Example Shingon Buddhist Service

Shingon Buddhism is a topic of some interest among Buddhists in the West, but Shingon temples are quite rare here. There is a nice, small temple here in Seattle, but most westerners haven’t any idea what goes on in a Shingon Buddhist service. I found this video online accidentally and realized that this was a good example of what a Shingon Service looks like:

This is only part of the service, but when I visited the temple in Seattle the service was a very similar format. As Shingon Buddhism is a purely esoteric form of Buddhism, much of the practice revolves on what founder Kūkai1 called the “Three Mysteries”: body, speech and mind. Body was reflected in hand gestures, called mudra, including the simple gassho gesture. Speech was reflected in reciting mantras and mind was cultivated through visualization.

As this is a lay Buddhist service though,2 the service is somewhat more passive and involves a lot of recitation. The central part of the service is to recite the mantras of the 13 Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, that make up the Buddhist pantheon in traditional Japanese culture. The order at the Seattle service was the same as above. In Japanese, this is called the jūsanbutsu shingon (十三仏真言) or “Mantras to the 13 Buddhas (and Bodhisattvas)”. You can see a list of the actual mantras used here.

After this, the Mantra of Light, central to Shingon practice, is also recited. You can hear the On abokya beiroshanō makabodara mani handoma jimbara harabaritaya un repeated a few times at the end. Then a mantra Kūkai himself is recited: Namu Daishi Henjō Kongō.

Not shown in the video is when the congregation recites the Heart Sutra, which is very popular in Shingon services as it encapsulates Mahayana Buddhist thought so well. During the Heart Sutra, Shingon Buddhists often line up, walk up to the altar and offer incense and bow in gratitude.

Hopefully this little explanation will show what goes on at a Shingon service for those who haven’t seen it. If you’ve been to Japan and seen such a service, hopefully this will help shed light on points that may not have been clear at the time.

Namo Daishi Henjo Kongo

P.S. The temple that provided this video is Kōkeji (高家寺), whose homepage is here. (English version coming soon) This is a temple of the Koyasan branch of Shingon Buddhism and is found in Gifu Prefecture.

1 Speaking from experience, usually Shingon Buddhists don’t call him by his monastic name, but instead use the honorific title Odaishisama (お大師様). Point of etiquette to bear in mind when you visit such a temple.

2 If you visit a Shingon temple and like what you see, consider visiting regularly and getting to know the priest there. As he learns your style and temperament, he may start teaching you practices suited for you. That is why it is called “esoteric”: the teachings are gradually revealed. Of course, this requires patience, humility and respect on your part. Don’t just go asking for things without being respectful about it first! Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy.



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7 Comments on “Example Shingon Buddhist Service”

  1. johnl says:

    Last March, I went to a Higan memorial service at the Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin–there were 40 or 50 people there, so I thought it would take a while waiting in line to make the incense offering. To my surprise, they passed around (from hand to hand!) a tray with the smoldering charcoal and a box of the incense chips. It seemed a bit risky, but there were no accidents. Also, you can get pretty well smoked having something like that on your lap! Fortunately, I like the smell…

  2. Adam says:

    Can you talk a little about the musical sounds used in this kind of service? I know nothing about Buddhism but I love the sound of the bells and bowls and things, and I’m curious what their function is in the service. Thanks!

  3. Doug says:

    Johnl: For some silly reason, I never knew these was one in Tokyo, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t! I like the idea of massing around the tray, even though it is a bit risky. I am sure someone dropped it at least once in teh temple’s history, but getting even 20 people in a small temple is hard enough to line up, let alone 40-50. Also, Shingon seems to use some of the best incense I’ve ever smelt. I am not an incense afficionado, but I remember the one in Seattle using special incense that was quite good. From petrified ginko trees or something. That’s worthy of another blog topic now that I think about it…

    Adam: Hm, I admit I don’t know much either. The large bowl which the priest strikes with a padded handle is the main instrument used to lead a service, any Japanese Buddhist service. I think I’ve seen them in other Buddhist services too. They kind of help mark a point in a recitation, in case people wander off. Also, I’ve seen hwo Shignon services use a lot of small bells by the congregation, but I don’t know their significance. More research needed. :-/

  4. Jeremias says:

    Good post! Still following your blog occasionally but work a lot so not as regular as I used to ;)

  5. Doug says:

    Hi Jeremias, glad to see you’re keeping busy, but not too busy. :)

  6. Stephen says:

    My first Shingon-shu service, thank you!
    I once wrote a page about all the different gongs, bells, clappers and bangers, the page which no longer exists. The order of an service (as in what to recite in what order) is pretty fixed, but the number of recitations is generally not.
    From what I pick up as he nears the end of the last recitaion of one mantra he strikes the bell to let everyone know this is the last recitation of this Mantra and slow down and prepare for the next. Even within one school, even depending on the area the way of hitting the bells changes, but this seems the basic rule in this video: a sign to the followers that we are moving to the next part, turn the page.

  7. Doug says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks much for your input. I noticed in Jodo Shinshu services, of which I am most familiar, that the wooden clappers are used for more difficult chants like the Amitabha Sutra at key points to keep people on the same page, as it were. But the large metal bowl plus padded “striker” are also used at key points in simpler chants like the Shiseige (Juseige in Shinshu). I got some basic training on that once, and it was surprisingly hard to use. Takes a lot of work to lead a congregation, that’s for sure!


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