Japanese Tendai Buddhism, that is the Buddhist sect descended from the venerable Chinese Tiantai (天台) tradition started by Zhiyi (智顗, 538–597), has a number of interesting, not to mention pithy, teachings and phrases. Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular phrase called asa daimoku ni yū nenbutsu (朝題目に夕念仏). In its most literal sense, it means “Odaimoku in the morning; Nenbutsu in the evening”.
This phrase is fascinating to me, because it summarizes two important facets of Tendai Buddhism.
First, the “odaimoku”. Tiantai Buddhism in China was the first serious effort at taking the vast corpus of teachings imported from India and the Silk Road and synthesizing them into a native school of thought, not just something lifted-and-shipped from abroad. In order to do this, Zhiyi analyzed the vast number of Buddhist sutras, shastras (essays) and commentaries and arranged them into a kind of hierarchy. At the very top, he felt the Lotus Sutra was the most important teaching, the summation of everything else. For this reason, the Tiantai/Tendai schools treat the Lotus Sutra as the core teaching. In devotional practices, this was expressed in something called the o-daimoku (お題目) attributed to famous Tendai monks such as Genshin, but popularized to a greater degree by Nichiren in the 13th century. The most common form of the o-daimoku chant is namu myoho renge kyo (南無妙法蓮華経)1 which means something like “Praise to the Wondrous (alternatively “Mystic”) Law of the Lotus [Sutra]”. This is also the central practice of the Nichiren Buddhist sets you see today: Nichiren-shu, etc.
However, over time, Japanese Tendai Buddhism began to strongly adopt Pure Land Buddhist teachings from mainland China as well.2 Zhiyi, when he synthesized the various Buddhist teachings and practices paid special attention to meditations on Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, in his magnum opus, the Great treatise on Concentration and Insight (摩訶止観, Móhē Zhǐguān), but these meditations were intended for serious monastic disciples only, and could be very physically demanding. While Tendai monks sometimes did undertake these practices, the popular practices related to Pure Land Buddhism gradually evolved into chanting practices (again, due to Genshin) similar to the odaimoku. This chanting, is called the nenbutsu (念仏) or “mindfulness of the Buddha [Amitabha]”. The most common form of the nenbutsu is namu amida butsu, and this is overwhelmingly what you find in Pure Land Buddhist schools in Japan today such as Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu. Since the 12th century, many Buddhists in Japan have focused on reciting the nenbutsu and aspiring to be born in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha as a refuge, but also as a means of progressing on the Buddhist path much faster: like taking the highway to get to your destination vs. taking the back roads.
These two things may sound contradictory, but they’re not. The second chapter of the Lotus Sutra introduces a couple important concepts to Mahayana Buddhism (that is Buddhism across all of East Asia): the One Vehicle and Expedient Means. The One Vehicle was a way of reconciling all the rival Buddhist schools in India by teaching that all of them were really just the same thing, and that sincere practioners were all heading in the same direction, towards Buddhahood, in the end. No need to argue over minutia. The Expedient Means teaching just recognizes that the various meditations, devotional chants, sutras, Buddhist schools, etc, were all just tools to get us there. The Buddha in the Lotus Sutra hammers his point over and over again in subsequent chapters: the various teachings and practices are all just temporary tools to suit a time, place, or need. All of them point to the truth, but must be put down when they are no longer needed.
In this sense, the Pure Land teachings, the chanting of the nenbutsu and so on is just another expedient means, albeit an especially popular and efficacious one. One could also lump Zen meditation, esoteric Vajrayana teachings and such under the same umbrella, and Tendai Buddhism pretty much does this. Unlike later Buddhist schools in Japan that center around “one practice, one teaching”, Tendai maintains the basic structure imported from China where all teachings and practices are kept under the same basic umbrella.
However, there’s more.
The whole asa daimoku ni yū nenbutsu phrase isn’t just limited to reciting the odaimoku in the morning, and the nembutsu at night. It also expresses a mindset, summarized by two other key concepts in Japanese Tendai Buddhism: hokke sange and reiji sahõ.
Hokke sange (法華懺法) means to reflect on one’s actions in light of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. This is a very time-honored practice across the entire Buddhist religion, and is why (in my opinion) Buddhism is so effective as a form of mental discipline and training. Unlike the Christian notion of “guilt”, the idea behind self-reflection is a kind of objective, scientific review of one’s actions and whether they have been wholesome or unwholesome. Here, the Dharma is used as a kind of yardstick to measure one’s actions, and in the case of Tendai Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra in particular. Upon reflection, many Buddhists will recite some kind of verse to acknowledge (not punish oneself) and resolve not to do it again. That’s the “san-gé” part of hokke sange. You’re giving yourself a fresh start and resolving to try again. Like rehearsing for a play: you’ll have good days and bad, but you just keep at it until it becomes second nature.
While hokke sange reflects on the past, reiji sahõ (例時作法) is forward thinking, and expresses the desire to make the Pure Land of the Buddha not just a reality in the future, but here and now starting with oneself. The sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is meant to be a kind of bombshell teaching as the Buddha explains that, among other things, not only is the Dharma eternal (and thus the Buddha has always existed), but that his Pure Land has always existed on Vulture Peak (an important site in India), even if people can’t see it. This may sound strange, but what the Buddha is saying in chapter sixteen in my view is that the mind is the most important thing, and even when “living beings witness the end of a kalpa [an eon] and all is consumed in a great fire”, those whose minds are honest and sincere will see that the Pure Land of Buddha is still right there and available to anyone who seeks refuge. One need not pine for a glorious past, or a particular holy site, it’s all there when you need it. Further, the Pure Land isn’t just a place, it’s the embodiment of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, at its finest, and through our actions, words and thoughts, we gradually make this world the Pure Land for others as well.
All this is to say that the pithy phrase asa daimoku ni yū nenbutsu expresses a lot of stuff, at a lot of levels. In my opinion, if one just adopts this phrase as a simple, daily practice guide (recite namu-myoho-renge-kyo in the morning, even a few times, then recite namu-amida-butsu in the evening, even a few times), then that’s more than enough. As I’ve said before, better to do a small, sustainable Buddhist practice often than a big, elaborate one only occasionally. If you even chant one of these things as part of a small, sustainable practice, you’re doing great.
However, what’s interesting to me is that there is a whole lot more under the surface. As one explores this practice more, they realize that there’s a lot of meaning behind a few simple chants, enough for a lifetime of practice. ☺️
P.S. This article on the Tendai Buddhism homepage (Japanese language only) was a good source for this post. The article also points out that the two sides of Tendai Buddhism: exoteric teachings and esoteric (taimitsu or vajrayana) teachings are two separate things within Tendai. This entire blog post has been focused on the exoteric teachings, as I have no experience with the esoteric side and being esoteric, you would need to find a proper teacher anyway. 😉
1 Sometimes you see it pronounced as nam-myoho renge kyo (dropping the “u” in “mu”), but that gets into doctrinal differences among Nichiren Buddhist sects that I personally don’t want to get involved in.
2 This was, needless to say, a strong point of contention by Nichiren, who sought to restore the Tendai teachings to a more pristine form (with the Lotus Sutra as the essential teaching), but also to make it more accessible to people as well.