Chanting the Shiseige / Juseige

Just as the Heart Sutra is chanted by a very wide swath of the Buddhist community in the world, within the Pure Land Buddhist community1 there is another liturgy that’s similar in length and popular in Japanese Buddhism called the juseigé (重誓偈), shiseigé (四誓偈) or rarely the sanseigé (三誓偈). These names mean something along the lines of the “hymn of the grave [as in important] vows [of Amitabha Buddha]”, “hymn of the four [or three] vows [of Amitabha Buddha]” and so on.

This liturgy is actually a small excerpt of an influential Buddhist sutra called the Immeasurable Life Sutra, also known as the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the largest of three sutras called the “Pure Land Sutras”. These three sutras are so called because of their central importance to the tradition. However, two out of three of these sutras are simply too long for lay people recite in whole (unlike the Heart Sutra above), so key excerpts are recited instead.

In any case, the Immeasurable Life Sutra goes in great detail about the origins of Amitabha Buddha (also called Amida Buddha in Japanese), his 48 vows to aid all beings, aspects of the Pure Land that Amitabha created and why one would want to go there. It also, provides a nice overview of Buddhist teachings overall, so in my opinion, it’s a handy, self-contained Buddhist text.

The Forty Eight Vows are central to Amitabha Buddha’s “origin story” (a la Marvel Cinematic Universe), and are beyond the scope of this blog post.

However, in the sutra, what follows right after the forty eight vows is a short series of verses by aspiring buddha-to-be, proclaiming his lofty and grand vows, summarizing his intent to liberate all beings and provide a refuge for them. These verses were later turned to a liturgy chanted by various Pure Land groups in Japan as a devotional to Amitabha.

While being a member of the Buddhist Churches of America,2 the American branch of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, I can’t tell you how many times I chanted this liturgy during Sunday services. I can practically do it from memory. Here’s a nice Youtube example provided by Tsukiji Honganji,3 one of my favorite Shinshu temples in Japan, located in the heart of Tokyo:

For people who aren’t part of a Buddhist community, I have created a PDF file to help you chant the verses of the Juseige / Shiseige. Please use it, and refer to Youtube videos and other sources for how to chant. I was surprised to learn that someone actually made a Sanskrit version too, since the Immeasurable Life Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit to Chinese.

For me, I tend to rotate between chanting the juseige / shiseige and the Heart Sutra. One day, I’ll chant the Heart Sutra in my daily service, the next day the Juseige, back and forth. I like covering both bases.

Finally, the BCA Bookstore (a great site) sells a kind of “starter kit” for new Buddhists that is only $5. It includes an image of Amitabha Buddha and a laminated card for chanting the Juseige. I have purchased this in the past and definitely recommend.

The Buddhist tradition of chanting verses during home services, or in community services, is not limited to whole sutras. It’s quite common in many communities to chant important excerpts, whether these come from the Pali Canon, the Mahayana Canon or whatever. Recitation is a great practice to help internalize teachings, and generates good merit for oneself and others.

Good luck and happy chanting!

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

1 At least, in the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist community. I poked around Google and wasn’t able to find comparable liturgy in Chinese Buddhism. They do discuss it quite a bit in Buddhist websites, but it’s not clear to me if it’s chanted or not. It’s possible people just chant other comparable liturgy instead.

2 While I am not an active member anymore, my kids grew up there and I have many fond memories of the Japanese-American community, and the many friends I still keep in touch with. 10/10 definitely would recommend to anyone. My disagreements with Jodo Shinshu theologically do not impact my positive experiences with the community.

3 Official homepage in Japanese and English.

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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