Buddhism Nembutsu
Galen Amstutz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0047


The actual presence of the founding teacher was an essential element of Buddhism in its origins, and the desire of followers (in their sense of fallibility and incompleteness) to somehow reexperience such a presence and reliance was a constant in the tradition afterward. The Sanskrit term for this concern was buddhānusmṛti (recollection of the Buddha, thinking on the Buddha, keeping the Buddha in mind); the term was rendered into Chinese as “nienfo” (念仏) which was eventually pronounced “nembutsu” (or alternatively “nenbutsu”) in Japanese. (Nembutsu is used here as the general label and spelling for this bibliographic entry because the concept is most widely recognized in English under that heading.) The concept became particularly associated with Pure Land teachings, since it was by means of some “recollection of the Buddha,” now the transcendental Amitābha, that karmic birth in the Pure Land realm, however interpreted, could be achieved and one could enjoy (perhaps deferred) the presence of and reliance upon the Buddha. In the particular environment of Pure Land teachings nembutsu practice thus meant some kind of engagement with symbolic information (especially visual or auditory), which derived from the Pure Land sutras. However, this came to have a whole range of understandings reflecting the diversity of Pure Land doctrines overall (celestial-realm Pure Land, immanent Pure Land, Jōdoshinshū’s tariki-focused pure land). Broadly, there was a historical shift, especially in East Asia, toward simplification and popularization of practice (especially toward the notion of nembutsu as a mere vocal recitation of the Buddha Amitābha’s name), but the exact nature of proper nembutsu remained a source of debate, especially in Japan where the particular minimalist interpretation maintained by Jōdoshinshū often polarized and dominated the scene. In academic literature, discussions of historical interpretations of practices are interwoven into the general explications of movements and founders in such a way that almost every discussion of Pure Land Buddhism offers some specific information on its particularized idea of nembutsu. Perhaps due to this complexity, scholarship has tended to render nembutsu in terms of the various conventional Buddhist doctrinal languages without attempting to establish what may be going on psychologically. Recently, the pendulum of attention that formerly swung toward Shin Buddhism and its minimalist nembutsu has to some extent swung toward the variety among the other versions of Pure Land nembutsu in Asia.

General Overviews

Nembutsu has not yet been given an adequate comprehensive survey. Harrison 2004, Fujiwara 1987, and Dobbins 2004 provide encyclopedia-style introductions complete with relevant bibliographical references. Tanaka 1990 describes a certain logical evolution of nembutsu concepts in the direction of oral recitation of Amitābha’s name. Keenan 1989 suggests that the original nembutsu of remembrance and Shinran’s later conception of nembutsu were psychologically very different.

  • Dobbins, James. “Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yŏmbul).” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 587–588. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    Short survey of the Pure Land religious practice of chanting or invoking the name of the Buddha Amitābha.

  • Fujiwara, Ryōsetsu. “Nien-fo.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 10. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 435–438. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

    From a modern Japanese perspective, describes how the idea of nianfo moved from the earliest stage of buddhānusmṛti through other stages including meditations (of different sorts) on various buddhas and bodhisattvas, the rise in importance of the sutras of Pure Land Buddhism, the shift to the easier, more accessible recitative nianfo, and the flowering of nianfo in Japan.

  • Harrison, Paul. “Buddhānusmṛti (Recollection of the Buddha).” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 93. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    Buddhānusmṛti is the first of a set of up to ten varied ānusmṛtis (acts of recollection) that appear in Indian and South Asian Buddhism for meditative and liturgical purposes. The concept eventually turned into East Asian nianfo recitation of the Buddha Amitābha’s name as well as deity yoga in tantric Buddhism.

  • Keenan, John P. “Nien-Fo (Buddha-anusmṛti): The Shifting Structure of Remembrance.” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, new ser., 5 (Fall 1989): 40–52.

    Overview that examines how the earlier form of remembrance and visualization of Amitābha while chanting turned into the Shinran tradition in which invocation of the name of the Buddha was by itself in a specialized sense considered sufficient. Argues that the former involved a sense of linear time and conventional memory; the latter was instead an instant of nonlinear existential awareness.

  • Tanaka, Kenneth K. The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine: Ching-ying Hui-yuan’s Commentary on the Visualization Sutra. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

    The first chapter is a useful concise summary of the evolution of nembutsu ideas in India and China.

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