A bell’s chime indicates the beginning of service. A Japanese man in a western style minister’s robe makes his way to a podium by the altar; in the program he is called “Reverend” though in person people address him as “sensei,” the Japanese word for “teacher.” While most people in the pews appear to be of Japanese heritage, some couples are mixed and a few solos, like me, are non-Asian. The minister’s assistant is a beautiful black woman with long dreadlocks.
After a few opening remarks by the minister, everyone falls silent and we enter a period labeled “Quiet Sitting.” In Pure Land, the practitioner is not expected to strive for nirvana alone, but to rely on the assistance of the compassion of the Buddha. Chanting in unison with others replaces meditation as the primary means to awaken and express this unconditional reliance. Here, this peaceful moment is preparation for the central task, not the central task itself.
Together, we chant sutras called “Vandana” and “Ti-sarana.” The first is a statement of homage to Buddha and is offered in Pali, the ancient language of India. Like some Christian and Jewish prayers that are voiced in a language other than the speaker’s primary tongue, these are chanted in Pali not for the comprehension of the brain so much as the heart. Each syllable is broken down and drawn out so that it more closely resembles tonal breathing, like long exhalations with sound attached. Then everyone recites it slowly in English: “Homage to him, the Exalted One, the Enlightened One, the Supremely Awakened One.” The second sutra is a declaration of the “Triple Treasures.” Again, we recite it first in Pali and the air vibrates with syllables hummed loudly, surfaces resonate with breath. Then we recite the sutra in English. Slowly, as if we are dazed, we say: “I go to the Buddha for guidance. I go to the Dharma for guidance. I go to the Sangha for guidance.”
Like in many churches, books are tucked into the back of the pews and the program tells us from what pages to read. Now it directs us to page 174 of the Large Service Book for “Namu Amida Butsu,” which is perhaps the most important statement one can utter in this version of Buddhism. It’s a proclamation of gratitude for Buddha’s vow that all beings who call his name will one day be born in the Pure Land where enlightenment is attained automatically. “Namu Amida Butsu” is recited in fragments: Na… mu… a… mi… da… bu… tsu. The words translate approximately as “I entrust in the immeasurable compassion of Buddha.” We intone them again and again; some notes dip and shimmy, and others step higher and higher slowly. It is said that to emit these sounds, and to listen as others do the same, is to receive a message, not to send one. Buddha has been calling to us since the beginning of time, reassuring us—at last, we are expressing that we’ve heard and understand and our appreciation is boundless. As the sangha chants, I try to follow along, to slip my voice in here and there when I can find the right note. I want to offer my thanks as well.