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Mahāyāna Buddhism

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Nianfo (Chinese: , pinyin: niànfó; Japanese: 念仏 nembutsu; Korean: 염불 yeombul; Vietnamese: niệm Phật), is a term commonly seen in the Pure Land school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. It derives from the Sanskrit term "buddhānusmṛti", which means "mindfulness of the Buddha." In the context of Pure Land practice, it generally refers to the repetition of the name of Amitābha Buddha.

Nianfo in Sanskrit

Although the Sanskrit phrase used in India is not mentioned originally in the bodies of the two main Pure Land sutras, it appears in the opening of the extant Sanskrit Infinite Life Sutra as the following:[1]


The apostrophe and omission of the first "A" in "Amitābha" comes from normal Sanskrit sandhi transformation, and implies that the first "A" is implied and spoken more quickly. A more accessible rendering might be:

Namo Amitābhāya.

The phrase literally means "Homage to the One of Infinite Light" or simply "Homage to the Infinite Light."

Nianfo in Various Languages

As the practice of nianfo spread from India to various other regions, the original pronunciation and words changed to fit various native languages.

Language As written Phonetic
Sanskrit नमोऽमिताभाय Namo Amitābhāya
Chinese 南無阿彌陀佛
Námó Āmítuófó
Japanese Kanji: 南無阿弥陀仏
Hiragana: なむ あみだ ぶつ
Namu Amida Butsu
Korean 나무아미타불 Namu Amita Bul
Vietnamese Nam mô A di đà Phật Nammo Ayida Fuk (Southern)
Nammo Azida Fut (Northern)

In China, the practice of nianfo was codified with the establishment of the separate Pure Land school of Buddhism. The most common form of this is the six syllable mantra[2], some shorten into Āmítuó Fó[3].

Purpose of Nianfo

In most Pure Land traditions, mindfully chanting of the name of Amitābha Buddha is viewed as allowing one to obtain birth in Amitābha's western pure land called Sukhāvatī (skt. "Realm of Bliss"). It is felt that this act would help to negate vast stores of negative karma that might hinder one's pursuit of buddhahood. In addition, Sukhāvatī is a place of refuge where one can become enlightened without being distracted by the sufferings of our existence.

In Chinese Buddhism, the nianfo is specifically taken to be a type of mantra used in meditation, and it is often practiced while counting with Buddhist prayer beads. In China there is also the combined practice of Pure Land and Chán. As taught by Master Nan Huaijin, the nianfo is chanted slowly, and the mind is emptied out after each repetition. When idle thoughts arise, the nianfo is repeated again to clear them. With constant practice, the mind progressively empties and the meditator attains samādhi.[4]

Various Pure Land schools in Japan have different interpretations of the nianfo, often based on faith in Amitābha rather than on meditation. In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, the nianfo is reinterpreted as an expression of gratitude to Amitābha Buddha. The idea behind this is that rebirth into Sukhāvatī is assured the moment one first had faith in Amitābha.

Origins of the Nianfo

The earliest dated sutra describing the nianfo is the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra (first century BCE), which is thought to have originated in ancient kingdom of Gandhāra. This sutra does not enumerate any vows of Amitābha or the qualities of Sukhāvatī, but rather briefly describes the repetition of the name of Amitābha as a means to enter his realm through meditation.

"Bodhisattvas hear about the Buddha Amitabha and call him to mind again and again in this land. Because of this calling to mind, they see the Buddha Amitabha. Having seen him they ask him what dharmas it takes to be born in the realm of the Buddha Amitabha. Then the Buddha Amitabha says to these bodhisattvas: 'If you wish to come and be born in my realm, you must always call me to mind again and again, you must always keep this thought in mind without letting up, and thus you will succeed in coming to be born in my realm."

The major large sutra that establishes Amitābha Buddha and the practice of nianfo is the Infinite Life Sutra. In this sutra, Amitābha Buddha, still a bodhisattva, resolves to save all beings or he will never achieve complete enlightenment and become a buddha. According to the sutra, he made 48 vows as part of his efforts to become a buddha and save all beings. One famous part is the 18th vow, which states:

"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."

The practice of the nianfo became very popular in India, and rapidly spread to East Asia. Possible reasons for its popularity are the promise of eternal happiness, the literary form of the Pure Land sutras, descriptions of Sukhāvatī, and the simplicity of repeating the name of Amitābha.

Nianfo in Modern History

Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Mahāyāna monk who famously burned himself to death in an act of protest, said the nianfo as his last words immediately before death. He sat in the lotus position, rotated a string of wooden prayer beads, and recited the words "Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật" before striking the match and dropping it on himself.

External links


  1. "Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon: Sukhāvatīvyūhaḥ (Vistaramātṛkā)". Retrieved 2009-12-31. 
  2. 單純念佛,最殊勝!
  3. 淨業持名四十八法
  4. Yuan, Margaret. Grass Mountain: A Seven Day Intensive in Ch'an Training with Master Nan Huai-Chin. York Beach: Samuel Weiser, 1986

ta:நியான்ஃபோ vi:Niệm Phật

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