Reciting the Name of the Buddha

Edited by Donald S. Lopez
Translated by Dennis Hirota

Featured in Mountain Record 24.3, Winter 2006


It is prophesied in numerous texts that the teachings of the Buddha will one day disappear from the world. The prophecies differ on how long the dharma will remain after the death of the Buddha; some say only five hundred years, some say two thousand. But all describe a gradual process of decline, not in the quality of the doctrine but in the quality of the disciples; the monks will be lax in their maintenance of their vows, the laypeople will be complacent, and the general fortitude and intelligence of practitioners will decline.

In China, Buddhists often despaired of their ability to make sense of the mass of disparate texts, doctrines and practices that reached them from India. From the fifth century onwards, the decline of the dharma became a consistent concern of Chinese Buddhist thought and practice. Some concluded that they were living in the last stage of the decline of the dharma and thus were constitutionally incapable of making progress on the path that the Buddha had set forth.

Perhaps the most influential response to the disappearance of the dharma in East Asia was Pure Land practice. Devotion to Amitabha and the prayer to be reborn in his pure land was a common element of many Chinese Buddhist schools. However, in the sixth century, some monks began to argue that in the time of the decline of the dharma it was no longer possible to follow the path traversed by the great arhats and bodhisattvas of the past. The monk Daozhuo (562-645) said that there were two paths: the path of sages and the path of rebirth in Amitabha’s Land of Bliss. Only the latter was accessible to beings living in the degenerate age because Amitabha had made a vow to deliver all who sincerely sought it.

 

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The central practice in China was called nianfo, a term that means “buddha contemplation,” “buddha intonation,” and “buddha invocation.” It is a translation of the Sanskrit term buddhanusmrti, literally “mindfulness of the Buddha.” This practice had clear Indian antecedents and took a number of forms. The Sutra on the Contemplation of the Buddha of Infinite Life (Guan wu liang shou jing)—presented as an Indian sutra, but in fact of Chinese or Central Asian origin—prescribes “ten moments of single-minded and sustained recitation of the Buddha’s name.” Popular preachers such as Shandao (613-681) extolled the practice and organized mass recitations of Amitabha’s name in the capital.