To pick up where we left off last month, I would like to share an interesting anecdote about Shoma. Although he was illiterate and couldn’t even count money, he worked hard at the Shokaku Temple as a handyman while striving to listen to the Nembutsu teaching. Because of his great devotion, Shoma was treated like a son by the Shokaku Temple’s resident minister. However, one day, one of the associate ministers who was jealous of this affectionate relationship got it into his head to make fun of Shoma and embarrass him.
The next day, in front of a crowd of sangha members, that associate minister brought out the second volume of the Large Sutra, held it out to Shoma and said, “Hey, Shoma. Everyone here knows how devout you are. Why don’t you read what it says in this Sutra to us?”
The text he was referring to was “Goakudan,” a part of the Large Sutra, which is even difficult for ministers to read. That minister was fully aware that Shoma would not be able to utter a single word of it. He expected to see Shoma admit in deep distress, “I am ashamed to say that I cannot read any of this.” But all Sutras are the same to an illiterate man. So instead, Shoma accepted the volume in both hands, raised it up to his forehead respectfully and said, “Yes, I am very honored to read it.” Standing before the many members watching with breathless interest, Shoma stood tall and read loudly, “‘Shoma, I [meaning Amida Buddha] will liberate you! Shoma, I will liberate you!’ It says so.”
What a wonderful interpretation this was! Shoma had not read the actual text of the Sutra, but instead he understood the truth and essence of it. It was a reading from the heart. This was the point of Rennyo Shonin’s lesson that I introduced in last month’s article. When we chant the sutras, we usually only read the words aloud. However, Shoma captured the essence of the Sutra – namely, the great compassion of Amida Buddha. He understood it completely. He accepted the voice of Amida Buddha calling from the Sutra, the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha described in great detail in the Larger Sutras not for the sake of just anyone, but “for myself, alone.”
By this example, we should understand that reading the Sutra does not mean to just follow the words but to make the truth of it our very own.
One more important thing is that the sutras should be chanted with the image of Amida Buddha before us. The reason that we should do so is, in the last four lines of the Sanbutsuge, which is very famil-
iar to us:
“KE RYO SHIN SHI
SHO KU DOKU CHU
GA GYO SHO JIN
NIN JU FU KE”
“Even though my body may undergo much suffering and pain, I shall never cease in my efforts. Whatever I must bear, I shall have no regrets.”
To put it simply, it is sworn for the sake of each one of us, “If I am able to save you, even if my body may undergo much suffering and pain, I shall have no regrets.”
We are truly grateful to hear these words because Amida Buddha made such a sacred vow for the sake of each of us. When we chant the sutra, we hear Buddha’s vow through our own voices and can be moved and even surprised at the depth of Amida Buddha’s compassion. We cannot help but rejoice in our encounter with Amida Buddha’s vow.
Is there anyone around you who would say without hesitation, “If I can make you happy or save you, I will sacrifice my life?” We can’t be sure any such person in this whole world except Amida Buddha. The Sutra is the sacred words of Amida Buddha calling us; and our chanting is how we give voice to his precious words each time we chant. Because the Sutra is what makes us realize the depth of Amida Buddha’s mind, it is most important that we chant with a deep bow in front of Amida Buddha’s image to show the depth of our gratitude.
This is why, in Jodo Shinshu tradition, we don’t chant sutras for the benefit of our departed loved ones, nor to have our wishes granted. Instead, our chanting is Amida Buddha calling to us, “I will surely save you just as you are.” And, as we hear our own voices, his words reach deep into our minds. To chant the Buddha’s words repeatedly in our daily lives is to truly receive the Buddha’s vow in our hearts and minds.
There is another reason why Sutra chanting is important to Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, and that is to praise Amida Buddha’s virtues. Let us realize how important it is, as we hear our voices chanting, for us to rejoice, be grateful for, and praise the depth of Amida Buddha’s compassion.
It is important because in the epilogue of the Tannisho, our founder Shinran Shonin declares, “When I ponder that the compassionate Vow of Amida Buddha, established through five kalpas of profound thought, was made for me, Shinran, alone. Because I am burdened so heavily with karma, I feel even more deeply grateful to the Primal Vow, which was made precisely to save me.” Shinran’s accep-tance, “it was for me, Shinran, alone,” was due entirely to his daily chanting. This is how he came to fully understand more than anybody else the sincere vow of Amida Buddha and to rejoice in the deep compassion of Amida Buddha.
It may be a challenge for English speakers to chant Sutras that are not translated into English, but left instead in their original form. But, if you are able to hear them just as Shinran did, realizing, “The Primal Vow of Amida Buddha, established through many hardships, was for myself, alone,” then you are a sincere Nembutsu follower who does not just read the Sutra, but who knows its essence.
Whenever we chant the Sutras filled with such precious words, let us feel grateful for Amida Buddha’s voice calling us to take the great path of truth with the Nembutsu.
Rev. Yushi Mukojima