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Varieties of Japanese Nembutsu

The Syncretic Nembutsu of Tendai

Japanese Tendai practice is based on the Lotus Sutra but is also intermingled with nembutsu practice, which in this context refers to visualized meditation on Amida Buddha. Tendai monks customarily recite the Lotus Sutra in the morning and perform nembutsu practice in the evening. In this way, Japanese Tendai continued the developments of Chinese Pure Land with Hui-yuan's (334-416) style of visualized nembutsu and T'zu-min's (680-748) syncretic blending of nembutsu practice with other practices. Saicho (767-822) was the great founder of the Japanese Tendai (Ch. T'ien-T'ai) school. His disciple Ennin (794-864) was an important figure in the development of Japanese Pure Land, because he brought back from China Fa-chao's (756-822) practice of five-tone nembutsu recitation which marked the introduction of the recited nembutsu to Japan. This practice was incorporated into the "constantly walking samadhi" (jogyo zanmai), a ninety-day walking meditation in which the practitioner circumambulates an image of Amida while chanting the nembutsu in order to visualize Amida Buddha. On Mt. Hiei in Japan, Fa-chao's five-tone nembutsu became known as the jogyodo nembutsu because it was conducted in a hall specially constructed for the "constantly walking samadhi".

The Itinerant Nembutsu

Kuya (903-972) was a second generation disciple of Ennin. As a nembutsu hijiri (ascetic/itinerant), he traveled throughout Japan reciting the nembutsu and doing charitable work. He was called the "saint of the market place,h because he danced in the streets while chanting the nembutsu. Ryonin (1072-1132) was also a Tendai monk who at a young age went into secluded practice. He was one of the most influential early Pure Land masters for his nembutsu hijiri lifestyle and his definitive teachings on Pure Land hymns. One of Ryoninfs students was Eiku, who passed on this lineage to Honen after he also went into retreat at the Kurodani hermitage at age eighteen. After twenty-five years in retreat at Kurodani, Honen, like his nembutsu hijiri predecessors, left Mt. Hiei to spread the news of Birth in the Pure Land through the single-minded practice of the nembutsu (senju-nembutsu). This approach to Pure Land practice continued to be transmitted down to his disciples, such as Ku Amidabutsu. Ku Amidabutsu (?-1228) was a priest of Hossho-ji Temple, but we donft know where he came from originally. At one time he lived at Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei, but eventually took to a life of wandering. He used to assemble forty persons with especially musical voices, and for a day or sometimes seven days, repeat the nembutsu. He was deeply absorbed in the sweet music of the Pure Land, so when he was traveling, he would always take along with him a little bell and hang it beside him in a place where the wind would be sure to make it chime. Through his great practice, the nembutsu developed further into a specifically Japanese hymnal form. Perhaps Japanfs most famous nembutsu hijiri was Ippen (1239-1289), who came out of Honenfs student Shokufs Seizan school. He developed a new school called the Ji (period or time), insisting that his practice was made for the age in which he lived. He traveled all over the country, putting the names of new believers into a registration book (kanjincho) and giving out cards on which were inscribed the six characters of the nembutsu.


The Interpenetrating Nembutsu of Kegon

In addition to being a nembutsu hijiri, Ryonin established his own nembutsu school based on the following insight: "One person is all people; all people are one person; one practice is all practices; all practices are one practice. This is what explains the experience of Birth in the Pure Land by reliance upon Amidafs power. All living beings are included in one thought. It is because of this mutual interconnection between all things, including the Buddhas themselves, that if one but calls upon Amidafs sacred name once, it has the same virtue as if one did it a million times." Based on this vision, Ryonin further commented: gAll things are really as they appear. There is no subjective and no objective. It is here that all virtue and all merit may be found.h This view of reality had its basis in the Tendai and Kegon (Ch. Hua-yen) conception that all things in the universe are so inseparably interrelated and interpenetrating that in their ultimate analysis they are found to be identical. Thus, all the distinctions made between objects are quite superficial and due to mental illusion. In this way, Ryonin established the Yuzu Nembutsu school. Yuzu means gcirculating,h and yuzu nembutsu means that one's own recitation of the nembutsu influences all others and that other people's recitation of the nembutsu influences oneself, interacting to help bring about the Birth of all in the Pure Land.

The Mystical Nembutsu of Shingon

The Shingon school is a Japanese form of esoteric Buddhism, similar to the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. It was the other major school to the Tendai school during Honenfs days. Kakuban (1095-1143) was a famous monk of the Shingon school who developed an esoteric interpretation of the Pure Land teaching. He believed that the central buddha of Shingon devotion, Vairocana Buddha, and Amida Buddha were one and the same and that their pure lands were also one and the same. He once wrote: gAmida is only another name for Vairocana, the great Sun Buddha. If a person will but repeat the three syllables of Amidafs name, his bad karma that has been accumulating from time immemorial will be extinguished. Meditation upon the one Buddha Amida brings endless blessedness and wisdom. Amida is but an intellectual faculty of Vairocana, who is the substance of Amidafs person. Amidafs Pure Land is really everywhere, so that the place where we meditate upon him is verily his own land. When we come to realize the truth of this, we do not need to leave this present fleeting world at all to get to the Pure Land - we are already there. And in our present bodies and persons, just as we are, we are assimilated to Amida, and he to Vairocana, from whom we derive our being. This is the path of meditation by which, just as we are, we attain buddhahood.h This equating of Vairocana and Amida was a radical step within the confines of Shingon doctrine, and as it was done to gain greater popular appeal among the masses, it shows the basic popularity which Pure Land ideas had gained by this time.

The Recited Nembutsu of Sanron

The Sanron (Ch. San-lun) school is one of the Six Schools of early Japanese Buddhism received from China, originally called the Madhyamika school of the great Indian sage Nagarjuna (ca 150-250 C.E.). After the central influence of the Tendai school, various Sanron masters located at Todai-ji temple in the ancient capital of Nara became important in developing Pure Land thought further. Many of these masters were influenced by the Shingon schoolfs emphasis on the recited nembutsu and were opposed to the nembutsu of meditative visualization emphasized in the Tendai school. In this way, they represent the final major development in Pure Land thought before Honen. Eikan (1033-1111) wrote The Ten Causes of Birth in the Pure Land (Ojo ju-in) as well as several other works on the Pure Land in which he referred to himself as "Eikan of the nembutsu school." The Ten Causes of Birth in the Pure Landfs numerous quotes from Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra influenced Honen's sense for the recited nembutsu. However, Eikan's nembutsu was still syncretic and remained as a compliment to other meditative practices. Chingai (1092-1152) went further than Eikan in stressing the recitation of Amida Buddha's name by itself for the salvation of ordinary deluded people (bonpu). However, he differed from Honen in emphasizing the need to develop the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta), whereas Honen emphasized Amida's salvific Original Vow (hongan).

The Three Kinds of Nembutsu according to Honen

Honen arranged the kinds of nembutsu which prevailed among Buddhists in his day from the standpoint of the intensity of its liberative power. In the first, the practitionerfs self-power is seen as exceeding the Buddha's; in the second the two are equal, while in the third the Buddha's power goes beyond the devotee's, as shown below:

(1) In the Mo-ho-chih-kuan (Jp. Makashikan) Vol. II, Chih-I, the third patriarch of the Chinese Tfien-tfai school (Jp. Tendai) prescribed the four kinds of samadhi for Tendai practitioners to lead them to realize the Truth of the Three Perspectives (isshin sandai) of emptiness (ku), existence (ke), and the non-duality of the two (chu). In the first of the four, a practitioner who finds it difficult to meditate upon the truth, because of various mental distractions is to call upon the sacred name of Amida in a loud voice, and to ask for help. In the second, the practitioner is to call upon the sacred name of Amida incessantly at the same time meditating upon Amida as the symbol of isshin sandai, in order to realize the truth of the identity of all things in the universe.


(2) In the Ojoyoshu, Genshin advocates the nembutsu, but regards it as one out of many of the universally acknowledged religious disciplines and not the only one necessary for Birth (ojo). It only definitely promotes one's ojo when helped by the Five Forms of Prayer (gonenmon): 1) prostrating oneself before Amida Buddha (raihai), 2) praising Amida's sacred name in terms fitting the Buddha of boundless light and wisdom (sandan), 3) desiring to be Born into the Buddha's land (sagwan), 4) meditating upon Amida and the things of the Pure Land (kanzatsu), and 5) feeling compassion for the suffering and wishing to save them by directing all one's own accumulated merit to them (eko).

(3) Shan-tao, quite different from the preceding two, declares in his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra that the nembutsu is the one practice prescribed in the Original Vow of Amida, which unfailingly brings ojo to everyone who just does it with a sincere heart, no matter whether his character is good or bad, deluded or wise, etc. Obviously, this is the interpretation that Honen adopted for his practice and teaching.

CF Eon Shoke Nembusshu (1672) Vols. VII, VIII


Much of this section is adapted from the Historical Introduction of Honen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching [a translation of the Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), also known as the Forty-eight Fascicle Biography (Shijuhachikan-den)] by Harper Havelock Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka. Kyoto: Chion-in, 1925.


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