Buddhist Sutra Chanting in Japanese


Recently, I had an opportunity to go to a workshop on chanting Buddhist-liturgy in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. Although not required, it will help me a lot in my efforts to get ordained as a minister. The workshop was great, and I learned a lot. For example, I realized I am pretty tone-deaf, and I thought I was following the right intonation, but I was pretty far off. For example, the Shoshinge hymn should be chanted in “D” (re) by default, but after using a tuner, I was chanting in “A”.

In general Buddhist chanting of hymns or sutras is called shōmyō (声明) formally. In colloquial Japanese, though, I think it’s called okyō (お経) but I might be wrong.

Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot lately and wanted to share how to read Buddhist chanting books, and how to chant. Here is the Jodo Shinshu service book my wife lent me:

Shoshinge Buddhist hymn in Japanese

Here, you can see:

  • The chinese characters (kanji) for the hymn. Many Buddhist hymns/sutras are not actually Japanese. They’re Classical Chinese with pronunciation guides in Japanese hiragana syllabary.
  • To the right of the kanji are the hiragana syllables I mentioned earlier.
  • On the left are lines that show whether your intonation should go up or down.

These lines are called hakase (博士), which also happens to mean “Ph.D” or “doctorate”. I’m not sure why.

Sometimes the notation can get very complicated…

Anyhow, modern chanting uses the standard 8-note scale or hacchōchō (ハ長調) or just hacchō (ハ調) for short. It’s called this because “fa”, or “ha” in Japanese, is the starting note used in the scale. I read this on Japanese Wikipedia. 🙂

On this page, from my Jodo Shinshu chanting book, you can see on the right hand side it says 八調レ where レ (re) means “re” in the 8-note scale. This is the fourth “hymn” in the jōdo wasan (浄土和讃).

Buddhist chanting page with tonal marks.

This is telling the chanter that the base note here is “re”. Some Chinese characters have a line that goes up. This means the pitch is one note higher: mi (ミ) in this case. A line that points down means to go lower (do ド).

But as you can see, some have complex lines. For example, the character 如 starts as a flat line, then goes up. As you can see, it’s tell you to start at “re” then move up to “mi”. The next word, 虚, starts even higher and then dips down. Finally, the last character on that line is 空 which goes up and down. It’s hard to explain. You can hear the same page chanted on this Youtube video at 6:38.

If you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Also, one small thing to call out. Some of the words and lines have the Chinese character 引 in there. This means to make it extra long (literally “to pull”). Instead of one-beat, it’s two. So, for 無 you chant for two beats, not one.

Anyhow, sometimes these hakase lines can seem really arbitrary, so often times you have to actively listen to a chant first, and follow along until you understand what they’re telling you to do. But overall, they’re not so difficult.

For Westerners, or anyone, interested in Japanese Buddhist chanting, then the best advice I can offer is learn the liturgy for whatever Buddhist sect you’re interested, find a good audio sample, and keep chanting with it. Do your best to imitate what you hear. Imitation leads to mastery. Don’t memorize it first, just keep imitating until it becomes second nature. 🙂

Good luck!


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

1 thought on “Buddhist Sutra Chanting in Japanese”

  1. This article on chanting was really fascinating to me. Many thanks for sharing!

    In my own religious tradition (Protestant Christianity) we’ve largely lost the tradition of chant, though not entirely. One of the things I used to look forward to at college was the Lutheran Vespers service on Sunday evenings. As I recall, the “Prayer of the Church” (petition and congregational response pattern) was usually chanted in what we called “Byzantine style”, where the tone from the response is continued (basically by humming) in the background while the next petition was chanted). It didn’t change the meaning of the words, but the chant made it more “meaningful” nonetheless.

    I continue to enjoy your blog. Best wishes and good health to you and your family.


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