Buddha-invocation (Ch. nianfo; J. nembutsu) in its various forms is the most common practice in Buddhism. It is a routine daily practice in nearly all schools of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana. Literally, it means “mindfulness of the Buddha,” but in Pure Land Buddhism it refers specifically to the repetition of “Namo Amituofo.” Some may regard “Namo Amituofo” as a kind of mantra. It is one of the simplest forms of Buddha-invocation, and is also taken to be a form of greeting among Buddhists and even the general public in Chinese communities.
There are many kinds and methods of Buddha-invocation, for different purposes and benefits. However, in Pure Land Buddhism, Buddha-invocation is the primary practice and has different characteristics to other kinds of Buddha-invocation. So, what is the main difference between the Buddha-invocation of the pristine Pure Land and other schools of Buddhism?
In a nutshell, the main feature of Buddha-invocation in the pristine Pure Land school of Buddhism is recitation of Amitabha’s name in accordance with his fundamental (18th) vow, which states: “If, when I achieve Buddhahood, sentient beings of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, wish to be reborn in my land and recite my name, even ten times, should fail to be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excepted are those who commit the five gravest transgressions or slander the correct Dharma.”*
Some of the differences between this approach and those of other schools can be summarized as follows:
1. Pristine Pure Land practitioners specifically and exclusively invoke Amitabha Buddha as their practice; they do not invoke any other Buddha because the Pure Land school of Buddhism originates from the vows made by Amitabha Buddha, particularly the 18th vow, which relates to deliverance through his power. Other Buddhists may invoke other Buddhas in the ten directions and three times as well.
2. Pristine Pure Land practitioners invoke Amitabha Buddha for the sole purpose of rebirth in the Land of Bliss, as promised and assured by Amitabha in his fundamental vow. Other Buddhists may have other aims, such as removing karmic obstacles, health and longevity, wealth and fortune, a calm mind, or one of the stages of enlightenment.
3. Pristine Pure Land practitioners must recite Amitabha’s name, as specified in Amitabha’s 17th and 18th vows. Other Buddhists may recite Pure Land sutras, mantras, and so on as well.
4. As specified in Amitabha’s 17th and 18th vows, pristine Pure Land practitioners invoke Amitabha Buddha primarily in the form of recitation through speech, which is called “assured karma of rebirth” by Master Shandao, the founder of the pristine Pure Land school. Other forms of invocation, such as prostrating with the body, and recalling Amitabha and keeping him in mind, are considered secondary practices.
5. Pristine Pure Land practitioners recite Amitabha’s name at any time and place. They can recite in any circumstances, such as walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, whether focused or distracted. It makes no difference to the effect of the Amitabha recitation as far as rebirth in the Land of Bliss is concerned. Amitabha’s name is Amitabha Buddha himself in the form of light, illuminating the ten directions without any obstruction, which is in fact the meaning of the name “Amitabha.” On the other hand, peaceful surroundings or a concentrated mind may be necessary for those who wish to acquire a certain meditative state through Amitabha recitation.
6. Pristine Pure Land practitioners must recite Amitabha’s name in six syllables, in other words, Na-mo A-mi-tuo-fo. This is because “Namo” means “taking Refuge,” which signifies faith and aspiration, the first two credentials necessary for rebirth, and “Amituofo” is the third credential, signaling the practice of rebirth. These three credentials must be fulfilled in accordance with the fundamental vow. Other Buddhists may recite Amitabha’s name in four syllables as well.
7. In accordance with the fundamental vow, pristine Pure Land aspirants entrust themselves to Amitabha’s deliverance. They build up their faith in Amitabha’s fundamental vow through the exclusive practice of Amitabha recitation. This is another unique feature of Buddha-invocation in pristine Pure Land Buddhism.
8. According to Amitabha’s fundamental vow, the entire responsibility for the rebirth of pristine Pure Land aspirants is undertaken by Amitabha Buddha. Therefore, they can be joyful in the exclusive practice of Amitabha recitation without any pressure, as described in the 18th vow. This is quite different from other kinds of Buddha-invocation for the purposes of accumulating merit and virtue.
9. As pristine Pure Land aspirants recite Amitabha’s name in accordance with his fundamental vow, they will automatically be embraced by his light, pervaded by genuine merit and virtue, which will enable them to be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Therefore, it is not necessary to dedicate the merit and virtue of their recitation to Amitabha Buddha and his pureland. Other Buddhists usually dedicate the merit and virtue of their Buddha-invocation practice in order to obtain other benefits.
10. Through exclusive Amitabha recitation, practitioners develop an intimate relationship with Amitabha Buddha. As they have such a strong bond with him, their karmic obstacles will be removed by Amitabha’s auspicious light to enable them to be reborn in the Land of Bliss at the end of their life. This is why Shakyamuni Buddha encourages us to recite Amitabha’s name exclusively.
Moreover, it should be noted that there is no prerequisite for aspirants to recite Amitabha’s name for rebirth in the Land of Bliss. They can be Buddhists or non-Buddhists, monastics or householders, wise or stupid, good or evil, rich or poor, bodhisattvas or hell-beings, healthy or dying, and so on. Master Shandao called Amitabha recitation the assured karma of rebirth because it accords with the fundamental vow. Pristine Pure Land practitioners complete the great task of rebirth in the Land of Bliss within this lifetime, which is one of the key features of pristine Pure Land Buddhism.
*Based on a translation of the Infinite Life Sutra by Hisao Inagaki.