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 Buddhists 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 Nembutsu-shu), selections from which appear here. The title refers to the vow made eons 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 buddha-field. Some buddha-fields are for those who practice charity, others for those who construct stupas, others from those who honor 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Honen regarded these teachings to be dangerous if widely espoused and instructed that this work not be published until after his death.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 Shakyamuni 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 Shakyamuni 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 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…