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.
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.