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Buddho: origins, meaning and application

When developing samadhi, the breath seems to be the universal and most widely embraced object of meditation. Some traditions use buddho as the object.

  • Where did this originate?
  • How is buddho translated and what does it imply and denote?
  • What is the application process as one begins and further develops samadhi?
  • Why would one choose buddho over the breath?
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I believe that the historical origin of buddho ultimately stems from the chant of recollection of the Buddha, which ends buddho bhagavā. This chant is used as the basis for meditation on the recollection of the Buddha. The Visuddhimagga enjoins the recitation of this chant, or terms in the chant, as a way of keeping the Buddha in mind.

Of course there’s no real reason why the “-o” ending must be used. I would guess it’s simply the form that people were familiar with from the chanting; and perhaps it has a softer sound than the abrupt short “-a” ending of “buddha”.

As to how it became such a popular meditation in Thailand, I don’t really know. It was taught by many of the early forest masters, but where did they get it from?

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Yes, I’ve noticed its usage in some the Thai forest teachers. I seems to me that when using the breath as the meditation object, the breath is is easy to observe because it just happens without doing anything and eventually appears to cease. With buddho one needs to arouse thought effort to think the word, measure its cadence and at some point needs to diminish or cease. Perhaps the intended benefit is turning attention and effort towards the ideal of the recollection of the Buddha and perhaps to keep the mind unified?

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In martial arts that use kiai exclamations, the ending vowel matches the intent. For example a “kaaaaah!” would accompany a block since the “-ahh” is dispersive. For the staff “Bo”, a “toh!” kiai is used which is a directed shout that matches the thrust of the staff. Bud-ho is such a focus. It is a mantra of focus as opposed to dispersal. Ditto with “om”, which closes off the exhalation of focused “oh” with a subtle thinning to emptiness. Once the “thread of the breath” is discerned in the ending of the “oh…mmmmm”, then that thread can be used as the focus of breathing.

As an experiment to verify this experience, notice that chanting “Buddhaaaaaa” one might fall asleep. In contrast, chanting “Budhooooo” one would stay focused but run out of breath. The “m” in “om” allows breath prolongation.

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That’s interesting !! I had some training in martial arts for a couple of years and this is the first time I came to know the theory behind the kiai exclamations! Thank you for that :smiley:

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Perhaps if he is so inclined Ven @sujato can expand on the specifics of the buddho bhagava practice in Visuddhimagga as it is described there, but not knowing the existence of that practice, I had previously had a different theory for the origin of the buddho breathing practice (though my “theory” is actually just speculation based on the fact that Mahayanika and Tantric Buddhisms used to flourish in Southeast Asia coupled with generalizations).

My suspicion had always been that buddho was a “de-heresy-ized” or “cleaned up” or “Mahaviharavasin-ized” version of a formerly Mahayanika or Tantric Amitābhānusmṛti-like practice.

This is why:

Next is the practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. This practice is much easier than the two previously mentioned, and can be cultivated by people of varying spiritual capacities. Reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name with single-minded focus can lead to samadhi. As such, it is a very popular form of practice for average, busy people.

Reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha can be done in many different ways, depending on one’s mental state and physical surroundings. One can recite loudly to counteract drowsiness and generate energy, or one can even recite silently in public places or mass transit. One can also recite somewhere in-between, such that each syllable is spoken clearly, heard clearly, and thought of clearly.

One can recite quickly, one word following right after the next, to help dispel distracting thoughts. Another technique is to recite quickly following each breath: reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name ten times following an exhale, and only then breathing in.

(Venerable Xīngyún, Fó Guāng Shān founder, “Starting a Daily Practice” – the article itself is “compiled from a number of Dharma talks by Master Hsing Yun [and] translated in 2012 by Robert Smitheram”)

The ending is bolded not because it is identical to the buddho practice, but just to stress that this kind of attested Amitābhānusmṛti is actually an attestation of an Amitābha-based ānāpānasmṛti exercise of some sort stressing an extremely long out-breath (long enough for ten recitations!). The buddho practice, at its core, is an ānāpānasmṛti, unless I’m quite mistaken, not a devotional name-recitation. Is this misconceived? Certainly, there are also devotional dimensions to the practice of reciting that particular word, but the breath observation is the “main point,” AFAIK. So now we know that there is Amitābha recitation-based ānāpānasmṛti. As a general category of practice, somewhat similar to buddho and somewhat not. IMO even closer to buddho, we have:

Although it is part of the practice of Pure Land Buddhism to audibly recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, the Masters do not always place emphasis on the volume and leave us with many methods depending upon our circumstances. Therefore, in Pure Land Meditation we “recite” the name in time with breathing in silence. Shan Tao (613-681CE) devoted his life to the contemplation of the Amitabha Buddha and wrote profusely about Buddha name recitation and method inspired by his deep study of the Contemplation Sutra. In the third section of his commentary on the Contemplation Sutra, entitled “On the Meaning of Meditative Good,” Shan-tao begins his exposition of the thirteen contemplations by raising a question and then presenting a practical method of mindfulness meditation.

This mindfulness meditation is not widespread and, from my present research, is preserved in a few small temples in Mainland China in Zhejiang Province and in the vicinity of Anhui.

This mindfulness meditation has two parts.

  1. Preparation: Visualizing the four elements of the body dissolving to dust and blowing to the four winds one becomes deeply centered, light and calm. In this tranquil state one moves into mindfulness of breathing and mindfulness of the Buddha name.

  2. Coordination of breath and Buddha Name: The meditator begins to focus on taking the breath in deeply to a point just below the navel and breathing out tranquilly and quietly. On inhaling one concentrates on the word : 阿弥陀佛 (A-mi-to-fuo). Exhaling concentrate on the word “Amitofuo.”

Is that all there is? Well, yes and no. The method is simple. The practise, well, that is another thing! The aim is to focus only on the name Amitofuo, so each time your mind wants to distract you just simply bring your attention back to breathing and focusing on the name. Eventually one gets to the point of total focus like learning how to balance on a bike for the first time. At this point there is an immense calm and tranquillity called Buddha Name Samedhi. . .that is until the ever chatting mind wants to butt in again! Like all things practise is the key

(Venerable Tàishéndào, “Mindfulness Meditation in Pure Land Buddhism” – translator unknown)

Southeast Asia was predominantly Mahayanika and Tantric before sudden Mahaviharavasin ascendancy that basically wipes out the former denominations, in an eerie cultural echo of how Mahayana Buddhism seems to suddenly overcome Śrāvaka Buddhism in India with little explanation as to how/why precisely. Certainly, the conversion of the nobility/royalty by the Mahaviharavasins helped them secure state patronage, but we don’t see substantial survivals of earlier Buddhisms, and how the common folk in addition to the nobles came to be converted is something of a mystery. In addition to this, aside from some flare-ups in violence in Sri Lanka, I’m not aware of a great deal of Mahayana-Theravada violence in this time period and in this region, making a conversion entirely by the sword unlikely. Obviously, these things don’t just disappear overnight though. A population doesn’t go from X pre-Theravadin worldview to Theravada seamlessly. There are the “church ladies” to consider, the community grandmothers, who’ve a strong devotion to, let’s say, the Medicine Buddha. She’s not going to stop with the incense overnight. Similarly, there are perhaps community traditions, holy days etc., of figures like the Buddha Vairocana. These also are not going to disappear overnight.

Instead, often what happens during these religious transformations, the “conversions” of these societies, is a synthesis of what can be taken from the previous paradigm (in short, what was “best from it”) and can be adapted naturally into the new. Of course, uniquely with the case of the Theravadin explosion (or we could say the Mahāvihāravāsin Śrāvaka revival), it is both new and old – new in the sense that it is new to an area and old in the sense that it is a revival of a generally older style of Buddhism. Statuary of Avalokiteśvara can be re-interpreted as Maitreya or Lokanātha – the veneration itself need not change, and indeed will not change overnight, it is merely the object of that veneration that changes.

I am reminded of sectarian violence in Japan, when Pure Land Buddhists would assault Tendai temples, defacing their murals and recarving the buddharupas of Sakyamuni into Amitabha by changing the mudras from the dhyana mudra to the mida no jōin (弥陀定印) – a special version of the dhyana mudra reserved for Amida. The switch simply involves snapping two fingers off and recarving new ones. That being said, this level of inter-sectarian violence and pettiness seems unique to its time and place, and we don’t see a lot of evidence for the violent destruction of Mahayanika Buddhist statuary and architecture. Of course, it is always possible that this went down anyways. What allows me to speculate so is precisely that dearth of evidence.

But what we see instead of blanket suppression of old practices is re-interpretation of them to be within the new paradigm. The earlier-mentioned theoretical grandmother is not going to cease her with her incense, and indeed she needn’t, as they can be synthesized, and the Medicine Buddha can take a back seat as a local deity, much like venerating the spirit of the river that gives you fish, or the Nats in Burma, etc. In addition, any truly edifying aspects of the devotion to the Medicine Buddha can be redirected to “the real Buddha,” if you will. After all, these practices are not necessarily wicked in and of themselves, the argument by objectors I imagine would just be that they are misdirected.

In the present-day, instead of intact survivals, there is what appears to be a very folkified and eclectic Ṛṣi (ฤๅษี luesi) tradition of what appears to essentially be village magic and shamanism mixed with some survivals of what looks like former Tantrism and a fossilized bodhisattvayana. You can see luesis engaging in practices involving the five cakras and nadi-prana energy work. You can see attestation of folksy versions of the Buddhist path where it seems obvious that there is some sort of only-dimly-remembered bodhisattvayana informing it (such as beliefs that the buddha’s path through the Jatakas was in three great aeons, etc.).

We can imagine that the older traditions degenerated somewhat once they lost the patronage they had once had. The disestablishment of a previously-established religion by a state actually often ends in the death of that religion. When the communists took over China, they disestablished the Confucian academies and temples, banning the practice of the older tradition of Chinese scholarship, and today the temple rites of Confucianism have to be reconstructed by academics because they have all but died out. The styles of quasi-Tantric/quasi-Mahayana Buddhisms that prevailed in Southeast Asia before Theravadin ascendancy could have positioned themselves like the Confucians in pre-communist China, too dependent upon their established place in society, too dependent upon the established custom of their receiving patronage, etc., and did not survive the change in the wind when they lost their position in society.

Basically, my central speculation is that a practice like ēmítuó fó (but in Thai or whatever language one is considering, and not necessarily those words – we have for instance Amidist single-word contemplations on the seed-syllable “aḥ”) transforms into buddho when Amitābha is no longer believed in and that the process of how to create the “(new) version compliant with the (old/new) orthodoxy” basically writes itself: one simply takes the heretical Buddha’s name out of it. Now it’s just the word buddha in the nominative singular – buddho.

Do you think the above is less or more likely than that it is a practice adapted from the Visuddhimagga? It’s certainly a wild ride through my unsubstantiated ruminations. You can tear it apart where you think it’s silly with my blessing, bhante.

To the forum, I want to apologize for the irregular diacritics on my new computer, even though I know that I am likely the only one vexed by it.

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It’s a nice speculation, but there’s a better explanation. Basically, I think it probably comes from the boran / esoteric Theravada traditions. These traditions used mantras, including “Namo Buddhaya” and other elements of linguistic mysticism similar to that found in tantra, but drawing on a Pali textual tradition instead of a Sanskrit Indian one (as the Buddhist Tantras did). The Thai forest tradition seems to have been influenced by this. One can see it, for example, in this text by Ajahn Lee, called The Divine Mantra.

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This I think is the same thing I was referring to as “pre-Theravādin.” I think it’s an issue of what we want to call “Theravāda.” Is Theravāda strictly Mahāvihāravāsin (Ābhidharmika) orthodoxy, or is Theravāda also the modern Forest movement and that in the Yogāvacāra manual as well as what was formerly taught and believed at Abhayagirivihāra? In the post above, “Theravādin” = Mahāvihāravāsin and “pre-Theravādin” refers to the Yocāvacāra manual, Abhayagirivihāravāsins, etc.

I myself go back and forth as to whether things like Abhayagirivihāravāsin orthodoxy would be “Theravādin.”

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Sure, but esoteric southern Buddhism is a different thing than pure land Buddhism.

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Yes, but we also can’t treat these things as completely separate. Pure Land Buddhism, as a movement, also intersects with Tantrism. For instance, Amideva devotion, deity yogas, and other practices. The lines aren’t always solid between these things, and sometimes are only imposed after the fact as a by-product of subsequent analysis. There are two sides. That being said, I don’t want to present my speculation as anything other than speculation.

I have heard claims that Borobudur is based on the Gaṇḍavyūha from the Buddhāvataṃsaka, so Southeast Asian esoteric Mahāyāna might not be as exotic and unknown as we think.

EDIT: I will cite the Borobudur claims in a moment. I just need to find what I’m remembering.

EDIT 2: I was remembering something related to this from Ven Ānandajoti:

As for pre-Theravāda/para-Theravāda or Mahāvihāravāsin, essentially “whether or not it is ultimately derived from Visuddhimagga,” it depends if buddho bhagavā is entwined with ānāpānasmṛti also, as that would be a corroborating factor. If so, buddho could be completely and unambiguously Theravādin to the point of being a “modern” Mahāvihāravāsin practice. Alternatively, a shared śrāvaka tradition of recitation/contemplation similar to buddho bhagavā was inherited by the Mahāyāna in Southeast Asia and Amidists alike, and was then later reinterpreted according to śrāvaka norms with some residual influence. Does anyone have access to Visuddhimagga to see what it says about the practice?

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Hello, @Javier, @Coemgenu, and everyone else. Please forgive my mistakes in transcribing Thai and Pali into English and the lax scholarship here. (Thank you to @virtualvinodh for this converter!)

I think this comes from the borān (ancient, old) kammaṭhāna traditions of Thailand, based on the Visuttimagga’s 40 kammaṭhāna. It looks like previous esoteric use of beads and mantras was combined with the objects listed in the visuttimagga to create kammaṭhāna practices. I’ve got some evidence to support this theory, but at the end of the day I’m not an expert and we don’t know enough to be 100% sure anyways.

Ajahn Mun is so famous now that the Kammatthāna tradition basically means Ajahn Mun to many people - particularly outside of Thailand. However, he’s just one monk who became famous - the ways he practiced were not his own invention nor were they limited to the north-east (esan) region.

There are palm leaf records going back at hundreds of years that indicate that there were monks famous for kammathana throughout Thailand from the north to the south. As I live in Northern Thailand, I’ll share a bit about what I know of these types of practices in this region based on limited personal experience (I don’t practice using these techniques) and a book (Kammathana Lan Na).

The types of meditation I’m about to describe were derived from the visuttimagga and were the dominant form of meditation in what is now northern Thailand from some time before 1752 CE (the date of the oldest known surviving text, titled the visuttimagga kammathana) up until recently. The book I have focuses on 72 manuscripts from over two hundred years ago until the present. There may be similar manuscripts from other regions, but I don’t know about them. Over the period that the texts in the book were written, Lanna (modern northern Thailand) went from being a vassal of the Burmese to the Siamese. As the Siamese forced the previously independent Lanna to submit to their way of doing things - included forcing the sangha to only act as the state approved - many traditions faded away. As the old monks died, successive generations didn’t attract as much fame and techniques from other areas, such as Ajan Mun’s buddho method or Mahasi abdomen noting, became more common.

These texts give instructions for performing a detailed process. For instance, one of the texts gives the following process to perform budadhānusasati:

Taking precepts,
making offerings and asking for forgiveness (using set chants),
going to a peaceful place,
kneeling or sitting cross-legged,
chanting a bunch of formulas,
then embarking on one’s selected object by chanting these budadhānusasati specific words:

(to praise the buddha, dhamma, sangha, kammathana, and teacher)

budadho me nātho dhammo me nātho saṅgho me nātho kammaṭṭhāna
me nātho (kammaṭṭhānadāyakācarioya) me nātho x3

(to state one’s object)

ahambhante buddhānusasatikammaṭaṭhāna yācāmi buddhānusasatikammaṭṭhāna detha me bhanate x3

(to state the characteristics of one’s object, usually with translation added in)

ahambhante pītisamādhi yācāmi pitisamādhi detha me bhante dukkhasanta karisasāma x3

itipi so… (full verse) x3, with translation

(shortened version of the above)

araham sammāsambuddho x3

Then place one’s hands in one’s lap, recollect a Buddha image, and count using a mala, saying “buddho” for each bead. After 50 beads, say "arahaṅ samā sambuddho. The way it’s worded I’d assume this step’s recitation is done silently, and the other steps’ recitations are out loud - but it’s not clear. Then when you are done open your eyes, wai up high, and say “sadhu, that’s all I’ll do for now!” (very loose translation here :wink:

There are similar directions given for recalling the dhamma and sangha - and you guessed it - after all of the introductory steps you recite “dhammo” or “saṅgho” as the case may be. In fact, the same format is used for all of the meditations, each has it’s own parikamma meditation word (บริกรรม - not sure if this is a Pali word or just Thai) - except for anapanasati, which uses different systems of counting. The details, including the chants and even the parikamma are a bit different from text to text. It’s interesting to note that the repetition of a word is the key - it’s not as analytical as the visuttimagga. Also, unlike the visuttimagga, beads are extremely important. This is probably a remenant of previous esoteric traditions being combinded with Theravada meditation objects.

Of all of the options, budadhānusasati is the top choice - it comes first in all of the manuscripts, and some of them recommend doing it as a preparation for any other object. The goal of this is to generate joy (piti).

Ajan Mun taught a similar method of meditation, with a long set of steps and chants. He didn’t just teach buddho - he taught a lot of other words to be used. He had his disciples experiment with different words depending on their character. What worked for one didn’t work for another. For example, one day he recommended a disciple to try “kāya bhedaṃ kāyamaraṇaṃ mahādukakhaṃ”, then when that didn’t feel good, to try “yakujjho paṭikulo” instead (apparently that worked better). However, buddho was his top choice, and he recommended doing it before anything else and more than anything else. Unlike the northern Thai traditions, I don’t think he did it as a type of budadhānusasati. Furthermore, he didn’t use beads and instead used breathing to regulate the spacing of the word. Perhaps there are some Esan manuscripts that teach it this way, or maybe it was just a variant he picked up or invented himself.

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Thank you so much for your insights and knowledge! I very much appreciate how you’ve filled in a lot of details and puts things into perspective. I didn’t know about the process of budadhānusasati and the steps involved.

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Thanks for all the interesting remarks and information!

True, but in this case we do have, I think, a much more direct transmission. In fact, I think all these methods drew on common understandings of meditation. The Amitabha method clearly grew out of earlier Buddhanussati, and it would be fitting if it later re-influenced it. I think Nanrin’s input shows the link between the Visuddhimagga and the modern practices pretty well.

No worries, this is all excellent information. One little detail though, when I first read “visuttimagga” I thought it was a misspelling of “vimuttimagga” and was wondering, did they really have that in Northern Thailand? But of course it’s the Thai-Pali spelling of Visuddhimagga. I just though I’d note it in case anyone else is confused.

The Buddhanussati section of the Visuddhimagga goes into a lot of detail about the different qualities of the Buddha. This reflects the philosophical preference of the Theravada for distinct, clean-cut categories. Each of the distinct qualities of the Buddha is to meditated upon, using the appropriate phrases:

so bhagavā itipi arahaṃ, itipi sammāsambuddho…pe… itipi bhagavāti
That Blessed One is an arahant in this way; in this way is sammāsambuddho … in this way is bhagavā.

One of the consequences of this is that the Visuddhimagga claims that this meditation cannot lead to jhana, as one is going over the various different qualities and cannot reach absorption.

This is, I think, a mistake, as the suttas clearly indicate that such meditation leads to jhana. Anyway, why would the Buddha teach a meditation that didn’t lead to “right samadhi”?

I think the Thai tradition, and it seems that in this the forest masters drew on the existing northern practices, solved this problem by adopting a gradual simplification of the buddhanussati practice. Begin by reflecting on the different qualities of the Buddha, and gradually simplify, narrowing to just buddho and from there to jhana.

So in this respect I’d see the forest tradition as drawing from the Visuddhimagga tradition, but not uncritically, adapting it (in this case) to something closer to the intent of the Suttas.

Perhaps this approach was influenced by either Mahayana or local rishi practices, but it’s also quite possible it just evolved among monks in their practice. If there is one thing that is true about Thai meditation, it is endlessly creative.

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