The Five Tone Nembutsu

Lately, I’ve been reading about an important Japanese-Buddhist figure in the Tendai sect named Ennin (円仁 794-864) also called Jikaku Daishi (慈覚大師) posthumously. More on his life in an upcoming posts, but among his many accomplishments was to bring back from Tang-Dynasty China a practice called the five-tone nembutsu, or goé nembutsu (五会念仏).1

I had vaguely heard of this practice before but didn’t know what it was until recently (my recent studies in Japanese language have definitely helped). It turns out that the five tone nembutsu had been under my nose for many years but I had never know what it was!

Years ago, I was a devoted member of Jodo Shinshu and had been a member of my local Buddhist Churches of America temple. My reasons for moving on are here and here, but at the time I was training to be a lay minister and had to practice chanting various liturgies in the Jodo Shinshu tradition. Some can be very straightforward to chant, others are very melodic, such as the wasan hymns:

An example of the wasan (和讃) hymns used in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect. This is from a service book we have at home, but from the Otani-branch, not the more well-known Honganji-branch. Note the line to the right of each Chinese character denoting the tone to use.

But special yearly services, such as Hō-on-kō (報恩講), have more elaborate liturgy, such as this one:

Starting around 3:01, you can see/hear the five tone nembutsu recited (南无阿弥陀佛) in a very long, flowery style. As part of my training, I used to recite this and other hymns with our local minister, who was very good at singing. I am tone-deaf and pretty much butchered it every time. He was a very patient minister and I always enjoyed my time with him.2 But there it was: the five tone nembutsu and I never knew about its history or what it took to get someone like me to chant it centuries later in the Pacific Northwest.

Both the founder of Jodo Shinshu, Shinran, and his descendant Rennyo, the ”restorer” of Jodo Shinshu3 had both been trained as monks in the Tendai sect it makes sense that they inherited this liturgical practice, and since many Japanese-American immigrants had been Jodo Shinshu followers, they brought this practice to the West Coast of the US.

But the history of this melodic, Buddhist liturgy runs deep, going all the way back to the Tang Dynasty in China, which of course inherited the general practice of the nembutsu from India via the Silk Road. A lot can be said in a few phrases.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. the “five tones” referred to here are the five tones of music used in the traditional Chinese scale.

1 More on the nembutsu as a Buddhist practice here and here.

2 I really do miss our reverend (who has since retired). He was a great guy.

3 Rennyo, like Ennin, gets overshadowed by the original founder but he made a lot of important innovations that Buddhists in Japan, and overseas benefit from today.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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