Ku Amida Butsu

The Singing Nembutsu

Ku Amidabutsu (?-1228) was a priest of Hossho-ji Temple, but we don’t know where he came from originally. At one time he lived at Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei. But he eventually left and came down to the capital where he met Honen. He became such an earnest nembutsu devotee that he didn’t even read the sutras or do anything else but call upon the sacred name all the time. He had no settled residence and not even a bed to sleep in. He didn’t take his clothes off day or night, except when he bathed [read more about the tradition of nembutsu itinerants]. Yet his virtuous acts became so widely known that every one held him in the highest veneration. He used to assemble forty persons with especially musical voices, and for a day or sometimes seven days, repeat the nembutsu. He was deeply absorbed in the sweet music of the Pure Land - the breezes that play through the seven rows of jeweled trees and the waves of the lotus pond in whose waters are enshrined the eight wonderful virtues (as described in the Amida Sutra). So when he was traveling, he would always take along with him a little bell and hang it beside him in a place where the wind would be sure to make it chime. He always used to recite the passage from the great Chinese Pure Land master Fa-chao's hymnal, "So glorious is Amida's name that it shines throughout all the ten quarters of the world. It is only those who call upon his name that will attain ojo and be welcomed to the Land of Bliss by Kannon and Seishi." Then with tears in his eyes he would exclaim, "What a glorious and blissful world that will be." When he came to the close of a nembutsu service, he would say, "When a person calls upon the sacred name here in this world, a lotus flower begins to grow in the Western Paradise. And if that person never fails to keep up the practice all life long, this flower will come for them and welcome them to that land. In comparison with that endless life beyond, surely a whole lifetime here is just a moment. This is why a person should long for that bliss and put aside everything but the nembutsu, whose diligent practice is sure to bring them ojo. Above everything else then, do not neglect this. Amida Buddha's glorious light illuminates all the ten worlds, and Amida always protects and never forsakes those who call upon the sacred name." And so through Ku Amidabutsu’s great practice, the nembutsu was developed into a Japanese hymnal form.

Ku Amidabutsu had the custom of holding a special nembutsu service for seven days every New Year’s, and as usual he held one in 1228. At its conclusion, he urged his fellow wayfarers to go on for another seven days. This two-week service proved to be his last, as on the morning of the fifteenth of the month, like one falling asleep, he entered the Pure Land. Extending the service for a week then was evidently done because he knew his end would come when the services were over. This was one of a number of remarkable phenomena marking his death. For example, there was a famous priest at Hodo-in temple on Mount Koya called Kansem-bo. Now his younger brother, living in Tenno-ji temple in Osaka, had been troubled by a goblin spirit. It was found that this goblin was in his former state of existence none other than one of the ablest preachers of the nembutsu. The goblin said, "I used to be an ascetic monk at the eastern gate of Tenno-ji, but I have fallen to my present wretched state because of the wrong ideas I held. When I was a man in the world, I thought that I was very educated and that Ku Amidabutsu was so ignorant that my little finger was worth more than the whole of him. But now, as a reward for his faithful practice, he has already escaped samsara and attained ojo. Meanwhile, in punishment for my views, I have been condemned to this hell with no hope of escape. Oh me! My regret knows no limit." And he began to weep bitterly. In this way, it was a very common remark of Honen's to say that his own knowledge and virtue were quite insufficient to show people the way, but that although Ku Amidabutsu was uneducated, he had just the qualities of leadership needed in the teaching of the nembutsu. "I have always said that I lack the wisdom to teach others. Ku Amidabutsu, though less intelligent, contributes in leading people to the Pure Land as an advocate of the nembutsu. After death, if I could be born in the human world, I would like to be born a very ignorant man and to diligently practice the nembutsu."

The text has been edited and adapted from the Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), also known as the Forty-eight Fascicle Biography (Shijuhachikan-den) with reference to the translation made by Harper Havelock Coates and Ryugaku Ishizuka entitled Honen the Buddhist Saint: His Life and Teaching. Kyoto: Chion-in, 1925.

Ku Amidabutsu leads a group of nembutsu practitioners. Book 3, Fascicle 48, Leaves 3-4, p.106.

Both Pictorial Biography of Honen Shonin (Honen Shonin gyojoezu), corresponding to the Honen Shonin Pictorial Biography (Honen Shonin Den-en), part of the Complete Japanese Pictorial Scrolls, Volume I (Zoku Nihon Emaki Taisei I), Tokyo: Chuo Koron-sha, 1981.

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