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.


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.

Say It Like You Mean It

Recently I’ve been reading a book titled Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan published by Kodansha Press. The book is a biography on Zen masters Ikkyu, Hakuin and Ryokan.

I found a really great quote in there, not by the three masters above, but by another Zen master named Daitō (大燈) better known as Shūhō Myōchō (宗峰妙超, 1282-1337). He was the second patriarch of the main Rinzai lineage that exists today.

While abbot of Daitoku-ji temple, a major Rinzai Zen temple, he gave a final admonition to his students that is still recited there to this day:

All of you who have come to this mountain monastery, do not forget that you are here for the sake of the Way, not for the sake of clothing and food….Address yourselves throughout the day to knowing the unknowable. From start to finish, investigate all things in detail. Time flies like an arrow, so do not waste energy on trivial matters. Be attentive! Be attentive!

After this old monk completes his pilgrimage, some of you may preside over grand temples with magnificent buildings and huge libraries adorned with gold and silver and have many followers. Others may devote themselves to sutra study, esoteric chants, continual meditation, and strict observance of the precepts.  Whatever the course of action, if the mind is not set on the marvelous, transcendent Way of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, causality is negated and the teaching collapses.  Such people are devils and can never be my true heirs.  The one who tends to his own affairs and clarifies his own nature, even though he may be residing in the remote countryside in a hut, subsisting on wild vegetables cooked in a battered old cauldron, encounters my tradition daily and receives my teaching with gratitude.  Who can take this lightly?  Work harder! Work harder! (pg. 16)

There’s something I find really inspiring about this quote.  I feel that what Daito is saying is that whatever Buddhist practice you do, you should really feel committed to the Buddhist path, and not just kind of go in halfway.  Maybe I’m interpreting this wrong, but I can see how someone who’s committed to doing esoteric chants (I don’t) and focused on the Buddhist path will really grow as a person, whereas someone doing it for curiosity and because it’s “cool” or might be looking for some tangible benefit, might not.

You can probably extend this to any Buddhist practice too.

Anyhow, just something cool I wanted to share.

A Look At Nichiren and the Three-Thousand Realms

One of the major principles that represent Nichiren Buddhism, is a teaching called ichinen-sanzen (一念三千) which means something like “One Thought Contains A Thousand Worlds”.  I’ve heard this concept before bandied about in discussion, but I didn’t really understand what it meant.

In the book Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism published by the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of San Jose, the teaching is explained like so:

Ichinen Sanzen is the theoretical formulation of the main teaching of the Lotus Sutra according to the Tendai school of Buddhism, which Nichiren Shonin studied and practiced before declaring his own teachings.  Like the Three Truths, Ichinen Sanzen is a way of expressing the dynamic and interdependent nature of life to which the Buddha awakened. (pg 61)

The term was originally devised by the founder of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism Zhiyi (538–597) and popularized outside of Tendai by Nichiren.  The “Three-Thousand Worlds” above are comprised of:

  • The Ten Worlds of existence
  • Mutual possession of the ten worlds, but other worlds (e.g. each realm contains each other realm)
  • The Ten Factors of existence
  • The Three Realms

The book breaks it down like so.  The Ten Worlds are the sum total of Buddhist cosmology and represent the ten possible states of existence sentient beings can experience:

  1. Hell – endless suffering, hatred, bitterness, despair
  2. Hungry Ghosts – endless cravings, addiction, etc.
  3. Animals – elementary desires, basic instincts
  4. Asuras (fighting demons) – arrogance, conflict, anger, strife
  5. Humans – morality, reason
  6. Devas (heavenly beings) – bliss, joy (albeit still impermanent)
  7. Shravakas (voice-hearers) – the world according to the Four Noble Truths
  8. Pratyekabuddha (private-buddhas) – the world as seen through Dependent Origination
  9. Bodhisattvas (seekers of full awakening) – the world as seen through compassion and endeavor to complete the Six Perfections.
  10. Buddhas – complete and serene awakening.

The worlds highlighted in bold represent the traditional six realms of rebirth, the six realms that a being could conceivably be reborn in.  The remaining four represent specific states of mind, or milestones, in the Buddhist path.

As stated earlier, the second “10” is the fact that each world possesses one another.  They are not mutually exclusive to one another.  For example, a bodhisattva is motivated by compassion for beings suffering in Hell, and so on.  So, each world is said to “contain” each other world.

The Ten Factors, meanwhile, are a list mentioned in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and are used to describe all phenomena in existence, and what they consist of:

  1. Appearance
  2. Nature
  3. Entity
  4. Power
  5. Activity
  6. Causes
  7. Conditions
  8. Effects
  9. Consequences
  10. Unity

Finally, what are the Three Realms?  Simply put, these are individual, community and the land itself.  As Lotus Seeds explains:

These Three Realms show that the one thousand worlds are present in and manifest themselves through all things without exception.  That is, the possibilities that they point to are possessed by individuals, communities, and even non-human and inanimate phenomena. (pg. 70)

The concept of ichinen-sanzen paints a very fluid, and dynamic picture of the world we live in, and also reinforces that we are contributing to this one way or another through our words, thoughts and deeds.

Just Focus On That One Thing

Lately, I’ve been reading a translation of the Bendowa, a 13th-century text written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen (1200-1253).  The Bendowa is comparatively short, compared to other longer texts that he wrote later, but it contains a lot of nuggets of wisdom that I have enjoyed sharing in the blog (here and here for example).

One of the important themes of the Bendowa is the primacy of Buddhist practice.  Dogen frequently criticizes those who study Buddhism but never actually do any practices.  For example here:

Just understand that when a master who has attained the way with a clear mind correctly transmits to a student who has merged himself with realization, then the inconceivable dharma of the Seven Buddhas, in its essence, is actualized and maintained.  This cannot be known by monks who study words.  Therefore, stop your doubt, practice zazen under a correct teacher, and actualize the self-fulfilling samadhi of all buddhas. (pg 148-149, Moon in a Dewdrop, trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi)

This reminded me of some words I had posted in the past here on the blog.  For example in this old post, I talked about sustaining a practice long enough to reach fruition, like applying steady heat to boil water.

But what practice?

Another Zen master, Hakuin (1686-1786), wrote a letter to a Nichiren-Buddhist nun:

At any rate, nothing surpasses the casting aside of all the myriad circumstances and devoting oneself to recitation [of the o-daimoku, the title of the Lotus Sutra: namu-myoho-renge-kyo].

Yet Hakuin cautions:

But do not adhere to the one-sided view that the title of the Sutra alone will be of benefit. This applies as well to the Shingon and Pure Land schools. The followers of the Pure Land, by the power of the concentrated recitation of the Buddha’s name, resolving to see once the Pure Land of their own minds and the wondrous form of Amida Buddha in their own bodies, give rise to a valiant great aspiration, and devote themselves ceaselessly to the recitation of the name, as fervently as though they were dousing flames on their own heads. Is there any reason that they should not see the form of the Buddha, who is spoken of as not being far off, the trees of the seven treasures, and the pond of the eight virtues? The followers of Shingon, by the mysterious power of the dharani resolving to see without fail the great Sun Disc of the Inherent Nature of the Letter A, give rise to a great aspiration to persevere, just as in Zen one koan is taken up and concentrated upon. Is there any reason that they should not polish and bring out the true form of the Diamond indestructible that Koya Daishi has described as “[attaining enlightenment] without being reborn in a new body”?

Hakuin’s point I think is that not even steady practice is enough.  The aspiration is what really counts.  If you work up the right resolve, the practice becomes a means toward that end, and in time you will see the fruition of your practice.

But how do you work up the resolve?  This is where things like studying the sutras, and the writings of past masters, visiting various temples, and looking for other inspirations really come in handy.  Dogen’s warning is right: simply studying in an intellectual capacity isn’t enough, but at the same time, it is sometimes helpful to get support from other Buddhist sources.  But the important thing to bear in mind is why you’re doing it.

Best of luck to my fellow Buddhists out there!

Do or Do Not

Many people probably remember this famous scene from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back:

Recently while reading a translation of the Bendowa, an early essay written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen.  This quote really caught my attention:

Those who practice know whether realization is attained or not, just as those who drink water know whether it is hot or cold.

(Pg. 156, Moon In A Dewdrop)

I tend to be the kind of person who likes to overanalyze something, and hesitate until I make a decision, which may never come.  This has always hampered my Buddhist practice long-term as I tend to overthink it and let self-doubt take over.

But this quote (and Yoda’s) are a reminder not to try.  Just do.  In other words, don’t worry about the outcome and such.  Just do it and see first-hand.

All I need to do is just start a Buddhist practice, ideally something that is suitable for my circumstances.  Now if I only I could decide on one first… ;-p