Why Should Nianfo Be Without Visualisation?

Question: Is it recommended to just chant Amituofo’s name, without any visualisation at all?

Answer: Of course, as taught by the Buddha in the Pure Land sutras. No sutra or Pure Land Patriarch ever taught to combine upholding the name of Amituofo (持名念佛) with any visualisation linked to Amituofo (观想念佛).

Q: Is the mind to be blank (or black), with no image while chanting?

A: Great Strength Bodhisattva (大势至菩萨) taught to gather in all six sense roots (都摄六根) during Nianfo. In upholding the name of Amituofo, the sense root of sight is not to be actively used at all. As such, there is no image needed; no even the image of ‘no image’ to be seen, to be troubled over, which is a distraction. There are only two sense roots to be used – the mind itself for mindfulness and the (physical and mental) ears for hearing the name of Amituofo produced by oneself sincerely. When this is done wholeheartedly, from moment to moment, this occupies the mind fully. This is pure mindfulness of Amituofo with continual succession (净念相继), without the mind straying off to other thoughts, including the thought that there is no image to see, of craving for an image and to create an image.

Q: Can Nianfo be done this way from the beginning without any distractions?

A: Unless enlightened, no one can do anything from the beginning without any distractions. Yet, everyone can be free from all distractions with enough practice of this Easy Path. When there is wholeheartedness (一心) in Nianfo, the mind will not be scattered (不乱). When the mind is scattered, it is not wholehearted. In upholding the name of Amituofo, visualisation, being what is NOT ‘upholding the name of Amituofo’, IS a distraction.

Before we Nianfo, we have ‘ten thousand’ stray thoughts. To train for wholeheartedness (single-mindedness), the mission is to drop all these thoughts by nurturing only ONE thought – the name of Amituofo, not two thoughts (of his name plus an associated image). If it helps to settle the mind, visualisation can be done for only a SHORT while (such as one minute), before letting it go. It should not become the main practice or mixed with the main practice of upholding the name of Amituofo, for reasons to be explained below.

Q: Is visualising Amituofo with light radiating also a distraction? Would it be a good ‘rehearsal’ for going to Pure Land?

A: As above, it is a distraction to visualise anything while upholding the name of Amituofo. There are no ‘good’ distractions. To visualise means there is no wholehearted upholding of the name of Amituofo in the moment. And to visualise makes one more susceptible to demonic obstacles, as warned by the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yinguang (净土宗十三祖印光大师) in the quote below –

‘If cultivating [mindfulness of Buddha by] visualisation [or contemplation of Pure Land’s details or mindfulness of the] true forms [of Amituofo and his Pure Land, they will] possibly come in contact with demonic [obstacles. This is] trying to be skilful but ending in blunder, seeking a higher [birth in Pure Land but] instead falling. [It is thus] suitable to cultivate the easiest practice of [the four] practices [by upholding the name of Amituofo], to personally experience its utmost wonderful fruit.’ (Reply letter to Xu Fuxian) ‘

‘若修观想实相,或至着魔。弄巧成拙,求升反堕。宜修易行之行,自感至妙之果矣。’ (与徐福贤书)

Q: How does visualisation make it easier to have demonic obstacles?

A: To visualise while upholding the name of Amituofo, the mind’s habitual scatteredness is being sustained (or even increased), making it hard to train for wholeheartedness (single-mindedness). When the mind is not wholehearted, it will stray off to the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, possibly in the following ways.

Habitual visualisation of what one actually wants to see might lead to attachment (greed), that distracts from sincere Nianfo. Not being able to visualise as clearly as instructed in the Contemplation Sutra might lead to aversion (hatred), that distracts from sincere Nianfo too. (However, as mentioned, none of the Pure Land Patriarchs encourage the visualisation practices in the sutra as they are too refined for our coarse minds.)

With habitual visualisation, it becomes harder and harder to know what are genuine auspicious signs that arise from sincere singular upholding of the name of Amituofo, as the merely visualised might be mistaken as the actual. This might lead to hallucination due to delusion, that also distracts us from sincere Nianfo. As Nianfo is supposed to reduce our poisons, we should not complicate the main practice of upholding the name of Amituofo, such that it increases potential of increasing these poisons instead.

When the mind nurtures the three poisons habitually, this makes it easier for possibly surrounding evil unseen beings to disturb us, even if unknowingly. Able to read our minds, they can increase these poisons by feeding our craving for ‘visions’ by creating delusions, that mislead us to imagine we are well practised due to having these false ‘visions’, thus distracting us from sincere Nianfo. In contrast, when we uphold the name of Amituofo by itself sincerely, we are connecting directly to all Buddhas’ mindful protection via Amituofo. Any encouraging experience experienced then is always auspicious.

Related Articles:

Should We Practise Visualisation Of Pure Land (& Amituofo)?
Is Visualisation A Must In Pure Land Practice?

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Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!