Nian Fo 念佛 nenbutsu 念仏 – Part 1

The practice of nenbutsu  (念仏) or nian-fo (念佛)is a popular Mahayana practice whereby the practitioner recites the name of a Buddha continuously to develop a focused mind that is devoted to a particular Buddha and his Pure-land. This post is also relevant for mantra recitation practices.

The term nenbutsu or nianfo had been commonly translated as recitation of Buddha’s name. I think this translation is incomplete because it focuses on the action or deed only. It creates a confusion that nianfo practice is a number game and practitioner may focus on completing as many chant as possible. Their practice becomes similar to devotional worshipping of a god. They believe that more chant means more devotion and that will earn them an entry visa to a Buddha’s Pure-land. This is the first misstep.

Buddhist practice is all about mind training and nothing to do with worshipping. By emphasizing on the deed, practitioner may miss the mind training altogether. A person can chant billions of time but continue to be deluded by a cursive mind. In the worst situation, one’s mind become ‘scattered’ (散乱) and cannot be focused. This is because, although the practitioner may be chanting, he may also be indulging in delusional thoughts. Inadvertently, that resulted in a practitioner training the mind to ‘wander’! When that happens, it becomes very difficult for the mind to attain wisdom. Therefore, instead of training for enlightenment, one is actually training for delusion! As we can see here, the destination is completely different.

Next, let us examine the word 念. It can also be translated as recollection or remembrance or contemplation. In the Theravada tradition, the practice of nian-fo or nenbutsu refers to recollecting or contemplating the Buddha’s quality. This is an important practice because it produces the right understanding of Buddha and enlightenment. This prevents a Buddhist from mistaking Buddha as God. Here’s a link to a previous post Getting to Know Buddha.

From the previous post, we should also realize that this Theravada practice can also be found in the Mahayana system and is known as recalling the ten honorifics of Buddha (念佛十号)Interestingly, this Chinese term can also be literally translated into “chanting the Buddha’s name 10 times”. Can you imagine the great confusion and difference in practice arising from that 2 different translation?

If we possess the right understanding, we will not think that Buddha is a ‘ruler’ / ‘God’ of his Pure-land. Our practice will also not be mistaken as a type of spiritual work/chore that can earn us a passage to Paradise / Pure-land. This is very important because our practice will not be Buddhist when we hold the wrong views. Instead, our wrong view made us conceptualize another God-like being in our mind and we are just worshiping that imaginary “God” in our mind.

In summary, our misunderstanding can result in a great difference to the result of our practice. Therefore, it is important to remember;

  1. Buddha is not a God
  2. Chanting is not for ‘pleasing’ Buddha, nor is it a type of spiritual work / chore that earns us a “visa”

May all be well and happy.

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