Thursday, 18 June 2015

Tell me how you chant and I will tell you who you are.

So, I am a Fukushi, yes? I have spent my life listening to people chanting. I honestly can’t quantify the amount of buddhist meetings I have attended. Let’s try anyway. Between meetings, activities and home visits, I do an average of 2-3 buddhist functions a week. Let’s use 2 to make a very conservative estimate (also to take holidays into account). That is about 100 functions a year. I was born in 1985, so that’s around 3000 functions. Not bad. So I can honestly say I have been to THOUSANDS of buddhist meetings. Fab. 

Many (and by that I mean MANY) of those are lilac activities, a fair amount of which (especially in the past year) have consisted in me chanting at the front of a butsuma for, say, three hours. That gives you plenty of opportunities to observe the different ways people chant. Most of the time, there’s a great person leading and the daimoku flows like a majestic river, or runs like a herd of white horses galloping in the clouds. Marvellous transformation then ensues.

Unfortunately, other times, our life state is not that brilliant and we are distracted by people’s quirky ways of chanting or the things they do as they chant.

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS TO THE RESCUE: please take the following with a pinch of salt. It’s not meant as slander, just as honest fun. If it offends you, don’t read. 

Let’s start with pronunciation.

A daimoku by any other name.
The main invocation we chant is something called daimoku (pronounced dah - ee - moh - coo. NOT spelled diamoku. That word doesn’t exist). It is the title of the Japanese translation of the Lotus Sutra (daimoku, helpfully enough, means ‘title’), plus the sanskrit word ‘nam’ which means ‘to dedicate one’s life’. The full mantra is written: NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO, and it is roughly pronounced NAHM MEE OH HO REN GEH KEE OH.
With me so far? Normally, in England (and Italy), the original Kanji are transliterated with a system called Hepburn, whereby (roughly), the consonants are read like in English, and the vowels like in Italian or Spanish (a = AH, e = EH, i = EE, o = OH, u = OO, ALWAYS, no matter what letters or other vowels are around them). 

However, some people get creative with the pronunciation of this little sentence. Here are some examples I have collected:


Fascinating, I know. Now, observe some maths: one hour daimoku, assuming an average of 70 NMRK a minute, is 252,000 NRMK. (I am the craziest chanter I know, speedwise, and  I average 115 a minute, so 70 is NOT that much). If that kind of creativity is applied to the one sentence that people repeat hundreds of thousands of times a day, try to imagine what happens to the recitation of the Sutra! I’m not even going to try.

Let’s carry on with some other examples of ‘chant-types’:

The grinder: there’s always someone who is grinding their juzu (prayer beads) incessantly. By that, I mean full minutes on end. This is especially beautiful when said person is sitting behind you.

The ‘chant like nobody’s following’: not all countries do it (I know Japan doesn’t), but in most places I’ve been, there is the tendency of having someone ‘leading’ the chanting when there’s more than one person chanting. The idea is that everybody should follow their rhythm. Some people, however, clearly want others to further their human revolution by constantly being alert to rhythm changes. I’m not talking about a leader thinking, hey, this is a bit slow, I’m going to speed it up. I’m talking about someone taking a breath and somehow forgetting to listen to the others, thereby changing the rhythm at every breath. Charming.

The rebel: similar to the one above, it’s the one who is not following the rhythm of the leader. Which is fine if it’s done sotto-voce or in a big group, (I do remember one occasion I got so frustrated with the slow chanting I started chanting at my own speed, which is crazy fast), but not that brilliant when you have a loud voice and are sitting right next (or behind) the lilac. That poor woman’s job is to support the leader. But nevermind, we lilacs love challenges.

The singer: I haven’t met that many, but some people like to add a melody to their chanting. If there is a strong person leading, this can lead to some exceptionally powerful and enjoyable daimoku. However, if the person leading is more soft spoken, the singsongy daimoku can completely drown the leader, which can be really jarring.

The speller: you know what I said about mispronounced daimoku? No risk of that with this type. Their daimoku, when they are leading, is so sloooooooooow they are practically spelling it out. I once was regaled with a full hour of this particular type of chanting, and I kid you not, the person leading was literally sleeping at the microphone, somehow carrying on the slooooooooooooow chanting as if in a trance. The discipline it took me not to run out of that room pulling my hair out was really something.

The '25 a breath'-er: the opposite of the above type. Someone chanting so fast that the rest of the room can barely keep up. I am guilty of this one, I'm told. On occasion, I have been stopped and told to 'slow down fer chrissake, it's not a bloody race!'.

The dancer: this particular type of chanter adds a movement to their chanting. I often rock back and forth, which drives my mother absolutely insane. Then again, she chants with circular breathing (something sax players use), which annoys me, so we’re even. Other things I have observed are making wheels with the hands or shaking the head.

The ‘I have tha powah!’: this is a particularly funny one. Sometimes, people don’t have bells. If you’re leading for a lot of people, how do you signal the end of daimoku? You lift your hand, so everyone can see it and joins you in shansho. That makes sense. However, when you are equipped with a bell so big you could bathe a child in it, lifting the baton is hardly necessary, yes? Answer: no. Some people are honestly convinced that’s the way to go. Years ago, in Italy, I remember a leader, every single time, would make a lot of effort to lift the thing while having her hands entangled in her juzu at the same time, and I would think, ‘why? Just ring the goddamn bell!’. It always reminded me of He-Man.

And that’s all for now.
Can you think of any other 'creative' pronunciations of NMRK, or any other 'type'?


  1. Actually the correct pronunciation is namu-myoho-renge-kyo.

    1. Hi MonkeyZero99,

      Thank you for your comment.

      As far as I know, Namu and Nam are alternative spellings of the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit "namas".
      Back in the day of the so called "long gongyo", we used to finish daimoku after gongyo with the recitation of three Myoho-Renge-Kyo-Namu (which I foggily remember had a special name), but we don't do that anymore.
      Anyway, you now have piqued my interest as I found a few articles about the use of one vs the other and I'm going to read them and maybe summarise them on the blog.

  2. Thanks for this! I just stumbled onto your blog and found this hilarity. My personal favorite is the "chant like no one is following." Boy, that REALLY makes me grind my beads! lol
    Thanks again. NMRK. Bridget from New York

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

  3. haha brilliant! I think I was guilty of doing my own thing recently, only because the leader was a "Daimoku Whisperer" I just couldn't hear to keep up!

  4. The trick sax and brass players do is called "circular breathing". Nobody can circular breath with the voice alone. Doesn't work that way. Your mother is just vibrating her vocal chords (and maintaining the the chant) while she breaths in. By "continuous breathing" as a trick, I'm not sure what you mean. Without continuous breathing, we'd all be dead in a matter of minutes.

    1. Hi!
      Thank you so much for the clarification. 'Continuous breathing' was clearly an invented translation I did when I was writing the post. Even though I've been living in England for a while and my English is quite good, I still have Italianisms in place sometimes when I just invent stuff when translating on the spot. I will correct it.
      As for my mum, that's exactly what annoys me! When she's breathing in and carrying on the chant, the volume is much lower than the normal chanting, which I find distracting. She learnt it from a sax player friend who used to do the same thing, so I'm just using their words there.


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