The Japanese Buddhist monk, Nichiren, established this chant in the 13th century. His intensive studies of the Buddhist sutras convinced him that the Lotus Sutra contained the essence of the Buddha’s enlightenment and that it held the key to transforming people’s suffering and to enabling society to flourish.
The Lotus Sutra affirms that all people, regardless of gender, capacity or social standing inherently possess the qualities of a Buddha and are therefore equally worthy of the utmost respect. Nichiren distilled the teachings of the Lotus Sutra into the phrase Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and established its use as an invocation for all to realize their inherent Buddha nature. Its Japanese pronunciation of classical Chinese characters fuse elements of Sanskrit and Chinese.
My friend, Mike, was in the army in Vietnam in 1969. He described to me being on a weekend leave and while walking through the devastated countryside, coming upon an open-air Buddhist temple. As he approached, he could hear and also feel the vibrations of a simple chant resonating from the temple. He said that the chant penetrated deep into his heart and that he experienced a sense of peace and joy that he had never felt before. He began chanting this simple chant—Nam Myoho Renge Kyo— every day. He told me he felt that it carried him through the remainder of his painful duty in Vietnam.
I had heard of the Lotus Sutra before but I had no understanding of its meaning. I was curious and began to do some research. I discovered the literal translation of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo: Nam=devotion; Myoho=mystic way; Renge=lotus; Kyo=sutra, petition, prayer.
I had done a lot of reading on the healing power of sound and had begun to use chant as part of my meditation practice in an effort to deal with my chronic pain. Incorporating the chant into my own meditation practice I began to feel the power of its simplicity and beauty—my own petition for the unfolding of my awakened potential. The monotone chant that I began with soon transformed itself into something with more melody—my own lotus heart song.
I live on a small lake in the Hudson Valley of New York State. When our neighbor, Mark, told us about the giant water lilies that had taken hold in the north end of the lake, my husband, Lee, and I took the boat and went to find them.
Huge round dark green leaves spread across the water in an overlapping carpet with pale yellow-white flowers, as big as my face, rising from amongst the leaves on strong stalks. I was sure they were Lotuses. Beautiful as they were, I was afraid that they must have escaped from someone’s pond and had become an invasive foreign species in our little lake.
The next month, my Nature Conservancy calendar showed a photo of lotuses blooming in a lake in Michigan. I was so delighted; these lotuses, the same as in our lake, were a native species—Nelumbo lutea, American lotus—not invaders after all. I recognized the seedpods as the ornamentals I had sometimes seen in flower arrangements and began to collect the pods to put in my solstice wreaths.
Now, the Lotus Sutra took on new meaning for me. As I sang in my morning meditation I imagined one of these beautiful blossoms, big as my chest, unfolding in my heart. I could feel the strong, green stem— supple, thick, like an umbilicus sometimes three or four feet long— stretching down into the dark water. I imagined the roots of the lotus deep in the mud of the lake and that stalk reaching, reaching for the light. I felt my own reaching up, out of the muck of my existence, out of my pain, reaching for the light.
This past autumn when they lowered the water level of the lake, I was able to walk the shoreline and so I went to the lotus bed. It was difficult to walk there—the swamp a sloppy muck field. The only sure footing was to walk on the lotus roots themselves. I learned that lotus roots are actually edible rhizomes brought to the Northeast as a food source by wandering southern tribes of native Americans; that lotus reproduce not only by seed but also through their spreading interconnected root system. Looking over the criss-crossed swamp I realized that what I had thought of as individual lotus plants were an inter-connected system of plants, could even be thought of as one plant.
I brought this new awareness into my heart lotus chant—the awareness of our interconnection, the oneness of our deeply entwined roots, drawing our sustenance from the mud. Rising out of the darkness to reach for the light, to unfold our individual blossoms in the sun, to grace the world with our fragrance, our fruit.
I shared the chant with my friend, Karuna. Together we put movements to it and created a community circle dance, a Dance of Universal Peace:
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo—walking in a circle, arms down and forward to acknowledge our lotus roots;
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo—right arm reaching up, like the lotus stem reaching for the light as we turn right to face into the circle;
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo— arms down and out to the sides, over-lapping each other’s wrists like inter-twined roots, one step into the circle and back out again;
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo—hands to the heart then opening like lotus flowers as we turn to the right, this time outward, to share our blossoming with the world.
In this dance, I feel the chant has come to full fruition for me. This is my petition, my prayer: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo— May we devote ourselves to the mystical path, to the unfolding of our highest potential, our beautiful lotus heart flowers reaching from the rich muck of existence to the unique fulfillment of our shared Buddha nature.