Buddha Name Recitation

The Buddha spoke repeatedly of the Pure Abodes in the Pali Canon and taught that the sentient beings of the Pure Abodes were safely beyond the reach of the desire realm, never again to be reborn as a hell-dweller, a hungry ghost, an animal, a god of strife, a human, or an unenlightened god.

The Mahayana practice is to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of infinite light and life. We don’t count the number of recitations.

Buddha Name Recitation niemphat 1

Buddha Name Recitation in Viet Nam

Pure Land practitioners teach that Buddha Name Recitation is the only practice one needs to ensure re-birth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, i.e., the Pure Land. They recommend recitation practice for people who have trouble with meditation. With daily Buddha Name Recitation, we assure rebirth in The Pure Land, never again to descend into the lower six realms.

We are not reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. Amitabha Buddha is reciting Amitabha Buddha. The sixth fold of the eightfold path is right effort. The Buddha divided right effort into four efforts: 1) Nipping evil/unwholesome thoughts in the bud as they begin to arise; 2) Abandoning evil thoughts that have arisen; 3) Planting wholesome thoughts if our thoughts are neutral; and 4) Nurturing wholesome thoughts that have already arisen.

Buddha Name Recitation practice is an ideal way to practice the four right efforts. 1) Whenever we notice our thoughts taking a negative turn, we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. 2) If we fail to notice that moment and are already awash in negative thoughts, we drop them by reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. 3) If we notice that our thoughts are neutral, we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. 4) If we notice that our thoughts are wholesome, we maintain those wholesome thoughts by reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha.

Amitabha Buddha is not an “other.” We are reciting our own name, remembering who we are. With whole-hearted and unbroken daily practice of Buddha Name Recitation, we leave the realm of the unenlightened gods and thus leave the six worlds referred to in Master Hakuin’s chant, i.e., the tenth, ninth, eighth, seventh, sixth, and fifth dharma realms, the realms of desire.

Again, the four upper dharma realms are the heavenly dharma realms. The sentient beings in the heavenly dharma realms can never fall back into the six worlds, the bottom six realms.

I once attended a Buddhist Summer Camp in Orlando and after a monk-delivered talk on Buddha Name Recitation, a member of the audience said her practice was to chant One, One, One. She asked the monk if that was a good practice and he said: “You can chant something that you have developed for your personal use, but you will be chanting alone.”

Buddhism is flourishing in the Republic of China (Taiwan) as well as in the People’s Republic of China (the mainland) so if we chant the Mandarin Namo Amituo Fo, we will not be chanting alone. Here is a chant of Namo Amituo Fo in Mandarin Chinese.

Very few people chant Namo Amitabha Buddha, the Sanskrit version, but millions chant Namo Amituo Fo. The fourth dharma realm, that of the Pure Land or the Pure Abodes, is the lowest of the four heavenly realms, but the step from the fifth to the fourth dharma realm is the second biggest step of all because it is the step from the six worlds to the heavenly realms, it is the step of no return. Buddha Name Recitation helps us make that leap.

Moreover, making the effort, every day, to practice Buddha Name Recitation as much as possible by following the four right efforts, samma vayama, helps us to develop the sixth fold of the eightfold path. Whenever we catch ourselves daydreaming or singing a catchy pop tune in our head, we switch to singing Namo Amituo Fo instead. If we are stuck in traffic, we know what to do instead of getting peeved. Turning to Buddha Name Recitation whenever we can remember to do so gradually clears out the mental cobwebs created by the onslaught of pop culture. If we practice with diligence, every day, we learn that the dharma realms are real. The Pure Abodes is not a fantasy land.


Amitabha Buddha (Amida Butsu in Japanese)

The Pure Land or the Pure Abodes is the Pure Lotus Land to which Master Hakuin refers in his Chant in Praise of Zazen. The Pure Land sect, like Zen, is a Mahayana sect and therefore is practiced primarily in the Mahayana countries of China, Japan, Korea, and most of Viet Nam. (I know very little about Tibetan practice).

The Buddha mentioned the Pure Land when he discussed the four levels of enlightenment in the Pali canon: the stream winner, the once-returner, the nonreturner and the fully enlightened one. Venerable Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond cites the commentary on the Anguttara Nikaya for his observation that: “Nonreturners have advanced even further to completely eliminate all desire within the world of the five senses and ill will. Should they not win full enlightenment at the time of their death, then they will arise in the pure abodes (suddhavasa) to attain full enlightenment there. They are never again reborn in the human world.”

This passage from the Pali canon, and many other passages that refer to “the pure abodes” did not inspire the Theravada school to speculate at length about the pure abodes where one may practice until full enlightenment, samyak sambodhi, is attained wihout fear of falling back into the six worlds.

But the Buddha’s multiple references to the Pure Abodes inspired great speculation in the Mahayana school. Since there is nothing outside us, we make our own world. We take ourselves to the hell worlds, the heavenly realms, the human dharma realm, the animal realm, and so on. As practitioners, we might as well awaken to the pure abodes, the Pure Land, the Land of Ultimate Bliss.

The Pure Land is described in the Mahayana sutras as a place that sounds to westerners like the Christian heaven. However, instead of sitting around singing hosannas to the King as in the Christian heaven, the beings in the Land of Ultimate Bliss are cultivating Buddhahood. Unlike the earth, where cultivation is not always easy, practicing zazen and other forms of cultivation is easy in the Pure Land where everyone is a cultivator.


The Pure Land

Pure Land practice requires Faith, Vows, and Practice. The following vow to be reborn in the “Western Pure Land” is recited at the end of a practice period: “I wish to be reborn in the Western Pure Land, with the nine grades of lotus blossoms as my parents. When the lotuses are in full bloom, I shall see Buddha Amitabha and be enlightened to the Absolute Truth, with non-retrogressing Bodhisattvas as my companions.”

Such a recital strikes us Westerners as bizarre but with repetition it becomes beautiful. By the way, the term “western” does not refer to the western hemisphere which was of course unknown to easterners when the Pure Land School developed, long before 1492. Here is my non-scholarly theory of why they called the Pure Land the Western Paradise: It is known that the ancient Chinese preferred to build their homes facing the south to derive maximum benefit from the sun. Facing south, they knew that the Pacific was to their left and straight ahead so they assumed the Pure Land was to their right. And the west is to the right when facing south. That’s my theory, but like the lady chanting “One,” I probably hold it alone.

The real reason is that they viewed the setting sun as symbolic of the ending or relinquishment of sense desire or more broadly, the setting of ignorance. And of course the sun sets in the West, in the Western Paradise.

The practice or reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha is reminiscent of the Biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing.” The practice is usually called Buddha Name Recitation or simply Buddha Recitation. English speakers are sometimes encouraged to chant in Sanskrit: “Namo Amitabha Buddha.” The term “namo” looks like the forerunner of the English work “name” but scholars translate it as “praise.”

Amitabha Buddha is not Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who announced the Four Noble Truths and taught The Anapanasati Sutta. According to the Mahayana sutras, Amitabha Buddha is a prehistoric Buddha, a Buddha of times that were ancient even during the lifetime of the historical Buddha. Amitabha Buddha vowed to help all sentient beings to awaken if they would but call upon his name.

In Japanese, the Buddha Name Recitation is “Namu Amida Butsu.” Chinese Buddhists (and others influenced by Buddhism as developed in China) routinely greet and say goodbye to one another with hands palm-to-palm and the words “Amituo Fo.” (“Fo” is Mandarin for the Buddha; incidentally, it is also Mandarin for Florida, which is marked on Chinese maps as the Buddha state).

So “Amituo Fo” is used among Chinese Buddhists in the same way as is “Aloha” in Hawaii. A good translation of “Aloha”  and “Amituo Fo” is: “May you be well, happy, calm and peaceful.”

Worldwide, practitioners of The Pure Land school outnumber Zen practitioners. Some observers conclude that The Pure Land School is for the masses and Zen is for the elite. Au contraire! Such observations are made by those who recite the Hsin Hsin Ming and still cling to their opinions.

Some Zen writers have said that the Pure Land school violates the basic principle of Buddhism that there are no two things and that we will never find the Buddha outside ourselves. (“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” means that if you think the Buddha is outside yourself, kill that notion).

Accordingly, some Zen scholars equate Pure Land practice with Christian practice: Calling on a Savior to come and save us is reliance on an “other” whereas Zen teaches self-reliance because there is no other. In keeping with that opinion, in Japan, the practice of Zen is characterized as “jiriki,” meaning “self power,” and the practice of Pure Land is characterized as “tariki,” meaning “other power.”

Suffice it to say that even those who think they are reciting the name of someone other than themselves will eventually learn that they have been reciting their own name. Even though Pure Land practitioners outnumber Zen practitioners, there are still very few serious Pure Land practitioners. A Pure Land practitioner is not really calling upon an “other” for help. Amitabha Buddha is our true Buddha nature; when we practice Pure Land chanting, we are reciting our true name, remembering our beginningless beginning. It was we who vowed to save all sentient beings.

When we chant the name of Amitabha Buddha or Amituo Fo, we are merely calling ourselves to ourselves, remembering our ancient vow. There is no “other” and there is no “out there.” When we recite the name of the Buddha, the Buddha is reciting the name of the Buddha. Ch’an Master Hsuan Hua encourages Pure Land practice because it doesn’t conflict with Zen practice in any way. He often assigned to students the koan: Who is reciting the name of the Buddha? As our Buddha Name Recitation practice matures, we begin to remember who we are.

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Master Chin Kung, greeting the Archbishop of Brisbane

Zen as practiced in the States is sometimes called Elite Zen (the exclamation Au Contraire is a joke, stolen from comedian Mark Russell) because its practitioners tend to be middle and upper middle class. The majority of American Zennies, as they call themselves, are college educated and financially secure. Most are heavily into meditation and know little about the Buddhist sutras, the Precepts, and Buddhist practice in general. They pride themselves in being free of the cultural baggage of Asians.

This course includes the cultivation of mindfulness through Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness, loving kindness meditation, the Repentance Gatha, following the precepts, and taking refuge, subjects seldom if ever discussed in American Zen centers. Very few follow the first precept and many ridicule the very idea of vegetarianism, for example, and threaten to leave the meditation group if the subject ever comes up a second time.

A number of prominent American Zen Centers have been led by sex-crazed Roshis, meat-eating Roshis, alcoholic or drug-taking Roshis, and others who deem themselves to be “above” such “trivial” matters as vegetarianism and a clean lifestyle. Not only have they failed to repent of their pre-Zen ways, they have never taken the precepts seriously but they do wear a rakusu as if they have. They have no foundation upon which to stand when teaching students.

Starting a meditation practice without precepts and without repentance leads to a Zen practice that is not authentic. An unrepentant, precept-shunning Zen practice that further ignores the sutras, that considers prostrations a waste of time, and that scoffs at Pure Land practices is equally lacking in authenticity. “Anything goes” Zen is not authentic Zen. A Pure Land practice also requires authenticity. We cannot just say: “OK, it’s recommended at the Intermediate level so I’ll do it.” Japanese Zen, as taught in the U.S., does not incorporate Pure Land practice. Chinese Ch’an does and this course obviously tilts toward Chinese Ch’an.

Mark Unno

Professor Mark Unno at The Henry David Thoreau Sangha

There are ten great vows that form the foundation of an authentic Pure Land practice. They are recited in The Avatamsaka Sutra by Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and form the basis of an authentic Pure Land practice.

The vow to venerate and respect all Buddhas is the first of the ten great vows. Every Buddhist tradition venerates and respects all Buddhas, so this vow is not unique to the Pure Land. When we perform prostrations, we are bowing to our true selves; we are venerating and respecting all Buddhas. Practicing prostrations, introduced in Advanced Zen, is therefore practicing the first great vow of Pure Land practice.

The second vow grows from the first. A sincere veneration of all Buddhas leads to the vow to praise the Buddhas. This may take the form of mentioning the Buddhadharma to one’s confidants. Buddhists do not, however, proselytize. The praise may also take the form of Buddha Name Recitation. Thus, when we perform Buddha Name Recitation, we are practicing the second great vow of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. If we can recite the name of Amitabha Buddha while performing prostrations, we are simultaneously practicing the first and second vows of the ten great vows.

Responding to a growing veneration for the Buddhas causes the practitioner to praise the Buddhas and to vow to make abundant offerings to them. We do not make abundant offerings just by writing a check payable to a Buddhist organization. Abundant offerings are also made when we practice daily; our practice is our offering. It takes a great vow to follow through and practice these expedient means with diligence. So our daily practice can represent our making of abundant offerings to the Buddha in fulfillment of the third vow. We may also make abundant offerings to the Buddhas at our home zendo altar or the altar of our local Zen center in a more mundane way. Flowers, incense, fruits, and the like may be placed with respect on such altars. When we do so, we are practicing the third great vow.

images offerings

An altar

The fourth vow is to repent of misdeeds. So when we recite the Repentance Gatha as a part of our prostration practice, we are practicing the fourth great vow.

The fifth vow is to rejoice over the merits and virtues of others. This is mudita, one of the Four Brahma-viharas. Our prostration practice also includes recitation of the four Brahma-viharas. This erases envy and the belief in a separate, independent self that causes envy. When a practitioner awakens to the reality that there are no “others,” the merits and virtues of the apparent “others” become a source of delight instead of envy. Our Loving Kindness meditation helps us uphold this vow. We also practice the fifth vow when we follow the sixth and seventh precepts: 6. “I resolve not to speak of the faults of others, but to be understanding and sympathetic.” 7. “I resolve not to praise myself and disparage others, but to overcome my own shortcomings.”

The sixth vow is to request the Buddha to turn the dharma wheel (to teach the Buddhadharma) and the closely related seventh vow is to request the Buddhas to stay in the world so that the teachings continue.

buddha-statues fo guang shan

Fo Guang Shan (Buddha Light Mountain)

The eighth vow is to be reminiscent of the eightfold path, i.e., to follow the Buddha’s path at all times in all situations. The Arhats of the fourth dharma realm have followed the eightfold path to perfection. We recite the eightfold path daily during our prostrations.

The ninth vow is to accommodate and benefit all sentient beings. This is the heart of the Mahayana path. Enlightenment is not pursued for self-gratification because such a pursuit merely strengthens the delusive belief in an independent self. To practice authentic Zen, not just a bare, meditation-only stripped down Zen that ignores the need to follow the precepts, and so on, is to practice for the benefit of all sentient beings. The practitioner who desires to practice Zen in all of its fullness for the benefit of all sentient beings is a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be, one who has developed the Bodhi Mind. Recall the first line of The Four Vows: All beings, without number, I vow to liberate. We are making the ninth vow of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra when we repeat the Four Vows. We are also making the ninth vow when we recite the third line of the Three General Resolutions.

The tenth vow is to transfer all merits and virtues universally. The true Bodhisattva practices Zen in all its fullness and transfers the merit gained thereby to all sentient beings, universally, without discrimination. This is why we end all chanting sessions with the Return of Merit.

All ten of these ten great vows can be made daily. We breathe every day, we eat every day, we sleep every day. If we want to wake up, we repeat and practice the ten vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra every day. Just as the sutras require study, so do The Ten Great Vows of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. An authentic Zen practice requires that we fulfill these Ten Great Vows. Those who ignore the fullness of Zen practice are ignorant of the benefits to all sentient beings that would accrue if they would only fulfill the Ten Great Vows.

The following lines may inspire us to perform Buddha Name Recitations:

Speak one sentence less of chatter;

Recite once more the Buddha’s name.

Recite until your false thoughts die,

And your Dharma body will come to life.


The Great Buddha of Kamakura

In some countries, the practitioners of Buddha Name Recitation have reduced the practice to Christian-like prayer, asking Amitabha Buddha to help them pass school exams, have many children, etc. The degeneration of Buddha Name Recitation into mere favor-seeking from a god-like entity is probably the reason why it is not practiced in most Japanese-influenced Zen centers in the States.

In centers influenced by Chinese Ch’an, the masters teach that there is no entity out there who is listening to the recitations, no one who will grant favors; again, we are reciting the name of our own original Buddha nature, seeing our face before our parents were born. Performed with no thought of personal gain, performed as a means for remembering who we are, and performed in the exercise of Right Effort, it adds a valuable dimension to our daily practice.

If we join a Japanese-influenced Zen center where Buddha Name Recitation is not practiced, it is of course OK to respect the teacher’s decision not to include that practice as a part of the center’s practice. We can practice on our own, outside the formal boundaries of the center.

After this lengthy introduction to Pure Land practice, we must recall that it is a practice of the world of form. The formless world, the immaterial world, lies beyond the world of form, and it can’t be experienced until we experience the immaterial attainments.

Mindfulness of Mind Objects