The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:
- Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
- Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
- Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
- Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
- Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.
You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc. What the heck is this?
This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately. The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc. This term is not limited to Buddhism either. It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹
Now, here’s the funny part. Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places. This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”. Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.
The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:
- namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
- namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
- namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
- namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
- namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.
So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.² This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.
From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same. In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.
But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.
Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.
¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).
² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped. This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ . Why? It just does.