Seven Skillful Means

“The Raijitsu-giki states, ‘According to the Makashikan (C. Mohe-zhiguan) the 25 skillful [preparations for meditation] facilitate the realization of the true principle through concrete phenomena.’”

Here we focus on actual activities or actions taken in preparation and during our practice or worship of the Lotus Sutra.  Just as a singer warms up before a performance, or an athlete stretches their muscles we too also are advised to do certain things to help prepare us to enter into the Dharma practice we are about to perform. 

Many of us, perhaps have a morning routine, a set of tasks or activities we do when we wake up to both get our day going and also as a signal to our bodies that sleep time is over and it’s now time to function.  Sometimes this routine is different on weekends and days off than it is on work days.  For some of us we may also have a routine for bedtime to aide in our transition from the activities of the day to the restful and restorative slumber necessary for our survival.  In fact if we look closely enough we may see we have many rituals or activity sets we carry out through the day as we change from one task to another wether it be working, eating, or recreation. 

We should not be surprised to learn that there are suggested actions to take in preparation to participate in the Dharma in order to fully benefit from and deeply enter into the True Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.

Of the seven skillful means taught in Nichiren Shu five are derived from the Raijitsu-giki to which two additional ones are added.

From the Raijitsu-giki:

  1. Displaying the main image or honzon – In Nichiren Shu there are five approved ways of representing the honzon which I’ve covered elsewhere in this book (page number cited when I know which page it falls on found in Contemplation on Chanting Odaimoku). The example here is when Many Treasures Buddha invites Shakyamuni to sit beside him in the great stupa mausoleum which hovers above the ground.  The Buddha Shakyamuni takes his place the assembly is raised so they can see the two Buddhas.  The assembly and the two Buddhas as well as the great leaders of the Bodhisattvas who arise from the earth are all together the complete honzon the object of veneration for observing one’s mind.  We are gazing at this with the intention of observing our minds and the fundamental truth of our inherent Buddha nature.
  2. Purifying the place of practice – the example for us is found in the Lotus Sutra when the Buddha purifies the land in preparation for the return of his emanations.  Numerous times he purifies the land, joins more lands and purifies then and continues to do so until the space is large enough to accommodate the emanations and their retinue.
  3. Ritual accoutrements –  This would be your prayer beads or juzu and your prayer book or kyobon.  These are the most common items lay people will have. For priests it would include other items such as a hand held incense burner or egoro, the ritual fan or chukei, flower petal tray or hanazara, hand held bell or inkin, service books including shomyo, and appropriate priest juzu.  These should all be in good repair and treated respectfully for their importance as skillful means to your practice.
  4. Cleanliness and vestments – For lay practitioners this would mean properly and neatly dressed.  I realize that current fashion has ripped jeans as fairly acceptable for many semi-formal occasions in public.  I would question the wearing of ripped jeans for service but fundamentally it is your choice.  I think the operating principle would be dress as you would if you had an invitation to actually see the Buddha.  I’ll let you be the guide as to what that would look like.  For priests it means the proper robe for the occasion, and we have lots of robs for all sorts of occasions; more than the Buddha ever had.  It means keeping the kesa clean and maintained.  This is the part of the robe which is considered to represent the Buddha’s robe.  It can be identified by having a patch work appearance.  It comes in several sizes though traditionally it is either a 5 panel or 7 panel kesa.  Also consider the same is the wagesa which is an abbreviated kesa that derives from the kesa being folded up when riding horses.  There is a special way to wear the robes and kesa when hiking, but a kesa is worn not the wagesa.  Some lay practitioners have been given lay wagesa and these should always be worn when performing services.  There is a prohibition on eating, drinking, or going to the toilet with either the kesa or wagesa, so keep that in mind, remove it if you are going to do any of those three.
  5. Offering incense and flowers – These sort of speak for themselves but there is something I would like to say. Living in modern cities may make flower offerings challenging.  We offer flowers in the same way the gods and heavenly deities rain flowers on the Buddha and those who are attaining enlightenment.  They beautify the are making it a pleasing place for us to attain our enlightenment.  All of that and it isn’t always possible to have fresh cut flowers, and cut flowers ideally they should be.  But I would advise the overarching determining factor is your heart, your spirit. If you don’t have flowers then you can’t offer them, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to buy cut flowers all the time.  Yes, if you don’t have flowers of your own and it is a special Buddhist ceremony time and you can afford a small bunch from the grocery store then by all means do so.  If you can not, then do not worry.  Perhaps you might get lucky and see a stray bloom on solo plant in some random place as your go through your day.  Guess what the deities have given you the flowers for you to offer the Buddha, just make sure it is legal to pick one or two max.  You may find on occasions you desire to have flowers, have no money or access and so you might consider hand making a paper flower, fresh for this service and then cremating it afterwards; do not reuse.  Incense may be problematic for some people either due to health issues, restrictions in their living space or other concerns such as safety.  Do not burn incense no matter what if someone in the house is on oxygen, simply do not do it. Pure oxygen is highly flammable and you can’t smell it.  Use common sense always. It should be noted that food and fruit offerings are never placed directly on the altar, you should always use a dish or tray, or at the very least place a mat of paper or fabric under the offering. In temples there are a variety of offering dishes, trays, and stands each with it’s own prescribed way of display and arrangement.

    Two additional in Nichiren Shu
  6. Bells and percussion instruments – For the lay practitioner you may or may not have some of these items.  They are not required items to have though it would be nice if you had a small bell which could be either like a round brass bowl or even now there are single rod type bells.  In Nichiren Shu we strike the bell not by hitting it directly on the rim, nor by running the striker around the inside rim as one would do with what is called a singing bowl.  The proper way to ring the bell is an upward stroke to the upper rim of the bell.  This produces a more pleasing sound from when the striker is banged against the rim which can sound rather harsh.  The bell is not a gong.  The size of the bell is insignificant, more important is how you ‘play’ the bell.  At home you may or may not have a mokusho or mokugyo.  The Mokusho is a wooden round flat drum, usually producing a rather high loud pitch, depending upon size.  The high pitch and loudness is intentional so that in temples the sound rises above the taiko drums used.  The mokugyo is fish shaped, sort of roundish with a slit in between the two lips.  This produces a much softer deeper sound.  The mokugyo is traditionally used during memorial services as it is a more somber sound.  Neither the mokusho or mokugyo are necessary for personal practice and are simply personal choice.  In a temple there are more bells and percussion instruments and I will only speak of a few.  There is the inkin, which is a handheld bell used mostly during shomyo to signal to the priests to do certain things, either movements or singing.  There is the kei, which is a plank gong and is used as a signal in various parts of the service.  There are also drums such as large taiko or hand held taiko.  You may see in some temples the use of nyo and hachi which are symbols and gongs for the most formal occasions and limited shomyo.  There are other items beyond the scope of this book’s purpose.
  7. Service Manner – There are many instructions given to priest that dictate virtually every movement, placement of hands and feet, coving walking, sitting, rising, and sitting.  Nothing a priest does during a ceremony is without some instruction.  At first it is almost overwhelming all the things to be attentive to, after a while it does come more natural.  For the lay practitioner at home or in the temple having in your mind the solemn, yet joyful, activity of honoring the Buddha and his teachings will help you.  Always try to sit as erect as possible whether in a chair, on a cushion or mat, or on the floor.  When sitting in a chair it is easy to slide on down and curve the back and this is to be avoided.  An aid to prevent this curving slouch is to sit on the edge of the chair and let the back support itself.  Of course for many this may not be possible due to skeletal or muscular limitations, use common sense and try your best to sit upright and alert.  Having the necessary items arranged in front of you before the service will help you maintain your focus during the service and will allow you to flow smoothly from one part of the ceremony to another.  Being discombobulated is to be avoided.  I hesitate to use the analogy of a play or performance yet in some ways this is a performance, one of your great delight and appreciation to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Closing this section please keep in mind these are skillful means they are not the object.  The tools, guidelines, and procedures have been created to help you prepare your body, mind, spirit, and environment so that you may fully and deeply enter into the great teaching the True Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.  Nothing bad happens if you get it wrong or if you are unable to do some or all of these things.  Hopefully it will bring you delight and joy doing what you are able, which may change over time through the causes you make with what you have.

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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 http://www.myoshoji.org. 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.