My brief two-day trip to Los Angeles was worthwhile on several levels and for various aspects, but one highlight was attending the Wednesday study class at the Higashi Honganji temple taught by Rev. Peter Hata. The group is starting a unit covering Shinran’s poem Shoshinge, but Rev. Peter wants them to appreciate Shoshinge not just for its content but for the experience of chanting it. From the class and the two handouts Rev. Peter shared with me, I almost want to rescind my
April 2015 blog post “Someone Else’s Cows.” Rev. Peter makes a very convincing argument for chanting as a community spiritual experience that doesn’t require knowing the meaning of the words.
I’ve been in discussion with Higashi’s North America District about having some of our Chicago temple members considered for ordination. For tokudo, the initial ordination, candidates must pass a chanting test. I think a number of our members could do a passable job of the Amida Sutra, Shoshinge and the two Larger Sutra excerpts “Tan Butsu Ge” and “San Sei Ge,” but I voiced concern over requiring the American candidates to chant the mitsu-yuri (“three vibrations”) style of the nembutsu-wasan follow-on to Shoshinge.
When I helped at the Los Angeles temple (late 80s – early 90s), it was standard to chant mitsu-yuri at regular services, but since then, the norm has become dobo-hosan, the post-war style developed to make it easier for laypeople to chant the nembutsu-wasan follow-on.
I worried about the long uphill trek it would be to get my tokudo candidates to learn mitsu-yuri, but after Rev. Peter’s class, I realize this is an opportunity for me to share my enjoyment of the music of 15th century Japan based on the folk singing “yodels” one hears in shi-gin (poetry recitation), min-yo (folk songs), Noh and Kabuki plays. Mitsu-yuri has a dramatic build-up – the first section starts slow and solemn, the second section bubbles with lively anticipation and the final section is the all-stops-out shouting of joyful tones. The musical structure expresses our Jodo Shinshu path – first, it’s “I’ll give it a try but I don’t expect it to do much for me because my misery is so entrenched,” then it becomes “there’s some interesting stuff here, making me change my view of a lot of things,” and finally, “Whoa! I’ve been searching so long and IT found me, opening me up to the power of life around and within me. Hooray! Hallelujah!” Particularly with the usual six Jodo Wasan verses chanted at most services, we are drawn into Shinran’s joy of feeling liberated after being so long under the burden of narrow self-centeredness.
In my case, I know what the words mean in Japanese, so I wonder if my members can find the emotion in the syllables of an unfamiliar language. In my Wednesday study class, I asked everyone to join me in chanting dobo-hosan style, the six Jodo Wasan verses we just studied. I said, “It’s like singing opera,” that is, you know as you pronounce the sounds that they represent words that have meaning. But musician Ruth said most classic operas are in languages which have similar sentence structures to English with many recognizable words (der ring, l’amour, un bel di), while Shinran’s 12th century Japanese is far from what Western singers are used to.
Although I feel that knowing mitsu-yuri won’t do a whole lot for the American candidates in helping them spread the Jodo Shinshu teachings, for the time being because it’s a requirement, I have to help them to learn it. I can hear some people saying we will be wasting our time trying to tackle such outmoded liturgical music, but after reading Rev. Peter’s handouts, I think it can be a worthwhile effort – transcending our time and travelling back to 15th century Japan and deep into the non-verbal channels of the right-brain. The music is to be enjoyed and hopefully the leap over the hurdle of the chanting requirement will lead to more Americans hearing the nembutsu from their fellow Americans.