At 6am, one ring of the shrine bell would wake me up. Breathing in energetically, grandma would sing:
As she sang the Heart Sutra in a weird, monotone voice, I would slowly get out of the warm futon next to hers. When she was done, we’d go to the kitchen where the shinto shrine sat up high, and pray for a good day ahead. This was my daily routine until I was about six years old.
...fu-zo-fu-ghenze-ko- / ku-chu-mu-shikimu- / ju-so-gyo-shiki / mu-ghenni-ji-bi-de-shin-/ i-…
To me this was a riddle:
...wind elephant, wind, tax-cut child / mid-air dream, colour blind / baking soda, line-style / no-limit, ni-ji-bi-de- [mysterious word], new / frown...
It was an absolute shock when I first heard the English version. “No increasing, no decreasing... no eyes, no ears, no nose...” What?!
I had no idea, and neither did grandma, I bet. She breathed and inserted word breaks where it didn’t make sense. The sutra is written and recited in in the antiquated Japanese form of old Chinese poems, and she clearly memorized the sound of the chanting without the proper word breaks. The only word I got right was “air/sky/empty” which appeared many times in the song (aha!).
She would have learned this through her diligent pilgrimages to many temples; regular visits to Mount Koya, where our family grave is; and from frequent visits by the chief priest from our local temple. She recited the sutra every single morning and every single evening. This was her practice and way of life.
I am grateful for the mysterious riddle she left with me. It led me to the wonderful dharma community at Lion’s Roar. It led me to meet the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön (both of whom remind me of grandma), and others — teachings like the three below.
I’ll always remember how she used to sing and smile.
—Megumi Yoshida, art director, Lion’s Roar magazine
In memory of Chiyoko Yoshida (1912–2008)