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The Meaning and Importance of ‘Nyo-Ze-Ga-Mon’

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

Our Buddhist sutras start with four Chinese characters that are pronounced, “NyoZe-Ga-Mon,” which have been translated as, “Thus have I heard.”

They are the words of one of the Buddha’s disciples, usually Ananda, who was relating to the Buddha’s followers what he remembered Shakyamuni Buddha to have stated on that particular occasion. The fourth character, “Mon,” means “to listen,” or “to hear.” This is a most important part of Buddhism, but especially in our Shin Buddhist tradition, it becomes even more central. Our tradition is one of listening, of hearing.

Ananda is relating the teachings, the truth of the Dharma that he not only heard, but what hit his heart. Contained in the words that he relates is something beyond words, something very deep and profound.

Shinran Shonin, in the same manner, shared in his writings the teachings that hit his heart and mind. He shared countless passages from sutras and commentaries, not because he was trying to show off what a great scholar he was or what a great memory that he had, but he quoted the passages that resonated with him, the passages that he “heard” deeply in his heart and being.

Rev. Haya Akegarasu, in his commentary on the Larger Sutra, talks about these words, “Nyo-ze-ga-mon,” and he says that “We must never forget the importance of hearing.” It is not, “I’m going to make you listen to this, but it is ‘I heard.’ The path of Buddhism is not to make others hear, but it is to hear for oneself.”

He also shares something that his teacher, Rev. Manshi Kiyozawa, used to tell his students. He used to say, “Don’t sermonize! When ministers sermonize, Buddhism dies! Just listen. Hear. When you listen, then Buddhism prospers.”

Those are harsh words for we who are ministers. What, don’t sermonize? Aren’t we supposed to give sermons? I think what Kiyozawa Sensei was saying was that as ministers, our sermons are not supposed to be messages like, “You should be this way or that way, or you are wrong on this or wrong on that.”

Instead, he was pointing to a way of giving sermons by sharing what one has “heard” deeply in one’s heart and mind. We should be sharing the teachings, the words of our teachers and masters that hit our heart. In that sense, we are always listeners, and students, rather than being experts and in a “teaching” posture.

In that sense, it is almost like a Zen Koan, in that we should give a sermon without sermonizing, or to teach without being a teacher.

Shinran Shonin always had this posture of being a listener, of being a recipient of the teachings, of even being a recipient of the heart of the Buddha, which he calls “shinjin.”

I remember Rev. Tets Unno once said in a lecture that we should listen to the Dharma with the same attitude as if we are hearing the results of our biopsy from our doctor.

Maybe some of you have experienced that already. You had a biopsy done and now your doctor is going to give you the results of that biopsy. If it is malignant, then that is like hearing a death sentence by a judge. If it is benign, then you are safe. It is not cancer. Now you have a new life. No one would listen to such words from your doctor as you are reading your email on your phone or are daydreaming about something and are half listening. Wouldn’t we be on the edge of our seat, waiting to hear the results from our doctor? Rev. Unno was saying that is the kind of attitude we should have when we listen to the Dharma.

May we listen to the Dharma with such sincerity, such conviction, such urgency, and when we do, we will come to receive the Dharma and be able to say for ourselves, “Nyo-Ze-Ga-Mon.” Thus have I heard.


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