Can we chant in English?

This Q&A series addresses frequently asked questions by those who are interested in Nichiren Buddhism.

Northern Maine District BELFAST, MAINE Photo: Leon Vlasik

Q: Why don’t we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in English or in any other language?

A: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is more than just a phrase deriving from a particular language. In essence, it comprises the name of the condition of Buddhahood to which Nichiren Daishonin had become enlightened. He dedicated his life to spreading Nam-myoho-renge-kyo so that all people—regardless of gender, education, ethnicity or social status—could also awaken to the same life condition.

Translating each component of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo into a particular language may be helpful in explaining its meaning. But it is the sound and rhythm of chanting it that awakens and activates the innate human potential called Buddhahood. Nichiren Daishonin describes the meaning of each character in various ways and from different perspectives, and no word-for-word translation could fully capture its deepest meaning. Nichiren advocated belief in the Law of Nam-myoho-rengekyo and its power (faith), the practice of chanting it (practice) and earnest pursuit of its deepest meaning (study), as fundamental to the process of cultivating the life state of Buddhahood, or enlightenment, within us. Both Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and the Gohonzon comprise words from India and China, and are pronounced in Japanese. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings explains, “We may also note that nam[u] of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a Sanskrit word, while myoho, renge, and kyo are Chinese words. Sanskrit and Chinese join in a single moment to form Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” (pp. 3–4).

For Nichiren, this represented a coming together of Eastern and Western cultures—the entire world. This illustrates that Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is for all of humanity, embodying a universal language. The same can be said for the recitation of the 2nd and 16th chapters of the Lotus Sutra.

When asked about chanting a translation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, SGI President Ikeda once responded:

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is an eternal and unchanging Law, the supreme invocation. It will never be chanted in translation . . . Daimoku[1]Daimoku: The invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Daimoku also refers to the title of the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law. The sutra’s title represents its essence. will be the same wherever it is chanted. Daimoku is a universal language that is instantly understood by Buddhas. The Lotus Sutra is called the Saddharmapundarika-sutra in Sanskrit, for example, but that doesn’t mean we should chant, “Namusaddharma-pundarika-sutra” as the daimoku. It’s a matter of sound and rhythm . . . Each musical composition has a unique rhythm. Beethoven’s works reflect his inner rhythm, which transcends the barriers of nationality, language and culture and affects all who hear it. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a sound that creates unity with the law of the universe, the fundamental rhythm of the cosmos. (The New Human Revolution, vol. 6, p. 296)

Just as listening to the singing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” inspires emotion whether or not you understand German or music theory, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is understood at the depths of our lives and naturally awakens our greatest and strongest self.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Daimoku: The invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Daimoku also refers to the title of the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law. The sutra’s title represents its essence.