The first time I heard the chant “Namu-myoho-renge-kyo” was at a meeting of Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists in Amarillo, Texas. Although this was 50 years ago, I can still vividly recall entering a room filled with people facing a small altar, the resonant sound of their chanting, and the piney smell of burning incense. I felt enveloped in the warmth and welcome of the gathering. It felt like home.
This was my introduction to Nichiren Buddhism, and to this day I continue to claim a deep and abiding faith in the teachings of Nichiren Shonin (1222–1282) and in their source, the Lotus Sutra. There are more than thirty schools of Nichiren Buddhism, and for all their differences, they are all characterized by reliance on the Lotus Sutra as taught by Nichiren Shonin and by the practice of chanting the Odaimoku, “the great sacred title” of the sutra. Today, even as a priest and an elder in the sangha, I still experience that same sense of warmth I felt so long ago. Buddhism has been for me a journey of fresh discoveries, one I believe will continue until my death, and perhaps beyond.
For Nichiren Buddhists, faith is a necessary element of the spiritual path. Faith, practice, and study are the essential building blocks for the development of a fully realized life. These form the foundation for a full-fledged engagement with the dharma. Intellectual knowledge is not necessarily required at the outset. It does, however, become increasingly important and valuable as one proceeds. Many Buddhist practitioners in the West are inclined to view Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion, and so they regard faith with some suspicion. To me, it does not matter what we call our way of approaching the dharma; what matters is that we each find an efficacious practice that supports our lives. When that happens, we tend to develop faith in the possibilities and the reliability of whatever our practice is. For Nichiren Buddhists, practice is built on faith, and faith can only be sustained through actual practice.
Nichiren Shonin was a monk of the Tendai school of Buddhism in Japan in the 13th century, the Kamakura era. This was viewed by most Buddhists of that time and place as the onset of mappo, the millennia-long age of degeneracy of the buddhadharma. Nichiren felt that the times demanded a renewed emphasis on the Lotus Sutra, including a practice that could make its teachings available to monastics and laity alike, no matter what their status was. After years of intensive practice, study, and exploration, Nichiren found what he felt was the key to practice for his time and for the times to come. He determined that the simplicity of chanting the Odaimoku was a way for anyone to bring fundamental spiritual change to their life. This practice was a way of planting seeds of awakening in the lives of those who undertook it. Entering the path to Buddhahood required nothing beyond the simple act of chanting.
In the Odaimoku, the word namu means “devotion to” or “respect for.” Myoho-renge-kyo is the Japanese pronunciation of the ancient Chinese characters for the Lotus Sutra. Myo means “wonderful, mysterious,” as well as “to open” or “to be reborn,” and ho means the dharma, or law, taught by the Buddha. Renge means “lotus flower,” which, because it produces flower and seed at the same time, is indicative of the simultaneity of cause and effect. The lotus plant also grows in muddy swamps while producing a flower that is untouched by the dirt, indicating that our lives are formed out of the “mud” of the world of suffering and delusion, or samsara. Kyo means “sutra,” a teaching of the Buddha. The Odaimoku thus means “devotion and respect for the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma.”
Nichiren Shonin shared the teachings of the sutra through the simple practice of chanting the Odaimoku. This is in keeping with his assertion that the entire meaning and purpose of the sutra was to be found in its title and therefore one need only to chant the title to achieve buddhahood. He was not the first to espouse this practice; he was however, the first to recommend it widely. He once said,
The spirit of our five- or six-foot body appears on our face. The spirit of our one-foot face also appears in our eyes. It is the same with “Namu-myoho-renge-kyo.” A single letter of the 69,384 characters in twenty-eight chapters in eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra is the same as all the characters. This is of vital importance in all matters. The essence of the Lotus Sutra is the Odaimoku, “Namu-myoho- renge-kyo.” When you chant it twice, it is the same as reciting the sutra twice, so 100, 1,000, or 10,000 times of chanting is equal to 100 recitations, 1,000 recitations, or 10,000 recitations. Those who chant the Odaimoku constantly are the people who constantly read the Lotus Sutra.
The Lotus Sutra was compiled in India beginning in the first century BCE and traveled along the Silk Road to China, where it became arguably the most influential Buddhist scripture; it is often referred to as the “king of sutras.” In a 2006 interview in Tricycle, the Buddhist scholar Jacqueline Stone spoke about why the Lotus Sutra came to be held with such reverence:
The text [of the Lotus Sutra] suggests that not only is this the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, or the historical Buddha, it is the final teaching given by all buddhas before they enter nirvana. It is, in other words, the final word on Buddhism. … The scripture is equated with the Buddha’s body, and so to hold the sutra is to hold the very body of the Buddha. We can’t know the intentions of the sutra’s compilers, but one could read this as saying that the sutra is not about the dharma, it is the dharma—that is, it is the embodiment of ultimate truth. Certainly this is one way it has been seen historically, at least in East Asia.
The sutra is said to be the “one vehicle” (Sanskrit, ekayana), the teaching that includes yet goes beyond all other Buddhist teachings. It teaches the timeless nature of the Buddha, asserting that all buddhas in all realms and times are manifestations of the Eternal Buddha. The sutra claims that through its teachings all beings can eventually reach full buddhahood. Toward this end, the sutra establishes the five ways of practice for sharing the dharma: receive and keep the sutra, read the sutra, recite the sutra, copy the sutra, and expound the sutra.
For Nichiren Buddhists, faith can only be sustained through actual practice.
In my experience, Nichiren Shonin’s teachings on the Lotus Sutra provide a sanctuary and a refuge in which we can stretch and challenge ourselves and awaken to Buddha’s wisdom. While chanting the Odaimoku we develop the kind of faith that is a vehicle for bringing us home to our true selves.
Many convert Buddhists wonder why we Nichiren Buddhists focus on chanting instead of silent meditation. Some might challenge our practice as being antithetical to how the Buddha originally practiced. Certainly, stories about the Buddha’s awakening tell of his practice of silent sitting meditation. But we might also consider the manner of transmission of the Buddha’s teachings, in which communal chanting was essential.
In the time of the Buddha, knowledge was transmitted through the spoken word. It was not until long after the Buddha’s death that the dharma was written down and written texts were made available. The idea of oral transmission is one of the critical elements of chanting practice. Chanting supports one’s ability to learn and understand the meaning of the teachings. For Nichiren Buddhists, chanting is at once an offering and a way to enter into a one-on-one conversation with the Buddha. This personal conversation can be done in any condition in which one finds oneself: in grief, in rage, in joy, in laughter, in tears. Somehow, reverent dialogue with the Buddha brings a feeling of profound acceptance and comfort as well as knowledge and insight about one’s life and practice.
There are several ways Nichiren practitioners traditionally approach chanting: as ritual, as meditation, as learning, and as connection to the three treasures.
A beginner’s practice may consist simply of chanting the Odaimoku, typically for about 10 minutes or more. This is known as shodaigyo, or “chanting practice.” One might simply chant, or one might include ritual forms, silent meditation, prayers, and the transfer of merit. The important point, though, is to begin a disciplined practice by chanting twice a day, morning and evening.
It is helpful to establish a sacred space by setting up an altar. The altar might include an object of focus or veneration, such as a statue of the Buddha, and offerings such as flowers, water, incense, and candles. Keeping the altar clean, orderly, and fresh is itself part of the ritual of practice. Although these ritual elements are not necessary for entering the dharma, such small routines contribute to establishing a sacred space distinct from mundane concerns and affairs.
Over time, one might include, in addition to the Odaimoku, the practice of chanting chapters of the Lotus Sutra. This can be done in one’s native language or in shindoku, which is the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese characters. The Odaimoku is an example of shindoku. Shindoku is often referred to as the language of faith, and it is commonly practiced by various schools of Japanese Buddhism, such as Zen and Pure Land.
Chanting as meditation occurs when one’s mind is fully engaged with the chant’s sound and rhythm. One must be fully present to chant properly. The full engagement of body and mind brings one into deep meditation. Conversely, if one is distracted, one will fall out of the rhythm and harmony. It becomes immediately obvious when this happens, and so chanting becomes a key to mastering one’s mind, rather than being mastered by it, and a method of polishing one’s life. When one chants with integration of body and mind, one enters into a deep connection with one’s buddhanature.
Chanting is also about learning, bodily and mentally. Chanting creates a deep interaction with the teachings. It is said that chanting in shindoku inscribes the Lotus Sutra in one’s life. This is a way of bypassing the conceptual mind, since it doesn’t require understanding the words at that level. Alternatively, chanting in one’s native language provides a way of engaging with the sutra intellectually. In this manner, one becomes intimately involved with the Buddha’s teachings, learning to directly apply them in a personal and immediate manner. What’s more, chanting in one’s native language can become a stream of consciousness, in which understanding merges with the kind of feelings connected to the shindoku practice. Whether in shindoku or in one’s own language, through chanting we are engaging with the sutra and the sutra is engaging with us. This mutual engagement is a means of transmitting the dharma to each other and to ourselves.
Chanting establishes one’s connection to the three treasures—the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. This connection is the essence of Buddhist life. By engaging and unifying all the senses, focused chanting allows one to go within and awaken to the dharma and one’s buddhanature. Chanting in a group is a principal element in sangha building, allowing individuals to connect with others in one united voice. We call this experience itai doshin, “different in body, one in mind.” Chanting together in shindoku allows disparate individuals from different cultures to transcend language barriers and come together with openness and harmony.
All of this sounds great in theory, but what does it mean practically? I tend to think of the Odaimoku as working like a kind of natural law, much like gravity. Whether we believe in gravity or not, it still operates, as it does whether or not we grasp the physics to explain it. For me, chanting the Odaimoku generates a response in my life that I personally do not completely understand. Over the years, though, I have developed a deep certainty about the practice. I know the sound of my chanting permeates my entire life. I have come to believe that the Odaimoku, largely in response to one’s sincerity of effort, “hears” what is deep within one’s life. I have observed its effects in the lives of many individuals with varying issues, all of whom managed to change their lives through fully engaged practice.
My personal experience—and that of many others—of following this simple practice has been quite profound. I cannot recall when I realized how much my own thinking had changed as a result of the practice, but without my even seeking those changes, they happened. I found that, as Nichiren Shonin once said, “If you truly believe in the Lotus Sutra, you will be rewarded and protected by the buddhas.” When I encounter difficulty in my daily life, I have learned that, by chanting, I can find my way through. I have found in Buddhist practice a way to answer questions of ethics, character development, and standards of behavior. This is not magic. These answers arise within my own life. I have come to realize and accept that I don’t need to fight with myself to grow personally.
Following the five ways of practice has provided a solid basis for my spiritual path. To receive and keep the Lotus Sutra means to follow the teachings in the sutra, making them the foundation of my life. Reading the sutra reveals the basics of Buddhist thought, such as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the twelve-linked chain of causation, and so forth. Reading also provides a kind of road map for living. I find this especially in the latter portions of the sutra, where the activities of bodhisattvas are described. Reciting the sutra is the practice of chanting the Odaimoku as well as the text. This requires developing the ability to still the mind and allow the syllables to flow out into space. Whether one understands the words or not, the sutra thus becomes inscribed in one’s life and is transmitted to others. To expound the sutra means to share it. For me, this has come to entail taking it into my life and living the teachings as best I can. It means sharing the teachings by sharing my life, trying to embody the dharma.
Embodying the dharma is, of course, one of the most difficult aspects of practice. It requires one to take responsibility working for the benefit of others. I think of this as a practice for grownups. But we must begin simply, at the beginning. The simple practice of chanting the Odaimoku provides just such a place to start. Following the five ways of practice takes us along the path. I believe this path leads us to realizing the deepest happiness in life. Over time, by embodying the teachings, by sharing the Lotus Sutra as our life, we come to realize the Lotus Sutra as our sanctuary and refuge. As home.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.