This is a recent picture of our Buddhist altar at home:
The altar has been mentioned before in previous posts, but this is a look at the prayer books I brought back from Japan on my recent trip. The one shown here is the one I purchased at Sensoji, and is devoted to Kannon Bodhisattva (Guan-Yin in Chinese). The pages are open to the “Kannon Sutra“, which is actually Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra. As you can see, the characters are in Classical Chinese, but smaller Japanese text is there for pronunciation.* There is no English for this book as it was intended for Japanese Buddhists, not the odd foreigner like me.
I do plan on typing it up though on this blog in romanized English (update: finished), but the Kannon Sutra is actually pretty darn long. It takes 20 minutes to chant, including my periodic stumbles, compared to the Heart Sutra, which can be chanted in one to two minutes. It took me an entire day just to type that on the blog. The key to chanting in Buddhism is usually just to keep an even pace. Don’t chant too loud, or too quiet, and try to focus on the words. You’ll find (based on experience) that when you chant you start to worry a lot about how you sound, or you get caught up in your self when you think you chant well. Better to just focus on the text and recite calm and collected. Don’t worry how the other guys do it. Also, you can learn a lot over time, if you keep up chanting on a regular basis, by observing your mind and how it moves and reacts while chanting, before and after, etc. It is for this reason, among others, a very wholesome practice of cultivation in Buddhism.
The bell on the right is traditionally used in East Asian Buddhism:
There’s various ways to ring such a bell. I’ve seen people in home services ring the bell once, maybe twice. In more formal Buddhist services, they might ring the bell many times, getting faster and louder as they do it, then dropping off again. Other variations exist as well. I remember when I visited the Jodo Shu temple for Japanese New Year, I was struck by how clear and calming the temple bell was. It had that deep, somber sound that reminds one of the Dharma and that all things in existence are subject to arising, then cessation.**
Also, here’s a close-up of Amida Buddha standing upon a lotus blossom:
This symbolism of the 48 rays of light refers to the 48 vows of Amida Buddha in the Immeasurable Life Sutra, and is frequently used in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist services. I remember the temple in Seattle had almost exactly the same image used in the downstairs meeting room where we’d meet for coffee and donuts.*** It’s pretty common in Jodo Shinshu, but not really seen as much in other sects.
As to any question of how often or what kind of schedule I keep for chanting, well I have no schedule. I sometimes chant a lot, sometimes very little. Some weeks I do more devotionals, some weeks less. I found that everytime I tried to make a set schedule, sooner or later my life would get interrupted and I would get off-track. Instead, I just accept that life has lots of interruptions, and just take opportunities to praise the Buddhas and the Dharma where I can get them.
Namu Amida Butsu
* – In all East Asian liturgy, Classical Chinese is almost always used (not the vernacular), but the entire Buddhist canon is preserved in that language. Indeed, the Chinese version of the Tripitaka is probably the most complete in the world because the Chinese have historically been excellent at keeping and preserving records. That, and they still had contact with India at the time, and actively imported whatever they could. Sadly, most of the Tripitaka hasn’t been translated into English beyond certain popular sutras.
** – Or as I like to think of it: all good things must come to an end. Oddly enough I got that line from “Q” in the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (00:14 in this clip). Amazing how much of my head is full of sci-fi quotations and such.
*** – I can’t tell you how much I miss those days of sitting around with folks and just enjoying donuts in a wholesome, family atmosphere. Who says Buddhism is all about meditation and exotic practices? Sometimes the best place to teach kids Buddhism is somewhere they can feel safe and have fun, and watch people help one another.