Is Buddhism too hard? Try the nembutsu first!

A lot of people misunderstand Pure Land Buddhism, with its sole emphasis on reciting the Buddha’s name, better known as the nembutsu (念仏). People balk at the idea that many Shin Buddhists don’t meditate, don’t insist on the moral precepts or vegetarianism, or don’t do any kind of tantra or other visualization techniques. Literally, all Pure Land Buddhists do is recite the nembutsu. That’s it. We also do not often pay homage to the historical Buddha as much as we do Amitabha (Amida) Buddha.

This has led to questions from some Western Buddhists as to whether Shin Buddhism can be considered real Buddhism or not. However, in an article by the JSRI, it shows that for example Honen the founder of Japanese Pure Land, had a clear process for the Pure Land approach. In the beginning, one’s confidence in Buddhism is weak, so Honen advocated just reciting the Buddha’s name over and over as a daily routine. In time, he taught that as one’s confidence in the Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma) strengthens, one would then branch out into other practices like meditation, precepts and so on. In other words, the reciting of the Buddha’s name is the gateway to other practices.

Sometimes people come to Buddhism with a lot of baggage or problems, and what Honen wanted to do was not discriminate between those who could keep the precepts and those who couldn’t. One of Honen’s famous followers was a prostitute when he was in exile. She hated her life and wanted to ask Honen for advice. His first advice was to give up her lifestyle if at all possible, but if it wasn’t possible, then take up the practice of reciting the Buddha’s name. She started this practice, and when Honen returned from exile, and enquired about her, and he learned from friends that she eventually did give up the lifestyle and lived in the mountains devoting herself to Buddhism.

So the woman began her practice as a prostitute who clearly wasn’t in a position to do meditations as a Zen dojo, or esoteric practices afforded to the educated elite in Japan, but through the simple act of reciting the Buddha’s name, she changed bit by bit into a devout and pious follower.

In the case of Chinese Buddhism, which doesn’t get enough attention I believe, I found a great quote by the famous Chan (Chinese Zen) master, Yin-Shun on the subject in The Way to Buddhahood:

If, therefore, one is timid and finds it difficult to practice the Bodhisattva-way, fearing that one will fall into the Two Vehicles* or that following the karmic forces will cause one to drift apart from the Buddha Way, then chanting the name Amitābha Buddha is most secure! It is a wonderful skillful means that can best embrace and protect those sentient beings who are beginners so that they do not lose faith.

So, if you find yourself frustrated with other Buddhist practices, or feel like your wandering aimlessly in Buddhism, or life in general, just set things aside for a little while and just chant the nembutsu: Namu Amida Butsu in Japanese, or Namo Amituo Fo in Chinese, or whatever language. Don’t worry about other aspects of Buddhism for now, just put your trust in the nembutsu, and be assured you’ll come back to them later when the time is right. :)


* – A euphemism for backsliding.

Update: A few people have been confused by this post thinking I advocate not doing this or that Buddhist practice. That is not what I am saying. Please note that I am saying that if other aspects of Buddhism are intimidating, or you’ve become frustrated with other practices, try the nembutsu instead. As one practices the nembutsu, you might feel inspired later to return to those other practices later. If you feel the moral precepts are too hard to follow now, just wait and in time you may find yourself wanting to follow them afterall. That’s all. :)

12 thoughts on “Is Buddhism too hard? Try the nembutsu first!

  1. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that all Pure Land Buddhists do is to recite the nembutsu. That may be correct for Shin Buddhists. But Chinese Pure Land Buddhists are also expected to keep the precepts and practice at least occasional vegetarianism alongside with their recitation of Amitabha’s name.

  2. I can’t remember for certain, but I think I’ve discussed this here before. Buddhist practices, for me, are “tools” to help me live the Teachings. I’ll take Zen as an example, since that is the tradition I follow: while I feel that Zen meditation is invaluable to me, I think I’d be missing the boat if I just sat on my cushion all day long. What I try to do instead is follow the Six Paramitas and the Eightfold Path to the best of my ability. The tools (for me, a focus on meditation) is not my practice, but an assistant to my practice.

    I’ve never understood the “Just Do It” attitude (which I’ve been told is very un-Zen of me) , such as, “Just recite the nembutsu”, or “Just meditate”. I can just do a lot of things! What I’d like to know is why do such-and-such, but I answered that question a long time ago. I follow Buddhism because I believe with my whole heart the Buddha’s Teachings on suffering and how to end suffering for all beings. The tools are there to help me with that.😀

  3. Marcus: Thank you. :)

    Yueheng: Good points all. You’re right in that I am speaking more of Jodo Shinshu, which I should probably clarify in the post. I’ll fix that.

    Jeannie: You’re right in that you should do what works. My point here was just to encourage people who may be discouraged by other practices to try the nembutsu. If medtiation works, please do it by all means. I’ll try to clarify that too. :)

  4. Great post GF! It made perfect sense, but maybe some clarification will help. There are also organizations that practice both Zen and Pure Land. In this case, the Nembutsu is seen as meditation. Jodo Shinshu is hard to explain, but once understood, there is no need for self practices. The precepts seem to come naturally and no longer seem to be a rule to follow. I’m not discrediting these things. They can be helpful practices for some. Also, meditation can be beneficial in reducing stress and clearing the mind. So, even though I don’t practice it, I do see how it can be helpful.

  5. Hi Michael,

    Exactly. I was hoping to get across that there is no minimum standard one has to meet to be a Buddhist, but through being in Buddhism long enough one starts to spontaneously adopt practcies. A lot of new people ask if they have to be vegetarian or meditate, and the answer is technically ‘no’. They don’t have to, but over time, they’ll just naturally want to. I intended the nembutsu to be something that would encourage people who were put off by other features, and give them something to rely on. That’s why I quoted the Yin-Shun quote for example.

  6. This does make sense. I think there are many people who are daunted or overwhelmed by the thought of Buddhist practice. This is a great first step.

    I also like Jeannie’s plan of trying to follow the Eightfold Path.

  7. Bingo. It’s a starting point. :)

    I like the Eightfold Path too, but I find it a bit vague. It’s good framework in Buddhism, but not something you can live by day-to-day. Instead, it feels to me more like a reality check in the long term. Am I following the Buddhist Path right? Check yourself based on the Eightfold Path.

    Just my $.02.

  8. “A few people have been confused by this post thinking I advocate not doing this or that Buddhist practice. That is not what I am saying.”

    Yeah, I think some may have gotten that impression by my comment too. I think all are ways of helping with Buddhist practice, but the true practice is how is able to take what is learned through clarity of meditation or the compassion of Amida and applying it to make this world a better place.

  9. While not strictly about Shin, I think this page does a good job of talking about the relationship of Pure Land to other forms of Buddhism, especially near the end under the subheading “Practices” which discusses how Pure Land offers the benefits of the Meditation School, the Sutra Studies School, the Discipline School and the Esoteric School.

  10. “I intended the nembutsu to be something that would encourage people who were put off by other features, and give them something to rely on.”

    Dear GF, I’ve been in your shoes and tried to act as an apologist for the Jodo Shinshu and nembutsu teachings but it’s not what either the tradition or people need. If I may risk being frank within the fragile context of our nascent friendship, your post ‘reads’ like you are trying to convince someone of the merits of the teaching but it ‘sounds’ more like you are trying to convince yourself.

    As for expressing the value of the nembutsu to others, the one thing that encourages other people is seeing the light of the Dharma manifested in the lives of others:

    “When the practicer sees that the hearts of others have been set free, he leaps forward, by way of aspiration, to the various fruits of a holy life …” – Questions of King Milinda

    With friendship and respect, K

  11. Hi Dave: Excellent link. I thought it was pretty well organized and helpful. :)

    Hi Kyoushin: No offense taken whatsoever. I’ve known for a long time I write both for my own self as well as others, so you’re preaching to the choir. 😉 But you’re right, in that Jodo Shinshu or any aspect of Buddhism doesn’t necessary need explaning or apologizing. My wife knows well that I like to explain things in a very convoluted manner, or over-explain, so I suppose it’s par for the course. Thanks for the advice. :)

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