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In Session: Chanting Japanese Hymns as a Lay Buddhist Practice
4: Praising the Patriarchs: The Invention of Modern Hymn Chanting in the Sōtō Zen School
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Stanford University, United States
In the 1950s, Sōtō reformers invented a new style of chanting Japanese hymns, which they named Baikaryū 梅花流 (lit. lineage of plum blossoms). The Shingon and Rinzai schools had already founded lineages of hymn chanting in the early 20th century. When Sōtō reformers modernized their religion after WWII, they used these as models to create their own style of hymn chanting. This practice soon became very popular among lay devotees, especially women. Today, there are more than 6,300 choirs with over 130,000 members. This paper examines the invention of the Baikaryū. I will first study the motivations of the Sōtō leaders who invented this new practice. Then I will analyze the first set of hymns that formed the Baikaryū repertoire in the early 1950s. Thus, I will show that Sōtō clerics promoted the chanting of hymns as a vital Zen practice. On the one hand, they created hymns that express devotion to the two patriarchs of the Sōtō school, Dōgen (1200-1250) and Keizan (1264/68-1325). On the other hand, they promoted hymn chanting as a practice that has the same soteriological goal as seated meditation. I will argue that both of these aspects—the devotional quality of the new hymns and the idea that chanting can lead to the realization of buddhahood—were vital factors that contributed to the Baikaryū’s success. This paper thereby reveals the role of lay practice and hymn chanting in the modernization of Zen Buddhism in the 20th century.