February 16th, 2018
I walked into the temple around 5:30 AM. The service was going to start at 6:00. I wasn’t expecting to even be in temple this morning. We were supposed to be on our way to Blaine for the start of the Longest Walk. The walk didn’t happen today.
The walk is postponed until Sunday morning. This was a bit of a surprise to everyone here. The Native American group let Senji know about the change last night, only hours before the show was scheduled to begin. My understanding is that one of the organizers had a death in his family (grandmother, I believe). Out of respect for the family, the entire walk was pushed back two days. Now the walk will start on Sunday, the 18th, at 11:00 AM in the town of Ferndale, WA. I guess we begin on journey in the parking lot of a tribal casino.
Senji told me last, “We are on Indian time now. This is typical for walks with Native Americans.”
I’m flexible. I got nothing but time. I think that I understand a little how the Indians value family above almost everything else. It is becoming clear to me that I am going to learn a lot on this walk, and my own attitudes are going to be challenged. We haven’t even started yet, and it is already blowing my mind.
Anyway, I digress. I was going to talk about chanting.
The temple itself is cold and dark when not in use. Senji only keeps two tiny lamps burning on the altar. The altar has multiple levels. At the top are golden images of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. A little lower is a large, framed photograph of Nichidatsu Fujii, the founder of Senji’s order. Offerings are left on the altar: fruit, chocolate, other sweets. On each side of the main altar are statues of the seated Buddha, along with small pictures of deceased monks and other loved ones.
Senji came into the temple just before six o’clock, carrying a tray of tea cups. He placed the cups on the altar, and in front of the photos of the monks who are now gone. Ikaeda followed Senji inside. Senji turned on more lights, and lit two candles in front of the altar. He lit two sticks of incense and placed them in bowls.
Ikaeda sat on a cushion in front of the signing bowl. The metal bowl is as big as a large laundry basket. When Ikaeda struck the bowl, it rang with a deep, mellow sound. From there Ikaeda went to great drum to pound out a steady rhythm . The drum sits on a wooden stand, and it nearly the size of a fifty-five gallon barrel. He struck the drum with wooden sticks that produced a booming beat, louder and deeper than that of a bass drum.
Senji and I sat on our cushions and hit our taikos, paddle-shaped drums that look a bit like badminton rackets. They sound like snare drums.
The chanting itself is very simple. We sang the words “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” over and over, in time with drumming. The chants are kind of a “call and response”. Senji is blessed with a deep baritone voice. He would chant first, and then Ikaeda and I would reply with our tenors. We went back and forth, and back and forth.
Lani came in a little later. She is a Japanese neighbor. She took over the drumming from Ikaeda. Ikaeda grabbed a taiko and drummed with that, as he continued to chant. Lani’s alto voice blended with the chants coming from Ikaeda and me. Then Lani’s stepson, Yoshi, arrived at the temple. He also drummed and chanted.
This went on for almost an hour. Just “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” in a seemingly endless round. It does finally end. As in the beginning, the singing bowl rings. The drumming and chanting slow gradually. Then it all stops.
There is silence.
The chant is in my head. It will probably be in my dreams tonight. It is part of me.
Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo
(I asked Senji once what the words meant. He smiled and said, “You are love. You are beautiful. You are Buddha.”)