Practising the Nembutsu ( " Namo Amida Butsu " )

There are many ways to call the Buddha’s name, and throughout the Buddhist world devotees do so in one way or another. It may be “Namo Buddhaya,” “Namo Tassa,” or “Buddham saranam gacchami.” In China it may be “Omito Fo” and in Japan “Namo Amida Butsu.” In the West this last tends to be Anglicized as “Namo Amida Bu” in order to preserve the six-syllable form of many Japanese chants. This method of calling the Buddha’s name is known as nembutsu.

The term nembutsu means “mindfulness of Buddha.” Namo Amida Bu means “I call upon measureless Buddha.” However, in reality this practice is not an intellectual or cognitive assertion; it is an expression of sentiment and a way of opening one’s heart to receive. When one recites the nembutsu it is an expression of gratitude and wonderment but also an expression of whatever spiritual feeling is arising at that time. In this sense it is an offering of oneself and a reception of grace. Reciting nembutsu is a two-way street connecting you with Buddha. It is not a straitjacket, not an attempt to squeeze oneself into a prescribed form or arrive at a prespecified state of mind. Each time one says the nembutsu, something different may arise. Whatever one is, one offers, and one receives what one needs. The hallmark of Pure Land is great acceptance, and one of the most difficult things may be to accept that one is already accepted.

Nembutsu can be said, called, chanted, or expressed in any of a great many different ways, rhythms, forms, melodies, and formats, in groups, in big, beautiful formal ceremonies, or while out on one’s own having a walk. Something good happens, “Namo Amida Bu.” Something bad happens, “Namo Amida Bu.” Stuck at traffic lights, “Namo Amida Bu.” Meeting another practitioner, “Namo Amida Bu.” As one gets into it, other practices also start to become forms of nembutsu. Bowing is nembutsu with the body. Acts of generosity are nembutsu for others. Visiting a shrine is nembutsu, because it brings us into mindfulness of Buddha.

What we are talking about is not really a technique but more an approach or orientation. It involves a positive use of imagination and a mobilization of emotion. The whole person is accepted. Pure Land is expressive and poetic. It encompasses the fullness and the pathos of life. It is sometimes said that Pure Land is for those of us who have already failed at more disciplined, ascetic, or demanding approaches, who are perhaps too sensitive, or too artistic, or too ordinary for the more heroic paths. Just say the nembutsu, and keep on saying it, and see.