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What's Love Got To Do With It? Zen Buddist Chant NAM - MYO - HO - REN - GE - KYO

   Wed, February 23, 2011 - 12:53 AM

As a practicing Buddhist for over thirty years, I have as a matter of course been interested in how Buddhism has been portrayed in film.

As the practicioner of a particular kind of Buddhism esstablished by Nichiren Daishonin, I have had to consider some films that have attempted to convey this form of Buddhism on film.

There have been a few Japanese films that have made Nichiren and Nichiren's Buddhism the central subject. Brian Gibson's film is not about Buddhism per se as much it is about Tina Turner's life before and after Buddhism, yet Gibson has made a more serious attempt at seeking a way to visually convey Buddhism in a way that even the Japanese films do not.

Putting this essay in some context, let me first explain that all references to Buddhism will be specifically to Nichiren's Buddhism. For those unfamiliar, this is the one where people chant, "Nam-Myhoho-Renge-Kyo".

This practice was established by a 13th Century Japanese priest who held that the true essence of Buddhism was to be found in the Lotus Sutra, and that the essence of the Lotus Sutra was to be found in the title. The words translate somewhat roughly to, "I devote myself to the mystic law of simultaneous cause and effect through sound".

Mystic in this case means beyond normal human understanding. Unlike other forms of Buddhism which involve prayer towards statues of Buddha, the object of worship is a scroll with "Nam-Myhoho-Renge-Kyo" written with other calligraphy denoting states of existence.

As the scroll is not to be reproduced, except my Buddhist priests, photography of the scroll, known as the Gohonzon, is prohibited. It is for this reason that films about this particular form of Buddhism show that practitioners chanting towards an alter, but the contents of the alter are never seen.

In his book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader discusses how many narrative films used what he terms "overabundant means" in conveying enlightenment or a dramatic form of religious experience. While in no way unique to him, the template of overabundant means is mostly associated with Cecil B. De Mille and The Ten Commandments.

The religious experience is given its filmic equivalent with the swelling chorus on the soundtrack, and the main character dramatically lit, basking in white or yellow light.

Curiously, as if to indicate that overabundant means is suitable for all religious experiences, a similar tact has been used by the Japanese filmmakers of those films I have seen either about Nichiren or in the story of the lay orgination, Soka Gakkai. Kunio Watanabe's Nichiren to moko daishurai, made in 1958, is especially under the influence of De Mille. Noboru Nakamura's Nichiren, from 1979, is more restrained, but still overly reliant on special effects.


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Wed, February 23, 2011 - 1:03 AM

What's Love . . . announces that the film is about faith from the beginning.

Titles on the screen read, "The lotus is a flower that grows in the mud. The thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus blooms. This thought is expressed in the Buddhist chant: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo."

During the opening, chanting is heard on the soundtrack, with the camera tilting down from the sky to a church.

The chanting fades out to be replaced by the sound of a chorus practicing the spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine".

The elementary school aged Anna Mae Bullock is heard conspicuously over the others in the chorus.

This opening simultaneously introduces the character of the future Tina Turner, primarily known for her singing talent, and letting the audience know that as much as the film is biographical, it is also about one person's experience with faith.

What needs to be noted about What's Love . . is the use of mirrors as a visual motif at each point in the evolution of Tina Turner. The first such seen is when Ike convinces Tina to spend the night in the guest bedroom. Tina's sleep is interupted by Ike's first wife, Lorraine, who first threatens Tina with a gun. The scene works as a forecast of parts of Tina's future with Ike.

The second mirror scene takes place when Ike and Tina Turner have become a nationally popular recording act, with Tina more confident in speaking for herself. Following that scene is one of Ike beating Tina.

The third mirror scene is when Phil Spector appears, wanting to record Tina as a solo act. In looking in the mirror, Tina sees a possible future without Ike. A fourth mirror image is of Tina looking at herself following what would be the last of Ike's beatings. The final mirror image is of Ike in Tina's dressing room prior to one of Tina's showcase performances as a solo act, confident in the face of Ike's threats with a gun.

The use of mirrors is put in context during the scene when Tina is introduced to Buddhism by her friend, Jackie, a fictionalized composite created for the film. Jackie likens Buddhism to a mirror that allows one to see one's self.

The concept of the practice of Buddhism as a mirror is used frequently in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. This concept is further extended in contemporary writings on Buddhism such as the book, The Buddha in Your Mirror.

What is interesting about What's Love . . . is that the visual motif of the mirror gave Gibson a way of relaying an idea about religious experience in a form that is integrated within the narrative. This is neither the over-abundant means of the traditional religious film from the De Mille template, nor is this the stylized vision of faith employed by the filmmakers cited by Schrader - Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer.

At least in this one film was a visual metaphor used in such a way that most people would not be aware of just how much What's Love Got to do with It? was as much about Buddhism as it was about the life of Tina Turner.
Wed, February 23, 2011 - 1:04 AM

What is the buddist chant said by Tina Turner in the move What's Love Got To Do With It?

Zen Buddist Chant

The "Daimoku" or "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" is chanted repeatedly and rhythmically.

The voice should be strong but controlled.

Aim at a perfectly even pace.

The phrase is broken down into SIX syllables, each taking exactly the same time to chant. That is to say the two syllables in each of the words "Myoho" and "Renge" are given equal weight as follows:


Myoho-renge-kyo is the name of the Lotus Sutra in Japanese pronunciation of classical Chinese characters, and so the literal meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is "I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra." As the following explanation shows, there are deeper levels of meaning attached to each element of the phrase.


Nam derives from the Sanskrit word namu, meaning "to devote oneself." Nichiren established the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as a means to enable all people to put their lives in harmony or rhythm with the law of life, or Dharma.

In the original Sanskrit, namu indicates the elements of action and attitude, and refers therefore to the correct action one needs to take and the attitude one needs to develop in order to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime.


Myoho literally means the Mystic Law--the underlying truth or principle which governs the mysterious workings of the universe and our life from moment to moment. Myo refers to the very essence of life, which is "invisible" and beyond intellectual understanding.

This essence always expresses itself in a tangible form (ho) that can be apprehended by the senses. Phenomena (ho) are changeable, but pervading all such phenomena is a constant reality known as myo. Myo also means to open, to revive, and to be fully endowed with the qualities we need to develop our lives.


Renge means lotus flower. The lotus blooms and produces seeds at the same time, and thus represents the simultaneity of cause and effect. The circumstances and quality of our individual lives are determined by the causes and effects, both good and bad, that we accumulate (through our thoughts, words and actions) at each moment.

This is called our "karma." The law of cause and effect affirms that we each have personal responsibility for our own destiny. We create our destiny and we have the power to change it. The most powerful positive cause we can make is to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo; the effect of Buddhahood is simultaneously created in the depths of our life and will definitely manifest in time.

The lotus flower grows and blooms in a muddy pond, and yet remains pristine and free from any defilement, symbolizing the emergence of Buddhahood from within the life of an ordinary person in the midst of the struggles of day-to-day existence.


Kyo literally means sutra, the voice or teaching of a Buddha. In this sense, it also means sound, rhythm or vibration. In a broad sense, kyo conveys the concept that all things in the universe are a manifestation of the Mystic Law.

The Meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (More information)