The radiant light, unhindered and inconceivable, eradicates suffering and brings realization of joy; the excellent Name, perfectly embodying all practices, eliminates obstacles and dispels doubt. This is the teaching and practice for our latter age; devote yourself solely to it. It is eye and limb in this defiled world; do not fail to endeavor in it. Accepting and living the supreme, universal Vow, then, abandon the defiled and aspire for the pure. Reverently embracing the Tathagata's teaching, respond in gratitude to his benevolence and be thankful for his compassion.

~ Shinran Shonin, Passages on the Pure Land Way

Friday, September 6, 2013

Walking with Rennyo: A Miscalculation in Chanting

(3) A Miscalculation in Chanting

While chanting wasans during service, Rennyo completely missed his turn at the crucial point in the text. Returning to his southern residential quarters, he said, “I was so absorbed in Shinran’s stanzas, that I’d forgotten to take the lead. There are so few who follow the teaching and attain birth in the Pure Land; I rejoice for those who do.”

Chanting has always been an important part of the Buddha-dharma, ever since it was adopted by the first followers of Shakyamuni to preserve his sacred sermons (the sutras). In the Pure Land Way, chanting sutras is one of the five “right practices,” those centering on Amida Buddha as designated by Shan-tao; these formed the general framework for Pure Land liturgy, and were adopted by all subsequent schools of that tradition. It is essential to note that in Jodo Shinshu, however, we do not seek to generate any merit or virtue from sutra-chanting, either for ourselves or for others. Also, while sutra-chanting with the single-heartedness of shinjin may be properly termed “right practice,” sutra-chanting without shinjin is just another auxiliary (or sundry) practice. As the Glossary of Shin Buddhist Terms in the second volume of The Collected Works of Shinran states, “Without the shinjin of Other Power, all practices, including recitative nembutsu, are nothing but expressions of self-power. Right practice, then, arises from the working of Other Power where all forms of self-willed and self-generated practice have disappeared.” It would be well to keep this in mind throughout our discussion of chanting.
It was Master Rennyo himself who established the daily service of the Hongwanji by compiling the Venerable Founder’s many Japanese hymns (wasan) into the three books familiar to us today: Hymns of the Pure Land, Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, and Hymns of the Dharma-Ages. Together with the “Hymn of True Shinjin and the Nembutsu” and the letters of Rennyo himself, these wonderful works have sustained the heart of Jodo Shinshu faith for centuries, preserving and strengthening it in the tumultuous world that was feudal Japan, right up to the present day.
When participating in services, some followers ask themselves questions such as, “Am I chanting loudly enough? Am I bowing deeply enough? Is my nembutsu too quiet? Too loud?” Perhaps we have all engaged in such scrupulosity at one time or another, particularly in an unfamiliar temple or when conducting a service with strangers. Instead, we should be asking, “Have I truly heard and understood what is being chanted or read?” Chanting in Jodo Shinshu does not perform some magical function, as in other religions. It is merely a means of proclaiming the Buddha’s teaching to those who have not yet heard it, and of gratefully extolling the Buddha’s virtues for those who have. The most important aspect in undertaking any religious duty ought to be whether or not it is performed out of a genuine sense of obligation for the Buddha's benevolence. If we have correctly heard and understood the content of the Name, then we will naturally express our gratitude in whatever we do. It is unfortunate that many today who have not experienced a decisive settling of shinjin often resort to elaborate rituals in order to appease their spiritual appetites. However, when the living heart of religion is removed, all that is left is a corpse of empty ceremonies.
That is why I love this anecdote from Master Rennyo’s life, because it tells us so much about his remarkable character, as well as his keen insight into the perils of ritualism. The Shonin took every opportunity to direct attention away from himself toward the working of Amida Buddha. In this case, he did not view his slip-up as a negative event, as many of us no doubt would have, but as an occasion to reflect on the Primal Vow. I think this is the spirit that every Jodo Shinshu practicer should strive to adopt.
Most importantly, in this passage Master Rennyo recognizes the solidarity that those who have obtained birth in the Pure Land share with those who follow after. When a person follows the teaching and attains birth, Master Rennyo himself rejoices for that person, and joins with all the other Buddhas throughout the ten directions in praising him. This reminds me of a quotation from the Passages on the Land of Happiness, which the Venerable Master Shinran quotes in Chapter 6 of his Kyogyoshinsho:

I have collected true words to aid others in their practice for attaining birth, in order that the process be made continuous, without end and without interruption, by which those who have been born first guide those who come later, and those who are born later join those who were born before. This is so that the boundless ocean of birth-and-death be exhausted.

We are blessed indeed that Master Rennyo has gone ahead of us to the Pure Land. Truly, he continues to guide each and every one of us today.


  1. Many thanks for this wonderful article, Gabriel!

  2. You're welcome! I'm glad that you found it helpful.

    Gassho _/\_