Fast Daimoku and Long Daimoku – A Middle Way?

How fast should I chant daimoku and how long?

It’s a question that is often asked when people start practicing Nichiren Buddhism.

There’s a little booklet in the top left drawer of the table on which my Butsudan sits. It was given to me by a dear friend of mine to help me record the number of daimoku I have chanted. For every thousand daimoku there’s a little circle to fill in, and the idea is that when I have filled in all of the circles, I will have chanted a million daimoku.

I believe this is a great cause in my friend’s life – her desire for me to chant more daimoku is an act of compassion and precisely what a good district leader should be doing, so let’s be clear here that what I am about to discuss in no way devalues this gift.

Anyone with the SGI have probably seen these daimoku log books or charts at some point in their practice. It’s a nice idea – after all, Nichiren said in The Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra:

The eighth volume of the Myoho-renge-kyo states, “One who receives and embraces the name of the Lotus Sutra will enjoy good fortune beyond measure.”

The reference above appears in more than one Gosho, so let’s take a moment to investigate it. The passage above attributed to the Myoho-renge-kyo (Kumarajiva’s translation upon which the SGI’s English translations are based) does not appear in verbose form in any of the English translations of volume 8 that I’m aware of.

The closest I can find in Burton Watson’s translation is in Chapter 26: Dharani:

The Buddha said, “If there are good men or good women who, with regard to this sutra, can accept and uphold even one four-line verse, if they read and recite it, understand the principle and practice it as the sutra directs, the benefits will be very many.”

Leon Hurvitz’ translation:

The Buddha said, “If a good man or good woman can accept and keep so much as a single four-foot gatha of this scripture, read and recite it, understand its meaning, and practice as it preaches, his happiness shall be very great.”

The inferred wisdom (certainly from Burton Watson’s translation), is that by repeating this activity as often as possible you are going to enjoy benefits-a-plenty.

Now, those with greater wit will instantly begin to think of ways to gain more benefit, or to gain that benefit more quickly. It’s just human nature, after all. And so, one begins to chant faster, and faster, and faster still! I think this is mistaken.

Does this mean that people who chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo are only going to receive 6/7ths the benefit (seven sylables versus six, means one cannot recite the same number of daimoku in a given time at a given rate) of those who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo?

And why Nam-myoho-renge-kyo anyway? After all, it’s a mish mash of Sanskrit and Japanese.

Are we actually saying that the pronunciation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is somehow esoterically more highly charged than any other variation, or even translation? And how did Nichiren pronounce it exactly? Got that mp3?

How about the full Sanskrit daimoku Namu Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, weighing in at a massive eleven syllables? That’ll really slow things down a bit! Or why not speak it in English? As an aside, when you chant through gongyo, do you actually understand the passages as you chant them, or is it all still mumbo-jumbo?

Consider if there was a translation in another language that was more succinct, requiring only two syllables instead of six? How much more quickly could you amass benefit then!

It reminds me of an apocryphal tale of a hermit and a monk.

A devout monk who had been teaching for several years had become so confident in his understanding that he felt sure he could learn no more from anyone.

The monk heard about a hermit who lived on an island in the middle of a lake and who was practicing “Om Mani Padme Hum” to awaken his yogic powers within his lifetime. The monk could not resist the urge to visit the hermit, and so set off to see him.

The monk hired a boatman to row him to the island, and when the monk reached the hermit’s retreat, he found the host courteous and humble. They drank tea while the old man explained he had no formal training, and simply recited the mantra as often as we could.

Upon reciting the mantra before the monk, the monk couldn’t resist leaning over and whispering to him that he was pronouncing the mantra incorrectly, and had wasted his time. The hermit displayed disappointment, and asked the monk in all humility how he should chant the mantra correctly. The monk instructed the hermit, and the hermit was incredibly grateful, but asked the monk to kindly leave him to his meditation so he could start again without delay.

As the monk departed and began back over the lake, he pondered how he had surely become a worthy teacher, and felt pity for the poor hermit having wasted so much time. Just then, the boatman looked shocked, and the monk turned to find the hermit begging his attention, standing upon the waters of the lake just a few feet away. The hermit begged the monk’s pardon, and pronounced the mantra once more, but only slightly differently from before, and asked if he had still got it right.

The monk, shocked, told the hermit he clearly didn’t need further instruction, but the hermit insisted until the monk recited the mantra once more in his own intonation. The hermit thanked him humbly, bid farewell, and walked back to the island, chanting slowly and carefully as he went.

The story illustrates that the practitioner’s connection with The Law is what counts, and that this connection transcends any physical or outward manifestations such as verbal or written language.

There is a long tradition of repetition in Buddhist practice. You only have to see the incredible journeys of some of the initiates to the Tibetan Kalachakra for example; travelling hundreds or thousands of miles, taking years in the process, prostrating their bodies fully to the ground with every single step. Even after arriving at Bodh Gaya, initiates are determined to prostrate themselves 100’000 times or more in such a manner. Despite this practice, you don’t see the monks racing to do the most prostrations in an hour.

I have experienced people chanting (and doing gongyo) so quickly it became a distraction trying to get my tongue around it. That’s not to say this is wrong – but it’s wrong for me, and I would argue it’s wrong in any large group where even one person has trouble keeping up.

Sometimes there can be such a focus on gaining enlightenment in this lifetime, that the original vow of the bodhisattva is in danger of being forgotten – to help all living beings gain enlightenment. The time spent chanting – the intensity, and sincerity are, in my humble opinion, more important and more beneficial than the number of “reps” – this isn’t the same as body building – there isn’t a weight lifting form of buddhahood and a marathon running form of buddhahood – there’s just buddhahood.

If I were helping a friend practice, then I would happily chant but a few daimoku each day, just so they could engage with the practice – my own enlightenment can wait!

And speaking of the time spent chanting – I think it is sometimes worth bearing in mind the difference between the monastic view of Buddhism particularly the view of the arhat – who essentially attains enlightenment for his own benefit through solitary practice away from everyday life – and the Bodhisattva who realises he gains enlightenment only through saving others from the sufferings of everyday life. Chanting several hours a day for your own benefit is to misunderstand the middle-way thinking at the heart of Myoho.

When trapped on Sado island Nichiren chanted continually – and I am sure SGI presidents Toda and Makiguchi did also during their wartime interment. When we wish to overcome a great obstacle, or pray for someone else’s benefit, then an increase in daimoku is understandable – I chanted for hours on end when my baby grand daughter had problems shortly after birth. However, most of us are surrounded by family, and career responsibilities – not to mention the all important task of engaging with people socially (even down the local pub).

If you find yourself waking at 5am, and you have nothing else to accomplish during the early hours then chanting is probably a great way to spend the time. If you need more sleep but still stubbornly chant 3hrs a day because you feel that your life is amassing great fortune, then be mindful of neglecting friends, family and obligations in favour of chasing your own buddhahood. Also, be mindful of not avoiding difficulty in the home or workplace by retreating to your Gohonzon until the problem goes away. Remember, all of reality is Dharma.

Goshos like Two kinds of Faith and the tale of the cold suffering birds, can be read in such a way to suggest that if you chant for several hours to overcome an obstacle, then you should ALWAYS chant for several hours, otherwise your faith is more like fire than water (i.e. erratic, and shallow). I think here lies the path to an obsessive, guilt driven practice, not buddhahood.

So how long should you chant? My advice is to chant until you sense inner change, however slight. This might sound a bit vague, but it’s impossible to describe. It’s perhaps an awful metaphor, but you’ll know when you have chanted enough because it’s the spiritual equivalent of taking a much needed pee! You might even smile as you let go of your attached emotional baggage and begin to see things as they really are. It feels that good.

And like peeing, once you have emptied yourself there’s little point standing there for hours – people will just wonder what you’re up to! Go away, drink some more life, and come back later and try again!

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18 Responses to Fast Daimoku and Long Daimoku – A Middle Way?

  1. Emma July 18, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Loved this post, thank you… I think we each know when we need to chant more, I know when my life-state is dropping, and I need to ramp it up a notch! Also important for me not to feel guilty when (for whatever reason), I can’t achieve my daily target. Honin-myo!

    • steve July 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Thanks Emma! It’s lovely to hear from people. Guilt is unhelpful, as you rightly point out. Sometimes we need to help someone else (and fulfil our bodhisattva vow), sometimes rest, and sometimes we need to simply sit in silence and be calm. Chanting at max volume isn’t always the answer (imho). I find if I have not chanted much for a few days I find myself naturally putting an hour or more in sometimes, not out of guilt, but I’ve built up the desire to do it. Only chant when you want to… you will want to soon enough 🙂

  2. Isha August 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I was looking for an asnwer to this question, since I did my morning gongyo with a fellow practioner. I was unable to catch up with her speed, and was feeling low that somehow my practice was not strong enough just yet.
    But now I feel that it’ s the connection that matters.

    A very nice written piece.

    • steve August 10, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

      Thank you for writing Isha. It’s great to know that you have formed a deeper connection. Focussing on the speed of recitation is an relative view – a logical deduction based on an individuals perception of the ultimate. The Mystic Law is beyond being reasoned with in this way. If you are sincere in your heart, then your practice is strong – faith is not measured in Daimokus Per Minute 🙂 Have a great weekend.

  3. georgie September 15, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    Thanks Steve – a good article. I particularly like your last two paragraphs. And yes i agree, the amount of effort, and time we need to put in depends on the mountain we are climbing. I prefer my practice to be like breathing – most of the time – gentle and regular, and with great joy that i am able to breathe. I also love the visual of chanting daimoku like a wild horse galloping freely over the land – watch a video of galloping horses and see how they seem to float. Preferable to the chanting that sounds like we’re trying to catch the train that just left. However – IF i think i am being chased by a tiger – i’m going to increase the speed and intensity of my chanting!
    I am enjoying receiving your thought provoking articles – even if i don’t always agree with you. ;o) Best wishes.

  4. nishita December 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    HELLO frnz
    can i chant alone or its important to chant with fellow practitioner.

    • steve December 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

      Dear Nishita. You can chant alone or with your sangha, but it’s usually more beneficial and joyous to do it with your sangha 🙂

  5. nishita December 14, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Thanks Steve
    i want to ask few more things
    1.if i wrongly pronounce or tone is not correct is there be any negative effect
    2. what is the right time in morning/evening for chanting.
    3.what should be the sitting posture any specification
    regards

    • steve December 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

      Dear Nishita. I should be clear that I no longer practice with the SGI, and would not call myself a Nichiren Buddhist. Therefore I am not the best qualified to answer your questions in that context. My own feelings on your questions are 1.) No, provided you are trying to pronounce it correctly and your heart is in the right place, then how can there be a negative effect? The Buddha did not speak Japanese. 2.) There is no right time – but first thing in the morning is best as it clears away any negativity from possible bad dreams, and puts you in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. 3.) Again, there is no strict rul regarding posture – try and sit up straight though, as opposes to slouching – chanting and meditation is about being very much awake! Best wishes.

      • Lottie Crow June 27, 2013 at 11:30 am #

        Dear Steve,

        I hope it’s not too intrusive to ask why you no longer practise with the SGI now or call yourself a nichiren buddhist. I’m interested because I have recently started chanting and am wondering whether to commit to this path or not. I know it is only me who can decide, but I’ve been reading a lot of your posts and respect your views and would love to know where you are on your journey now.

        Many thanks,
        Lottie

      • steve June 27, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

        Dear Lottie, Thanks for getting in touch and your kind words. If I were to explain my reasons in the hope of you understanding me completely, then I would almost certainly fail because my views are entirely built upon my own life experience and not yours. This article http://buddhastate.com/2013/01/the-knot-of-hope/ describes how I reached my own tipping point with SGI Buddhism. But this was only after I had also spend much time studying and meditating upon the core teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. The causes and conditions all came together to provide me with the insight (I’ll call it that, but the SGI might call it delusion) to leave. You see, everyone has a view, and everyone believes their view to be the correct one 😉

        Buddhism is a funny old thing. At one end of it you have incredibly complex scripture, with its associated rituals, teachings and practices. This is deemed too complex for mere mortals to get their head around, so that kind of Buddhism is largely left to monastics. At the other end, you have the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh who advocates the deceptively simple practice of sitting in Zazen (silent meditation) to realise Nirvana, or enlightenment. This is probably deemed too boring by many westerners, who seem to always be obsessed with the idea of “DOING” something.

        In the middle – the Goldylocks zone if you will – you have practices like Nichiren Buddhism which are very contextualised for easy digestion (who doesn’t find the stories of Nichiren and Shijo Kingo a good romp!) and packaged for the busy lay person who just wants to “get on with it”. The trouble is, the more contextualised a teaching becomes, the more tainted it also becomes – read almost any of Nichiren’s writings and you will find yourself in a world of good and evil i.e. absolutes – something the Buddha saw through completely.

        In the end it’s up to you. Having spend a good few years living under the clouds of anxiety and depression, I have a very dim view of practices that rely on faith healing. If you are the sort of person who can be easily hypnotised then I suspect Nichiren Buddhism is for you – if, on the other hand, you are like me – you have a healthy scepticism, like to challenge, test, and be sure of the thing in which you trust your sanity, then I would look at more traditional Buddhist texts and teachings first.

        Of course, all of these opinions are relative. While I’m no fan of Nichiren, I still think it is better to practice that that no Buddhism at all (i.e. to remain a secular materialist).

        Right now, I practice a mix of chanting to Tara, Om Mani Padme Hung (so many spellings, depending on tradition and translator) the Heart Sutra and silent meditation. I have not attended a sangha for some time, but I am a member of the UK Community of Interbeing – which is lead by Thich Nhat Hanh.

  6. Ram Ramachandram January 28, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Hello Steve – I’ve been initiated into BSG ( Bharat Soka Gakkai) last week at the age of 56, and this question of chanting speed , has been on the top of my mind. I attended a district meeting and also naively downloaded an App from the App Store, which sets goals for the speed of both Daimoku /Gongyo.
    Your explanation has enlightened me and I seem to relate to what you’re saying

    • steve February 2, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

      Dear Ram – thanks for writing. I’m not sure that there is anything to attain in chanting too quickly. What does the App do? What is the “right” speed to chant? When chanting truly becomes a limitless joy, then there is no restriction on speed or duration. Then, there is nothing to attain – no gaol to reach – only the enjoyment of the chanting and the insight it brings. Good luck!

  7. Wayne January 25, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    Fantastic what a wonderful answer to a question that has been on my mind for some time. My intuition that it is faith in the words Nam Myoho Renge Kyo that has the power and the understanding that we are not just the boundaries of our egos and personalities but awakend enlightened Buddha nature.
    Thank you

  8. Bodhi Rolf January 9, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    Namaste, Steve, I bow to the Buddha within you, and am so absolutely happy to have found this site and your discourses, I thank you for your time and effort to bring fourth the understanding of compassionate wisdom, to issues such as anxiety and obsessive/compulsive disorders which can sneakily misdirect, cloud and delude the actualized experience of enlightenment, which is exactly the medicine that is the cure for these disorders. Loved all of your stories!… I am humbly hoping that this thread may continue into 2016! Thank you!

    • steve February 11, 2016 at 3:35 pm #

      Dear Rolf! Thank you for your kind words. I know I don’t add very much to this blog of late, but hopefully once life settles down for me a little, I will find more time to write.

  9. Kleio September 12, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    Thank you Emma. I had this conflict in my mind for years. I usually can’t keep up with a fast moving Daimoku or Gongyo. I get confused and breathless. The whole point of inner peace kinda vanishes. So I sat in front of the Ghonzon and thought about my predicament.

    An inner voice asked me to follow my own rate of speech. To absorb, to mean every word I utter while I chant. I tried this with the gongyo and started feeling very comfortable in my prayers ( something I didn’t for years). I tried the same with Daimoku today. Felt every syllable of Nam myoho renge Kyo while I chanted. Today I feel a strange peace coming over me. The calming sensation are tingling my fingertips and my toe tips.

    But then the doubt came over me again. Am I doing it right? And I searched the Internet. Your words have cleared my confusion. I am so happy that I got the answer to my question. Thank you, and I will surely visit your site again.

  10. Kleio September 12, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    Thank you Steve. I had this conflict in my mind for years. I usually can’t keep up with a fast moving Daimoku or Gongyo. I get confused and breathless. The whole point of inner peace kinda vanishes. So I sat in front of the Ghonzon and thought about my predicament.

    An inner voice asked me to follow my own rate of speech. To absorb, to mean every word I utter while I chant. I tried this with the gongyo and started feeling very comfortable in my prayers ( something I didn’t for years). I tried the same with Daimoku today. Felt every syllable of Nam myoho renge Kyo while I chanted. Today I feel a strange peace coming over me. The calming sensation are tingling my fingertips and my toe tips.

    But then the doubt came over me again. Am I doing it right? And I searched the Internet. Your words have cleared my confusion. I am so happy that I got the answer to my question. Thank you, and I will surely visit your site again.

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