‘Refuge [or return for] life’ [i.e. 南无: Námó, which also means ‘homage to’], like [the word] ‘Pāramitā’ [for] instance, [is with] inverted grammar. ‘Return’ has two meanings.
Note: Inverting of word order (i.e. anastrophe) is used for heightening effect. For example, ‘Pāramitā’ is structured as ‘(the) other shore (to be) reached’ (彼岸到), instead of ‘to (the) other shore’ (到彼岸). Likewise for emphasis, ‘Námó’ (归命) is structured as ‘refuge for life’, instead of ‘lifelong refuge’.
[The] first [is the] meaning [of] return [to] seek refuge, speaking [of] what [the] world’s people [have] most attachment [to, which are their] bodies [and] lives, [with] all [of their] bodies [and] lives taking refuge, [with] sincere reverence [to] the utmost, [which is] without [a] second[ary] mind.
Note: When we recite ‘Námó Āmítuófó’ (南无阿弥陀佛, which means ‘[homage to and] refuge for life in Amitā[bha Buddha’), the first meaning is to always take refuge in Amitābha Buddha, whom we aspire to connect to, for reaching his Pure Land. This refuge should be steadfast for life, even when approaching the end of life. Even when our worldly bodies and lives have to be given up, this sincere refuge must never be relinquished for refuge in anyone or anything else. If unwilling to give up what is worldly, to ‘return’ to Āmítuófó, we will be unable to enter his Pure Land.
[The] second [is the] meaning [of] return [to the] original [mind (本元), with] all [of their] bodies [and] lives taking refuge, [it] is [to] totally gather [the] six [sense] roots [to] return [to the] one mind, [wholeheartedly and single-mindedly].
Note: The second meaning is to return to our ‘self-nature’s Amitābha Buddha’ (自性弥陀), or our unawakened Buddha-nature, to easier connect to the actual Amitābha Buddha. Wholehearted practice of mindfulness of Buddha (一心念佛) is thus the practice of connecting our Buddha-nature to Amitābha Buddha.
Pure Land Tradition’s 8th Patriarch Great Master Liánchí
(Commentary [On The] Sūtra [In Which The] Buddha Speaks [Of] Amitā[bha Buddha])
Namo Amituofo : Translation and notes by Shen Shi’an