Buddhist Altar and Chanting

This is a recent picture of our Buddhist altar at home:

Buddhist Altar and Sutra

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:

Buddhist altar bell

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:

Amida Buddha

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.

6 thoughts on “Buddhist Altar and Chanting

  1. There is somewhere on-line a romanised Kannon Sutra published by Nichiren Shu. I can’t remember where….. Sorry not much help.

  2. Hm, I did some poking around, and found this one:


    I can’t tell for sure if this is the whole chapter or just the verse section, but I’ll delve into it soon. Thanks for reminded me of this. This would help me a lot in shortening the amount of effort I need to put up my own version someday (with the Kanji interspersed like the other sutras I put up). :)

    Update: Someone beat me to it: http://myohorengekyokannonkyo.blogspot.com/

    ha ha ha, well done. :)

  3. Hello Doug!

    I just found your blog today as I was doing some research about Asakusa and Sensô-ji. I’m delighted to have found it and I’ve joined as a follower!

    I’m living in Tokyo now doing research for a dissertation on Japanese music, and I’m wondering if you could tell me what you know about the language in which sutras are normally chanted in Japan and Sensô-ji in particular. You mention here that your book from Sensô-ji is printed in “classical Chinese characters” with Japanese pronunciation guide. Does that mean that the chants performed at the temple, for example, are in the classical Chinese language?

    I would very much appreciate any clarification you could provide!!

    Keep up the good work on your blog. I will definitely keep reading!


  4. Hi satedwithwonder and welcome!

    You’re correct. The vast majority of Buddhist liturgy in Japan is preserved in what’s called Sino-Japanese, which is basically just Classical Chinese with a Japanese pronunciation. This was frequently used in literature in early Japan (Nara and Heian Period), particularly by officials (read: men) but it also was used for Buddhist liturgy as well.

    There are cases where Buddhist liturgy in Japan uses more vernacular (albeit old) Japanese, but these are usually for hymnals and such, particularly in Jodo Shinshu school. These often get confused with ‘sutras’ as well.

    Also, mantras are recited in some Buddhist schools, and these are almost always recited in Sanskrit with a Japanese pronunciation. This is due to the efforts of pioneers like Kukai who went to China, learned Sanskrit from Indian masters there, and transliterated the mantras close to verbatim as possible in Japanese.

    However, back to your question, actual Buddhist sutras are always recited in the Classical Chinese. These had been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese at teh time (Tang-Dynasty-era Chinese), and when Japan imported these same sutras from Chinese, they simply preserved the existing language used. This is true with Korea and Vietnam as well. So yes, when people recite sutras, it’s in Classical Chinese with Japanese pronunciation.

    Hope that helps,

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