Where Does Namu Come From?

The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:

  • Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
  • Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
  • Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
  • Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.

You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc.  What the heck is this?

This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately.  The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc.  This term is not limited to Buddhism either.  It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹

Now, here’s the funny part.  Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places.  This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”.  Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.

The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:

  • namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
  • namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
  • namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
  • namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
  • namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.

So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.²  This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.

From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same.  In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.

But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.

Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.

¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).

² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped.  This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ .  Why?  It just does.

A Look At Jodo Shu Home Services

Recently I posted about how Rinzai Zen services at home might look like, so, this time, I wanted to post an example Jodo Shu service as well. Compared to Rinzai Zen there are, not surprisingly, a lot more things to chant.  More on Jodo Shu Buddhism in general can be found on their English-language website.

Further, there is an English-translated version with pronunciation of this service below courtesy of the Jodo Shu Mission in North-American.

In the most formal setting (more on shorter examples below), the format of a home service is often:¹

  • Verse for offering incense (kōge 香偈) – If you happen to have a small Buddhist bell too, the service books say strike it 8 times before you recite this verse. This signifies the start of the service too.
  • Taking refuge in the Three Treasures (sanbōrai 三宝礼) – Similar to other verses recited in other Buddhist sects, this acknowledges that one goes to the Buddha (the teacher), Dharma (the teaching) and Sangha (the community) for refuge.  This is pretty much universal in Buddhism in some form or another.
  • Invitation for all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to attend (shibujō 四奉請) – Sometimes also called Sanbujō (三奉請), this is a common invocation in some Buddhist sects to invite various Buddhist divinities to attend and witness, and share in the good joy.  The inspiration of this verse comes from the 10 vows of Samanthabadhra Bodhisattva among other sources.
  • Verse for confessing one’s transgressions (sangege 懺悔偈) – This is a verse very commonly found in Buddhist services and is part of the general Buddhist practice of self-reflection, and acknowledging one’s faults and striving not to commit again.  A more elaborated example is the 4th chapter of the Golden Light Sutra.
  • Recite the nembutsu 10 times (jūnen 十念) – As explained in a recent post, the tradition is to recite the nembutsu 10 times in a single breath. The first 8 sounds like “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu”, the 9th sounds like “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu-tsu” and the tenth sounds again like “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu”.
  • Verse for opening the sutra (kaikyōge 開経偈) – this short verse helps to set the right frame of mind when starting a home service, so it’s pretty helpful, and can be found almost universally in Buddhist home services. The text may vary a bit, but they basically all say the same thing.  More details here.
  • Recite part of the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (a.k.a the Larger Sutra, Larger Sukhavati Sutra, etc) – This is a common liturgy in both Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu, where it is called the shiseige (四誓偈) and juseige (重誓偈) respectively. The full text is posted here. The gist of this section is where Amitabha Buddha-to-be is making a series of great vows to help all beings, vows that he will fulfill upon reaching enlightenment.  For the curious, the full, translated sutra can be found here among other places.
  • Verse for transferring merit (honzeige 本誓偈) – The practice of dedicating merit is very common in Buddhism, but this particular verse relates in the good merit accumulated through reciting the sutra.
  • Recite the nembutsu 10 times again (jūnen 十念)
  • Verse on the importance of the nembutsu (shōyakumon 摂益文) – This is a quick verse that reaffirms the basics of Pure Land teachings: anyone who recites the nembutsu (the name of Amitabha Buddha)is guaranteed to be reborn in the Pure Land through that Buddha’s compassion.  The one-sheet document written by Honen, founder of Jodo-Shu Buddhism, also reiterates this point.
  • Recite the nembutsu as much as you like (nembutsu ichi-e 念仏一会) – I am a bit fuzzy on this one, but it seems to just simply mean you recite the nembutsu continuously as a continuous stream, unlike the junen above, for as long as you like.
  • Another verse for transference of merit (sōekōge 総回向偈) – I am unclear why there are two separate verses for dedicating merit, but verse seems to be more broad in that it dedicates all the merit from this service, and not just specifically for reciting the sutra.
  • Recite the nembutsu 10 times again (jūnen 十念)
  • The Four Bodhisattva Vows (sōgange 総願偈) – The Four Bodhisattva Vows are another very common verse recited in Mahayana Buddhist services across all of east Asia, and express the general sentiment of one undertaking the Bodhisattva Path. Even if one is not now dedicated to the path, it’s still a good thing to recite because you might become inspired someday when the conditions are right. A full explanation of the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and the verse to recite can be found here.
  • Three Prostrations to Amitabha Buddha (sanshōrai 三唱礼) – this is another variation on reciting the nembutsu. Here, it is said three times slowly, drawn-out, follow by a bow. Repeat two more times for a total of nine recitations.
  • A final verse to ask the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to return (sōbutsuge 送仏偈) – basically the opposite of the shibujō/sanbujō above.

Out of all this, the essential practice is to:

  • Recite the sutra excerpt from the Sutra of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Sutra
  • Recite the nembutsu at least 10 times.

There are also slight variations I’ve seen from the format above, particularly toward the second-half, but the differences are not significant.  One site I read suggested that Jodo Shu services be done in the morning where possible.

At the end of the day though, from the Jodo Shu school’s perspective, the most crucial thing is the nembutsu.  If these extra chants hinder your efforts to recite the nembutsu, stop doing them, but on the other hand, if they bolster your efforts, then definitely keep doing them.

Good luck, and happy chanting!

P.S.  I’ll post more “example service” posts soon.  Hoping to post Nichiren-shu Buddhism home services next.

¹ I consulted a few different source both in English and Japanese,

All Good Dharmas

Hello readers,

Been away for a bit, but I am back and wanted to post a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist books, The Way to Buddhahood by the late venerable Yin-Shun (1906 – 2005).  This book isn’t easy to find, and it’s long, but it is one of those rare books that provide a good, intelligent summary of Buddhism overall.  This quote comes at the very end, when it talks about the Lotus Sutra and the general meaning of Mahayana Buddhism, that is Buddhist practiced across East Asia and including Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, etc.

From the standpoint of the One Vehicle [Mahayana Buddhism as taught in the Lotus Sutra], all good Dharmas lead toward the Buddha Way.  Not only does the good world-transcending Dharma of the Three Vehicles¹ lead there, so do the good dharmas of the Human and Divine Vehicle.² Everything in the world—every iota of kind thought or good deed—leads toward the Buddha Way. The Buddha Dharma is another name for good dharmas.

What are good dharmas, after all? That which goes toward the Dharma, follows the Dharma, and corresponds with the Dharma is good. All that which accords with dependent origination³ with emptiness [of all phenomena] as its nature—in thinking, in dealing with people, in handling affairs— is definitely good. That which is good is the Dharma, and that which is not is non-Dharma.

….So it is not the cast that all sentient beings are without good Dharma; it is just that they have not yet carried it out thoroughly.  If, however, they have good Dharma and aim toward loftiness and brightness, they will eventually turn toward the Buddha Way, stride forward, and ultimately become buddhas.  All sentient beings can become buddhas; this is the ultimate truth.  Those practicing the Buddha Dharma should embrace all good Dharmas and abandon none; such is the real purpose of the Buddha Dharma. (pg. 357-358)

There’s a lot to explain in these paragraphs, but the gist of it is that all beings will ultimately become enlightened Buddhas given enough time, and no small act of good goes unrewarded in the future.  Put another way, you’ve nowhere to go but up.

Also the final statement is really important because there is a tendency toward sectarianism sometimes in Buddhism, and what Yin-Shun is reminding us is that anything that leads toward the Dharma is “good dharma” and therefore should be embraced, not picked apart.

P.S.  The Earth-Store Bodhisattva sutra also teaches the importance of conduct, and that even the smallest deeds (for good or for ill), still have their outcome.

¹ The Three Vehicles is a term in Buddhism referring to the path of the “seeker of buddhahood” (bodhisattva), the path of the “private Buddha” (pratyekabuddha) and the “voice-hearer disciple” (sravaka).  These were seen as three possible outcomes of following the Buddhist path since early Buddhism.  However, one of the big teachings in the Lotus Sutra is that they all ultimately converge at Buddhahood.  Hence the term “One Vehicle”, as opposed to three.

² This refers to non-Buddhist religions or philosophies that focus on ethics, good conduct (e.g. Confucianism, Humanism, etc) or on devotion to a divinity (e.g. Abrahamic religions).

³ This is a universal Buddhist concept that explains how all phenomena, both physical and abstract, arise through other, external causes and conditions.  Like the tree that depends on soil, water and sunlight to grow (not to mention the previous tree that provided the seed), all phenomena depend on each other for their existence, even the conditions are negative.

The Kaikyoge: Verses for Opening A Sutra

Hello Dear Readers,

I’ve been somewhat preoccupied lately, but actively working on some projects behind the scenes.  In particular, I’ve been looking into how various Buddhist sects in Japan do home services.  Until I recently, when I left my old temple community, I really only knew one way to do it, and since then I’ve been exploring other paths again for the first time in ages.

One of the most common chants I’ve seen done in Japanese home services, and adapted into the West, is the Kaikyōge (開経偈) which can literally be translated as the “verse(s) for opening a sutra”.  This something recited before a home service, or a formal service in a temple, before one starts chanting a sutra.  It’s certainly not required, but I know from experience, and from the experience of others, that it helps put one in the right frame of mind before reading from the sutras.

In most Japanese-Buddhist sects (including Zen and Jodo Shu), the Kaikyoge is as follows:

無上甚深微妙法(mu jō jin jin mi myō hō)
百千万劫難遭遇(hyaku sen man gō nan sō gū)
我今見聞得受持(ga kon ken mon toku ju ji)
願解如来真実義(gan ge nyo rai shin jitsu gi)

An example translation I’ve read is:

The unsurpassed, profound and wondrous dharma is rarely met with, even in a hundred, thousand, million kalpas.  Now we can see and hear it, accept and maintain it.  May we unfold the meaning of the Tathagata’s truth.

Every sect has a slight different translation¹ but all of them basically say the same thing: that throughout the countless, countless eons of being born and reborn again over and over, the chance to encounter the Buddha’s teachings (i.e. the Dharma) is quite rare.  It only occurs when the right conditions line up, based on a variety of things, including past conduct in various past lives.  But the point being is: let’s not squander the opportunity for who knows when we might encounter it again?

Now, the one major exception to the verse above, is the Nichiren-Shu sect, which uses a somewhat different, longer verse:2


Mu jō jin jin mi myō no hō wa hyaku sen man gō ni mo aitate matsuru koto katashi.  Ware ima kenmonshi jujisuru koto wo etari, negawaku wa nyorai no dai ichi gi wo ge sen.  Shigoku no daijō shigi subekarazu. Kenmon sokuchi. Mina bodai ni chikazuku. Nōsen wa hōshin. Shosen wa hosshin. Shikiso no monji wa. Sunawachi kore ōjin nari. Muryō no kudoku. Mina kono kyō ni atsumareri. Kono yueni jizai ni. Myō ni kunji mitsu ni yakusu. Uchi muchi. Tsumi wo messhi zen wo shōzu. Moshi wa shin moshi wa hō. Tomo ni butsudō wo jōzen. Sanze no shōbutsu. Jinjin no myōden nari. Shōjōsese. Chigu shi chōdai sen.

With a translation from the Nichiren-Shu Liturgy book:

The most profound and wonderful teaching is presented in this sutra [the Lotus Sutra].  This sutra is difficult to meet even once in thousands and millions of aeons.  Now we have ben able to see, hear, receive and keep this sutra.  May we understand the most excellent teaching of the Tathagata!

The most excellent teaching of the Great Vehicle [Mahayana] is very difficult for us to understand.  We shall be able to approach enlightenment when we see, hear or touch this sutra.  Expounded is the Buddha’s truth.  Expounding is the Buddha’s essence.  The letters composing this sutra are the Buddha’s manifestation.

Just as perfume is caught by something put nearby, so shall we be richly benefited by this sura, even when we are not aware of being so benefited, because infinite merits are accumulated in this sutra.

Anyone can expiate his past transgressions, do good deeds, and attain Buddhahood by the merits of this sutra.  It does not matter whether he is wise or not, or whether he believes the sutra or rejects it.

This sutra is the most wonderful and most excellent taught by the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.  May we meet and receive it, birth after birth, world after world!

Regardless of what verse you choose to recite, there’s plenty of good reasons to recite a short verse of appreciation (doesn’t matter which language to use) before opening a sutra. After all, who knows when you might do so again?

¹ Even my old temple would recite it in English, though not in Japanese for some reason.  I never even know it was a fairly universal verse until exploring other sects.

2 originally found here, but confirmed elsewhere.

Jodo Shu: Three Ways To Do The Nembutsu

Hey guys,

This is just another reference post.

A long time ago, I was first introduced to Pure Land Buddhism through the Jodo Shu homepage.  One page in particular talks about the different ways to recite the nembutsu, the name of Amitabha Buddha.

It turns out there are three ways frequently used in Jodo Shu Buddhism:

  • Jūnen (十念) – ten recitations of the nembutsu. The first eight go like “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu”, but in the ninth recitation you say “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu-tsu“, while the tenth recitation drops the “tsu” again. This is the most common form of recitation.
  • Nembutsu ichi-e (念仏一会) – this, as far as I can tell, is just a free-form recitation of the nembutsu.  Recite “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu” over and over again as much as you like.
  • Sanshōrai (三唱礼) – this is to recite the nembutsu 9 times total, in 3 groups of 3 recitations.  These recitations of “na-mu-a-mi-da-bu” are slow and drawn out, and at the end of each third recitation, you bow before an image of Amitabha Buddha.  Thus, you would bow three times.

The home page linked above lists these as well, but I was curious to see how other Japanese-language sites describe these three styles of recitation, and tried my best to explain them here as well.  The good news is that the three are pretty consistent across Jodo Shu Buddhism as far as I can tell.


Learning Things The Hard Way

Sometimes you just learn things the hard way.  This video I made recently was kind of off-script, but I wanted to talk about some recent experiences I had with Zen.  My experiences so far have been fairly positive (besides the sore knee), but it’s also a matter of finding what’s right for you.

I’ve taken a break from Zen practice,¹ and have kind of dabbled in Jodo-Shu practices lately for various reasons outlined in the video.  I haven’t really quit anything, or committed to anything, but just seemed like the right thing to do for now.

Who knows where I’ll be next year, or even next week.  :p

P.S.  The photo above is one I took at Chion-in temple in Kyoto, Japan. The status is a young Honen, before he took tonsure.

¹ Which is kind of a shame since I had kept it up almost daily for 7 weeks.  Better than being a three-day monk.  ;p