Yo, this is a post I am reviving from an older blog, since it’s relevant now too.
The Jodo Shu (Pure Land) sect of Japanese Buddhism has as its main practice the recitation of the Buddha’s name, also called nembutsu. I have a more recent post too if you need more information. The reasoning behind this practice vs. something more well-known like meditation is beyond the scope of this blog post, but feel free to check out the Jodo Shu English homepage for more details, or this post. The recitation is usually na mu a mi da bu (tsu), or 南無阿弥陀仏 in Japanese.
In any case, this practice to reciting the Buddha’s name is traditionally little increments of ten recitations called jūnen (十念) in Japanese, which sound a lot like so:
Another example of this can be found here.
There are other ways to recite it, too:
- Nembutsu Ichi-e (念仏一会) means to recite it as much as you like. An example here on Youtube.
- Sanshōrai (三唱礼) is a special drawn-out style that recites the Buddha’s name 3 sets, 3 each. An example here on Youtube (at 16:08-18:00). The intonation in the video isn’t normally required, but the long, slow pacing is typical.
For shorter nembutsu recitations, a rosary isn’t strictly necessary, except as a kind of ritual decoration, however for longer recitations such as a nembutsu retreat or just for the ambitious, it’s a helpful way to count one’s recitations.
Honen, who founded the Jodo Shu sect of Pure Land Buddhism, placed some emphasis on a daily regimen of reciting the Buddha’s name, and monks in particular may recite the nembutsu hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of times per day. While an exact number was never exactly the requirement, being able to count your recitations was a handy way to maintaining a consistent practice.
Buddhist rosaries (ojuzu in Japanese, お数珠) come in many varieties, but usually relate to the number 108 in some way, as a reminder of the hypothetical 108 mental afflictions that blind all sentient beings. Since Buddhism is about liberating the mind from these afflictions, and thus obtaining awakening, 108 is an important number.
However, rosaries come in all shapes and sizes and vary by Buddhist schools. The Jodo Shu school has a particularly unusual style of double-ringed rosary called a nikka juzu (日課数珠) and looks something like so:¹
The nikka juzu comprises of two rings with different sized beads:
One ring has beads of the same texture and size, while the other one has large and small beads. The beads on the first ring (same size) represent one recitation of the Buddha’s name each, while the large beads on the second ring represent one full rotation of the first ring. The different sized beads are presumably for texture and easier to keep track of with your hands (and not your eyes).
So, if you recite the Buddha’s name over and over using the beads from the first (same-sized) ring, and the second ring to track each full revolution, you should have recited the Buddha’s name 1080 times.
Already, that’s a lot of recitations of the Buddha’s name, but it’s possible to go further:
The tassels of the rosary also have beads! The flat beads each track one full revolution of the second ring, while the rounder beads track a full completion of the flat beads. If all beads are used, the total number of recitations would be something like 70,000 or 80,000.
Being a tourist in Japan back in the day, and still new to Buddhism, I had little understanding of all this and had to slowly sort out how to use a rosary like this while exploring Buddhism. In those days, when I didn’t have two kids and a chaotic work schedule, I would often try to recite at least 1080 times (i.e. one full revolution of the second ring) in the evening or more. The trick, I found was to hold the rosary in one hand only like so:
- Hold the first ring (the same-sized beads) between your left-thumb and pointer finger starting at the largest bead on the ring. This is the one you’ll be using most since it counts each recitation. I just use my thumb and move the beads one at a time as I recite.
- Hold the second ring between the pointer finger and middle finger on the same hand. When you finish the first ring, you can move one large bead over with your pointer finger.
It takes a bit of practice, but as you develop a rhythm and get used to a cadence this becomes almost automatic. A full recitation of 1080 (a complete revolution of the second ring) times takes about 15-20 minutes typically. I found my throat gets hoarse by then, so it’s hard to keep reciting after that.
One other interesting thing to note about this practice is the mental aspect too. When I do a more lengthy recitation, my mind tends to go through 3-4 phases in order:
- Excitement and elation – “Yeah, I’m doing it!”
- Boredom – “Am I halfway yet? No? Damn”
- Fatigue – “Man, this is taking forever”
- Relief – “This was worth it”
Since Buddhism is first and foremost about the mind, the recitation of the Buddha’s name isn’t just an exercise in piety (which is a good thing in itself), it is also a training exercise for the mind.
¹ I purchased this rosary at the gift shop at the Great Buddha of Kamakura, which used to be a large Jodo Shu temple in Kamakura before it was swept away by a flood, leaving the statue only. This is also one of my favorite places to visit in Japan anyway, and well worth a visit.
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