Why Learn and Do Perfect Gongyo

The World According to Bob

In my opinion, the more perfect your Gongyo pronunciation, rhythm, tone, concentration and belief in the Gohonzon (kyochi myogo)—the more perfect your life will be. That is different from what you usually hear—“ah, just do your best, and everything will work out; as long as your feeling is right, that’s all that counts; people have been chanting for twenty years and still make mistakes but it doesn’t seem to matter; if your mind wanders off, just let it go; I’ve tried but I just don’t get it.” While there might be some of comfort in saying or hearing this, why not strive for really, really excellent Gongyo and see where it takes you. Since we are doing Gongyo anyway, replace the sloppy, doubting and distracted with the precise, hope/belief filled and concentrated Gongyo. It may take a little more time and effort.

In his A Youthful Diary, Page 101, President Ikeda, wrote:

“My physical condition is poor. This vicious cycle of disharmony in my life, a miniature universe, must be due to some deficiency in my faith.

Must perform morning and evening completely and correctly. Herein lies the basis for a clear understanding of the cause of my problem.”

Ted Osaki and the Concept of Perfect Gongyo. Okay, it was one of those late nights at the old Lawrence Avenue Kaikan (Community Center) in Chi Town (Chicago). Mr. Osaki, Richard Sasaki and the usual suspect YWD and YMD were hanging out. It must have been a Friday or Saturday because my remembrance has a light aura. Any other night would have had the heavy feeling of I have to be up and dressed the next day in my lawyer costume, acting like a grown up. These were the times that anyone could ask anything of Mr. Osaki and he would give the straight, raw and non-expedient answer.

Question: How did you learn to do such good Gongyo? Your Gongyo is famous. Everyone loves it.

Mr. Osaki: If I think I am mispronouncing a word I go to the Hiragana. I make sure that I understand how it is supposed to be pronounced. Then I will chant that word at least one thousand times in a row, more if necessary.

(Hiragana is the small, Japanese writing on the top line of the official Gongyo book. Hiragana is a pronunciation guide for Japanese people. THIS IS THE ONLY LINE THAT JAPANESE PEOPLE READ. The second line is Kanji, Chinese based characters that contain the meaning of the Lotus Sutra. The third line IS NOT ENGLISH BUT LATIN, called Romaji. Most mispronunciations by native English speakers is caused by giving a Latin word an English pronunciation: example, “in” should be pronounced “een” as in keen, not “Inn” as in Ramada Inn.)

Question: Is there is common characteristic of a good leader?

Mr. Osaki: Being with hundreds, if not thousands of leaders here in America and several other countries, including Japan, good or great leaders have one thing in common: THEY ALL DO PERFECT GONGYO.

Mr. Osaki did perfect Gongyo and, in my opinion, was and is the greatest American born leader of Nichiren Buddhism. He helped built the foundation of Buddhism in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago and Phoenix and I guess part of L.A. He was greatly beloved by many members for his warmth and humanity. Scores of members, including myself, owe their continued practice to his guidance. That is his actual proof.

Yoriko Kawashima recorded the perfect Gongyo made available in American Gongyo. Ms Kawashima graduated from Soka High School in Osaka and Soka University, Tokyo. She was on the staff of SGI in Tokyo before moving to Las Vegas to pursue a graduate degree. She told me on several occasions that her dream was to live in countries around the world. Ms Kawashima is adventuresome. She also talked about getting married to someone equally willing to travel. One night she showed up at the old Vegas Kaikan with her guest. This guy was a younger, blonder, perhaps better looking version of Brad Pitt. Time passes. “Brad” became a member and learned Gongyo in part with American Gongyo. They got married. He was promoted and transferred from Vegas to Singapore for Harrah’s (the world’s largest gaming company) where he is a ranking executive. Yoriko has a graduate degree in computer science and is doing something complicated in Singapore.

Larry Coryell and I happened to be sitting next to each other at FNCC (Florida Nature and Culture Center) during Gongyo. At the time I did not know who he was. I immediately heard perfect Gongyo being recited in a deep flowing voice. After Gongyo I told him that his Gongyo was perfect and offered him an American Gongyo CD and pronunciation guide (not for him but for others). He thanked me and said he worked really hard to perfect Gongyo. That is the same thing I have heard from everyone who does perfect Gongyo. “I worked really hard to get it right.”

Later at the same conference I met his young, beautiful and musically talented wife. Of course Larry is attractive but a little pudgy and old like me. He is famous guitarist and composer. He created fusion style in guitar. People pay Larry lots of money to travel the world doing what he loves: playing and teaching guitar. (See, LarryCoryell.net.) Larry’s recent dates include Vienna, Moscow, Bristol, U.K., and many American appearances.

An additional characteristic of the perfect Gongyo people is that they are nice. Nice may seem like a pale word but it includes being concerned about and helpful to others; being warm and outgoing; being confidant and inner directed without the ego and pushiness. They all seem to have outstanding, loving partners in their lives.

Barriers and Obstacles to Doing Perfect Gongyo

A member thinks she or he does really good Gongyo but is actually mediocre.

Of the Fourteen Slanders, #3 wrong views of self and #4 shallow understanding may apply. (Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, at page 756.) Of course these are not the big deal slanders like 11-14 (directed at other members #11 despising, #12 hating, #13 envying, #14 bearing grudges. Matilda Buck said that engaging in #11-14 is like injecting poison into yourself and waiting for the other person to die. ) But any illusion leads to unhappiness (or I guess, less happiness.) The problem created by this belief is a lack of self-improvement. A level is reached and progress towards greater competency stops. These Gongyo imperfections are passed on either by example or actual teaching. Also transmitted is the attitude of “mediocre is good.”

In archery, the are recognized levels of competency and consciousness. They are:

Archer is incompetent and does not know he or she is incompetent.

Archer is incompetent and knows he or she is incompetent.

Archer is competent when he or she concentrates on being competent.

Archer is competent whether concentrating or not.

Members who believe their Gongyo is great but make lots mistakes are in the first category. They are like the archer who might “accidentally” shoot himself in the foot.

Members learning Gongyo know that they don’t do good Gongyo yet are in the second category. This is good because they are trying to improve and will improve. We have all been in this category.

I am in the third category. Personally, I do competent Gongyo when I concentrate on doing competent Gongyo. When I rush or lose concentration, Gongyo pronunciation, rhythm and tone slip. It may sound the same to others but I know. (The greatest compliment I have received was from Mr. Osaki who said, years ago, “Bob, you do pretty good Gongyo.”) I have improved since then and still try to improve. I am also lazy (part of my fundamental darkness) and can drift by on the cloud idle thoughts and distractions. Kyochi Myogo sits in a corner eating a sandwich, waiting for me to fuse with the Gohonzon.

Since I can’t get into the minds of all the people who do perfect Gongyo, I don’t know if they have to concentrate or not. I am sure some do not have to concentrate. I think perfect Gongyo just gushes out of their lives and into the Universe.

Common mistakes in Gongyo recited by Americans have become a standard. This is institutionalizing incorrectness.

New members who have learned Gongyo using American Gongyo from the start do better Gongyo than some long time members. This is normal because they learned from a true tutorial that is error free. They do not incorporate the common mistakes made by some members. Even at Buddhist Centers and FNCC pronunciation mistakes can be heard from the Gongyo leaders or fukudoshi (helpers).

Of course the origin of many Gongyo mistakes by Americans is the official Gongyo book. As already pointed out, it is written in Latin without helpful syllable separation. Example: “muryo” is often mispronounced as “mur yo.” This mistake is caused by pronouncing “mur” by adding the “r” to “mu.” The “r” properly goes with the “yo.” The proper sound separation of “muryo” is “mu-ryo” and is written in the American Gongyo pronunciation text as:



(The cow says “moo”; “Rio” as in Rio Bravo. “Rio” gets one beat. All “r” sounds are lightly rolled. )

Using the official Gongyo book, American members try to learn Latin in order to pronounce Japanese.

Note: The official SGI-USA Gongyo book has a perfectly good pronunciation guide on how to pronounce the Japanese vowel sounds. This guide is largely ignored, I suppose. American English has about 26 vowel sounds, making it one of the most complicated verbal languages in the world, with a million words. By contrast, most of the major world languages have 5 vowels that are always pronounced the same. As a result most non-native English speakers have distinct accents, caused by their trying to produce American English sounds with the limited catalog of sounds available in their native languages. On the other hand, Americans have too many choices and usually choose the pronunciation of the Japanese Gongyo word that resembles the American English word. An example is “jin jin” which is wrongly pronounced, “gin gin” as in the drink. The more correct pronunciation is “gene gene” as in gene therapy.

The American Gongyo pronunciation guide text uses American English words and sounds to create as closely as possible the correct Japanese sounds of Gongyo. Thus you go from your native language, American English, to Japanese Romaji. You will also learn Latin pronunciation in the process. It is not perfect. However, it will give a member a very good idea of the desired sound. Used together with the CD (Mp3) audio, perfect Gongyo is possible and faster than any other method. Test: Get any American with no knowledge of chanting and have him or her read from the American Gongyo text Pronunciation Guide. Immediately, with little or no coaching, he or she will be able to pronounce the Gongyo words with 90-95% correctness. Their proficiency will not fall off if the test is repeated a month or two later.

Repeat the test with the official SGI-USA Gongyo book. See the difference. Few words will be pronounced correctly. In a short time, the coaching and corrections will be forgotten.

Tips on Learning and Doing Better Gongyo, Aiming for Perfection

Decide and make a vow to do perfect Gongyo. Without making a vow about Gongyo (or any other important thing in life) ten, twenty or thirty years can pass without you making the big breakthrough. Of course life is not miserable, you are not beaten down everyday and things are “normal.” Example: I had the idea of making custom chanting beads in 1994. But it just remained just an idea for fifteen years. I always had perfectly acceptable ho-hum wood beads. I took some art courses and decided that I could and will make custom beads. I actually made the vow and chanted about it every day. I bought beads, wire, tools and other stuff. I went to bead conventions. I experimented; I failed; I tried again and again. I finally came up with an acceptable product. I keep improving on the structure and designs.

So everything meaningful, exciting and wonderful for you starts with your vow. Of course, most people will be only marginally interested in your quest. Expect doubt, skepticism and even mild hostility from some. The American Gongyo project started with my vow in 2000. I determined to provide English-speaking members with a true Gongyo tutorial, that was error free, available 24/7 and without cost.

By the close of 2011, American Gongyo will have reached the 95,000-visitor mark from over 66 countries.

Concentrate while chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, with great faith (belief and understanding) in the Gohonzon. That is Kyochi Myogo, the fusion of objective reality and subjective wisdom. (See Dictionary of Buddhism at pages 240-241.) What does that mean? From your individual point of view, the OBJECTIVE, ULTIMATE REALITY is that YOU (as you are, warts and all) have the Buddha nature as the core part of your life. The SUBJECTIVE WISDOM is that you fully realize that you have the Buddha nature as the core part of your life. That is enlightenment. (“Objective” means something really exists, whether or not you believe or understand it. “Subjective” means something that takes place and exists in your mind, rather than the external world. Your house is really on fire. (Objective reality = there is actually a fire.) You are sound asleep and dreaming. (Subjective = your dreamy state of mind) Your dog, Fido, licks your face and says to you (in Doggy) “wake up and get your ass in gear, the house is on fire!!!” The FUSION of objective reality and subjective wisdom occurs when you wake up and scream “Oh shit the house is on fire call 911!”

The single bead on the “two leg” side of your juzu (beads), right after the large bead (Taho Buddha) represent Kyochi Myogo.

Understand and be able to pronounce correctly each word in Gongyo, starting with Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. (A few people mispronounce basic Daimoku.) One correct source, but not the only source, is the American Gongyo line-by-line audio and text tutorial available on this website, free. The official SGI-USA CD is a perfect recording, but is not a tutorial.

I once worked in the law department for the giant advertising agency, Leo Burnett USA. They had done studies on how people learn and retain information. By far, the most effective method is a combination of hearing, seeing, reading and saying. American Gongyo correctly includes all of the above.

However, if members hear mistakes, see and read words they misunderstand, and say these mistakes and misunderstandings over and over, they learn and retain incorrect information.

Beware of other Gongyo products on the Internet. I have listened to most of them and they are incorrect in some fashion or completely wrong.

Getting 100% correct pronunciation must be done slowly over a period of time. If some word or phrase is unclear, go over it again and again. You don’t have to use the CD all the time, but using it many times helps.

More actively using your tongue, lips and teeth (your entire mouth pronunciation mechanism) will greatly increase your ability to pronounce the Japanese words in Gongyo. If you have lazy mouth or mumble mouth, you will have a difficult time getting it right. In America, mumbling seems to be the new cool. Gongyo requires many quick changes in tongue, lip and teeth positions. These will fall into place, as you understand exactly what you are trying to enunciate. The vowels have a pure, uniform sound. Each separate word or sound needs to be of one beat in staccato, without variation in tone and with no emphasis given to any word.

Do not use your throat to enunciate words.

In the old NSA days, Gongyo words were often enunciated from the throat. By some weird reasoning, this was a sign of great faith, like sitting on your heels for hours at a time. I don’t know where that came from, but I fell into that bullshit myself for a while. If you produce your breath from your diaphragm (like all good singers do) you will produce a richer, more profound tone. However, the precise enunciation of the words comes from working your tongue, lips and teeth. Elvis had a deep, rich baritone voice and you can understand every word in his songs.

Slow down.

President Ikeda says to chant with the rhythm of a galloping horse, not like a rat with a firecracker tied to its tail. Living in the West I have galloped a few horses. The good ones are smooth and even and not water bug fast. The style creeping into some group Gongyo is full speed ahead and forget the words and the people. If the person leading Gongyo does really good Gongyo, you will not get that incomprehensible speed. Super fast and crappy pronunciation usually go together. Generally, the rhythm of group Gongyo at Buddhist Centers is excellent. On some monthly videos, President Ikeda leads Daimoku. That’s the right speed.

When I am being a “good” Buddhist, I chant at a speed that I know I can pronounce all the words correctly. When I am being a mediocre Buddhist, I speed up. The time difference for the sutra portion is about 30 seconds. I take longer than that to pick my nose. Good Bob concentrates on the Gohonzon character Myo, as recommended by President Ikeda. Mediocre Bob loses concentration. (You can find “Myo” on your Gohonzon by studying the Kanji/Chinese character in the official Gongyo book. The centerline of the Gohonzon reads “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo Nichiren.” Try to read the character “Myo” on both. Also, the character “Ren” is the same for Renge and Nichiren. Pick them out. Understand that your Gohonzon is a copy of the one inscribed by Nichikan. His style is different from the schoolbook form.)

Use your book, most of the time.

The American Gongyo pronunciation guide text is a learning tool. After a while you will use the Official SGI-USA Gongyo book because you will be able to pronounce Latin. After a while you will not need any book. That is both good and bad. Little by little imperfections will insinuate themselves into your Gongyo. Look, if you were doing Gongyo next to President Ikeda you would probably use your book because you would want to get it right.

Do Gongyo, no matter what, even if your Gongyo great, good or needs improvement. And chant more Nam-myoho-renge-kyo wherever you are.

In my opinion chanting Daimoku away from the Gohonzon is also effective. Nichiren chanted for many years before he began inscribing Gohonzons and ultimately, the Dai Gohonzon. Presidents Toda and Makiguchi chanted for hours each day, for years, while in prison. Of course this does not mean abandoning your Gohonzon, disturbing or freaking people out or wrecking your car in a moment of religious fervor. You can chant so imperceptivity that people sitting near you will not notice. I developed this method during droning meetings at Las Vegas City Hall.

If you stop doing Gongyo for whatever reason, you are headed in the wrong direction. Laziness, resentment, lack of visible results, depression, manic episodes and whatever are preventing you from getting rid of that I give up karma. Giving up is losing to sansho shima, fundamental darkness and the three poisons (greed, anger and stupidity) rolled into one. Of course people think they have a good reason or justification for not doing Gongyo.

President Ikeda says not to beat yourself up if you miss Gongyo once in a while, as long as you chant some Daimoku each day. Personally, for the past ten years, I do Gongyo twice for each day I am alive. Before then, I did skip either morning or evening Gongyo from time to time. Working on the American Gongyo project, I just do Gongyo. I am not a hypocrite. Fortunately, I have at least chanted Daimoku every day since 1969. I guess I saw to my satisfaction that Nichiren Buddhism was true and correct for me. This happened from the first day on. Naturally, like every member, I had to chant past laziness, depression, loss and doubt.

One meaning of “saha” is endurance. Nichiren on Sado said that he had endurance, a characteristic of the Buddha. In order to establish happiness in out lives and contribute to the happiness of others, we need to endure, we need saha. Endurance, however, does not mean unnecessary suffering, self torture or dread. Nichiren on Sado said he was the happiest person in Japan. New members take heed. Not long ago, Gongyo was 7 to 9 times longer and took up to 45 minutes for the morning Sutra portion alone. Now, the Sutra portion takes 4 to 5 minutes. In struggling with Gongyo, you may think you are on Sado but you are actually just in Encino.

Gongyo, like everything else worthwhile, is easy to begin and difficult to continue. If you are working on that degree, quitting part way does not pay off. If you are twenty in ten years you will be thirty. If you quit your studies, you will still be thirty, flipping the proverbial burgers. If you push through the fatigue, tough courses, distractions and poverty you will have that degree, a sense of accomplishment and greatly enhanced earning power and job security.

Likewise, your enduring practice of Gongyo makes you wiser and more powerful, in mind and body, richer in good karma, freer in your options in your life and more loving and loved. You will develop the Buddha’s endurance. And your endurance will be rewarded.

The World According to Bob

I would rate my Gongyo as very good and competent. (No normal person will rate his or her Gongyo as perfect.) It has been so for many years because I have tried very hard to get it right, following my own advice. Because I studied Spanish in college, I had a good understanding of a five vowel Romance language. Spanish vowels are very close but not exactly the same as Romaji (the Romanized Japanese-Latin in the SGI-USA Gongyo Book.) In the old days, there were lots of Japanese native speakers available in SGI. There are fewer today.

So how is my life? I am happily married to my college sweetheart, Jann, whom I met in 1964. After 14 years with zero contact, we reunited in 1990 and got married in 1999. So that’s more than twenty years. On the day I began chanting, I was broke, in debt and very depressed about a lot of things. Jann had graduated and moved to New York to get a Masters from NYU. (See, 10 Good Reasons to Chant). This is NOT to say that I was depressed, lonely and miserable for 20 years and then was suddenly saved. (Thank you Jeeesus!!) Actually, I was pretty happy 85% of the time, and ecstatic 10% of the time. Within a week or so I wasn’t depressed about Jann or anything else. Of course there was that longing in my heart.

To paraphrase what President Ikeda said to a young heartbroken woman: as your Buddha nature develops, you, your life becomes more attractive. You will find in your environment several good potential partners. Choose the best one.

Financially, I am comfortable for the rest of my life no matter how long I live, have zero debt and the resources to enjoy what I desire.

Because I am lazy, my dream was to be able to live well and not work. I retired at 56 and haven’t worked a day since. I am not bored. I write, play guitar and sing, read, do my magic act for kids, kayak, swim 3-5 miles a week, make chanting beads, do Buddhist activities, maintain this website and do Gongyo (which includes Daimoku.) All my family relationships are warm and supportive.

Jann and I travel a couple of times a year to good places. Jann is a non-observant Jew, but supports my practice. I make it to FNCC every year, go to Burning Man Arts Festival and camp with the Buddha Camp. This year I am volunteering at Camp Conrad-Chinnock for the month of July. The camp is near Big Bear California and is for children with Type I diabetes (insulin dependant). I am in charge of archery, air rifle and magic. I have Type II diabetes, a family trait, and take oral medication and avoid carbs. I have a little sciatica. Other than that, I am pretty healthy.

You Can If You Want To.

The wonderful thing about our Buddhism, the Wonderful Law, is that earthly desires ARE enlightenment. You chant with a seeking mind and you decide what you want out of your life. We naturally receive guidance from people we trust. The ball, however, is always in your court. You can learn and do perfect (very competent) Gongyo if you want to. If you don’t desire it, it probably won’t happen.

For example, hundreds of fellow Nichiren Buddhists and I have the earthly desire to go to Burning Man. It takes time and money and a large dose of work and some discomfort. The days are very warm and the nights cold. There’s a lot of dust. There are swarms of weird people doing weird things, us included. We desire it. We chant and work for it. We do it. I think the enlightenment part is all the chanting we do before, during and after because it is a complicated operation. Buddha Campers hold good discussion/study meetings every day and introduce about 100 people during Burning Man week. We connect with many SGI members from other camps who participate in our activities.

But it’s not everyone’s earthly desire. I can understand that most people don’t want to sleep in a tent, use porta-potties, take cold showers and be surrounded by noise. I am sure that most people would be horrified to see 5,000 topless women riding bicycles in a big circle just for fun.

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