I suppose that most people reading this are familiar with the nembutsu, which in Japanese has been more or less standardized as namu Amida Butsu 南無阿弥陀仏. Learning Pali reminded me that the first word, namu in modern Japanese, goes back to namo on the subcontinent, and I was struck by the fact that the pronunciation namo appears in the Genji Monogatari's "Yūgao" chapter as well:

明がたもちかうなりにけり。鳥のこゑなどは聞えで、みたけさうじにやあらん、ただおきなびたるこゑにぬかづくぞ聞ゆる。 [...] なもたうらいたうしとぞをがむなる。

It would soon be dawn. No cocks were crowing. All they heard was an old an's voice as he prostrated himself full-length, no doubt for a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. ... "Hail to the Guide who is to come!" the old man chanted. (Tyler's translation)

So I got to wondering if maybe namo was the older form (borrowed directly from the source), and namu a later version (arising out of sound changes in Chinese and/or Japanese), but I wasn't able to find much information on the topic. According to the Nihon kokugo daijiten, the 1474 CE Bunmei setsuyō shū 文明本節用集 dictionary lists a whole bunch of alternate spellings: 南謨, 南芒, 南牟, 南膜, 南麼, 納無, 南莫, 南忙, 曩謨, 那蒙, many of which suggest a namo pronunciation, but there's no information as to which is older and, as the NKD says, exactly how sources written in kanji were pronounced is anybody's guess.

I suppose the key lies in finding out how 無 was pronounced in the relevant ancient Chinese period and region, but this lies beyond my abilities. Anyone got any ideas?

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According to my sources, the Middle Chinese for 無 was mju and the Old Chinese was *ma. Wiktionary lists the Wu reading as ム, the Han reading as ブ, and the Tang/Song reading as モ.

I don't think any of that really helps, but there you go.


One more source:

Try the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, http://buddhism-dict.net/cgi-bin/xpr-ddb.pl?q=南無

Log in as "guest".


Carl: isn't mju the baxter-sargat notation (which is like a notation for rhyme tables, not actually a phonetic reconstruction?)

Also, we have to consider that one can't trust 100% the go/kan/tōsō-on readings in Japanese dictionaries, as some were made up by analogy (and they don't mention which ones).

Here's the ABC entry:

Minimal Old Chinese: *ma
Later Han: muɑ
Sin Sukchu transcription (Early Ming): "left reading" vu (平)
Middle Tang: mvu < muo
Old Northwest Chinese: muo

He also says that in many dialects it fused with yǒu (有) "there is" to give "there isn't", with such forms as mau, mə, mou etc.

Could the earlier *ma mean they chose 無 to transcribe Sanskrit namaḥ ? I don't know anything about the history of Chinese Buddhist translations, or whether they'd get it from Pali or Sanskrit...


Not much help, I guess, but the entry for 南无 at http://www.chinabaike.com/article/baike/fj/fjcd/2008/200803301276222.html gives the pronunciation as Namah-Namo, with written variants 南牟,南谟,那谟,纳慕,娜母,南忙,那模,曩谟,纳莫,曩莫 (no advance on what you have). I'm not so sure that the pronunciation of 無 is the key. What is more interesting is that so many ways exist of writing it, many of which seem to give non-'mu' pronunciations.


Actually, as Leo says, the ABC entry indicates that 無 was not originally wú (modern reading), but muɑ (Han) or muo (Tang). Most Buddhist translations were done from the Eastern Han through to the Tang. So 無 fits the bill as far as pronunciation goes.

The final choice of 南無 as 'standard' quite possibly had nothing to do with its pronunciation. The meaning ('vacuity') associated with 無 was possibly what tipped the scales.

Chris Kern:

It makes me wonder if there's any textual variation with なも in that Yugao line. If I remember I'll check the 源氏物語別本集成 next time I'm in the library. The 大島本 that most modern editions are based on is from the late 15th century, and sometimes the 13th century manuscripts preserve some of the older pronunciation...though not necessarily reliably.

Chris Kern:

In fact, afterwards I noticed that the 大島本 in fact has it written in kanji (南無当来導師とそおかむなる). The Kogetsusho has it in kana as なも although Arikawa has added なむ as an alternate reading at the side. The 新全集, working off the 大島本, has it written in kanji but with なも as a furigana. So I guess modern scholars have reconstructed the Heian pronunciation as なも? I'm not sure. The lack of kanji in the Kogetsusho suggests that the 三条西 textual tradition has it in kana but I'll find out later. Now I'm just rambling :)


Please, rambling about textual traditions is the whole point of this blog!

Yeah, I should have mentioned that I found this in Arikawa's edition of the Kogetsusho (and then checked it against the original edition of the K. that Waseda has online -- same deal, namo in kana, no kanji).

Thanks for all the info, folks. Bathrobe: Interesting point about 無. Leo: Now that you mention it, Sanskrit does seem more likely than Pali, doesn't it? Are all those other characters (忙, 母, etc.) linked to reconstructed -a pronunciations, too?


I don't have the ABC at hand, but a quick look in Baxter-Sargart's table gave:

忙 *mˤaŋ
慕 *mˤak-s
模 *mˤa
母 *məʔ (? or *mˤoʔ)
無 *ma
芒 *mˤaŋ
芒 *m̥ˤaŋʔ
莫 *mˤak
蒙 *mˤoŋ
謨 *mˤa

(The others are missing from their table.) But Bathrobe has a point in that these Old Chinese reconstructions are aiming at a time period earlier than the Buddhist translations...

Chris Kern:

I checked the books today; the 大島本 is in the minority in writing it in kanji; most manuscripts have なも. Only one manuscript listed had なむ; the 国冬本, which is a late-Kamakura manuscript.

By the way, I'm starting a blog soon which is mostly going to have Genji stuff. Probably mostly reflections of my own as I read through the original from the Kogetsusho, but I'm also thinking of including some translations of Hagiwara Hiromichi's 1850's commentary or a readthrough of the 陽明文庫 Genji text, which preserves the late-Heian form of the text and is very different from the standard versions read today.


Sounds great! Please let me know when it's up and running!


Chris, your proposed blog sounds great please let us know when it's on...

Chris Kern:

I've got it up at http://akegure.blogspot.jp/

The only content right now is just an explanation, though. I'll start the actual stuff this weekend, hopefully.

Chris Kern:

Also forgive the lack of design; I just picked a default template but I'll make it look better later.

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