Introduction to Nienfo Chan/Nembustsu Zen and the Traceless Mind


Introduction to Nienfo Chan/Nembustsu Zen and the Traceless Mind

Nienfo Chan/Nembutsu Zen is the practice most commonly taught in China to enter the gateless gate of Zen. It consist “simply” in the recitation of a sacred or symbolic name, such as the name of a Buddha or a mantra. Such a practice could be seen as a popular form of devotion for simple and helpless people in need for refuge.

Don’t be such a fool because the practice of recitation is a wonderful Dharma raft. It fits all situations, all spiritualities, all kinds of people from lowest to highest in the spiritual Oneness. It is also a blessing that fits the Linji/Rinzai mindset of always giving mind what it needs as MingZhen Shakya, my late Dharma Teacher, use to paraphrase.

It is a universal practice known in all kinds of schools in Mahayana Buddhism but also in Theravada Buddhism.
The roots of the practice are BuddhaSmriti, recollection of the Buddha. Keeping the Buddha in mind, at heart. Its is as simple and beautiful as that.

Now, we could argue that there are different kinds of mindsets or intentions one can have when doing the practice. We have to harmonize our first intention to what the mind needs.
If im standing in the middle of a crowded train filled with noisy and smelly people or in any boring situation, to just attain some form of peaceful calm is already a wonderful thing to do… instead of cultivating the worries of daily life again and again, the advertisements and all the other futilities. And there are many many more levels or kinds of ways to cultivate the practice of recitation on different occasions.

We use an old Chinese booklet called “48 doors to Nienfo”, also called  » Taming the Monkey Mind » in the most famous translation, to teach about the subtleties of this practice. As I said earlier, this practice is a raft so this small booklet also allows its reader to enter into the realm of the practice of Huatou, or at least get a glimpse of its ways.

Now, on a more spiritual level you have to understand one thing. When you get serious about any practice, you realise that there is no fundamental difference between these practices, they lead to one another naturally. Recitation, Huatou/Wato, ZuoChan/ZaZen, Sewing the Kesa, Bowing, Giving Incense, Cleaning Toilets, Cutting Carrots, … in all these practice, only Pure Mind! Amitabha Mind! A Natural Mind of Light and Compassion.
The same principle is true for the four main practices we share in our Sangha. To sum it up these are: 1. Recitation, 2. Huatou/Wato, 3. GuanYin Chan/Kannon Zen, 4. MoChao Chan/Mokusho Zen.

Now, back to the practice of recitation, our main topic. In whatever form or tradition, the practice of recitation is highly praised by the Great Masters of the past, such as master Hanshan, partly because it can be used in any situation, at any stage on the path, at any time, any age, any social status… it can be applied to whatever state of mind the practitioner is experimenting.
Our usual set of mind is a « mind of delusion« , always trapped in a view or another, a craving or another. It is like a man dwelling in a constant fog, turning around a mountain without ever seeing there is a mountain in the first place, let alone a path leading up the mountain.
When one sees there is a path up the mountain, that there is a possibility out of our suffering, he begins to climb that path, it’s the difficult path of concentration.

When our minds are in that state we call it « Mind of Concentration », a mind that is fixed on one selfless goal.

Then one gets finally to the top of what is seen as the Spiritual Everest of most traditions. In our Zen Linji/Rinzai school, we call this Kensho or JianXin, seeing mind. What all zen ancestors urged for. In other traditions it is paradise, knowing God, entering the bride’s room, meeting sky father, … it is Oneness, death of the self and the brilliant presence of a truer Self. A Buddha Nature of non difference, emptiness made form or form made emptiness.

That quality of our Buddha Nature is symbolically linked in our Chinese tradition to Amituofo, literally meaning the Buddha of Pure Light beyond Space and Time. One such experience can fill a devot for years and years of pious practice and is generally the goal of most spiritual paths. We call it “Unified/Union Mind” or a a Mind in Samadhi/Zen

But the specificity of Zen/Chan is to see these experiences as beautiful and possibly very inspiring in our life, but not at all as the end of the path.
To the contrary it is the very beginning of the path! Every practice towards Samadhi’s Egoless state before kensho isn’t what is traditionally called Zen.

What we begin to see here is that every Buddhist practice, and most certainly recitation, can be used as a Door to Samadhi Mind, a door to Zen, our most natural state.
As I said, we acknowledge these experiences but we soon understand that the heart of our experience isn’t to dwell in Samadhi, apart from society in a dreamlike or heaven like experience. It’s a trap easy to fall in, the path of the Buddhahood for ourselves. Shakyamuni himself doubt about his capacities at first, before Brahma begged him to teach his method to the world.

So, the specificity of Zen is to be a Traceless Path. The fourth Mind is the traceless mind or No mind, Wu/Mu Xin. Big word you might say, what does it mean.
It means a path of traceless manifested of our true self. Isn’t more clear? Look at it this way.
Once we understood that cultivating Union/Samadhi/kensho per se isn’t the path. In Zen, we say the true path is going from the top of the mountain to the market place. We let the sacred be manifested and we let ourselves be manifested by him in our daily lives. If there is kensho wonderful, if it’s a day of no kensho wonderful too. Our way is Farming Chan/Zen as Fo Yuan Shakya, our grandfather in the Yunmen/Ummon lineage used to say. And in our Ordervof lay Zen Priests, we practice a zen of householders, a Zen of house cleaning and bath to the kids, just as much as a Zen of liturgy, zuochan/zazen or Kasaya sewing. Every action can be a field where we manifest the path.

So we might try to deliberately manifest through our acts the Union Mind/kensho we experimented at some point in our life, especially through the practice of the Three Pure Precepts: Do Good, Don’t do Bad and Keep an Harmonious Mind. That is called a mind of manifestation with Traces, traces of our little self wanting to do good. It’s not a ad thing per se of course!

Than we can say that when we harmoniously and naturally act according to the 3 Pure precepts, than itvis called Traceless manifestation! Is it more clear?
All this is a grounded expression of the four noble truths and the Eightfold Path. Which we summarize as Right View-Right Action, no need for endless talks on the nature of karma and rebirth, MingZhen my Old Sun hated spending time on nonsense talk like thst.

Zen is Action, Action is Karma! Wake Up!

Now back to Nienfo, at the very heart of it, the idea is to resonate from the same heart than the name we are chanting. To fully let go and let Buddha, Guanyin, Amituofo, Wu, Jesus, God, universe, … whatever chosen recitation we need, to Fully Recitate and to Fully Listen in the silent recitation of our Heart.

Outloud recitation is, good too but is rather a Chi circulation practice on the subtle level, and also helps to integrate to whatever happens when practicing Walking Recitation in the woods or mountains for example but that is s whole other topic.

Anyway, it is as simple as that. It is the core of the 48 methods to Nienfo booklet and at the core of Chan practice since almost the teachings of Ming Dynasty master Hanshan. It is the Union of Mahastranaprapta simple practice of recitation, which allows everyone, every place and anytime to practice, with the subtle method of Inner Listening advocated by GuanYin/Kannon which is at the Origin of Huatou Chan/Wato Zen tradition and wad praised by Manjushri and the Buddha in the Shurangama Sutra.

It is the Heart of mantra recitation, indian japa, and many other Christian or Muslim practices of Recitation. To fully listen and fully say the words with all attention, until the one being attentive lets its place to the Divine Name in us, around us and through us.

The practice of asking Who is the one reciting?, known as Huatou Chan/Wato Zen, can only be established when a firm concentration is established.

Only then can we practice Huatou, experiment Kensho/JianXin/Seeing Mind and forget who and what was experimented and let ourselves be manifested in whatever action.

Of course, as Sixth Patriarch Huineng advised us in his Platform Sutra, and Chihi the founder of the Tientai school before him, there is no sense in total separation between a gradual path and a Sudden path. Yet, there is gradual and sudden phenomenon in our Zen life !

So practice the simplest practice of recitation of a sacred name. Stick to it and you surely will enter Zen, kensho, Oneness Samadhi… and then back to cutting your carrots!


YaoXin Shakya