Although I was born into a lay family, shortly after I turned ten
years of age I was sent to a temple in a town about twelve kilometers
(seven miles) away and became a young priest in training.
The main object of worship in that temple was a statue of the
Thousand-Armed Kannon, so I was awakened every day before dawn and made
to read the Kannon Sutra aloud in front of this statue of Kannon. There
were several Kannon festivals every year, and on those days the women
of the parish would gather at the temple in the morning and prepare
food; a lively luncheon would follow the memorial services.
I was a growing boy and always hungry, and because on these
particular days I could eat to my heart's content, I would put my palms
together to Kannon, and say, "I am very grateful, dear Kannon!" Since
the Kannon Sutra is a long one, it was not easy for a very young boy
like me to recite the entire sutra aloud at the top of my voice. When I
would get to the part where the phrase nenpi Kannon-riki (think
on the power of Kannon) is repeated, I would know that I was getting
close to the end of the sutra, so I would read the "nenpi Kannon-riki" part in an even louder voice.
At first I didn't understand what it meant, it was just sounds to be sung, "nen-pee-kan-non-ree-kee,"
but after a year of having to repeat it over and over again, I came to
understand that it meant something like, "Should you be in danger of
falling from a high mountain, in danger of falling into a pit of fire,
or in peril of drowning while adrift on the sea, if you mindfully
invoke Kannon's power, you will be saved."
But my young mind, which had started to become somewhat scientific,
began to doubt this, wondering, "Is this really true?" Before long, I
was old enough to read introductory guides to Buddhist teachings, which
had literal and metaphorical explanations of this, and I came to
understand that the literal interpretation was to believe just what the
sutra says, while the metaphorical interpretation was to interpret the
sutra's mountains, seas, and fires as the hardships, suffering, and
grief we encounter as we live our lives in this world. In the
scientific period of my youth, I read it totally as metaphor and
explained it to others as metaphor as well.
As the years have gone by, however, I have increasingly thought more
and more along the lines of, "How good of you to have helped me back
then" and "Thanks to you, I've lived to this point."
When I was young, I climbed mountains all the time. One time I
slipped and fell from a rocky area. If my body had rolled one more
meter, I would have plummeted more than a hundred meters over a cliff;
it was a solitary small pine tree that saved me. Again, shortly after
the Pacific war, I was trying to board a crowded train. All the cars
were packed full, and after I finally got on, on the deck between two
cars, I started to fall off. An unknown gentleman shot out his hand and
held on to me. So there have been many times that I have considered
myself to have been saved by the considerable power of Kannon. For that
matter, even just recently, when at an intersection in Honolulu, a half
second earlier or later and I would have been in a major accident--the
quick reaction of another driver averted a horrible outcome.
Shu-on shittaisan (All enemies will be routed). When we are
misunderstood or resented by others, or when we are living in anger or
hatred, how often by reading the words of the Kannon Sutra have we
When he was alive, Ven. Etai Yamada, the head priest of the Tendai
denomination, who died several years ago, told me the following.
Drafted into the army in the final days of the Pacific war, he was in
charge of protecting a ship that was evacuating fifteen hundred
schoolchildren from Okinawa to the main islands. At the time, American
submarines frequently prowled the seas near Okinawa and off Kyushu, and
one never knew when the ship might be sunk by one of them. Ven. Yamada
would go out onto the deck often and call out to Kannon over and over,
"These children must not be killed!" "Nenpi Kannon-riki, haro fu no motsu"
(If you mindfully invoke Kannon's power, the billowing waves cannot
drown you). As is promised by the sutra, the ship arrived in Kyushu
without incident. Ven. Yamada had been firmly convinced ever since that
there is no error in believing the words of the sutra verbatim.
From that time onward, I have read the Kannon Sutra with neither a
literal nor a metaphoric interpretation, having come to understand for
myself that all one needs to do is to read it as it is and believe in
it as it is; I have been able to confidently teach this to others as
During the Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata Prefecture on October 23,
2004, a car carrying a mother and two children was buried by a
landslide and could not be located after part of the mountainous
terrain collapsed. On the fourth day after the earthquake, a rescue
team was finally able to ascertain the location of the car from a
helicopter; they pulled a two-year-old boy, Yuta, from the car the next
day. All of Japan had been glued to their television sets, praying that
the family would be found alive. I don't think anyone really believed
that someone could still be alive after being buried under a landslide
for five days, but when they saw little Yuta being held by the rescue
team, people throughout Japan let out shouts of joy, deeply moved that
this little life had been saved.
I was watching the event on television in Hawaii that day. When I
saw little Yuta's head move on the chest of one of the rescuers,
without thinking I started chanting a verse from the Kannon Sutra, "Nenpi Kannon-riki fu no son ichimo" (If you mindfully invoke Kannon's power, not a single hair on your head will be harmed).
I'm certain that as a large boulder was falling on top of her car,
the mother must have cried out, "My children are in danger!" I believe
that it was the determination of the mother, who thought of her
children more than herself, that saved her youngest child.
There were many reasons given by the mass media for why Yuta was
miraculously saved--the coincidence of lucky circumstances, such as the
fact that there was airspace of fifty centimeters (about 1.6 feet)
between the boulder and the car, the fact that a very young child's
body can withstand low temperatures, and the fact that there was a
container of milk in the car. Yet if this life-and-death drama had
involved just a series of physical coincidences, I do not think such
deep emotions would linger in people's minds.
Kannon is said to be a buddha that is neither male nor female but of
neuter gender. But as the name Jibo Kannon (Loving Mother Kannon), by
which Kannon is sometimes called, implies, Kannon's mind surely is the
very mind of a mother who thinks of her children.
Kannon is often depicted in Buddhist images as female because of this.
If you mindfully invoke Kannon's power
A pit of fire will turn into a pool.
When reading this verse, my heart always, without fail, fills with
the words of the person who told me that his mother, fleeing the fires
caused by an atomic bomb, carried him to a river and jumped in.
Day after day, whenever I learn of some sad event on television or
in the newspaper, I am made to realize once again that the scenes that
are described one by one in the repeating of the nenpi Kannon-riki are all nothing but the realities of everyday life.
The Kannon Sutra teaches us that the mind of each person who is
mindful of Kannon will be a force for happiness and peace in this
world. At my advanced age, this has become all the more my firm belief.
Ryokan Ara, born in 1928, served as the head priest
at temples of the Tendai Buddhist denomination in Fukushima and Miyagi
prefectures before he became the first bishop of the Tendai Mission of
Hawaii Betsuin. He is the author of many books on Buddhism and is also
well-known for his paintings of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2008 issue of Dharma World.