land scriptures; contemplation of Amida and the pure land; bowing in worship; utterance of the name of Amida; and praise of Amida’s virtues and making offerings….
The two basic types of right practice are the right action and the auxiliary actions. The right action is utterance of the name, the fourth of the five forms of right practice; it is called the act by which attainment of birth is truly determined, for it is in accord with Amida Buddha’s primal vow..
Question: Why is only one of the five forms of right practice – saying the nembutsu – taken up as the truly determining act?
Answer: Because saying the nembutsu is in accord with Amida Buddha’s primal vow. It is the practice taught in the vow. Hence, if one performs it, then carried by the Buddha’s vow one will unfailingly attain birth..
The distinction between right practice and practice of sundry good acts may be clarified using a fivefold contrast:
- Intimate versus distant. ‘Intimate’ means that persons who perform the truly determining act and the auxiliary actions are in a relationship with Amida Buddha of great closeness and intimacy. Shandao states:
When sentient beings give rise to practice and constantly say Amida Buddha’s name with their lips, Amida hears them. When they constantly worship and revere Amida Buddha with their bodies, Amida sees them. When they constantly think on Amida Buddha with heart and mind, Amida apprehends them. When sentient beings are mindful of Amida, Amida is mindful of them. The acts of the Buddha and beings in each of the three modalities – bodily, verbal and mental – are mutually inseparable.
This is what is meant by ‘intimate’.
‘Distant’ refers to the performance of sundry good acts. When sentient beings do not say Amida Buddha’s name, Amida does not hear them. When they do not worship Amida Buddha with their bodies, Amida does not see them. When they do not think on Amida Buddha with heart and mind, Amida does not apprehend them. When sentient beings are not mindful of the Buddha, the Buddha is not mindful of them. The acts of the Buddha and beings in the three modalities always stand isolated from each other. This is characterized as ‘distant’.
- Near versus separated. ‘Near’ means that persons who perform the truly determining act and the auxiliary actions are right beside Amida Buddha. Shandao states in his commentary, ‘When sentient beings aspire to see Amida Buddha, Amida, in response to their thoughts, appears before their eyes. Hence, “near”.’ ‘Separated’ refers to the practice of sundry other good acts. When sentient beings do not aspire to see Amida Buddha, Amida does not appear before them….
- Uninterrupted versus discontinuous. ‘Uninterrupted’ means that persons who perform the truly determining act and the auxiliary actions are mindful of Amida Buddha without interruption…. ‘Discontinuous’ means that persons who perform sundry good acts always interrupt their mindfulness of Amida .
- No necessity of directing one’s merit versus the necessity of directing merit. For persons who perform the truly determining act of saying the name and the auxiliary actions focused on Amida Buddha, these naturally become acts resulting in birth in the pure land even though the practitioners do not undertake the directing of the merits towards that end. Hence Shandao states:
The Contemplation Sutra states, ‘Performing ten voicings of the Buddha’s name’. Such utterance of ‘namu-amida-butsu’ is possessed of both the aspiration and the practice that are requisite for fulfilling the path – both accomplished tenfold. How does this come about? ‘Namu’ manifests the taking of refuge in Amida’s vow. It signifies awakening aspiration for birth and turning one’s heart to the pure land. ‘Amida-butsu’ manifests the practice. Because the nembutsu possesses this meaning, persons who say it unfailingly attain birth.
‘The necessity of directing one’s merit’ means that, for persons who perform sundry good acts, these acts become the cause resulting in birth in the pure land only when they deliberately undertake to direct the resulting merits thus. If they do not purposely direct their merits towards birth in the pure land, their good acts do not become the cause for attainment of birth there..
- Authentic versus commingled. ‘Authentic’ means that, for persons who perform the truly determining act and the auxiliary actions, these are purely the practice for birth in the land of bliss.
‘Commingled’ means that the acts are not practices purely for birth in the land of bliss. They are common to birth into the realms of human beings and devas, and also into the conditions of the three vehicles. They are also common to birth into the various pure lands of the buddhas throughout the ten quarters. Hence such practice is said to be ‘commingled’. Consequently, practitioners who aspire for Amida’s land in the western quarter should abandon practice of sundry good acts and perform the truly determining act of saying the name.
The Larger Sutra states: ‘If, when I attain buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters, with sincere mind entrusting themselves, aspiring to be born in my land, and saying my name even but ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.’
In his Methods of Contemplation on Amida Buddha, Shandao interprets this passage in a paraphrase: ‘If, when I attain buddhahood, the sentient beings of the ten quarters aspire to be born in my land and say my name even ten times, entrusting themselves to the power of my vow, and yet should not attain birth, may I not attain the supreme enlightenment.’…
Each buddha makes two kinds of vows, those common to all and those specific to themselves. Those in common are the four universal vows. The specific are, for example, the five hundred great vows of Sakyamuni or the twelve superior vows of Medicine-
Teacher Buddha. The forty-eight vows are the specific vows of Amida….
The Large Sutra of Amida Buddha states: ‘The buddha World- Sovereign [Lokesvararaja] selected qualities from the good and bad of the devas and humans in all the twenty-one billion buddha-lands and from the comeliness and disagree-ableness of the lands themselves in order that bodhisattva Dharma-Repository [Dharmakara] might select the vows for what he desired in his heart.’.
The term ‘select’ in this passage implies adopting, on the one hand, and discarding, on the other. The bodhisattva Dharma- Repository [who became Amida Buddha] discarded the reprehensible qualities of the humans and devas of the twenty-one billion pure lands of the buddhas and adopted their good qualities; he discarded the disagreeable qualities of the lands and adopted their comeliness..
The meaning of selection and adoption may be discussed with regard to each of the forty-eight vows.. Concerning the eighteenth vow of birth through the nembutsu, among the lands of the various buddhas, there is one for which charity is the practice resulting in birth there, and another for which it is observance of precepts. There is a land for which patience is the practice for birth there, another for which it is perseverance, another for which it is meditation, and yet another for which it is wisdom.. There are lands for which erecting stupa-towers and creating buddha-images, or alms-giving to mendicants, or filial piety and veneration of teachers and elders are each the practice resulting in birth there….
Thus, a variety of practices result in birth in the different lands; it is impossible to state them in detail. The bodhisattva Dharma- Repository selected out and discarded the various practices mentioned above – charity, precepts, filial piety and so on – and selected out and adopted the wholehearted saying of the Buddha’s name. Hence the term ‘selection’..
Question: It is reasonable that in each of the vows the bodhisattva Dharma-Repository should discard what is coarse and reprehensible and adopt what is good and excellent. But why, in the eighteenth vow, did he discard all the diverse practices and select and adopt only the single practice of saying the nembutsu, making it the primal vow of birth in his land?
Answer: The Buddha’s sacred intent is hard to fathom; it is not easily to be grasped. Nevertheless, an attempt may be offered here utilizing two concepts: the contrast between superior and inferior, and the contrast between difficult and easy.
Regarding the first contrast, the nembutsu is superior and other practices are inferior. This is because myriad virtues have come to reside within Amida’s name. All the virtues possessed by Amida Buddha – all the inwardly realized virtues such as the four wisdoms, three bodies, ten powers and fourfold fearlessness, and all the outwardly functioning virtues such as a buddha’s marks and features, the light of wisdom, the teaching of dharma to beings and the benefiting of living things – have been gathered into Amida Buddha’s name. Thus, the virtues of the name are wholly superior. Other practices are not so. They each prop up but a portion of merit. Hence, they are said to be inferior….
Regarding the second contrast, saying the nembutsu is easy, while other practices are difficult.. Since the nembutsu is easy, it is accessible to all. Other practices, being difficult, are not available to every being. It was surely to bring all sentient beings to birth in the pure land without any discrimination that the bodhisattva Dharma-Repository discarded the difficult and adopted the easy, making the latter the core of the primal vow. Had the making of images and the erection of stupa-towers been made the core of the primal vow, the poor and destitute would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet the wealthy and highborn are few, while the poor and lowly are numerous. Had wisdom and lofty capacities been made the core of the primal vow, the dull and foolish would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet the sagacious are rare, while the foolish and ignorant are many. Had study and broad learning been made the core of the primal vow, those of little knowledge would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet the learned are few, and those without learning many. Had observance of precepts been made the core of the primal vow, those who failed to uphold or receive precepts would have been left without any hope of birth. And yet keepers of precepts are few, while violators are many. This applies to all the other forms of practice.
Know that had the various practices mentioned above been made the core of the primal vow, those attaining birth would have been few, while those unable to be born would have been numerous. For this reason, Amida Buddha, in the distant past, as the bodhisattva Dharma-Repository, was moved by undiscriminating compassion and sought to embrace all beings universally. In order to do so, he declined to make the various forms of practice such as creating images and erecting stupa-towers the practice resulting in birth in the primal vow. Rather, he made the single practice of simply saying the name of the Buddha the core of his primal vow.
Translated by Dennis Hirota from Honen, Senchaku Hongan Nembutsu shu, in Ohashi Shunno (ed.), Honen Ippen, Nihon shiso taikei, vol. 10 (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1971).
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.