The term ‘nembutsu’ (Chin., nien-fo) refers to several practices oriented toward Amitābha.the Buddha of the western Pure Land. The ambiguity of the first of the two Chinese characters (‘nem’) has served to provide for several modes of practice. First, the term means ‘to contemplate’, and originally meant to meditate on the image (either an actual image or a visualized one) of the Buddha, contemplating all of his excellent qualities. For example, the T'ien-t'ai school's ‘constantly walking samādhi’ involved circumambulating (see pradakṣina) an image of Amitābha for 90 days, keeping an eidetic image of the Buddha in the mind at all times until he actually appeared. Later Chinese Pure Land masters, such as Chi-hsing Ch'o-wu (1741–1810) dispensed with the image and taught disciples to contemplate the name of the Buddha as itself containing all the Buddha's qualities. Second, the term also means ‘to recite aloud’, and this reading gave rise to the practice of calling the Buddha's name, either orally or mentally. This is the sense in which the practice is understood by the Pure Land traditions of China (with some exceptions), Japan.and Korea.
Within the meaning of nembutsu as mental or oral invocation, there are two more subdivisions related to the purpose of one's practice. In the first, one recites the name of the Buddha to purify and concentrate one's mind, and to create links to the Buddha and his Pure Land in order to ensure rebirth there after one dies. When this is the purpose, one practises constantly and vigorously. This is the dominant conception of nembutsu practice in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism. This practice was based on the notion of ‘self-power’ (Chin., tzu-li; Jap., jiriki), in which the practitioner works to achieve certain results, although no results are expected without the Buddha also contributing his own virtue and power to the process. The second way of looking at oral and mental invocation is in terms of ‘other-power’ (Chin., t'a-li; Jap., tariki). This idea is based on a set of vows undertaken by the Buddha Amitābha prior to his attaining Buddhahood. A passage from the Longer Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra reads: ‘If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who 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.’ Since he did indeed become a Buddha, then this vow must have been fulfilled, which means that practitioners, having little confidence in their own abilities, can call on the Buddha's name and attain rebirth in the Pure Land. While the Chinese tradition acknowledges this understanding of nembutsu as necessary for some, it still maintains that the practitioner should work towards rebirth in the Pure Land to the best of their abilities. The Japanese tradition, by contrast, emphasizes the believer's powerlessness to effect his or her own liberation, and sees practice entirely in terms of invoking Amitābha's name in dependence upon ‘other-power’. This constitutes the chief difference between the Chinese and Japanese traditions. See also Nien-fo; Namu Amida Butsu.