Many people who have explored the practice of Nichiren Buddhism have wondered why some people chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and others chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. Even in the groups that primarily chant “Nam,” they also chant “Namu” when doing three prolonged Odaimoku (Daimoku Sansho or Hiki Daimoku). What is the real issue here? In this article I would like to explain the linguistics behind it and then share relevant practice instruction that is given in the Nichiren Shū about chanting Odaimoku.

The two Chinese characters that begin Odaimoku are pronounced Na (南) and Mu(無) when they stand alone. The first character means “South” and the second character signifies a negation (as in “Does a dog have Buddha-Nature?” “MU!”). Those two characters were chosen by the Chinese to transliterate the Sanskrit word “Namah”, they were not chosen for their meaning. In China the two characters are chanted as Namo (as in Namo Amito Fo). In Japan, they are pronounced Namu, unless it becomes convenient to elide the “u” sound, which happens when Odaimoku is chanted at a fast pace. So when writing the Odaimoku, it should always be written as “Namu” in order to acknowledge each Chinese character. There is no way to contract Namu into Nam’ when writing Chinese characters or even when using the Japanese phonetic systems – the hiragana and katakana. Only in English can you write Nam’ and leave out the “u.”

This is important, because in the Nichiren tradition each character of the sutra is looked upon as a golden Buddha. Now it is prefereable to chant “Namu,” but chanting “Nam” is a linguistic matter and not a doctrinal issue except insofar as Nichiren Shū teaching counsels against such elision with either the Odaimoku or in chanting the sūtra. In fact here are is a translation of the instructions given in the Shutei Nichiren Shū Hōyō Shikki (Nichiren Shū’s official book of ceremonies and practices):

The Raijugiki warns against “…chanting Daimoku in a gloomy, lazy, or distracted fashion. Don’t chant Daimoku with a scatter-brained or flippant manner. Chanting as if it were a hardship is folly whereas chanting it joyfully is wise. The intention of our practice is to chant joyfully.” [It advises:] “As part of daily practice, we should chant it three hundred times, each time mindfully in a moderate tempo free of distraction or drowsiness but with courageous effort. Finally we should chant it ten more times at a slower tempo with deep sincerity and clarity so that everyone is focused and mindful [of the Daimoku].” In short, because chanting Daimoku is the main practice we should chant it often with sincerity and mindfulness.

● Brief breaks should follow “Namu,”“Myōhō,” and “Renge-kyō.” [I believe this is referring to when pauses to take a breath or for some other reason should occur. It does not mean one should break after each phrase during every recitation.]

● After “Namu” or after “Ren,” congregation and ministers chant in unison. [Usually the officiant will start the chanting of Odaimoku by himself and then everyone else will join in from that point on.]

“Namu” and “Ge” must be pronounced as spelled. The pronunciations “Nanmyo” and “Gei” are unacceptable.

● When Daimoku is chanted tens of times, the last three times must always be in a slower tempo.

● The ancient way to accompany Daimoku with a drum is shown in Fig. 37. The drum is struck lightly right and left on “Namu,” then strongly, right and left on each kanji: “Myo,”Ho,”“Ren,”“Ge,”“Kyo.”

● Beating of the drum begins with the “Namu” of the third time the Daimoku is chanted.

(Translated from p. 273 by Chishin Hirai and Ryuei McCormick)

I think it is good for all practitioners and not just clergy to bear the above points in mind when chanting Odaimoku.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,