The Unvarnished Nian-Fo
Namo Amitabha Buddha.
Hello, fellow students. Today, we will together study the article on “Unvarnished-Wood Nian-Fo”. It was written by the Venerable Zenne-bo Shoku (1177-1247), a disciple of Master Honen (1133-1212) of Japan, and translated by Master Huijing.
This Dharma lecture is outstanding. It uses vivid analogies and everyday language to clearly and convincingly illustrate how Nian-Fo could set one’s mind at peace. It is an article “once read, never forgotten”. I was so overwhelmed with admiration that I thumped the table, uttering “superb!”. Later, I would often think of this piece of “Unvarnished-Wood Nian-Fo”.
Let us read.
People who depend on their own efforts for emancipation through nian-fo practice color it with the admixture of Mahayana enlightenment, or a profound understanding of the Dharma, or upholding the precepts, or equanimity of the body and mind. Such people rejoice at the success achieved in combining nianfo with meditative or non-meditative practices, believing rebirth to be assured. But they are discouraged to meet with failure, considering rebirth to be unattainable. In truth, both the joy and discouragement are illusions whose source is self-reliance.
That is the fact of the matter, and we have seen many cases. Especially today, when nian-fo is widely practiced. There are always some who mix the “colors” of “self-effort” with nian-fo. The Venerable Shoku calls it “colored nian-fo.”
What sort of colors are mixed with pristine nian-fo? Master Shoku offers several examples. The first type is “the color of enlightenment.” This misconception requires that nian-fo mixed with perfect Mahayana enlightenment is superb, and guarantees rebirth, while a “bland” nian-fo is ineffectual, devoid of power and assurance.
The second type is “the color of doctrinal mastery.” This misconception requires that nian-fo is truly effective and reasonable only if accompanied by a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist doctrines. Otherwise, practice is incomplete and hollow, as if something vital is missing.
The third type is “the color of precepts.” This misconception requires that nian-fo must include “upholding the precepts to perfection” to be true and effective. In other words, without the color of perfect precept observation, the picture is incomplete.
The fourth type is “the color of meditative absorption.” That is the common misunderstanding about single-minded nian-fo.
The common thread that links these misconceptions is the idea that nian-fo alone is not sufficient. It must be mixed with the “color” of meditative or non-meditative practices to effectively ensure rebirth. For those that boastfully believe such errors, rebirth cannot be accomplished by nian-fo alone. For such people, nian-fo must be mixed with the color of enlightenment of Mahayana practices, or a deep comprehension of scriptures, or the meditative and non-meditative skills, or the precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. Indeed, without the addition of these colors, such people are discouraged and afflicted with doubt.
“Both the joy and discouragement are illusions whose source is self-reliance.” Why joy? People felt great, powerful and capable. Why discouragement? People felt small, powerless and incapable. As Master Shoku points out, all these feelings are illusions whose source is self-reliance.
Next, the “Unvarnished Nian-fo” reads,
The essence of Pure Land nian-fo represented by the verse “preserve the Sutra for a hundred years after all scriptures perished,” in the Infinite Life Sutra, and the description of “nian-fo by the three lowest grade-levels”found in The Visualization Sutra of the Infinite Life, both clearly promote “unvarnished nian-fo”. Master Shandao’s interpretation of Amitabha Buddha’s primal vow, “sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me and recite my name,” is the very heart of “unvarnished nian-fo.”
The reason Master Shoku explains the errors of mixing “colors” with nian-fo is to clearly and unwaveringly promote the true and pristine, “unvarnished nian-fo.”
So, what is “unvarnished nian-fo”? Let us take two examples. The first example is the scripture of “Preserving the sutra for a hundred years” in the Infinite Life Sutra. It reads,
In the ages to come, all Buddhist scriptures and teachings will perish.
Out of compassion and empathy,
I shall preserve this sutra in particular for a hundred years more.
At that time, will there be “precept-colored” nian-fo? No, since the Three Jewels will have disappeared. The Three Studies (precepts, meditative samadhi, transcendent wisdom), Buddhist sutras, Vinaya and discourses all will have disappeared. Can anyone then develop a deep understanding of Buddhism or achieve perfect Mahayana enlightenment? Of course not. At that time, no “color” will exist to stain or adulterate pristine nian-fo.
What exactly is the meaning of “colored” and “unvarnished-wood”? “Unvarnished wood” is a type of lumber, plain and untreated, that may be processed and painted in various colors. At the end of the Dharma-Ending Period, all Buddhist “colors” will vanish. How can one paint nian-fo with any of them? The only Dharma-path will be the “unvarnished nian-fo.”
“Unvarnished nian-fo” is without pretense or addition, like a piece of raw, unprocessed lumber cut down from the mountain with its original quality intact. One may practice nianfo regardless of age, social status, roots, or lack of virtues. One may practice nianfo “just as you are”, without adding color or embellishment. That is what is called “unvarnished-wood nian-fo.”
It is clearly expressed in the scripture of “Preserving the sutra for a hundred years.”
The second example is the scripture of “nian-fo by the three lowest grade-levels,” as described in The Visualization Sutra of the Infinite Life. These are evil-doers who perpetrated transgressions all their lives, breaching rules and committing the five heinous offenses. As they are now facing death, they are unable, and in no condition to mix nian-fo with the colors of meditative or non-meditative ways. All they can do is to recite Namo Amitabha Buddha according to their own roots and aptitude. That is the “unvarnished-wood nian-fo” or “unvarnished nian-fo.”
Some people might say that Amitabha Buddha’s primal vow is not about unvarnished nian-fo. It is “sincerely and joyfully entrust yourself to me, wish to be born in my land, and recite my name even ten times”! Here, Master Shoku points out that the verse of “sincerely and joyfully” means precisely the other-powered, unvarnished nian-fo. This is evident in Master Shandao’s plain interpretation, “reciting my name shall be born in my land.”
Therefore, the verse of “sincerely and joyfully” should not be understood as mixing in a type of “color” with nianfo. One may entrust oneself and chant “sincerely and joyfully” not as an expression of self-power, but entirely because of other-power. Rebirth is attributable only to the name of the Buddha. The so-called “sincere and joyful” mind is a simple, unpretentious and unvarnished state of mind. With such a mindset to utter Namo Amitabha Buddha is simply the unvarnished nian-fo.
It is also what the Venerable Honen means: “Return to naivete, be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss”—With child-like, innocent faith and devotion, entrust yourself to Amitabha Buddha’s care and always recite his name, you will not fail to be reborn in the Pure Land.
The above two examples quoted from the two sutras sum up the meaning of “unvarnished nian-fo.” We will now explain them in detail.
The following are explanations. First, citing the scripture from The Visualization Sutra:
According to The Visualization Sutra, the person whose aptitude is in the lowest grade and the lowest level possesses neither good roots nor virtue in the Buddhist or secular aspects, he thus possesses none of the above mentioned “colors”. His reward for a life of evil thought, speech and action is anguish in body, speech and mind on the cusp of death. His consciousness is filled with confusion, desperation and suffering. He has nothing good to hang on to. Even if he earnestly desired it, there is no way to begin life anew. There is no time to cultivate good and refrain from evil, much less to grasp the meaning of Mahayana or Theravada teachings. Neither can he cultivate merits by building pagodas and shrines, nor can he renounce worldly desires. This deluded being is the worst kind, beyond all hope of salvation.
There are three grades in the lowest level presented in the Visualization sutra. Master Shoku picks the lowest grade of the lowest level (the worst-case scenario) to make his point. According to Master Shandao, the person in this case has never done any good in the Dharma or worldly ways. Therefore, he is a “meritless” and “colorless” mortal.
Now at the brink of death, he is tormented by the disintegration of the four basic elements, and consciousnesses. The scripture says if a learned Buddhist urges him to focus on the Buddha, his pain and confusion are too acute to do so. Master Shoku describes it as “the anguish of body, speech and mind.”
Of these three karmic senses (body, speech and mind), mind or consciousness is the real and enduring karma; the other two are artificial and temporal. So, in what state of consciousness is this evil person?
The scripture says the deluded being was in a state of utter suffering and confusion, having lost the ability and aspects of mind necessary to concentrate on thoughts of the Buddha. As Master Shandao explains, “he is consumed by the mental strain of dying and unable to retain and recall in his mind thoughts of the Buddha.”
The learned Buddhist understands his state of mind and advises him instead, “If you cannot focus on the Buddha, you should recite Namo Amitabha Buddha.” “He thus utters after the good Buddhist teacher with his remaining breaths the name of the Buddha continuously for a full ten times.” He has lost the ability and mental faculties necessary to do anything other than simple recitation without any “color of self-effort.” No bodhicitta, meditative or non-meditative skills can be mixed with nian-fo at this point.
In his lifetime, did this dying man produce any “color” to bring forth anything good? No, all he did were evil deeds. Here, by “color,” we mean things that are good and meritorious, such as the colors of the Three Studies. Of course, he has none. “Nothing good in life to hang on,” no color to add to his life.
Can he cultivate “colors” at the end of life? Impossible. He was under the “anguish of dying,” in no state of mind to do good, repent of evil, comprehend Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism, or attain enlightenment. He has no idea about Buddhism.
“Neither can he cultivate merits by building pagodas and shrines, nor can he renounce worldly desires.” It is a secular charity to build stupas, yet, it is not the time or place to teach him about charities, or “to be a renunciant,” as the fire of hell is licking his heels.
This deluded person is of the worst kind, and there is no other way to salvation, except nian-fo.
Although the good Buddhist teacher tries to teach him the inconceivable “Other-power,” the power of the name, the evildoer was unable to comprehend as he is on the verge of death, departing with an unconscious mind. So, the teacher urges him: “if you cannot focus on the Buddha, you should recite Namo Amitabha Buddha.”
What does it mean by “although the good teacher tries to teach him the Other-power”? The teacher was saying to him, since you have lost all your strength, let me tell you the way of Other-power, as described in the sutra. At this moment, it is useless to teach the dying man the way of Self-power because he is in no condition to exercise his own effort. The only way to liberation is the deliverance of Amitabha Buddha.
The teacher first expected him to recognize the incredible power of the name, but realized that the evildoer could not understand it.
Master Shoku continues, “(He was) suffering too much pain and confusion to conceptualize the Buddha.” It is hard for us to imagine the anguish and agony of a dying evil person. In that state of torment, disarray and confusion, he could neither comprehend the idea of Other-power, nor understand the inconceivability of the name.
Since the evil man could not comprehend the idea of Other-power or the inconceivable significance of the name, the good Buddhist teacher asked him to recite the name of the Buddha of Infinite Life.
Despite all the mental confusion and distress, the evildoer goes on repeating the Buddha name ten times as the teacher instructed. With each repetition the karmas of eight billion kalpas was annihilated, and the evil man was “greeted by a golden lotus as bright as the sun.”
Dazed and confused, the wicked person had one last thought for salvation. He repeated reflexively after the good teacher, the name of Amitabha Buddha ten times. Each sound of the name eradicated eight billion kalpas of samsaric karmas. The benefit of this way of nian-fo is passage to the Land of Ultimate Bliss, expressed as meeting “the golden lotus as bright as the sun.”
In terms of his roots and virtues, there is nothing worthy- no bodhi-mind, no meditative or non-meditative colors. All he could do was merely to repeat after the teacher the name of the Buddha, which is unvarnished nian-fo. This alone accomplished rebirth into the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
The evil man’s nian-fo is typical of unvarnished nian-fo, with no admixture of meditative or non-meditative colors. Due to his stupefied condition, he simply achieved rebirth by repeating after his good Buddhist teacher.
If one holds and guides a child’s hand when teaching him to write words, the result is not a thing achieved by the child’s own ability. Similarly, with nian-fo in the case of the being of the lowest grade and lowest level, He is merely echoing the sound of the good teacher which conformed to the wish of Amitabha Buddha and thereby resulted in rebirth.
This parable is brilliant. A little child knows nothing about words, let alone writing. Yet, by holding his hand, we can lead him to write words and achieve that which lies beyond the scope of his ability.
The idea is the same in the case of nian-fo by the person of the lowest grade and lowest level. Under the guidance of the good teacher, the evildoer echoes the sound of Buddha-name after him, “Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha…” And that is the Buddha’s wish: “If you recite my name, I will deliver you to my land.” Although the evildoer is totally confused and has no idea what he is saying, rebirth is achieved because the recitation accords with Amitabha Buddha’s wish.
The wish of Amitabha Buddha is conveyed through the good Buddhist teacher. The evildoer neither thinks about nor desires a bodhi-mind or to be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. He is terrified and driven solely by the torment of dying. He wouldn’t think about or desire rebirth if his mind were clear. His nian-fo is unvarnished only after losing his senses on the cusp of death.
Fortunately, he has one advantage. He can follow the guidance of the teacher and the wish of Amitabha Buddha. Even though he has lost his senses, he obediently chants Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha.
Amitabha Buddha’s unprecedented primal vows were made and his unimaginably long and difficult cultivations endured to fulfill his solemn promise to save all sentient beings, especially for the worst transgressors. The five-kalpa planning and uncountable eons-long practices culminated in the unvarnished nian-fo of the evil man with the confused, “unconscious” mind. Innumerable ages of transmigration karmas were reduced to one thought! Immeasurable Asamkhyeya kalpas of cultivations were condensed in one sound!
The reason these evildoers succeeded in rebirth is due entirely to the inconceivable functionality of the primal vows of Amitabha Buddha. It took him five kalpas to design his promising land; countless billions, and trillions of eons to practice the way of the Bodhisattva to accumulate merits for our liberation. All of the inconceivable merits accrued over all that incalculable time is condensed and contained in the name of Namo Amitabha Buddha.
The so-called “unconscious mind” means the person has lost the ability to comprehend. In that state of mind to recite the Buddha name is truly “unvarnished nian-fo”. It is plain and simple, without the addition of colors, and achieves rebirth. The superior functionality of that “one sound” annihilates a myriad of samsaric karmas and fulfills the three asamkhyeya kalpa cultivations.
The above presents Master Shoku’s elucidation of “unvarnished nian-fo” by using quotes from The Visualization Sutra. We will now discuss his quotes from the Infinite Life Sutra, nian-fo after the Dharma-Ending period.
The type of nian-fo in the age when the Three Jewels have perished is the unvarnished nian-fo. The reason for this is that The Three Jewels and precepts are no more, the Theravada and Mahayana Tripitakas are hidden in the dragon palace, and sentient beings commit nothing but evil. Without the teaching of the sutras , how can anyone aspire to do good, refrain from evil, and inspire the bodhi-mind? There will be no such people in that age. The only Dharma that will continue to exist in the world is the unvarnished nian-fo, the six-character Buddha name, without the meditative or non-meditative colors. Master Shandao says, “At that time, to hear the name even once will effect rebirth.” That is the opportunity of rebirth by one recitation or ten recitations, which is the only way to achieve rebirth by beings who know nothing about the Dharma.
And that is the unvarnished nian-fo.
This part of the article is easy to understand. Without the disciplines of scripture, who will teach you to resist evil and do good, to develop a bodhi-mind or morality and social ethics? No one will know. The only Dharma left in the world, devoid of any embellishment or “color”, will be the name of Namo Amitabha Buddha.
The scripture reads,
With compassion and empathy, I shall preserve this sutra for a hundred years more.
Sentient beings who encounter this sutra will be delivered according to their wish.
At that time, whoever recites the Buddha's Name will be reborn into the Land of Ultimate Bliss as they wish. And these are “beings who know nothing about the Dharma.” Because after the Dharma-Ending period, there will be no Mahayana Bodhicitta, no Theravada Three Studies, not even people who engage in mundane charities. Only the unvarnished nian-fo will remain to facilitate rebirth.
The following paragraph will explain about our Dharma roots and aptitudes.
At the time when Theravada and Mahayana scriptures prosper, there are people with excellent roots and virtues. However, there are also people whose roots and virtues are poor and not different from those in the Dharma-Ending period. For those people, there is neither the desire nor the opportunity to learn Buddhism. Even if they are presented with the Dharma, they fail to benefit from upholding the precepts, cultivating the Bodhi Mind or practicing the meditative or non-meditative ways, due to their inferior roots and aptitudes.
Some might say, “But we are not at the period when the Three Jewels have vanished. There are still many scriptures circulating in the world, and also temples, Dharma-sites, and Buddhist activities!” It is true. The Three Jewels are still flourishing in the world. How then should we evaluate our roots and aptitudes? Of course, there are some people of excellent roots and virtues in the world. But what are ours?
To discern the quality of our roots and virtues, we must examine ourselves using the standards of the scriptures. Of the Three Pitakas, the first is the Vinaya Pitaka. Can we uphold the precepts? If we cannot, would it not be the same as if no Precept Pitaka existed? We have the Sutta Pitaka. Have we accomplished any one of the Three Studies? Under such circumstances, even if we have the good fortune to encounter Buddhism, little, if any, benefit is evident. This indicates that our roots and virtues are no different from the lowest in the Dharma-Ending age.
Such recognition helps us understand the reality of our situation. Dharma is for cultivation, not for purely academic discussion, argument, or the formation of bias. Although we have learned Buddhism, if we are unable to practice realistically, it is not very much different from not learning it.
Even with such inferior roots and virtues, beings who recite Namo Amitabha Buddha satisfy the primal vow of the Buddha. That is the benefit of unvarnished nian-fo. As far as the reciters are concerned, few of them have a mind free of strain and anxiety to practice nian-fo; all are mediocre mortals. Their afflicted minds are in disarray and worsening day and night, consumed by afflictions and sufferings. All the same, in such a state of mind, their recitations are without the added colors of meditative or non-meditative skills. Each sound of nian-fo absorbs all the merits of Buddhas and brings forth pure and supreme merits, unblemished by their deluded minds.
Regardless of the state of mind, as long as one has faith in the Buddha’s deliverance, and continually recites the name, one fulfills the Buddha’s primal vows. That kind of nian-fo is what we call “unvarnished nian-fo”.
While we are inferior mortals, unable to cultivate the Three Studies or the Three Acts of Merit, we can recite Namo Amitabha Buddha, rely on the Buddha’s vow-power, and achieve rebirth. This benefit derives not from our own roots, virtues or “colors”, but solely from unvarnished nian-fo.
We cannot cultivate “a mind free of vexation and anxiety,” boasting a deep comprehension of sutras and advancement in cultivation. We are wicked mortals both before we begin to practice nian-fo and afterward.
Our “afflicted minds are in disarray,” and remain afflicted day and night due to persistent delusive views and attachments.
Our bodies and minds are consumed by vexations and evil karmas; what good would nian-fo bring about in such a state of mind? Meritorious cultivation? Unlikely. The sound of the Buddha-name that proceeds from the reciter consumed by afflictions is called nian-fo “without extinguished afflictions”.
As Master Shandao describes in his “Parable of the White Path,” to recite the Buddha name while walking on the white path, poised between the water of greed and the fire of anger, is colorless, unvarnished nian-fo: Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha. Anyone who believes that such unvarnished nian-fo is efficacious through his own efforts in cultivation deceives himself with arrogance and pride.
Since the name encompasses all the merits of Buddhas, it cannot be blemished by our deluded and dirty minds. The name is pure and meritorious. Like the lotus flower, it grows through the mud without being sullied. No matter how delusive or fatuous our minds may be, reciting the name is unvarnished nian-fo. The counsel which says, “Regardless of one’s state of mind, have faith in the Buddha’s deliverance, and constantly recite his name,” fulfills the Buddha’s primal vow for rebirth. Therefore, it is called “unvarnished nian-fo.”
Nian-fo in accordance with Amitabha’s primal vows and the unvarnished-wood nian-fo are one and the same act in theory and practice. The only difference is the language and imagery used to describe it.
Mortals with inferior roots and virtues are the objects of the Buddha’s deliverance and within the functionality of the Buddha’s name. The primal vow, “sincerely and joyfully entrust to me, desiring rebirth into my land,” thus means “achieving rebirth in my land by unvarnished nian-fo.”
The final paragraph is about abandoning Self-power relying on Other-power:
The practice of nian-fo does not distinguish between individuals with superior or inferior roots and virtues, karmic deeds being weighty or light, noble or low and degrading character, gifted or feeble-minded intellect . As long as we recite the Buddha name, all will be born into the Buddha-land. But people who rely on their own efforts and practice the meditative and non-meditative teachings, consider the colorless nian-fo to be a vain effort. Do not think that way. You should abandon the path relying on Self-power, adopt the path relying on Other-power.
Some reciters who seem to have adopted the path of Other-power may still mix in Self-power practices. “Abandon” means to give up the false virtue of Self-effort, and single-mindedly walk the path of Other-power.
If you follow this path, then you should know that those reciters who attained Mahayana enlightenment, have a profound understanding of the Dharma, and uphold the precepts to perfection are all followers of the Buddha’s primal vows. You should clearly understand this and not be confused.
This concluding statement is brilliant. For those who have accomplished much, “abandoning self-power and adopting the path of other-power” does not mean to abolish or forsake Mahayana enlightenment, sacred scriptures, or precepts. As long as they do not attempt to mix such colors with nian-fo, their recitation remains unvarnished.
In the case of those with superior roots and virtues, reciting the Buddha-name according to their roots, virtues and aptitude without the admixture of colors conforms to the Buddha’s primal vows; therefore, it is unvarnished nian-fo. This is possible because nian-fo according to the primal vows engages beings of all kinds and qualities of roots and virtues: the superior, the average, and the inferior. All attain rebirth through nian-fo.
I believe when we read to this point in Master Shoku’s writing and compare this wisdom to our own experiences, we might smile to ourselves. From now on, every time we think of his writing, we will remind ourselves, “Look, you are mixing in colors again. No need to do that.” Just recite the way we are naturally- broad-minded, easy and comfortable, with no pressure and no anxiety. That is the true, unvarnished nian-fo that brings peace of mind.
We will now end our discussion here.
Thank you, everyone.
Namo Amitabha Buddha.
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team; edited by Householder Ronald D. DiVestea)
 Nian-Fo in Chinese pinyin: Nian means to recite or to think of, and Fo is the Buddha; hence, nian-fo means to recite and/or to be mindful of the Buddha, i.e., Buddha-recitation and Buddha-remembrance.
 The four basic elements of nature according to Theravada Buddhism are Earth, Water, Air (or Wind), and Fire, of which physical matters are made. Mahayana Buddhism considers the elements phenomenal and unreal.
 Asamkhyeya is an ancient Indian measurement, one estimate being 1065 earth years; “asamkhyeya kalpas” means incalculable eons.
 The six characters in Chinese pinyin are: Na-mo A-mi-tuo Fo.
 Three Acts of Merit: i) being filial to one’s parents, attending to one’s teacher and elders, compassionately refraining from killing, and practicing the ten acts of virtuous conduct, ii) taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, upholding the precepts, and refraining from breaking the rules of conduct, and iii) awakening to the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhi-mind), firmly believing the law of causality, reading the Mahayana sutras, and encouraging others to endeavor on the path. (Ref. The Visualization Sutra)
Faith in, and acceptance of, Amitabha’s deliverance
Single-minded recitation of Amitabha’s name
Aspiration to rebirth in Amitabha’s Pure Land
Comprehensive deliverance of all sentient beings