Amituofo is a common phrase used in Shaolin and throughout Chinese Buddhist traditions, especially the Pure Land school (Chin.: jìngtǔzōng 净土宗) and the Chan school (Chin.: chánzōng 禅宗). The following article is an explanation of the meaning and unique usage of this phrase in the Shaolin Chan tradition.
Amituofo (Chin.: āmítuófó 阿弥陀佛) is most often heard as a salutation (Chin.: zhìjìng 致敬) among Shaolin practitioners- monastic and laity alike. In greeting and taking leave, individuals join their palms in front of the chest and, with a slight bow toward one another, recite Amituofo. This greeting is often alternatively accompanied with a single hand bow, in which the individual uses only the right palm in front of the chest as a remembrance of the dedicated spirit of the second Chan ancestor Huike (Chin.: èrzǔ huìkě 二组慧可), a story which is told in the article on the origin of Shaolin Chan.
Amituofo is also used as a catch-all phrase replacing many common daily expressions, such as "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "fantastic", "sorry", etc.. In this way we are reminded of our practice.
So what is our practice and what does Amituofo actually mean?
Nianfo (Chin.: niànfó 念佛) means Buddha Remembrance and is the practice of reciting a Buddha's name. Either reciting aloud or in silence, the mind is wholly concentrated on the name and gives no room to discursive thought. The mind then becomes one with the qualities of the Buddha— i.e., wisdom, compassion, etc..
This is a method of "protecting the mind" (Chin.: hànxīn 扞心). It is said with a single recitation countless eons of negative karma (Chin.: nièyuán 孽缘) are destroyed. By not acting on impulse but from a clear and compassionate mind, unfortunate situations are accepted and allowed to pass without creating further causes for their reproduction. This is the familiar practice in Western religious traditions, what is known in Jesus' teachings as "turning the other cheek". By acting in this way, no power is given to injustice and no further fuel is added to the fire, but neither is it left to arise again later. It is rather fighting fire with fire, passively, allowing it to exhaust its own sustenance. It is instantaneously cutting karma.
Namo Amituofo (Chin.: namo āmítuófó 南无阿弥陀佛) is the longer phrase used in Nianfo practice. Namo is a Sanskrit root meaning "homage to" (with utmost respect, honor, and admiration). Amituofo is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word Amitābha Buddha. The Fo (佛) character denotes a Buddha in Chinese. Amitābha then means "infinite/boundless light". So together, Amitabha Buddha or Amituofo is the Buddha of Infinite Light.
In the Pure Land school, Amitabha is the principal Buddha of the Pure Land. Prior to his awakening he made 48 great vows and an aspiration to create a heavenly country for all beings to be reborn in to practice straightly to awakening. This country is described in the Sutras with great detail of splendor and joy. Jewel encrusted birds, heavenly music, fragrant breezes, raining lotus flowers, and golden rivers adorn the land. In this land there is always the opportunity to learn directly from Amitabha.
Of course, to the Western mind this all sounds familiar, with pure faith resulting in heavenly life after death. Naturally it can be made into an alternative belief and yet another religion. However, in the Chan school this is all allegory for the Pure Mind, as it is in this moment. It is a Pure Land right where we are.
"When the mind is pure, the land is pure."
- Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra
As it is said; "all things are created by mind" (Chin.: yīqiè wéixīn zào 一切唯心造). Even modern Quantum Physics now recognizes this very old "Buddhist" principle. Therefore as Bodhidharma says; "Outside this mind there is no Buddha".
The 18th Vow
Amitabha's 18th vow is one of the most important in Chan. It says that whoever should hear Amitabha's name and awaken their highest faith and aspiration to take rebirth in the Pure Land, holding the recollection only ten times will destine them to be reborn there.
In Chan practice this means rebirth of — reawakening to — the Pure Mind, in this very moment. As the Chan saying goes;
"The mind alone is the Pure Land, the original nature is Amitabha"
(Chin.: wéixīn jìngtǔ, běnxìng mítuó 唯心净土，本性弥陀).
For this reason many wrist malas are made with 18 beads, or an extra strand of 18 is added to the 108 bead necklace, to represent this 18th vow.
Nianfo in Chan
The fourth Chan patriarch Daoxin (Chin.: dàoxìn 道信, 580-651) taught what he called the "Samadhi of Oneness," utilizing the recitation of the Buddha's name to pacify the mind. It should be noted however, that since this practice involved reciting the name of any Buddha — a practice dating back to the origins of Buddhism — it was not specifically designed to produce rebirth in the Realm of Bliss, as in the Pure Land school; but it did act as a bridge linking Chan and Nianfo practices. Daoxin taught that the Pure Mind is the Pure Land.
Later, the fifth Chan ancestor Hongren (Chin.: hóngrěn 弘忍, 601-674) also advocated recitation practice for beginners to quiet the mind. Much later the 16th century eminent monk Zhuhong (Chin.: zhuhóng 祩宏, 1535-1615), a practitioner of the unification of Chan and Pure Land schools is quoted with the following;
"This (Pure Land) is the most primal and the most subtle and wondrous. It is also the simplest. Because it is simple, those of high intelligence overlook it. Birth and death are not apart from a single moment of mindfulness. Consequently, all the myriad worldly and world-transcending teachings and methods are not apart from a single moment of mindfulness. Right now, take this moment of mindfulness and be mindful of Buddha, remember Buddha, recite the Buddha's name. How close and cutting! What pure essential energy, so solid and real! If you see through where this mindfulness arises, this is the Amitabha of our inherent nature. This is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West (the meaning of Chan)."Looking back further to the founding patriarch of Chan, Bodhidharma (Chin.: dámó 达摩), we can see his teaching on proper Nianfo practice. He is quite clear with it;
Excerpt from the Breakthrough Sermon:
"Student: The sutras say that someone who wholeheartedly invokes the Buddha is sure to be reborn in the Western Paradise. Since this door leads to Buddhahood, why seek liberation in beholding the mind?Therefore, if we are reciting Amitabha Buddha (Amituofo), we should know that Amitabha means "infinite/boundless light" and Buddha means "clear awareness". Namo Amitabha Buddha (Namo Amituofo) is a call to mind, to take refuge — as in to return and rely upon — the boundless light of awareness, the wisdom that is the original nature.
Bodhidharma: If you're going to invoke the Buddha, you have to do it right. Unless you understand what invoking means, you'll do it wrong. And if you do it wrong, you'll never go anywhere.
Buddha means awareness, the awareness of body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either. And to invoke means to call to mind, to call constantly to mind the rules of discipline and to follow them with all your might. This is what's meant by invoking. Invoking has to do with thought and not with language. If you use a trap to catch fish, once you succeed you can forget the trap. And if you use language to find meaning, once you find it you can forget language. To invoke the Buddha's name you have to understand the Dharma of invoking. If it's not present in your mind, your mouth chants an empty name. As long as you're troubled by the three poisons or by thoughts of yourself, your deluded mind will keep you from seeing the Buddha and you'll only waste your effort. Chanting and invoking are worlds apart, Chanting is done with the mouth. Invoking is done with the mind. And because invoking comes from the mind, it's called the door to awareness. Chanting is centered in the mouth and appears as sound. If you cling to appearances while searching for meaning, you won't find a thing. Thus, sages of the past cultivated introspection and not speech. This mind is the source of all virtues. And this mind is the chief of all powers, The eternal bliss of nirvana comes from the mind at rest. Rebirth in the three realms also comes from the mind. The mind is the door to every world and the mind is the ford to the other shore. Those who know where the door is don't worry about reaching it. Those who know where the ford is don't worry about crossing it."
The characters for Nianfo may also be understood in this way. Nian (念) is made up of two characters. The top is Jin (今) meaning now/at present, and the bottom is Xin (心) meaning the mind. Together they form the word Nian (念) which means to remember, to behold the mind (Buddha/Fo 佛) in this moment.
Nianfo practice in the Chan school is further extended to the traditional Chan practice of questioning. Huatou or "word/speech head" (Chin.: huàtóu 话头) is the practice of using irrational or unanswerable questions to lead the questioner back to the origin of the question itself- the point before thinking arises.
So in Chan practice, Nianfo is used for Samadhi (Chin.: dìng 定, Eng.: deep concentration) and then the Huatou "who is reciting Amituofo" is used as a method of introspective insight.
Amituofo in Shaolin
Reciting Amituofo is an important part of Shaolin practice. We use it to greet and take leave of our masters, brothers, and sisters. We use it to say please, thank you, sorry, and great job. We also use it before and after training sessions, as well as to open and close each boxing set (Chin.: tàolù 套路) we practice.
Amituofo is a reminder to one another that there is something beyond the daily samsaric view of life. Amituofo is a wake up call- not to live this life in vein, not to engage in empty practice.
Amituofo is recitation with the mind.
Shaolin Wugong is recitation with the body.
Namo Amituofo means "return to the boundless light of awareness".
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
-少林禅城 Shaolin Chan City
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