Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo: Buddhist nun chants for peace and justice

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Saturday, February 23
Editor's note:Let Us Pray is an occasional series about religious communities in Bennington County and nearby New York. Part II of this story, on how Jun Yasuda became a Buddhist nun, will appear in a later edition..

GRAFTON, N.Y. — In a clearing off a back road in this small town of 2,100, the pointed pinnacle of a solid Buddhist pagoda dedicated to peace rises up above the nearby tree line, seeming to direct one's thoughts upward.

People of many faiths and ethnic origins come to this remote spot, apparently looking for something in short supply in other, more accessible places.

"It's amazing to me that people know this place," said Jun Yasuda, who will turn 60 this year, a nun in a tiny Japan-based Buddhist religious order that builds such pagodas and works for peace and social justice.

Unexpectedly given this land in 1983 for a monument to peace, Yasuda and helpers from diverse faiths and backgrounds slowly but steadily built the Grafton Peace Pagoda between 1985 and 1993. A statue of Buddha sits in a niche in the front of the pagoda, and scenes from his life are carved along its side.

"Buddha's first teaching is non-killing. So if you are not following non-killing you are not Buddhist," Yasuda said. "We believe that nonviolence is the only way for humans to survive."

The Nipponzan Myohoji order was founded by Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985), a Japanese monk strongly influenced by both the nonviolent philosophy of his friend Mahatma Gandhi and the dropping of atomic bombs at the conclusion of World War II. Opposition to nuclear arms is a centerpiece of the order's activism.

After the war, Fujii felt it necessary to revive Buddhist teachings in Japan and began to construct peace pagodas. The history of such pagodas dates back about 2,500 years.

Today, Yasuda estimated that there are about 80 monks and nuns in her order: 40 in Japan and 40 elsewhere in the world. Similarly, there are about 80 Nipponzan Myohoji peace pagodas worldwide in Asia, Europe and the United States. One is being built in Africa. The only other peace pagoda in the U.S. is the New England Peace Pagoda, which sits on a hill 53 miles east of the Grafton pagoda in Leverett, Mass. A group of Nipponzan Myohoji monks and nuns based in Atlanta plans to build a pagoda in eastern Tennessee.

"They are the symbols of peace which will unite the entire world," Fujii said of peace pagodas in 1980. "We must now create a civilization that lets life live and makes the most of it. No other alternative is possible except a peaceful religion that teaches the way to convert the mind peacefully."

Besides constructing pagodas, the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji are best known for their marches and fasts for social justice and peace. They collaborate and have strong friendships with people of varied persuasions.

Yasuda came to the U.S in 1978, shortly after her ordination, to take part in The Longest Walk, from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in support of Native American rights. Fujii also took part in this walk, which was led by Native American activist Dennis J. Banks. Yasuda is currently participating in the Longest Walk II, also led by Banks, across the U.S. This walk is in support of environmental protection.

Thousands of miles

Yasuda has walked thousands of miles in all kinds of weather conditions to protest war and nuclear weapons and to promote such causes as prison reform and human rights in Burma. As do the monks and nuns of her order, Yasuda walks beating a hand-held drum while chanting the phrase "Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo," which is central to Nipponzan Myohoji spirituality.

Every year, she leads a diverse group of marchers on a 9/11 walk, which begins in Grafton on Sept. 11 and ends in New York City two weeks later. The marchers visit and stay at churches, mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples along the way.

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"So it's a wonderful way for people to connect," she said. "I do lots of fasting, I do lots of walking, and I like this way more than just talk, talk, talk."

Yasuda fasted on the steps of the New York State Capitol in Albany for imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier and in front of the Pennsylvania prison where activist Mumia Abu-Jamal is being held, some think unjustly, for the 1981 murder of a police officer in Philadelphia. She fasted for 55 days in front of the White House to protest the first Gulf War.

"Fasting is a good way to connect, to understand suffering people," she said, adding that it makes her prayer stronger. "When people see me fasting, people change their mind."

Though she didn't try to talk to people during her fast in front the of the White House, people — including police officers — saw her there every day and remarked about her continued fasting. She made many friends. "And I never tried to create friends. I just prayed and did discipline and they opened their hearts to me."

Yasuda lives in simple quarters in the same building that houses the temple on the pagoda grounds. As is the practice of her order, she did not solicit money or other donations to build the pagoda and does not do so to maintain the pagoda or to support herself. The temple is unheated, except for a small wood stove in her quarters. She sat on the floor during the interview for this article and sleeps on the floor on just a thin mat. She doesn't have a computer, a television or a copying machine but does have electric lights and a phone.

The only nun

Paula Green is the founder and director of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst, Mass. She is closely associated with the Nipponzan Myohoji community at the New England Peace Pagoda. She noted that no other nun has her own peace pagoda.

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"Jun Yasuda is a most remarkable person. There are monks in her order who have their own temples and act quite independently, but she is carving out a new path for nuns, who usually serve in more traditional female roles within temples under male leadership," Green wrote in an e-mail from Nepal, where she was teaching. "She is one of the most fearless, determined, committed, visionary women I have met and I hold her in high regard.

"I have been with Jun-san, as she is often called, on many walks and pilgrimages: she is tireless and amazingly strong," Green added. "She is also extremely compassionate, respectful and kind to everyone. In that way, and in all ways, she is a highly developed human being."

One cannot explain Nipponzan Myohoji spirituality without referring to the Lotus Sutra. There are differences of focus in the various sutras, or books of teachings, of the Buddha.

One is the Heart Sutra, which Tibetan Buddhists prefer. It emphasizes emptiness, said Yasuda's friend Suzanne Dansereau, of Troy, N.Y., herself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism.

"But the one that this sect has chosen is called the Lotus Sutra, and that is the one that is down-to-earth," Dansereau said. "It's opening your hearts and helping everyone. And that is their goal."

Yasuda said the essence of Buddha's teaching in the Lotus Sutra is "respect others."

Producing harmony

Other sutras are more focused on the self, but the Lotus Sutra is more focused on the "other" — how people are connected and how to produce harmony with other people, she added. One cannot be happy if other people are not happy, if people are fighting or suffering greatly.

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"So if you want to make yourself happy, you have to make world peace," Yasuda said.

The chant Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo — central to the spirituality of Yasuda's order — means by some accounts "homage to the Lotus Sutra" or "praise to the wonderful teaching of the Lotus Sutra."

"But followers of the Nipponzan Myohoji say that the chant cannot be fully translated — it's ineffable meaning reveals itself to devotees only through time," Paula Green writes in an article on Nipponzan Myohoji in the book Engaged Buddhism in the West. "Recitation of the chant Na My Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo forms the core daily practice."

The 13th Century Japanese monk Nichiren "declared that wholeheartedly chanting Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo would develop faith and purify the mind of the devotee, because the chant itself contains the essence of the (Lotus) Sutra. Chanting with devotion and respect he believed would bring spiritual benefit to the believer," Green writes.

For her part, Yasuda speaks of praying, not meditation. The chant has no meaning, rather it is the essence of a way of prayer. "When I chant Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo I focus (on) each (person): 'You are sacred.' "

Respect for all

Yasuda is devoted to the idea of respect for all others, even enemies, rather than fighting or killing, and she has put this into practice in her activism through use of the chant.

"That's everything about Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo," she said.

According to Green, in their daily practice the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji chant with a hand or large floor drum, recite chapters of the Lotus Sutra, light incense and offer food to the Buddha on the altar. They also fast, chant and pray steadily for three days a month, and fast for eight days in December to commemorate Buddha's enlightenment.

When she is in Grafton, Yasuda conducts the daily prayer services, in the morning before sunrise and in the evening around sunset. Worshipers circle the pagoda three times while praying.

"And if you do it early in the morning it is so beautiful because you just see the sun coming up," Dansereau said.

Honoring the sacred

Another mark of Nipponzan Myohoji monks and nuns is their practice of bowing. This is a main practice of the Lotus Sutra, and is a way of honoring everyone's sacredness, Yasuda said.

So when she goes to the supermarket, Yasuda bows to the people at the cash registers. "And some people say, 'How come you're bowing?' " she said. "I say, 'You are very beautiful and you are very sacred.' They say, 'Oh, thank you very much.' And they become happy, you know."


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