Must We Face West To Nianfo?

From here, in the western direction,
passing a hundred thousand koṭis of Buddha Lands,
there is a world [land] named “Ultimate Bliss’.

– 释迦牟尼佛 Śākyamuni Buddha
(佛说阿弥陀经 The Sūtra In Which The Buddha Speaks Of Amitā Buddha/ Amitābha Sūtra)

Question: Since Amituofo’s Pure Land is to the West of our world, is it essential to face West during Nianfo (practice of mindfulness of Amituofo)?

Answer: Although some ancients stick to the custom of facing West to Nianfo, it is not a must to do so.

Q: Why is there this custom in the first place?

A: Facing West during Nianfo can help to nurture a stronger sense of spiritual direction, using physical direction to express the aspiration to reach Amituofo’s Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.

Q: Since this is a good motivation, why is it optional to face West during Nianfo?

A: It remains optional as…

  1. It is not always possible to know where is West without a compass or heavenly body (sun, moon or stars) for guide.
  2. It is not always comfortable to face West if there is something personally deemed ‘negative’ or ‘disrespectful’ there (e.g. a toilet).
  3. The shrine at home or in a temple might not be suited for placing its back to the West (for us to face West during Nianfo).
  4. Most importantly, as Amituofo’s blessings already pervade all directions equanimously, the direction faced is not crucial.

Q: If we still wish to face West, where is it since the Earth is rotating and revolving all the time? Is the West not always changing?

A: Indeed, cardinal directions are relative. For example, as the Earth is round, we consider USA to the West of Singapore, while USA considers Singapore to the West of it. In this more micro sense, the western direction keeps shifting. However, if we take a more macro perspective, with the Earth as a planet bound to the sun, which is one of some 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, there is a larger western direction. Taking a galaxy as a world system, which is a bigger cosmic body in Buddhist terms, Amituofo’s Pure Land would be of another distant galaxy to the West of the Milky Way. Although the galaxies are speeding away from each other due to expansion of the universe (which was also taught by the Buddha), not unlike representing dots drawn on a swelling balloon, the general direction of any galaxy away from the Milky Way remains constant. In this sense, Amituofo’s Pure Land is truly to the West of our world.

Q: Although Amituofo’s Pure Land is constantly West to us, our earthly West, as above, still keeps changing. Where should we face then?

A: Exactly because the macro Western direction in relation to our world is fixed, facing any direction will do. If there is still preference to use a fixed direction, the usual West can be stuck to for convenience, and out of tradition. As mentioned, this can be used to ‘help to nurture a stronger sense of spiritual direction’. However, we should not become attached to wanting to face West, as in our last moments, there might be negative karmic causes making it difficult or impossible to do so. Should this create afflictions in the mind, distracting us from wholehearted mindfulness of Amituofo, it would be unfortunate. Thus, it is more skilful to practise Nianfo with equal reverence and peace of mind while facing various directions!

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Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!