Those Who Don’t Read the Sutra, But Instead Know Its Essence – Part 1

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It has already been seven months since we started sheltering-in-place due to the COVID pandemic.  Because we haven’t been able to come together for Sunday Services for a long time, I feel really sad that I’m not able to hear the voices of our members chanting in the hondo.  In a normal Dharma School year starting each September, I would be seeing our students smiling and placing their hands together in the Hondo to the Buddha’s image every Sunday.  It is unfortunate how our daily lives have been completely changed since last March.

Currently we are offering online Sunday Services on YouTube, so that our members can hear the Buddha Dharma and enjoy our services from their homes.  I sincerely hope that by participating in our online services despite the chaos of this world, our members will awake to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha and rejoice in the fact that we are always connected together in the Nembutsu, which is the fruit of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion.

As you know, most people who visit our Temple for the first time usually come because of an interest in Zen meditation or sutra chanting.  It seems that they are fascinated by these unique Buddhist traditions that are not found in western culture.

Certainly, when you see someone in the Hondo sitting silently in mindful meditation, his posture looks poised and dignified.  And when we hear the beautiful chanting, it makes us forget our busy everyday lives and we feel as if our minds and bodies are transported elsewhere by the chanting.

Whenever I go back to Japan, I visit our head temple in Kyoto, the Nishi Hongwanji, to participate in the morning service.  During the service, I am always in deep reflection because I feel as if the beautiful chanting voices that echo through the Hondo become the calling voice of Amida Buddha questioning me about my self-centered ways.

There are Buddhist schools like Zen which practice meditation and those which do not.  It depends, of course, on the teaching of each sect.  But with sutra chanting, all schools have a strict practice.  And although chanting is an important part of Buddhism, do you know what it means in our Jodo Shinshu tradition?  I would like us to consider the significance of chanting in our Jodo Shinshu sect.

As you know, we are foolish beings with many faults.  Once we get an idea into our heads, we become mentally blind and unable to see anything else around us.  We believe without questioning what we see, and we are quite sure about what we hear, too.  The moment we are certain we are right; we develop this blind spot that makes us lose insight.

Even if those of us with this blind spot were to discuss a matter of life and death seriously with others, we might not be able to solve anything about it.  Despite how much we who are lost try to figure a problem out, we cannot seem to find the right answer.

That is why it is very important for us to listen to the true words that transcend delusion.  What tries to grasp the true words is the Sutra.  And in Jodo Shinshu tradition, the sutra chanting or reading is what asks the sutra and what questions the sutra.

To clarify: “What asks the sutra and what questions the sutra” actually means, “To ask and question the word of the Buddha.”  This is an important facet of Jodo Shinshu.  For many practitioners, sutra chanting or reading means to nod our heads, accepting, “Oh, how grateful I am,” as we listen to the Buddha’s words, and bringing us up to the level of one who can embrace his/her own life just as it is.

Many Buddhists have had a wrong attitude about sutras.  As I mentioned, in many sects, teachings may differ from that of other sects because each has its own emphasis.  But there are some schools that teach that the sutra is read or chanted for the sake of the deceased.  And there are many sects that believe one’s wish will come true simply by chanting.  These sects claim that sutra chanting brings benefits in the present life.

Some 2,500 years ago, Sakyamuni Buddha shared his insights with those around him and left them for those who would be born later.  These teachings, compiled after his death, are the Sutras that we hold in our hands today.  A Sutra is the teaching that Buddha handed down to each one of us living at this moment.  So to read a Sutra is not to chant for anybody’s sake.  Through our loved ones who have died, and the innumerable causes and conditions, the reason we chant or read the Sutra is so that we may sincerely receive the true teachings described in the Sutras.

There is an important lesson in Recorded on the Life of Master Rennyo, which says, “There are those who read the text of the Sutra, but do not read the truth; and those who do not read, but instead know the essence of it.”  These are the words of Rennyo Shonin, the eighth head priest of Jodo Shinshu, who is often called its second founder.  Through this lesson, we should realize that we read the Sutra to accept its content—the truth and essence of the Sutra—to make it our own.

One person who truly understood this was Shoma (1799-1871), well known in Jodo Shinshu tradition as a Myokonin, or superior Nembutsu follower.  Shoma was born into a poor sharecropping family. He worked very hard making ropes and Japanese sandals while babysitting.  Although he never married, he cultivated a small field and worked at the temple as a handyman.

Shoma was illiterate and couldn’t even count money.  Yet while working at the Shokaku Temple as a handyman, he was able to encounter the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.  Because of this, Shoma lived with the Nembutsu in deep gratitude for Amida’s compassion and was born with the guidance of his temple’s resident minister. 

There is an interesting anecdote about Shoma that I would like to share it with you in my Dharma Message in the next Echo.  Please look forward to it!

 In Gassho,

Rev. Yushi Mukojima