In today’s teaching I would like to point out the equivalence between certain principles or concepts in Mahayana Buddhism that are normally taken to be very different and are generally associated with different styles and theories of practice. These three are bodhichitta, tathagatagarbha and nembutsu.

Bodhichitta is commonly associated with self-power practices. It is the mind of the bodhisattva, the “way-seeking mind”, the pinnacle of altruism. The bodhisattva is willing to do anything and go anywhere in order to save sentient beings. However, when we examine this idea closely, we see that while the bodhisattva is irreversibly on the path to Buddhahood, he is not actually concerned about his own salvation. He simply takes it for granted that the path is its own reward.

Tathagatagarbha is the idea of a Buddha seed or embryo within the person. The concept is commonly closely associated with a certain idea of Buddha Nature and the principle of Original Enlightenment according to which all beings are, in principle, already enlightened and that what is necessary is that they wake up to this fact.

Nembutsu is the “thought of Buddha” that is expressed by calling the name of a Buddha, usually Amitabh, in complete trust that that Buddha will come and take the faithful to his Pure Land where enlightenment will one day inevitably follow. Followers of nembutsu do not generally believe in original enlightenment and do not think that they themselves are endowed with the abilities of Buddhas.

So, on the surface, these seem like three very different concepts designating quite different interpretations of what is going on in Mahayana buddhist practice.

The core of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhichitta. The term bodhi refers to the enlightened vision that inspires us upon the path. Chita is the perceiving mind, the heart that is touched by the vision. Bodhi is the essence of Buddhahood.

I think it is fairly easy to understand, therefore, that nembutsu and bodhichitta are really very similar. Nembutsu means mindfulness of Buddha. Buddha is Buddha inasmuch as he is identified with body. Nen means mindfulness or heartfulness. Nembutsu is a matter of having Buddha in one’s heart and mind. That is the core meaning of bodychitta.

We should not, therefore, think that Pureland is one thing, centred on nembutsu, and Mahayana Buddhism is something else centred on bodhichitta. We should, rather, understand that nembutsu and bodhichitta are two ways of saying the same thing.

They speak of great love, reverence and gratitude for the sublime vision that the Buddhas inspire and that somehow gets implanted, lodged within us. We can ponder how this happens.

Shantideva, speaking of bodhichitta, says
Just as, in a night all darkened by dense cloud
a lightning flash may for an instant illumine the whole land,
in this world, by the power of the Buddhas,
a virtuous thought may fleetingly appear.
(Shantideva 1.5)

Such a “virtuous thought” is the bodhichitta or nembutsu. The merit of such a thought is inestimable because it transports us beyond all calculation. It is simply unconditional love. As such it is something that we ourselves are not capable of. It does not arise as our own doing, but is, as it were, planted in us by the Buddhas.

In this sense we can say that it is no different from tathagatagarbha. So we can say that all three ideas, bodhichitta, nembutsu and tathagatagarbha are simply different names for the same thing, each emphasising a slightly different aspect, but in essence, identical. Nembutsu is tathagatagarbha in that it is implanted in us by the action and grace of Amitabha

This being so it is interesting for us to think about nembutsu from these different perspectives. Nembutsu as nembutsu is the Name or image of Amida Buddha. Nembutsu as bodhichitta is the inspiration flowing to us from all the Buddhas. Nembutsu as tathagatagarbha is the seed planted in us that grows into Buddhahood.

Whichever way we think about it, we feel ourselves to be caught up in a vast cosmic process that goes far far beyond our own little life. It is as if one were a leaf on a great tree or a pebble on a long beach. From one perspective one is insignificant, yet from another one is part of something much much bigger.

Nembutsu opens the heart to this bigger process. We receive the great merit and grace bestowed by the Buddhas and this then works secretly in our lives.

Should bodhichitta come to be
in the heart of a being caught in cyclic existence
immediately that one becomes an heir of Buddhas
object of worship to gods and men.
(Shantideva 1.9)

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Replies to This Discussion

Aloha Dharmavidya,

Nice article. Personally I think your argument regarding Tathagatagarbha is a bit of a stretch. Or perhaps just leaves a little too much unsaid. Would it not be simpler to find a parallel to Amida's measureless light? Since there is no place where Amida's light cannot be known, it seems very much like the idea of Tathagatagarbha - the potentiality of awakening "within" each person.  It is not "planted" there by Amida, rather it is just the nature of Amida's measurelessness.  It is, like Tathagatagarbha, accessible in any and each moment. The Nembutsu is the way we access Amida's light. Since Amida is a Buddha, Amida has perfect Bodhicitta. Nembutsu opens us to and expresses through us, albeit imperfectly, Bodhicitta.

Namo Amida Bu!




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