Question: In Pure Land practice, it is often said that nianfo (mindfulness of Amituofo’s name) is a better practice than nianjing (reciting sutras). If one is unwell, it is indeed easier to nianfo. However, when well, whether we nianfo or nianjing, shouldn’t we endeavour to practise them just as mindfully? Some sutras, e.g. Amituojing (Amitabha Sutra), are relatively shorter than others. As the sutra contains more meaning than mere nianfo, shouldn’t nianjing be encouraged amongst the literate? If we already nianjing during our morning and/or evening practices, should we nianfo too?
Answer: As the ancient saying goes, ‘念经不如念咒, 念咒不如念佛’ – ‘Reciting sutras (nianjing) is not as good as reciting mantras (nianzhou), reciting mantras is not as good as reciting Buddha’s name (nianfo),’ This is not so much in terms of the contents recited (as all of them are excellent teachings of the Buddha), but in terms of the lengthiness of most sutras over most mantras, and most mantras over most Buddha names, which makes most sutras and mantras more difficult to sustain in single-minded sincerity without stray thoughts when used for practice, in comparison to the short name of Amituofo.
Yes, whatever it is we chant, be it Buddha’s name, a mantra or sutra, we should endeavour to do so equally mindfully. Yet, it is still true that if one cannot even be properly mindful of the short name of Amituofo, it will naturally be harder to be mindful of longer and more complex chants (mantras and sutras). When chanting sutras (and mantras), it is also easier for the mind to create and cling to changing images that arise in the mind, thus making the mind harder to stablise in concentration.
Great Master Ou Yi (藕益大师), the 9th Patriarch of the Chinese Pure Land tradition taught this – ‘信愿既具， 念佛方为正行， 改恶修善皆为助行.’ – ‘ With Faith and Aspiration already complete, recitation of [Amitabha] Buddha’s name [Amituofo] (nianfo) is correctly called the Main Practice, while correction of evil and cultivation of good are all called Supportive [ Auxiliary] Practices.’ This is so as for greater focus and direct effect in everyday life, and especially on the deathbed, nianfo is the most streamlined and efficient practice, expending the least efforts for the most results.
As Main and Supportive Practices synergise, this does not mean non-nianfo practices should be dropped, but that nianfo is seen as the Main Practice, while all other practices (including 念经) support this main endeavour. It is alright to practise various other chants as well, so long as the Main Practice is not lost in priority. The more we understand about Amituofo, for instance, through Amituojing and other sutras, the more powerful our nianfo will be. This is an example of letting Supportive Practices of studying and chanting sutras reinforce nianfo as the Main Practice, for fortifying related understanding and skills, which is not digressing from it.
Many other Supportive Practices are encourageable too – e.g. veganism, animal liberation, attending Dharma ceremonies (法会), classes on sutras, general Dharma, meditation… but for beginners who find these overwhelming, the advice is to stick with the Main Practice first. For those already juggling many practices, more emphasis on the Main Practice is needed. Thus, it should be included in the morning and evening practices, along with as much nianfo as possible in between, in everyday life. If you find your practices overwhelming and distracting, it is good to reduce and streamline for better focus.
So much said to differentiate nianfo, nianjing and nianzhou, Amituofo’s name is actually a supreme mantra that contains all sutras’ teachings. (See sutra quotation below.) Nothing is amiss in nianfo practice. All the meanings of the Dharma are already in it! All the Dharma doors (法门) are interconnected. When nianfo is taken as the Main Practice, it will be the main Dharma door and entrance leading to a path that interpenetrates all other Dharma doors. Being the Main Practice, more time and effort should be spent on it, so as to hone this chosen skill to be masterful of, instead of being only a ‘Jack of all trades’. Otherwise, it would not be the Main Practice.
In the word ‘A’ are Buddhas of the ten directions [eight cardinal directions, above and below] and three periods [past, present, future].
In the word ‘Mi’ are all Bodhisattvas.
In the word ‘Tuo’ [‘Ta’ in Sanskrit] are all the 80,000 [84,000] noble teachings.
In the three words [Amituo; ‘Amita’ in Sanskrit] is [spiritual] completion [perfection].
– The Sutra Spoken By the Buddha on the Fundamental Esoteric Spiritual Mantra of Amita Buddha
The Name Of Amituofo As A Supreme Mantra