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’, ‘distracting’ or ‘disrespectful’ there (e.g. a toilet).
  3. The shrine at home or in a temple might not be suited for placing with its back to the West (for us to face West while facing the shrine 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 then?

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 revolving around the sun, which is one of some 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, there is a larger western direction, as we will see…  The Milky Way is one of some 54 galaxies called the Local Group, with these galaxies orbiting around their gravitational centre (somewhere between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy).

The Local Group itself is a part of the larger Virgo Supercluster, which is a cluster of some 100 galaxy groups (with 50 or less galaxies) and galaxy clusters (with even more galaxies). The Virgo Supercluster is in turn part of the Laniakea Local Supercluster, with about 100,000 galaxies. There are thus as many levels of rotational and revolutionary motions as there are ways to define relative directions, depending on point of view.

If we see a galaxy as a world system (世界) in Buddhist terms, which is a significantly big cosmic body, Amituofo’s Pure Land should be related to 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, not unlike representing dots drawn on an inflating balloon, despite all the galactic groupings above, the general relative 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 (not micro) 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.

Since Amituofo’s blessings already pervade all space through his immeasurable light, he is of course also able to manifest in any direction to guide and receive. Thus, it is more skilful to practise Nianfo with equal reverence and peace of mind when facing any direction!

Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!

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