Buddha Recitation, Vocal or Mental?
Q：There are Buddha-reciters who recite aloud, others mentally, without a sound. Which one is more appropriate?
A(Master Honen)：The vocal recitation and mental recitation are really one and the same, and they both assure rebirth. However, the Buddha’s primal desire is for us to pronounce his name. The scripture in the Contemplation of Infinite Life Sutra on the lowest level of the lowest grade reads: “to keep pronouncing (the Buddha of Infinite Life) without cessation ten times.” And Master Shandao, in his In Praise of the Rite of Rebirth, interprets the above scripture to mean: “to pronounce my name down to ten times.” So long as the recitations are heard, they are loudly voicing. It is not that we do not care about “the impropriety of loud voicing in public,” but rather we should “consider the essentials of pronouncing the name.”
A (Master Jingzong)：First, let’s talk about the two types of nianfo: vocal and mental. Both types of nianfo recite the noumenal body of the name, and both approaches assure rebirth. That much is clear, without any doubt.
In comparing the two, Master Honen concludes that voicing the name is preferred. Why? Because Amitabha Buddha’s fundamental vow is that of reciting his name. Here,“recitation” means voicing; hence, the sutra states: To keep pronouncing without cessation ten times. While the verse is intended for the deluded person whose roots and aptitudes are on the lowest level of the lowest grade, we accept that we are such gullible beings. There must be a reason why vocal is preferred to mental recitation. And Master Shandao follows the scripture on the lowest level of the lowest grade in the Contemplation Sutra and interprets the verse “down to ten recitations” in The Sutra of the Infinite Life to mean “to pronounce my name even ten times.” Therefore, according to the scriptures and the Buddha’s fundamental vow, nianfo should be a vocal function.
Relative to the mental nianfo, it is easier to recite the name aloud. It also emphasizes the function of the name is to deliver sentient beings. Based on my own experience and queries, to recite the name mentally works well when one’s mind is tranquil without apprehension. It is difficult, though not too difficult.
However, for the deluded beings of inferior roots and virtues, it is impossible to concentrate their minds on the Buddha’s name. The scripture states that “he is too tormented by the suffering to be mindful of the Buddha. So, the learned Buddhist advises him: ‘if you cannot concentrate on the Buddha, you should say instead, the name of the Buddha of Infinite Life.’” When one is under such a dire situation, and you tell him to call out the Buddha, he will. But, if you insist that he focuses on the Buddha, there is no way that he can.
Mental nianfo is easily interrupted. Say, you are riding on public transportation, thinking you can recite the Buddha on the trip all the way. Now, something happened outside, or some riders have a loud argument, and you take a look. By the time you have arrived at your destination, you suddenly realized that you are no longer reciting the Buddha’s name. The name is no more. But, if you recite softly, barely audible to yourself, it would not be that easy to be distracted. Verbal recitation helps lodge the name in your mind.
Whether vocally or mentally, one can hear the name in mind. But it would sound clearer in our minds if we recite vocally. And there are people not easily adapted to mental recitation. When asked to try mental recitation, they would say, “how do you do that? Isn’t recitation through the mouth?” Others, like children or the mentally challenged, also are unable to do so. Furthermore, whether reciting loudly, or softly, or only audible to yourself, as long as our ear hears, Master Honen says such recitation is reciting aloud.
In the first half of the 20th century, Master Yinguang advocated reciting clearly to the mind, by the mouth, and to the ear. I think his advice is essential because it helps concentrate our minds. I suggest we all should follow if the circumstances permit.
Even when we recite mentally without a sound, there is an imprint of sound which we can hear. When we are in a dream, and you are talking to somebody, do you use your mouth? No, you are just lying there. But there is the form of sound. Mental recitation invokes a form of sound that is vocal and loud.
Some reciters stress reciting loudly. They certainly have their reasons. Master Honen advises that loud recitation may be employed if circumstance permits, not ignoring improprieties. There are occasions in which loud recitations are not proper, like in the public transportations where people around you require resting. We should then recite softly so only as we can hear it.
Master Honen says that we should “consider the essentials of pronouncing the name.” That is, we must understand the purpose and the spirit of nianfo. With this principle, we recite the Buddha’s name ceaselessly, voicing with our mouths either gently, quietly, or barely audible to ourselves.
Anyways, depending on the environment and conditions, we cultivate through a persistent practice of vocal or mental nianfo. If voicing is appropriate, we recite aloud, moving our mouths; if we are unwilling to make a sound, it is all right to cultivate through mental nianfo.
(Translated by the Pure Land School Translation Team;
edited by Kevin Orro (Fozhu))
 Nianfo in Chinese pinyin. Nian means to voice and/or to think of, and Fo is the Buddha; hence, nianfo means to recite the Buddha’s name vocally and/or mentally.
 The noumenal body is the personification of the Buddha’s primal vows, symbolizing both the reciter and the name.
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