Way back when in 2005, I got my first exposure to Pure Land Buddhism in the city of Kyoto at a famous temple named Chion-in, where I saw a lone monk chanting evening prayers before a statue of the Buddha. Something about that moment made a real impression on me and I carried that back to the US, where I found some good resources on the Jodo Shu school of Pure Land Buddhism.¹ As a zealous new follower, I started out reciting the nembutsu (or, “namu amida butsu”) almost daily. I would often recite using my double-ringed rosary 1080 times in roughly 15 minutes intervals, sometimes more than one.
But then life happened: I got busier with work, raising two kids, etc. By and by my recitations have gotten fewer and fewer, and further and further apart.
Some Buddhists that I meet are shocked when I tell them that there are weeks where I don’t recite the nembutsu at all, and sometimes I myself have gone through periods of regret and guilt over this. At such moments, Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head and I wonder if I should quit Buddhism.
But where does all this come from and why does it matter?
Unlike some religions based on a single book, Buddhism has a large collection of “sutras” which are reputed to be sermons of the Buddha that have been passed down.² For Pure Land Buddhism, the core sutra is the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life sometimes called the “Larger Sutra”, which is the largest of the three Buddhist texts that are central Pure Land Buddhism. You can’t have Pure Land Buddhism without the Larger Sutra, basically.
The Larger Sutra, among other things, is an origin story (think: Marvel comic superheroes 😋) of Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. As part of this origin story, it is said in that sutra that Amitabha Buddha made 48 vows that he would accomplish before completing his quiet for Enlightenment,³ but traditionally the most important is the so-called primal vow or 18th vow:
(18) If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offences and abuse the right Dharma.
(trans. by Professor A.C. Muller)
Honen, who was something like the father (or grandfather?) of Pure Land Buddhism as a distinct sect in Japan, gathered a large array of followers and disciples, both monastic and secular, and among these disciples there was a broad spectrum of interpretation.
At one extreme end among Honen’s followers was Kōsai (幸西, 1163 – May 20, 1247) who briefly started a movement called the “One-Recitation Doctrine” (ichinen-gi, 一念義). The idea was that if one truly had faith in Amitabha Buddha, they would recite only once and entrust Amitabha Buddha’s compassion from there forward. Even if one lived a rotten life thereafter, if they maintained faith, they would certainly be reborn in the Pure Land. Shinran, who later founded the off-shoot Jodo Shinshu sect, leaned in this direction, but under his 8th successor, Rennyo, this idea was further developed. For Rennyo, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha was really nothing more than an expression of gratitude toward the Buddha’s compassion. This sense of faith and gratitude underscores a lot of Jodo Shinshu (and general Japanese-Buddhist) thinking even in modern times.
At the other end was Ryūkan (隆寛, 1148 – January 21st, 1228) who led the “Many-Recitation Doctrine” (tanen-gi, 多念義) who felt that the name should be recited constantly. This was a tool to help fix one’s mind on Amitabha Budha, accumulate more and more positive karma which paved the way for rebirth in the Pure Land, but also an affirmation of Amitabha’s vow. In medieval times, both in China and later Japan, this could mean tens of thousands of recitations per day for monks and nuns. Even lay people were encouraged to recite as much as was reasonably possible as long as it didn’t affect one’s livelihood. Benchō (弁長, June 20, 1162 – March 16, 1238) who went on to found the main “Chinzei branch” of the Jodo Shu sect leaned in this direction, though arguably took a more middle-of-the-road approach. Nevertheless, Bencho did expound the value of reciting the Buddha’s name as a routine practice.
Honen, himself, tried to strike a balance between these extremes with the following quotation attributed to him: (source)
Again, to say that frequent repetitions of the nembutsu [the Buddha’s name] mean the encouragement of the principle of self-power (jiriki) shows total ignorance of facts and is an awful mistake. Even one repetition or two of the sacred name can be said to be the nembutsu of salvation by one’s own power, if one does it with that thought in one’s mind. But a hundred or a thousand repetitions day and night for a hundred or a thousand days can be the nembutsu of salvation by Amida’s power alone (tariki), as long as one does it with an entire trust in the merits of the great Vow, looking up in confidence to Amida with every repetition.
as well as:
Honen once said, “It’s important that you should never forget the repetition of the nembutsu. Keep it in mind continually. Even though you do impure things or speak impure words, it is a fine thing to keep your heart pure and to say the nembutsu over and over again without stopping it even for a moment. If you go on repeating it at all times and under all circumstances, it will finally bring you to ojo [往生, rebirth in the Pure Land] – no doubt about it.”
So, Honen definitely seems to lean closer to the “many recitations” camp, but only so long as one does it with faith in mind. Dry, repetitions for the sake of just doing it doesn’t really mean much. On the other hand, Honen also seems to imply that there’s always value in reciting the nembutsu, even if one’s heart is not entirely in it.
In other writings, Honen warned that relying too much on faith tended to make one lazy and risk back-sliding.
Back to the original question, Honen and other past Pure Land teachers definitely implied some kind of daily practice, as a way of avoiding complacency if nothing else. For monks that often meant hours and countless thousands of repetitions per day, while the answer was more vague for lay followers. The expectation was that followers would adapt it somehow into their lives and recite at a suitable cadence. However, a daily routine was only as good as one’s devotion to Amitabha Buddha. It is important not to let the practice get rote or stale, so Honen even encouraged the occasional “nembutsu retreat” where one would shut themselves from the world for a bit for extra contemplation and recitation.4
As for me, perhaps it’s time to revisit my practice and make a new commitment. I wrote this post partly for my own benefit, but also for new Pure Land Buddhists who may be struggling with a sense of inadequacy in their own practice. Imposter Syndrome is a real thing, and it gets in the way of Buddhist practice. Reciting the nembutsu even once a day is much better than not doing it at all, or doing it in lengthy “bursts” that wear one out and aren’t sustainable.
Like a river that slowly shapes a valley, even small bits of Buddhist practice applied over a very long period of time can have a powerful outcome.
¹ I’ve visited Chion-in again some years later, and it was still great. We also visit the other head temple of Jodo Shu Buddhism, Zojoji near Tokyo Tower yearly as well. It’s our “power spot” as the Japanese say: our place to spiritually recharge. More on that in another post.
² Sutras in Buddhism are a complicated topic for another day, but all you need to know is that there are a lot of them, covering various subjects, composed at different periods of time, and reflecting different times and places in Buddhism. The idea isn’t so much that they represent literal sayings of the Buddha, but that they “rehash” and retell the Buddhist teachings across the generations. Think of it like a famous TV or movie franchise, which reboots itself from time to time. Sometimes the reboots are good, sometimes they’re lousy, but they’re still the same basic story retold over and over.
³ Also known as the path of the Bodhisattva, but that’s a story for another day.
4 As opposed to modern Buddhist “retreats” that cost thousands of dollars and are sometimes led by monks of questionable ethics. Indeed, Honen’s disciple Bencho once famously remarked:
People maintain that the best place for a life of retirement is the Kokawa Temple or Mount Koya. But as for me, there is nothing to compare with the bed from which I rise every morning.
Truly, the best Buddhism is the Buddhism you carry with you every day.🥰
3 thoughts on “Pure Land Buddhism: How Many Times Should One Recite The Nembutsu?”
Very interesting. I recite the most in the mornings, it beautifully calms and centres my mind. I sometimes start my formal meditation sessions with Nembutsu. I also do it during the day. It is a beautiful practice. I was however struggling a lot in the past trying to reconcile the Nembutsu practice with my sceptical mind, but eventually gave up and simply immersed myself in it. Like you said, the best Buddhism is the Buddhism you carry with you every day.
Thank you. All the best 🙂
Hi Adrian, I know how you feel and I have probably been on all sides of the spectrum: skeptic, devout believer, etc. It’s probably something that happens the longer you follow a particular religious path.
I can’t really say where exactly I fall now, but I do enjoy my little (and infrequent) nembutsu practice and the Pure Land holds a special allure that I can’t easily dismiss and for now that’s good enough for me.
Thanks for visiting!
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Lovely. Thank you for responding, Doug. I really enjoy your blog, especially the posts about Buddhism. I also appreciated your previous blog. All the best, Sir!