Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": HONEN AND THE INVOCATION OF AMIDA


Honen (1133-1212) believed that the invocation of Amida's name, Namu Amida Butsu, was the only sure hope of salvation. This invocation became known as the Nembutsu, a term which originally signified meditation on the name of Amida, but later meant simply the fervent repetition of his name.

The wife of the ex-Regent, Kanezane Tsukinowa, already converted to Honen's faith, asked him some questions regarding the practice of Nembutsu. Honen replied as follows:

I have the honour of addressing you regarding your inquiry about the Nembutsu. I am delighted to know that you are invoking the sacred name. Indeed the practice of the Nembutsu is the best of all for bringing us to Ojo,1 because it is the discipline prescribed in Amida's Original Vow. The discipline required in the Shingon, and the meditation of the Tendai, are indeed excellent, but they are not in the Vow. This Nembutsu is the very thing that Shakya himself entrusted 2 to his disciple, Ananda. As to all other forms of religious practice belonging to either the meditative or non-meditative classes, however excellent they may be in themselves, the great Master did not specially entrust them to Ananda to be handed down to posterity. Moreover, the Nembutsu has the endorsation of all the Buddhas of the six quarters; and, while the disciples of the exoteric and esoteric schools, whether in relation to the phenomenal or noumenal worlds, are indeed most excellent, the Buddhas do not give them their final approval. And so, although there are many kinds of religious exercise, the Nembutsu far excels them all in its way of Attaining Ojo. Now there are some people who are unacquainted with the way of birth into the Pure Land, who say, that because the Nembutsu is so easy, it is all right for those who are incapable of keeping up the practices required in the Shingon, and the meditation of the Tendai sects, but such a cavil is absurd. What I mean is, that I throw aside those practices not included in Amida's Vow, nor prescribed by Shakyamuni, nor having the endorsement of the Buddhas of all quarters of the universe, and now only throw myself upon the Original Vow of Amida, according to the authoritative teaching of Shakyamuni, and in harmony with what the many Buddhas of the six quarters have definitely approved. I give up my own foolish plans of salvation, and devote myself exclusively to the practice of that mightily effective discipline of the Nembutsu, with earnest prayer for birth into the Pure Land. This is the reason why the abbot of the Eshin-in Temple in his work Essentials of Salvation (Ojoyoshu) makes the Nembutsu the most fundamental of all. And so you should now cease from all other religious practices, apply yourself to the Nembutsu alone, and in this it is all-important to do it with undivided attention. Zendo,3 who himself attained to that perfect insight (samadhi) which apprehends the truth, dearly expounds the full meaning of this in his Commentary on the Meditation Sutra, and in the Two-volumed Sutra the Buddha (Shakya) says, 'Give yourself with undivided mind to the repetition of the name of the Buddha who is in Himself endless life.' And by 'undivided mind' he means to present a contrast to a mind which is broken up into two or three sections, each pursuing its own separate object, and to exhort to the laying aside of everything but this one thing only. In the prayers which you offer for your loved ones, you will find that the Nembutsu is the one most conducive to happiness. In the Essentials of Salvation, it says that the Nembutsu is superior to all other works. Also Dengyo Daishi, when telling how to put an end to the misfortunes which result from the seven evils, exhorts to the practice of the Nembutsu. Is there indeed anything anywhere that is superior to it for bringing happiness in the present or the future life? You ought by all means to give yourself up to it alone.'


1 Rebirth in the Pure Land.

2 This refers to the passage in the Meditation Sutra which says: 'Buddha said to Ananda, "Preserve well these words. I mean to preserve well the name of the Buddha of Endless Life."'

3 Chinese Patriarch of Pure Land Sect.

Translation and notes by Rev. Harper Havelock Coates and Rev. Ryugaku Ishizuka, Honen, the Buddhist Saint, III (Kyoto, 1925), PP. 371-3

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