Nenbutsu, commonly transliterated as nembutsu, is the invocation "namu amida butsu" (南無阿弥陀仏, "I take my refuge in the Buddha Amitābha) chanted in the hope of rebirth into Amida's Pure Land. While nowadays strictly of invocational nature (称名念仏 shōmyō nembutsu), there once were contemplative nembutsu (観念念仏 kannen nembutsu), the practice of envisioning the characteristics of a Buddha, and meditative nembutsu (憶念 okunen or 理觀 rikan), the meditation on Buddha-nature or the spiritual qualities of a Buddha. Nembutsu were not only directed to Amitābha but other Buddhas as well and not always with the aim of Pure Land rebirth, but to cancel bad karma or to attain immediate enlightenment.
The invocation of Amida became a common practice in China after the introduction of Buddhism there in the 1st century CE. The devotion of Pure Land and the practice of nembutsu flourished in China, from where they were brought to Japan in the 9th century CE by the founders of the Tendai school. In the Heian Period, a highly ceremonial form of contemplative nembutsu gained popularity among the aristocracy and the clergy, and in 985 the Ōjōyōshū (往生要集, The Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land), a comprehensive Buddhist treaty on nembutsu, was composed by the monk Genshin (源信 942-1017).
Genshin regarded the nembutsu-zammai (念佛三昧; Sanskrit: Samādhi) of Tendai to be the highest form of nembutsu, a practice that combined both meditation and invocation with the goal of enlightenment rather than rebirth. Nonetheless, he encouraged those incapable of nembutsu-zammai to simple invocational nembutsu to achieve rebirth to Pure Land.
Hōnen (法然, 1133-1212), the founder of the first independent branch of Pure Land Buddhism called Jōdo-shū, conceived the first modern notion of nembutsu based on Genshin's teachings. He broke away from the Tendai school in 1175 and established an independent Pure Land movement which taught that the simple utterance of Buddha's name was the only path to salvation. The Jōdo sect and the Jōdo Shinshū sect founded by Shinran (親鸞, 1173-1263) both consider nembutsu as their primary religious practice.
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
- Deal, William E. / Ruppert, Brian, A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism, Wiley Blackwell 2015