Since today is the Buddha’s Birthday in the solar-calendar (April 8th), I wanted to post this. It’s a really long post, but I hope people find it useful.
In the past, I’ve read a certain Buddhist book by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh1 called Finding Our True Home. It’s a book that talks about Pure Land Buddhism, but from a Vietnamese-Buddhist/Zen perspective.
The first time I read this book years ago, I didn’t really like it much. I disagreed with his interpretation, and felt it was somehow contradicting with my understanding of Pure Land Buddhism. But recently I read it again (twice) and now appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings more than before. He emphasizes a Pure Land practice called “recollection of the Buddha”, which he explains like so:
The practice of recollecting the Buddha is called anusmrti in Sanskrit. Even in the Buddha’s lifetime, there were many of the Buddha’s disciples who practiced Recollecting the Buddha. For thousands of years, people recollected the Buddha in this way in order to feel more solid, free, peaceful, and happy. Thus, Recollecting the Buddha has been an accepted practice in the Buddhist tradition, from the time of the Buddha. (pg. 96)
I went and checked on this, and Thich Nhat Hanh is right. If you look in the early Buddhist sutras, they often teach the practice of recollecting the Buddha, or the Dharma, or the Sangha. For example, in this passage from the Dhammapada:
296. Those disciples of Gotama [the Buddha] ever awaken happily who day and night constantly practice the Recollection of the Qualities of the Buddha.
In Theravada Buddhism (上座仏教, jōza bukkyō in Japanese), this is called Anussati. In Chinese Buddhism, this became nian-fo (念仏), which is none other than the nembutsu that is practiced in Pure Land Buddhism. However, the meaning has changed over time. By the Middle Ages, 念仏 meant to recite the Buddha’s name as a way of recollecting the Buddha, but the original meaning was a little different. The practice of Anusmrti/Anussati/念仏 was to recollect the qualities of the Buddha as a source of inspiration and to help cultivate similar qualities in oneself.
As Thich Nhat Hanh explains further:
The Buddha embodies solidity, freedom, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Whenever we recollect the name of the Buddha, we very naturally feel the ease, solidity, and freedom of the Buddha. That is one reason why in our own time many people follow this practice. (pg 97)
But, how does one do this? He explains next:
When Recollecting the Buddha, the practitioner begins by supposing that the Buddha is a reality outside of himself or herself. He or she might visualize the Buddha in the Jeta Grove (祇園精舎, Gion Shōja in Japanese) or on the Vulture Peak (霊鷲山, ryōjusen) in India. However, gradually the Buddha becomes a reality both within and without. In our own consciousness, there are the seeds of solidity, freedom, love, compassion, joy and equanimity….If we are successful in the practice, we will realize that the Buddha is always present within us. Because of this, we need not grieve that the Buddha is no longer alive. We know that the Buddha is always in us and that he can never die. The principle of Recollecting the Buddha is as simple as that.(pg. 98)
But there’s also more to it. Thich Nhat Hanh points out that the Amitabha Sutra (阿弥陀経, amidakyō in Japanese) and an older sutra called the Satipatthana Sutta (The Four Frames of Reference, MN10 in the Pali Canon) both talk about the importance and benefits of concentration and focus. In the Satipatthana Sutta:
“Now, if anyone would develop these four frames of reference in this way for seven years, one of two fruits can be expected for him….Let alone seven years. If anyone would develop these four frames of reference in this way for six years… five… four… three… two years… one year… seven months… six months… five… four… three… two months… one month… half a month, one of two fruits can be expected for him.
and in the Amitabha Sutra:
Shariputra, if a good man or woman who hears of Amida Buddha holds fast to his Name even for one day, two days, three, four, five, six or seven days with a concentrated and undistracted mind, then, at the hour of death, Amida Buddha will appear before them with a host of holy ones.
In the Amitabha Sutra, the specific term is 一心不乱, which means something like a “single mind, without being scattered”.2 So, both sutras have a strong emphasis on concentration, mindfulness, etc.
Thich Nhat Hanh clarifies this further:
To practice mindfulness with a one-pointed mind which is not dispersed means that while we are recollecting the Buddha our mind does not think about anything else. We only think of Buddha. This is what was practiced in the lifetime of the Buddha and the practice was called Buddhanusmrti, remembrance of the Buddha. (pg. 105)
To be successful in undispersed recollection of the Buddha we need a process of training. In the beginning our mind is still disturbed but we do not lose our patience. For a long time we may only recite the Buddha’s name ten times and for nine out of those ten times our mind is dispersed in forgetfulness. We are only mindful of what we are reciting once, but once is better than nothing. Later on we shall recite twice in mindfulness and only eight times in forgetfulness. That is progress.(pg. 106).
Also, this teaching is not limited to Thich Nhat Hanh alone. In Venerable Yin-Shun’s book, The Way to Buddhahood, he teaches something very similar:
For example, if one can follow—single-mindedly and without scatteredness—the easy path method of chanting a buddha’s name, one can attain the samādhi of mindfulness of a buddha. But the key point in this method is mindfulness of a buddha’s physical appearance and virtues….Following this method can lead toward superior world-transcending dhyāna contemplation and thereby further leads to enlightenment. On a more superficial level, being mindful of a buddha acts as a repentance for one’s karmic obstructions and as a means to gather good roots….
One should know that practice that takes mindfulness of a buddha as the object of focus is mental practice. Even the ordinary mindfulness of a buddha—inattentively chanting his name—emphasizes the mind, although not as much as focusing on the form of a buddha to practice cessation.(pg 259-260)
Anyway, the point of this long, long post is that I realized that my understanding of Pure Land Buddhism was pretty narrow in the past Pure Land Buddhism is a large subject in Buddhism, and I still have a lot more to learn. I hope people learned something new too.
Happy Birthday Buddha!
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa
1 Pronounced like “Tick Nyat Hain”, or “Tick Nyat Han” in southern Vietnamese Dialect, if I recall right. My memory is getting pretty rusty.
2 In modern, colloquial Japanese, this has become a phrase meaning someone is super-focused on something like a project, homework, etc. It is pronounced isshin furan.