Galen Amstutz

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:

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The actual presence of the founding teacher was an essential element of Buddhism in its origins, and the desire of followers (in their sense of fallibility and incompleteness) to somehow reexperience such a presence and reliance was a constant in the tradition afterward. The Sanskrit term for this concern was buddhānusmṛti (recollection of the Buddha, thinking on the Buddha, keeping the Buddha in mind); the term was rendered into Chinese as “nienfo” (念仏) which was eventually pronounced “nembutsu” (or alternatively “nenbutsu”) in Japanese. (Nembutsu is used here as the general label and spelling for this bibliographic entry because the concept is most widely recognized in English under that heading.) The concept became particularly associated with Pure Land teachings, since it was by means of some “recollection of the Buddha,” now the transcendental Amitābha, that karmic birth in the Pure Land realm, however interpreted, could be achieved and one could enjoy (perhaps deferred) the presence of and reliance upon the Buddha. In the particular environment of Pure Land teachings nembutsu practice thus meant some kind of engagement with symbolic information (especially visual or auditory), which derived from the Pure Land sutras. However, this came to have a whole range of understandings reflecting the diversity of Pure Land doctrines overall (celestial-realm Pure Land, immanent Pure Land, Jōdoshinshū’s tariki-focused pure land). Broadly, there was a historical shift, especially in East Asia, toward simplification and popularization of practice (especially toward the notion of nembutsu as a mere vocal recitation of the Buddha Amitābha’s name), but the exact nature of proper nembutsu remained a source of debate, especially in Japan where the particular minimalist interpretation maintained by Jōdoshinshū often polarized and dominated the scene. In academic literature, discussions of historical interpretations of practices are interwoven into the general explications of movements and founders in such a way that almost every discussion of Pure Land Buddhism offers some specific information on its particularized idea of nembutsu. Perhaps due to this complexity, scholarship has tended to render nembutsu in terms of the various conventional Buddhist doctrinal languages without attempting to establish what may be going on psychologically. Recently, the pendulum of attention that formerly swung toward Shin Buddhism and its minimalist nembutsu has to some extent swung toward the variety among the other versions of Pure Land nembutsu in Asia.

Article.  8335 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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