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.
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.
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.