Philosophy > Gongyo


Our daily prayers are dramas of challenging and creating something new in our lives.

The word 'gongyo' literally means 'to exert oneself in practice'.1 Gongyo is a short ceremony which enables us to celebrate our inherent Buddhahood and offer prayers of gratitude and determination for whatever is relevant to us at any particular time. In his writings, Nichiren Daishonin mentions a supporting practice of reciting from the Lotus Sutra, as a preparatory phase before chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. In one of his letters he writes:

As I said before, though no chapter of the Lotus Sutra is negligible, among the entire twenty-eight chapters, the 'Expedient Means' (second) chapter and the 'Life Span' (sixteenth) chapter are particularly outstanding. The remaining chapters are all in a sense the branches and leaves of those two chapters. Therefore, for your regular recitation, I recommend that you practise reading the prose sections of the 'Expedient Means' and 'Life Span' chapters. (WND-1, p. 71)

Later he also wrote:

I have written out the prose section of the 'Expedient Means' chapter for you. You should recite it together with the verse section of the 'Life Span' chapter, which I sent you earlier. The characters of this sutra are all without exception living Buddhas of perfect enlightenment. But because we have the eyes of ordinary people, we see them as characters. (WND-1, p. 486)

It is not important to understand the literal meaning of every word as we recite them. For a full explanation of the meaning of the passages we recite in gongyo, it is worth reading SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's lectures in the book The Heart of the Lotus Sutra.2 Here, though, are some of the key passages from the ceremony:

At the start of this chapter, in the passage we recite, Shakyamuni Buddha clarifies to one of his disciples, Shariputra, that the wisdom to which all Buddhas are enlightened is infinitely profound and immeasurable and that it is beyond the ordinary capacity of disciples like Shariputra to comprehend. He explains that he has used similes and other means to expound the Buddha wisdom to the people. He then reveals that the Buddha's wisdom is the understanding of the 'true aspect of all phenomena', which represents the principle that all people have the potential to be Buddhas. In this chapter we recite the phrase, 'they have exerted themselves bravely and vigorously' (Jp. yumyo shojin). President Ikeda explains:

Buddhist practice has to be carried out with determination and courage. When we challenge ourselves bravely with the spirit to accomplish more today than yesterday and more tomorrow than today, we are truly practising. Without such a brave and vigorous spirit, we cannot break the iron shackles of destiny, nor can we defeat obstacles and devils. Our daily prayers are dramas of challenging and creating something new in our lives. When we bravely stand up with faith, the darkness of despair and anxiety vanishes from our hearts and in pours the light of hope and growth. This spirit to stand up courageously is the spirit of faith.3

At the end of the chapter we recite: The true aspect of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas.' (Jp. Yui butsu yo butsu. Nai no kujin. Shohojisso) President Ikeda explains: '"All phenomena" indicates life in the Ten Worlds4 and its environment, or all living beings and the realms in which they dwell. In other words, it refers to all nature, to all things and phenomena. Also, "true aspect", just as it sounds, means the true reality just as it is. The true aspect of all phenomena might be thought of as the undisguised truth of all things.'5 This phrase introduces the list of ten factors which indicate the contents of the true aspect. They are: appearance, nature, entity, power, influence, internal cause, relation, latent effect, manifest effect and consistency from beginning to end. It is these factors which bring the theory of the Ten Worlds to life.

If I am, say, in the life-state of hunger then this life-condition is visible in my face and expression (appearance), and will be heard in my voice and therefore my thoughts (nature). The totality of my physical and spiritual aspects make up my entity, the person I am. There is a power to my hunger, and this will have an influence on my environment. I will make causes motivated by my greed which are activated by conditions in my environment (internal cause and relation) and there will be changes or effects within my life (latent effect) and also appearing externally (manifest effect). And whatever life-state I am in, this will be consistent throughout all the factors. In other words it is not possible to have, say, anger in my heart, but rapture in my appearance.

This section is very important as it helps us to understand the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life.6

This chapter explains that the life span of the Buddha is immeasurable and, since we have clarified by reading from chapter two that there is no difference or separation between the Buddha and the ordinary human being, this means that our own lives, too, are immeasurable in both the past and the future. 'Life span' should not be taken as the period between conception and birth, and eventual physical death but instead as referring to the repeated cycle of birth and death which happens over lifetime after lifetime.

This chapter enables us to understand that rather than focusing on the physical body of Shakyamuni Buddha (which is the effect of practising the Law), we should focus on the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo which is the cause for all people to reveal their Buddhahood.

Two lines that we recite in this chapter are: 'Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha, not hesitating even if it costs them their lives.' (Jp. Isshin yokken butsu. Fu ji shaku shinmyo) President Ikeda says of these lines:

All people, without exception, possess in their hearts the supreme hidden treasure of Buddhahood. The heart of the Lotus Sutra is found in such equality. And the heart of the Daishonin has made it possible for all people of the Latter Day of the Law to open this inner treasure chest. The key that opens it is the faith of 'single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha' and the practice of 'not hesitating even if it costs them their lives'. The basis for attaining enlightenment is a sincere seeking mind and an earnest practice.7

In the middle of this section we say: 'Where living beings enjoy themselves at ease.' (Jp. shujo sho yu-raku) These lines are the basis for the famous letter Nichiren Daishonin wrote called 'Happiness in this World' (which is also the title of this series of articles). President Ikeda comments:

Of course, 'enjoy themselves at ease' does not mean indulging in superficial or hedonistic pleasures. In the face of reality's turbulent waves, such pleasures prove all too empty. The saha world (ie, this world we live in now), moreover, is a 'world of endurance.' How truly difficult it is to live, to endure life, in a world so replete with suffering and fear! If our life-state is low, ultimately we will be defeated. As seen with the Buddha eye, when we ordinary people open up the state of Buddhahood in our lives, this saha world itself becomes a paradise where living beings enjoy themselves at ease. It could be said that we are enacting a human drama of joyfully living out our lives on the stage of the saha world.8

The last four lines we recite from the chapter are: 'At all times I think to myself: How can I cause living beings to gain entry into the unsurpassed way and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?' (Jp. Mai ji sa ze nen. I ga ryo shujo. Toku nyu mujo do. Soku joju busshin) President Ikeda explains: This passage clarifies the Buddha's eternal determination, his great wish from beginningless time. The Buddha yearns for only one thing: to help people gain unsurpassed happiness. This, Shakyamuni says, is his constant thought.'9 These lines represent the vow or pledge of the Buddha. President Ikeda adds: 'This vow constitutes the essential entity of the eternal Buddha. The eternity of the Buddha's life is inseparable from this great vow. The Buddha appears in this world because of this great vow.'10

It is true that Nichiren Daishonin was not explicit about the time of day we should chant, but the convention has developed to start and end the day with chanting. The important thing is to chant at a time which both suits our personal schedule, and also enables us to raise our life-condition before we get on with our day.

The first time I heard gongyo, it seemed very fast and it was hard to distinguish the individual sounds. But with the help of my friends who took me through it very slowly, and helped me to grasp the rhythm, I was gradually able to recite the sutra passages and speed up so that soon I could join in with gongyo at meetings. One person explained to me that it is a very rhythmical process. Each of the classical Chinese characters in the liturgy book, I was told, is a beat. If I tap out a slow, steady rhythm as I say the words, then I will, in time, be able to develop a more vivid pace. So by tapping out a beat I can say: '/Ni/ji/se/son/ju/san/mai/an/jo/ni/ ki/' and so on. It was also pointed out to me that some words which, in English script, look as if they should be two beats (like 'butsu') are in fact just one beat: /butsu/ and /hyaku/ because they only have one Chinese character above them in the gongyo book. Then I was told that there are two exceptions to the one beat to the character rule. There are two words which have three characters, but are only two beats: /Shari/hotsu/ and / hara/mitsu/. President Ikeda writes:

Our morning and evening practice is an invigorating ceremony of beginningless time that revitalises us from the very depths of our being. Therefore, the important thing is to chant each day filled with a sense of rhythm and cadence - like a horse galloping through the heavens. I hope you will chant in a way that leaves you refreshed and revitalised in both body and mind.11

We therefore recite the opening section of the 'Expedient Means' (second) chapter, and the concluding verse section of the 'Life Span' (sixteenth) chapter which is set out in rhythmical five-beat lines.

It is not necessary to understand every line of gongyo as we recite it. More important is the rhythm and chanting in unity with those around us. Even if we do not understand the exact meaning of the words, if in our hearts we have the feeling that we are praising and cherishing our Buddhahood, along with a prayer for the happiness of all people and a determination to achieve our goals, then the sound of our words will stimulate and activate our Buddha nature. After we have finished reciting the sutra and start to repeat the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can be confident that this ceremony of gratitude and determination is drawing out our greater potential for the benefit of ourselves and other people. What greater happiness could there be than this? 

  1. See The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism (Soka Gakkai, 2002) p. 259 and
    online at:
  2. Daisaku Ikeda, The Heart of the Lotus Sutra: lectures on the 'Expedient Means'
    and 'Life Span' chapters (World Tribune Press, 2013).
  3. Ibid, pp. 43-44.
  4. Ten Worlds, or ten states or conditions of life that we experience within our lives,
    moving from one to another at any moment according to our interactions with our
    environment and those around us.They are categorised as follows: Hell, Hunger,
    Animality, Anger, Humanity, Heaven, Learning, Realisation, Bodhisattva and
    Buddhahood. (See the June Art of Living)
  5. Daisaku Ikeda, The Heart of the Lotus Sutra: lectures on the 'Expedient Means'
    and 'Life Span' chapters (World Tribune Press, 2013) p. 104.
  6. A philosophical system established byTien-t'ai (538-597) in his Great
    Concentration and Insight on the basis of the phrase 'the true aspect of all
    phenomena' from the 'Expedient Means' (second) chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The
    three thousand realms, or the entire phenomenal world, exist in a single moment
    of life. The number three thousand here comes from the following calculation: 10
    (Ten Worlds)  times 10 (Ten Worlds) times 10 (ten factors) times 3 (three realms of existence).
    Life at any moment manifests one of the Ten Worlds. Each of these worlds
    possesses the potential for all ten within itself, and this 'mutual possession', or
    mutual inclusion, of the Ten Worlds is represented as 102, or a hundred, possible
    worlds. Each of these hundred worlds possesses the ten factors, making one
    thousand factors or potentials, and these operate within each of the three realms
    of existence, thus making three thousand realms.
  7. Daisaku Ikeda, The Heart of the Lotus Sutra: lectures on the 'Expedient Means'
    and 'Life Span' chapters (World Tribune Press, 2013) pp. 331-332.
  8. Ibid, p. 351.
  9. Ibid, p. 379.
  10. Ibid, p. 380.
  11. Ibid, p. 14.