There Is More To Pure Land Buddhism Than Just The Nembutsu

(Warning: Buddhist rant)

Recently, I got into a debate online (that always ends well) about so-called “auxilliary” practices with some fellow Buddhists on an old, private discussion forum for Jodo Shu Buddhist teachings.

The debate started after someone on the forum asked about whether visualization of Amida Buddha was permitted in Jodo Shu, and I was not satisfied with the responses thus far which tended to strongly imply that it wasn’t worth doing, and that one should rely on the nembutsu only. I was somewhat annoyed by these replies, so I responded to the original poster like so (quoting almost verbatim here, minus some typographical editing):

In my experience, both Jodo Shu and the related Jodo Shinshu sects doctrinally focus on the spoken nembutsu only. I would argue though, that this “exclusive nembutsu teaching” is an idiosyncracy of Jodo Shu and does not always reflect the Pure Land tradition in general.

You are correct in that the Contemplation Sutra does teach an elaborate process for visualizing Amida Buddha, and this kind of visualization practice has been undertaken by monks, particularly in the Tiantai (Chinese) and Tendai (Japanese) sects among others. People tend to focus on a single passage toward the end of the sutra whereby reciting the name of Amida Buddha erases all karma, but in some monastic traditions, people have focused on visualization too.

It’s also true that there are parallel traditions for rebirth in the Pure Land that have nothing to do with the nembutsu, mostly in the esoteric tradition. Even today, Shingon Buddhism has visualization/chanting practices related to Amida Buddha that have little or anything to do with the nembutsu. Such parallel practices include such things as the Mantra of Light and various dharanis that sometimes appear in Zen traditions. Genshin, who was ironically a “patriarch” of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, listed many such methods in the Ojoyoshu, but in practice he recited the nembutsu like many other monks and nuns did during his time. Further, the 23rd chapter of the Lotus Sutra, clearly mentions rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitayus (Amida) Buddha through upholding the Lotus Sutra, not reciting the nembutsu.

I think most people would agree that the nembutsu tends to be the most simplest and straightforward, and thus people tend to treat it as the only viable solution in the so-called Latter Age of the Dharma. I think this is a bit of a leap, but if I were a priest and someone wanted to know more about the Pure Land, I would start by teaching the nembutsu too. It’s a great practice. On the other hand, I think it’s also important for people spiritually grow and if people want to branch out from the nembutsu, they should be able to do so without a sense of “guilt” caused by artificial, doctrinal orthodoxy. The reason, I think, is that the Pure Land tradition is more broad than the standard Jodo Shu/Shinshu narrative, and people who want to explore should feel free to do so.

Hope that makes sense,


Since my interest in Buddhism began in earnest in 2005, starting with Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu teachings, I have noticed a tendency for these two sects to dominate Pure Land Buddhist discussions among Western adherents. For a long time, I was also a fervent advocate, but I’ve since become wary of the exclusive approach taught by Jodo Shu/Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

The heart of the issue, I believe, is the recitation of the nembutsu (念仏), the Buddha’s name, usually rendered as namu amida butsu (南無阿弥陀仏).

Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu sects treat this as the sole, exclusive practice and spend an inexhaustible amount of writing and research to assert this point. A cursory study of Jodo Shu/Shinshu literature will reveal that there isn’t much beyond this. The nembutsu is treated with an almost mystical reverence (which is especially amusing since such people are quick to reiterate that it’s not a mantra either). The “name” of Amida Buddha (myōgō 名号) is all-important and if you wish to reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, the only sure-fire method is to recite the nembutsu either as a practice (Jodo Shu) or as an expression of gratitude (Jodo Shinshu) for Amida Buddha’s grace already being extended to you. Beyond this, say adherents, nothing else really matters. Other practices in Buddhism may be conducive to you reciting the nembutsu, but have no merit or power beyond this. Even the Precepts aren’t particularly emphasized or important.

But, as I have learned from various sources, including my new book, this is a kind of revisionist history, and example of how prominent sects tend to dominate the conversation and cherry-pick only those things from the Buddhist sutras that bolster their view.

Further after some backlash, I explained further:

Within the context of Jodo Shu (and related sects), I agree that the position is that the nembutsu is the only essential practice. All other practices supplement it.

However, if you read the Three Pure Land sutras in their entirety, I believe that the authors suggested something slightly different. Take a look at this passage from the Larger Sutra (translation by Rev. Hisao Inagaki):

“For this reason, Ananda, sentient beings who wish to see Amitayus while in this world should awaken aspiration for the highest Enlightenment, do meritorious deeds, and aspire to be born in his land.”


“Why do you not diligently practice good, reflect on the naturalness of the Way and realize that it is above all discriminations and is boundlessly pervasive? You should each make a great effort to attain it. Strive to escape from Samsara and be born in the Land of Peace and Provision. Then, the causes of the five evil realms having been destroyed, they will naturally cease to be, and so you will progress unhindered in your pursuit of the Way. The Pure Land is easy to reach, but very few actually go there. It rejects nobody, but naturally and unfailingly attracts beings. Why do you not abandon worldly matters and strive to enter the Way?”

I believe that the original authors of this sutra [were] advocating a more holistic approach toward rebirth in the Pure Land. It’s a similar message at the end of the Contemplation Sutra: spare no expense if you can.

The issue, I have observed, is that medieval Japanese monks had a tendency to read sutras literally and at face-value, because they were assumed to be the literal words of the Buddha (spoiler alert: they are not). It explains why they literally interpreted Dharma Decline as one of several 500-year periods, among other things. However, we’re living in the 21st century and have access to information they didn’t, so I believe it is beneficial to read the sutras critically, not literally.

Sure you can just recite the nembutsu, but why stop there? I believe that’s the message of both the Pure Land sutras and the Lotus Sutra ch. 2 when the Buddha says a person attains Buddhahood through a single nod to the Buddha or a single “hail Buddha”.

The intention of the Pure Land practices, I believe, isn’t just to get there; it’s part of the larger Mahayana-Buddhist theme of the potential of all beings to achieve Buddhahood and in turn help others still mired in Samsara. The Pure Land is one of many so-called “Dharma Gates” to accomplish this. The Pure Land “gate” just happens to be a particularly compelling one (full disclosure, I too recite the nembutsu).

But “the skies the limit” too, so don’t hesitate to adopt other practices if so inclined.

The danger of faithfully following a particular sect and its core beliefs is that you may well overlook obvious faults in logic, and may become complacent. You have to reassure yourself with “mental gymnastics” when faced by doubt or external criticism. My journey through Buddhism started as far back as 2005, and has taken plenty of twists and turns. At one point, I was even training for ordination as a lay priest in the Jodo Shinshu tradition. But in the end, I’ve become disillusioned by the narrow, sometimes dogmatic emphasis on the nembutsu to the exclusion of the larger Buddhist world and its array of practices and teachings. I can blame this doubt on my almost obsessive personal research at the time, but then again, changing your mind is the point of research. It’s OK to change your mind.

Looking back, I was kind of a fool in those days. I was so happy to have a Buddhist community around here like that, with a straightforward, accessible teaching, that I ignored the fact that it ran against the grain of my Buddhists beliefs. The desire to fit in was more important.

But it’s better to admit a sunk cost and move on, than to double-down. I left the community, somewhat abruptly, and floundered around for years (even deleted a blog or two at the time) until I eventually settled into the more holistic, Tendai-Buddhist practice I follow now, which includes the nembutsu, but a whole lot else too. I enjoy having a broader, not narrow, understanding of Mahayana Buddhism and its teachings, and the flexibility to practices various things in Buddhism without the guilt associated with “deviating” from the standard, orthodox teaching of the sect.

“Look, I already faced her once back when I believed in the throne, and it cost me everything. That’s what’s wrong with Asgard. The throne, the secrets, the whole golden sham.”

Valkyrie, “Thor: Ragnarok”

Much of the centuries of traditions, priesthoods, beautiful liturgy and the high quality books printed in English for budding Western communities are, if you scratch the surface and dig deeper, just a golden sham.1 That leaves any spiritual seeker with a dilemma: fall in line and find contentment, or learn what you can, apply what’s useful, and keep moving onward.

The Buddha warned the Kalamas in a famous old sutra long ago:

“Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

trans by Soma Thera

The Kalama Sutta doesn’t mean you can just believe what you want, the Buddha is telling the Kalamas to think for themselves and weigh the teachings and traditions objectively against what they know to be good, right, beneficial and blameless. He is encouraging a kind of scientific observation.

So, if you ever feel pressure from your religious community to “toe the line” or that maybe you’re not a “good Buddhist (or whatever religion)”, stop and remember that the problem might not actually be you.

P. S. For the record, Jodo Shu Buddhism still holds a special place in my heart since it has been a long, and largely positive influence on my life. So I am grateful, but I’ve also moved on.

1 Of course, all of this could be just as easily said of many religious communities around the world.

Published by Doug

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