The Tanbutsuge

A Study Class Featuring Rev. Marvin Harada, Orange County Buddhist Church

On the successive Wednesday evenings of October 28, November 4, 11, and 18, 2009, Rev. Marvin Harada of the Orange County Buddhist Church gave a moving series of lectures on the Tanbutsuge, one of the Sutra chants that is part of the traditional Jodo Shinshu service. Most importantly, what Rev. Harada wanted to communicate was the deep meaning behind the Tanbutsuge.

Class 1
Rev. Harada started by defining a sutra as the “sermons of Shakyamuni Buddha.” Of course, unlike our modern-day audio recordings, in the 6th and 5th century BCE when the Buddha lived, there was no recording technology, and so all his many sermons—the Buddha lived to the age of 80, and it is said there were 84,000 of them—were initially passed down through an oral tradition. Only until approximately three centuries or so after the Buddha died were the sermons written down onto leaves. These leaves were stitched together to form scrolls, and so not surprisingly, “sutra” literally means, “thread.” Rev. Harada also mentioned that these sermons together constitute a part of the Tripitaka, or “triple basket”; specifically the Sutras represent the teachings, or Dharma, basket. The other two baskets are the Vinaya (rules for monks), and the Abhidharma (theoretical commentaries on the Dharma).

Though there are some 100 volumes of sutras, Rev. Harada pointed out that our Pure Land tradition focuses only on 3 key sutras, the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra (known simply as the Larger Sutra), the Meditation Sutra, and the Amida Sutra. These three sutras were selected by Honen Shonin, the teacher of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu. Interestingly, they were chosen after an exceedingly thorough study; Rev. Harada mentioned that Honen is reported to have read all 100 volumes 5 times in his lifetime. After deeply studying the entire sutra “basket,” he carefully selected these three sutras because they illustrate the Nembutsu teaching, the teaching of Namu Amida Butsu.

Rev. Harada stated that what Shakyamuni most wanted to communicate in the Larger Sutra is “his heart of enlightenment.” Enlightenment or awakening cannot be attained except through a specific process, and it is that process that the idea of a “heart” of enlightenment focuses on. But it’s a challenge to express something with deep spiritual meaning to those as yet unenlightened. Shakyamuni accomplishes this through a profound story or myth.

Importantly, Rev. Harada clarified that a “myth” does not mean “false”; in this case, it means a “profound, timeless truth.” To illustrate the power of a myth, he asked us if any of our contemporary film, TV, and music stars will be well-known 300 years from now. Most, of course, will be forgotten. But a well-known and beloved myth—one outstanding example being Santa Claus—very likely will still be a beloved part of every holiday season even in the distant future.

Rev. Harada also said that, although the Tanbutsuge is only a relatively small part of the Larger Sutra, it in many ways captures the essence of the entire sutra because it focuses on the key relationship in Buddhism: the teacher-student relationship.

The hero of the Larger Sutra is Dharmakara, known in Japanese as Hozo Bosatsu. “Hozo” means storehouse of the Dharma; “Bosatsu” means Bodhisattva. In introducing this story, Rev. Harada pointed out the parallels between the story of Dharmakara and that of the storyteller in this sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha. First, he identified the obvious parallel of Dharmakara the seeker to Shakyamuni’s own early life as Siddhartha. Like Siddhartha, Dharmakara gives up his kingdom when he meets Lokesvararaja Buddha and decides to seek buddhahood. There are also several parallel teacher-student relationships that are either explicit or implicit within the Larger Sutra:

-teacher Lokesvararaja Buddha and student Dharmakara
-teacher Shakyamuni Buddha and student Ananda (to whom Shakyamuni Buddha is telling the story of Dharmakara, along with 12,000 other disciples)
-teacher Honen and student Shinran
-teacher Manshi Kiyozawa and students Haya Akegarasu, Ryojin Soga, and Daiei Kaneko.
-teacher Haya Akegarasu and students, Shuichi Maida (Dr. Nobuo Haneda’s teacher), Gyoko Saito (Rev. Ken Kawawata’s teacher), and Rev. Gyomay Kubose (Rev. Harada’s own teacher).

One interesting point about the Buddhist teachings is that, unlike Christianity, which has a well-defined scripture as set forth in the Bible, Rev. Harada said that Buddhism has a completely “open-ended” scripture that is constantly being expanded and commented on. This is important to note because much of Rev. Harada’s lectures consisted of reading from Rev. Akegarasu’s commentary on the Tanbutsuge, which was originally written in 1924. Moreover, in the preface to his lectures on the Tanbutsuge, Rev. Akegarasu states that what the Tanbutsuge ultimately depicts is the “innermost aspiration” to become a buddha oneself. Thus, the teacher-student lineage is highly relevant to us today.

Next, Rev. Harada read Akegarasu’s preface to his Tanbutsuge commentary:
“Shakyamuni Buddha, in order to express the joy in his heart when his heart became one with all sentient beings, composed a story. The hero of that story is Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha was originally the king of a country, but after receiving the teachings of the Buddha Lokesvararaja, his inner, spiritual eye was opened. He then gave up his throne and became a truth seeker of the highest, unsurpassed path of truth. His name was Hozo Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Dharmakara).
“Hozo Bosatsu went before his teacher, Lokesvararaja, praised the virtues of his teacher, and expressed his own vow and aspiration. This is the story that Shakyamuni Buddha relates in the Larger Sutra which contains the Tanbutsuge.
“When we read the Tanbutsuge, we come to understand the real meaning of “Buddha,” and we come to know clearly the innermost aspiration that is at the heart of all sentient beings. When we reflect on this path, we come to know the aspiration of Hozo Bosatsu in his truth-seeker stage, and at the same time we come to know the innermost aspiration of all sentient beings.”

The first lines of the Tanbutsuge, ko gen gi gi i jin mu goku, nyo ze en myo mu yo to sha, are translated in Rev. Akegarasu’s commentary as “The shining face of the Buddha is glorious, boundless is his magnificence. Radiant splendor such as his is beyond comparison.” Rev. Harada pointed out that “shining face” is significant because “your face expresses your mind, or mood, and thus what is described is the face of a person—in this case, Lokesvararaja, but it just as equally applies to Shakyamuni—with no doubts or worries, a person of suchness.” In these opening lines, Dharmakara is also praising Lokesvararaja’s radiance and expressing, according to Akegarasu, that “An inexpressible joy opens up in your heart when you sit in front of a person your heart is totally one with.”

Rev. Harada pointed out that in his commentary, Akegarasu refers to this process of one’s heart “opening up” as “transcendence.” “Transcendence means to go beyond comparison to other things; to enter a world where you are living your own true, real life. It means to transcend the world of dualities. It means to discover the world that transcends the self, and simultaneously, to discover the light within your own dark heart.” Rev. Harada clarified, “Thus, when Dharmakara encountered the Buddha Lokesvararaja, his heart was brightened in a way it never was when he was a king.” And, as Rev. Akegarasu’s commentary likewise points out, “At that moment within the heart of Hozo Bosatsu, bubbles forth the joy of becoming a disciple of his teacher, Lokesvararaja Buddha. The joy that he feels in his heart is the proof that the warm heart of Lokesvararaja and his have become one.”

Rev. Harada then passed out a sheet with the characters, bu setsu mu ryo ju kyo, which represent the full title of the Larger Sutra. These lines translate to “Buddha expounds [the] no-measure life sutra.” Rev. Harada clarified here that these words are crucial; they show that the Larger Sutra is not talking about “the buddha of immeasurable life” (Amida Buddha), which is a common misunderstanding, but really about immeasurable life itself.” What is this immeasurable life? Rev. Harada said simply, “It is the life beyond ego.”

Class 2
Rev. Harada began the second class with a discussion of Rev. Kubose’s own commentary on the Tanbutsuge (remember that Kubose was a student of Akegarasu). However, Rev. Harada first told the interesting story of how Kubose came to be Akegarau’s student. Apparently, there was a BCA minister named Rev. Akira Hata. Rev. Hata was very fond of Akegarasu’s writing and gave a copy of it to the young Kubose, which changed Kubose’s life. Rev. Hata had invited Akegarasu to go on a speaking tour of some temples in the United States, and he (Hata) was going to be the tour guide and also companion because Akegarasu at this point in his life was already nearly blind—he’d ruined his eyesight through his voracious reading. But at the last minute, Rev. Hata had a funeral to officiate. Hata had said to Akegarasu, “Don’t worry, I can still accompany you—I’ll get a substitute minister to do the funeral.” But according to the story, Akegarasu got very upset and criticized Hata for even thinking about not serving his sangha members in their time of great need. Akegarasu then said, “How about that Kubose fellow? Can’t he accompany me? Not surprisingly, the two became lifelong friends.

Rev. Harada then continued by reiterating that the Tanbutsuge’s focus is on the crucial encounter of Dharmakara and Lokesvararaja. Of course, the praise in the opening lines might seem rather odd to many people because enthusiastically praising someone is not a common experience for most people (note: in the parenthesis is the direct translation of kanji characters): Ko gen gi gi (light face majestic and independent), I jin mu goku (awesome godly no limit), Nyo ze en myo (such this flame bright), mu yo to sha (no with equal one). However, Rev. Harada said that “The Larger Sutra really came alive for me when I began to study this sutra with Rev. Kubose as his student in Chicago. I began to glimpse the truth talked about in the Tanbutsuge.”

Next, to further illustrate that the Larger Sutra is really about “all life,” Rev. Harada read from Kubose’s preface, which talks about Akegarasu’s own teacher, Manshi Kiyozawa: “[In the late 19th century] Kiyozawa returned to non-dualistic Buddhism following the Tokugawa era. Amida is the symbol of all life. Gautama [Shakyamuni] became one with Amida and so should we.”

Thus, as Rev. Harada said, though it is very short, “The Tanbutsuge expresses the essence of the Larger Sutra…and therefore, the essence of Buddhism. ‘Tan,’” he explained, “means ‘praise’ and ‘butsu’ means ‘buddha’; ‘ge’ means ‘song or poem,’ so Tanbutsuge means ‘Song in praise of Buddha.’” Most importantly, if we remember that Dharmakara’s praise of his teacher revealed “an inexpressible joy” that had opened in his heart, it is clear that within the teacher-student or buddha-disciple relationship lies the path to happiness. And, as Rev. Harada said, “True happiness means discovering the true self, and living this true self.”

Returning to Akegarasu’s commentary, Rev. Harada said that the truth of a parent’s (i.e., in this case, Lokesvararaja’s) shining face is that the face “shows what’s inside, that this is a person who sees beyond relative comparisons, who transcends the self.” However, “How can we escape our everyday world of darkness, from marital problems, financial problems, or health problems?,” he asked. The only way “Is to encounter light; this is the light that comes only from outside our self. This is the unobstructed light of the Dharma that penetrates our hearts and minds. It shatters our world of darkness and illuminates us from the inside.”

Next, focusing on the Tanbutsuge’s lines sho gaku dai on, which mean “true enlightenment great sound,” Rev. Harada pointed out that “Namu Amida Butsu is this great sound of enlightenment. And we have to ‘see’ it as ‘great light’ that reverberates in our heart and mind.” But this “reverberation” doesn’t happen automatically; in order for it to truly reverberate, it must include all life. We must listen deeply, and so in his commentary, Akegarasu clarifies that “listening” is critical in Buddhism and that it ultimately means to “listen to all life,” not to restrict yourself to “just Jodo Shinshu.” Rev. Harada pointed out here that in Akegarasu’s life, “he respected and listened to all people, all faiths, all literature that was written by people sincerely seeking the path.” There’s a parallel, in terms of their serious study, between Akegarasu and Honen. As mentioned earlier, Honen read the entire 100 volumes of sutras 5 times in his lifetime. In a similar way, Akegarasu studied all the sutras, not just the three of Jodo Shinshu. He studied the Lotus sutra, Heart Sutra, Nirvana Sutra, and many others.

Class 3
The third class began by reading Rev. Kubose’s different, but equally moving translation of the Tanbutsuge. Rev. Harada commented on this translation that what we need to see and understand is “the heart and mind of a buddha, which then allows us to see the heart and mind of a bombu.” In other words, it is only when the radiant light of a buddha shines on us that we can see our own unenlightened state. In that moment, our heart and mind can be opened.

Next we returned to Akegarasu’s commentary, to the Tanbutsuge’s lines mu myo yoku nu and se son yo mu, which literally mean “not clear greed anger” and “world-honored/Lokesvararaja eternal not.” In other words, said Rev. Harada, “For buddhas, the 3 poisons don’t last long”; buddhas have greed, anger, ignorance but they can let them go quickly. To illustrate why this is so noteworthy, Rev. Harada told an amusing personal story. First, he embarrassingly admitted that he uses a squeegee after every shower to avoid water spots on the shower door. Then he admitted that, while it doesn’t happen very often, about 8 years earlier he’d had a heated argument with a Sangha member. This argument had ended with Rev. Harada going home thinking “I should have said this,” and “Why did he say that?” He was upset over this argument for a long time afterwards. In fact, now, even 8 years later, while taking a shower, the memories of that argument flooded his mind again, and while squeegee-ing the shower door, he started to get angry again, thinking, “Why didn’t I say…?” or “Why did he say that?” So angry in fact, that he broke the squeegee. Rev. Harada then said, “I just stopped and said to myself, ‘Wow, what am I doing?” He commented that, “This is why anger is called a poison.” In contrast, buddhas are those that “don’t hold a grudge.” Many of the participants found this particular personal story of Rev. Harada to be very helpful as a practical insight into the teaching of the Tanbutsuge—and thus of the Larger Sutra; what is being communicated here is nothing less than “How to live your life in the Pure Land.”

To further illustrate this “mind of the Buddha,” Rev. Harada told another moving story. Having grown up on a farm in rural Oregon, he remembered a story from back then about an elderly man who had been a victim of a boyhood prank. Apparently a couple of teen boys had seen the elderly man on a road where there was some muddy water in a nearby ditch, and the boys had decided to push the man into the ditch, making him all muddy. The boys had run off, never to be seen again. The interesting part of the story though, is that many years later, one of the boys apparently came back to the neighborhood and saw the same man, and decided to ask him, “Do you remember many years ago, a couple of boys pushed you into the mud and ran away?,” to which the old man answered, “Yes.” Then the boy asked, “Why didn’t you run after us, or try to contact our parents to get us in trouble? Why didn’t you get angry?” The old man answered, “Oh, I got plenty angry all right. But then I heard the voice of the Buddha, who said to me, ‘Let it go—they’re just boys.’”

Next. Rev. Harada began reading again from Akegarasu’s Tanbutsuge commentary. The key passage he focused on is gan ga sa butsu, which literally means “vow I become buddha,” in other words, it is here that Hozo Bosatsu (Dharmakara) declares that he will become a buddha. This comes after the earlier praises of Lokesvararaja in previous lines. Thus, after praising Lokesvararaja, Dharmakara shifts to wanting to become a buddha himself. Though we today might find the abundance of seemingly hyperbolic praise in sutras in general to be rather strange, there is a very powerful reason why the act of sincere and heartfelf praising is critical. As Akegarasu’s commentary puts it, “The virtue of the person being praised becomes the virtue of the person praising.” Furthermore, Rev. Harada added that this deep wish to become a buddha—known as hongan or primal vow—also contains a wish to save all sentient beings; “these two wishes are inseparable,” he said. “This is the true Mahayana Bodhisattva spirit.”

Expanding on this theme of saving all sentient beings—including all life—which is central to the Tanbutsuge (and Larger Sutra), Rev. Harada touched on the contemporary, political relevance of the Tanbutsuge. Akegarasu’s commentary points out that Hozo’s/Dharmakara’s wish represents the spirit of the seeker, of following “the true and real path, the path of deep religious conviction.” This is a path that seeks peace between all people. With this in mind, Akegarasu quotes a dialogue of Socrates and Alcibiades: “Before you govern others, you should study how to govern yourself.” Rev. Harada also mentioned here the Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s (Deirdre Brown) 2006 book, Practicing Peace in Times of War. Chodron, a child of the 60s antiwar movement, remembered seeing Vietnam War protestors actually hitting some war supporters with their peace signs. Rev. Harada said that Chodron was echoing Rev. Akegarasu’s/Socrates point that, as he put it, “In order to work for peace, you have to be a peaceful person yourself.” Rev. Harada then expanded the relevance of this to our situation today with regards to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said our government is currently preoccupied with fighting terrorism, but that, as Chodron has said, “In order to truly make a peaceful world, we—our nation—has to itself be peaceful. The only way is to spread peace from nation to nation, in the same way that the light of wisdom spreads from one person to another.”

Speaking more about the innermost aspiration—the wish to become a buddha—Rev. Harada referred to Akegarasu’s commentary, and said “Shakyamuni’s wish upon leaving the palace was actually to transcend life and death. After his excursions outside the palace walls in the famous story of the Four Gates, he had seen aging, illness, and death and this made him desperately seek the path beyond suffering, beyond samsara. This is the wish of the Buddha, this is the wish to become a truly independent person.” These wishes are represented in the 12th and 13th vows that Dharmakara makes in the Larger Sutra, the vows of immeasurable light and life. We read more about this wish in Akegarasu’s commentary: “When we ourselves discover this wish, then we are able to truly say that we are being carried by hongan, the innermost aspiration, that we have attained shinjin, as reflected in Namu Amida Butsu becoming the focus of our lives.”

Thus, reiterating his earlier comment about the power of myth, Rev. Harada said, “The fact that the Larger Sutra is a ‘myth’ is not a weakness; that it is a myth is why it is timeless and why it will continue to move people centuries from now.” As Rev. Harada put it, “The real power of the Tanbutsuge—the section of the Larger Sutra that focuses on the moment when Dharmakara’s hongan is awakened—is that when one’s hongan is authentic, one’s awakening is also assured.”

Class 4
The fourth class focused on the latter part of Akegarasu’s Tanbutsuge commentary which focuses on Hozo Bosatsu/Dharmakara’s expression of his hope to actualize his wish to become a buddha through the Six Paramitas, and his vow to become a buddha. We read Akegarasu’s discussion of the Six Paramitas, about Dana or giving, Sila or mindfulness (self-reflective, single-mindedness), Kshanti or inclusiveness, Virya or perseverance, Dhyana or meditation, and Prajna or wisdom. The commentary states that of the six, Prajna is the most important of all, but that “wisdom” is not the same thing as “knowledge”; “wisdom” means to know your innermost aspiration (hongan) and to be awakened, to be liberated from your self-attachment.

Rev. Harada read from Akegarasu’s commentary, which points out how hard it is to be true to the paramitas. For example, wealth is one of many impediments to true Dana or giving; “It tends to create barriers between people,” said Rev. Harada. Also, though we may think “giving is giving,” he also described four kinds of giving: material giving such as donations to your temple, non-material giving such as a “friendly smile,” pure giving or giving without expectations, and impure giving or “giving with strings attached.” Rev. Harada made the point that it is not about trying to only practice pure Dana, which is very difficult due to our human shortcomings; rather it is to give what we can, but always to be mindful of our true selves.

Next, we read Akegarasu’s discussion of a “dojo” as a place of “The Way,” the path to buddhahood. “However,” Akegarasu’s commentary points out, though a “dojo” is literally a “building,” “a dojo is not a ready-made thing; everyone should build their own unique home. Nirvana is a ‘country’ that cannot be compared to any other country. It is beyond compare. To save all sentient beings is something within your own heart. When you feel a sense of being limited and bound, you cannot be one with all beings. First, you must have your heart opened up.”

Rev. Harada clarified that what Akegarasu meant by “opening the heart” is in fact, the central experience of the teacher-student relationship, the experience described in the Tanbutsuge. As Rev. Akegarasu elaborates in his commentary, “Without having your heart opened up, you cannot open up anyone else’s heart. It is not that you are trying to melt your heart with all beings, but instead, your heart is melted into the hearts of all beings. When the Buddha opened his heart and stood up, at the same time, the hearts of all beings were opened up. This is what it means to ‘save all beings.’ Instead of saving beings, you save yourself. When you save yourself, all beings are saved.”

Later in his commentary, we read Akegarasu describing his feelings towards his own teacher, Rev. Manshi Kiyozawa: “The amount of my adoration and reverence for my teacher was completely because of the power and character of my teacher. It was because he opened up my heart and mind…When I submit myself to the greatness of the person that is my teacher, in that heart of mine are the hearts of a million people. In that kind of world, one has no enemies. That is the kind of spirit we can live with.”

“Thus,” said Rev. Harada, “the teacher opens up the heart and mind of the student, as Seijizaio (Lokesvararaja) did for Hozo Bosatsu (Dharmakara), as Kiyozawa did for Akegarasu, and as Akegarasu did for my teacher Rev. Kubose.” But perhaps the most moving moment of the class—and of the entire lecture series—came when Rev. Harada read from his own essay, “In Memory of Rev. Gyomay Kubose,” an essay in the form of verse that he had written on the death of his teacher, Rev. Kubose, who passed away in 2000:

As Hozo wanted to become Sejizaio, I too
wanted to become my teacher, Gyomay Kubose.
Revering the virtue of my teacher
I only thought of becoming like him.
I admired his free and joyful life,
and vowed to be that type of person.
But he taught that I must not become like him,
but must seek my own true self.
To become my teacher was not the point,
but to become my own true me was the essence.
Now I have established my own gan,
that comes from deep within,
To become one with the universal life,
that touches the whole world,
And to share that true life and the teachings of my teacher
With sentient beings everywhere.
-Rev. Marvin Harada

Before closing the final class with a spirited, collective chanting of the Tanbutsuge—which the class participants now had a much greater appreciation of—Rev. Harada read the final passage from Rev. Akegarasu’s Tanbutsuge lecture: “Instead of thinking of ourselves as ones who have attained the way, may we all think of ourselves as ones who will seek the path no matter where or how far that goes.”

-Namu Amida Butsu

Library Menu | Home