Sakyo and Shabutsu Dharma Talk – 23 October 2016

Thoughts on why we do this, how you might do it as part of your daily life, what you might do with the finished item.

Items used in formalized Shakyo: Ink stone, sumie ink, character space guides, handmade face mask with handmade paper string, formatted shakyo paper.

Items used in formalized Shakyo: Ink stone, sumie ink, character space guides, handmade face mask with handmade paper string, formatted shakyo paper.

Let us combine both Shakyo and ShaButsu all together here to simplify the response.  Also I would like to set aside any discussion of the highly ritualized and formal practice. There is value in the formalized practice and there is value in a less formal practice.  It difficult to do the formalized practice at home. Because it is difficult to create the right setting, the time to engage in all of the formal steps it can be a hinderance to engaging in a fundamental we are instructed to do by the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra.


The Buddha in his wisdom and compassion realized that rituals can be a wall of separation, they can become overly complex, lose meaning, and serve to mystify something which is meant to be accessible.  Where do I get this notion from?  The Buddha praised the boys who drew images of the Buddha in the dirt with branches.  The Buddha, until he died, admonished the use of language that was not understood by the common people for teaching.  The Buddha refused to mandate the practice of exclusive meat avoidance. There are other examples of actions taken by the Buddha to teach in an accessible, clearly understood, and welcoming manner.  There are places for rituals and formalities, mostly though it should be for those who have chosen a life of observing and not on those who have not chosen to do so. 

Also informing my belief about Shakyo and Shabutsu is the purpose of these practices. Why does the Buddha tell us one of the five practices of the Lotus Sutra is to copy? Why would someone draw or make images of the Buddha?  I believe there are two main reasons.  The first reason and the most important one is to spread the teachings of the Buddha.

Ryusho2016-Shakyo 10-2.jpg

Short Passage Shakyo using fountain pen inks – I do these to give away

The Lotus Sutra has been copied throughout the ages for others to be able to read it.  Yes, there are certainly precious copies done in gold ink using real gold.  Some have been done on exotic papers such as blue papers using expensive and difficult to obtain pigments.  These were certainly not created for people to pass around and read.  These I would put into the category of celebration and praise. The person who created them or had them made did so as an expression of their joy and appreciation for the teaching.  Yes, for those who have a cynical streak there were probably some done to show off or to curry some favor.  Yet even that is an expression of praise for the Dharma since of the many things which could have been chosen for the subject it was the Buddha or the Dharma and not some court figure or other status symbol.  

The second reason for making copies and images is to praise to celebrate and acknowledge the source of the benefits in one’s life.  This too is a form of sharing the teachings and propagation.  When you get down to the bare bones the reason for copying and drawing or making images is to propagate the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma.  This is the reason all religions cary out this practice of statues, texts, buildings, ceremonies and so forth.  They are done for the purpose of praise, gratitude, and propagation.  The more dramatic and awe inspiring, the more it elicits good feelings in the viewer, the more it is hoped that person will be moved to find out more, or to convert.  The same is also true in the reverse.  If one group does not want people to believe or follow another group, then stories, teachings, and images are made to depict the bad that will occur from such a belief. 

Now down to the practices of copying and image making.  It’s no secret I favor individual expression unhindered by formalities. This may sound like I’m in favor of a free-for-all anything goes approach, abandoning all conventions. That is close but not quite on the mark.  I do believe that some attention should be given to the way a person engages in the activity.  I don’t believe that a person should be so fearful of either the rules or judgements of quality that they never do the practices.  

Chap 3 Rejoice

Chapter 3 Rejoice – part of Lotus of Your Life series

If a person illustrated the entire Lotus Sutra using stick figures on old newspaper as an expression of their heart.  They have in fact created the most beautiful copy of the Sutra which rises above any artistic rules and is beyond criticism.  No one can, or should, dismiss or speak poorly of such a thing.  That illustrated Lotus Sutra would also be more than most people will ever accomplish. Many will not even lift a pen or brush to do one of the five practices which all practitioners of the Lotus Sutra are instructed to do.

If nothing else it would be better to copy or draw something regardless of the quality than to do nothing.  And it would be better to do it out of praise and gratitude than obligation.  If it ends up being of such high quality it is sought out by people to view it then all the better, but that is not the goal.  Thinking of the goal of this practice as being to create a masterpiece is incorrect.  The goal is to propagate and to praise.  If all you can do is stick figures then do it with joy, with gratitude and abandon all doubt and self-criticism.

I suggest a few observances as anyone does this.  One is to prepare ones spirit by chanting and meditating on the reason for the practice.  When I do the drawings or other art pieces or when I am writing out decoratively the text I also pause and consider again the words I will write or the idea I wish to illustrate.  This considering process sometimes may take me days or weeks.  Sometimes it takes a while for everything to come together in my mind.  


Buddha in the Doodle

I suggest quiet, turn off all noise making devices and allow yourself to hear yourself breath, to hear the pen or brush on the paper or other item.  If you are mixing ink to hear the grinding.  Connect to what you are doing with as many senses as possible.  Some of the inks I use have distinct smells, some inks smell similar and a few stand out.  This is to be expected since different materials are used in the pigment or the liquid that carries the pigment.  Open yourself up to noticing the smells of the activity, the paper, the ink or paint.  They all have a smell.  No drinking or eating, you don’t want to miss the smells or the sounds of the activity.  Eating and drinking will block out your ability to smell or hear properly the copying you are engaged in.  

Clear your work area so there are no distractions.  Finally allow yourself a proper amount of time.  You don’t need to finish it all in one sitting.  But set aside a time such as 10 minutes and do nothing else.  What gets done in 10 minutes is great, what doesn’t can be continued in your next session.

  1. Chant and meditate on the subject or text before you begin
  2. Have all your materials gathered together and in place before you begin
  3. Eliminate all noise or other distractions so your space is quiet and calm
  4. Allow yourself the time however much it may be, no interruptions
  5. No eating or drinking during the activity
  6. Chant Odaimoku and meditate on the activity you are about to practice
  7. Copy, or draw, or paint or however you wish as an expression of your joy and desire to share the Dharma
  8. Finish up according to your time or completion
  9. Sit quietly with your work and be at peace
  10. Chant Odaimoku
  11. Clean up materials and space.
  12. Place completed item on your altar for your personal dedication which you can do as you do your next service

I’ve been asked if these are sacred objects.  They are indeed sacred objects, they are treasure of Buddhism since they are either a copy of the Dharma or an image of the Buddha.  If we give them away we should explain that they are considered by us to be sacred and we hope they will be treated with respect.  I don’t think we need to frighten anyone and make them fearful of accepting and enjoying our item.  Simply saying they are sacred and asking they be treated with respect is sufficient. If they ask for more details then it is appropriate to give more detailed instructions.  

Your Shakyo and Shabutsu Creations – What might you do with them? 

museum collection - Buddha stamp

Stamped images from wooden carved stamp; several hundred years old

Without getting into a lengthy side trip on this I don’t believe anything bad happens to someone because by accident something gets destroyed or damaged.  I don’t believe anything bad happens regardless, even if done intentionally.  Because if done intentionally the person doing so has already destroyed a portion of their being of their spirit.  In their heart, in their mind, in their spirit they have caused damage and the physical act of destruction is merely an indication of what exists inside.

When we give these things to others I believe we engage in pure propagation, the kind of joy and appreciation such as when the Bodhisattvas who came forth from the ground did when they greeted the Buddha with joy.  When I write out the sutra text in a decorative way and give it to someone and if they have even a moment of delight then I have allowed them the chance to praise the Lotus Sutra. If anyone thinks it is the quality of the art or the beauty of the work that is being praised then they are only considering a part of the whole.  If it were not for the Lotus Sutra I would not have written or drawn or crated the thing.  In other words there would be nothing for anyone to enjoy or praise.  I am acting merely as a messenger not the message.  

You do not need to give these things away, you may keep them for yourself as objects of personal motivation perhaps. They might even be reminders to yourself about where you were in your life and practice when you created the item.1  Since you do know the value of the item, and you do know and believe in the teaching then you would be expected to observe the customs for disposal such as by burning or returning to a temple or priest.  And here I will say that any temple or priest would be satisfactory over none.  So if a person was considering mailing a large item or quantity then it would make more sense to do a ceremony2 personally and then arrange to bring them to the nearest Buddhist temple and ask the priest there to cremate them.  Here is where using common sense seems appropriate.

In the end I hope each person is able to remove any artificial barriers that have arisen to prevent them from following the mandate of the Buddha to copy the Lotus Sutra which I believe includes making images.  And if a person has the opportunity to participate in the formal practice of Shakyo or Shabutsu as taught by a priest then it would be a wonderful learning opportunity and experience which would only strengthen and support a more simplified and personal practice.

1. It is appropriate to write a dedication on the item.  You might be dedicating it to a specific person.  Also you might dedicate it as a wish or prayer, for example world peace, or harmony in community, or for the health of yourself or others.  You may dedicate these as you feel so moved.  Writing a dedication is not required, but highly encouraged as a visual reference for yourself or others.
2. For the ceremony you may do this during one of your regular services.  You may also perform a separate service of reciting the sutra and chanting Odaimoku.  If you are able to do so then chant Odaimoku as the fire consumes the items.  Please ensure it is legal to burn any papers or other objects.  Please use caution if you do this and do not do this inside your dwelling.
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About Ryusho 龍昇

Nichiren Shu Buddhist priest. My home temple is Myosho-ji, Wonderful Voice Temple, in Charlotte, NC. You may visit the temple’s web page by going to I am also training at Carolinas Medical Center as a Chaplain intern. It is my hope that I eventually become a Board Certified Chaplain. Currently I am also taking healing touch classes leading to become a certified Healing Touch Practitioner. I do volunteer work with the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (you may learn more about them by following the link) caring for individuals who are HIV+ or who have AIDS/SIDA.