Contemplation on Entering the Place of Practice

I am in the process of writing a new book on the practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra.  What I'll be posting is my first draft, imperfect as it is.  What I post has been sent to my editor and trust me will be greatly improved by his wonderful work. I'm sharing here on the chance others may find something of value or something to correct of offer feedback on.  Let the reading of this not be an onerous task nor a task of anything less than joy.  The source material comes from the Shutei Nichiren Shu Hoyo Shiki which draws from Miao-lê, as well as most importantly the Mohe-zhiguan or Makashikan by Chi-i.

Nyu Dojo Kan

Entering the place of practice can be any space where we dedicate our energy, thoughts, activities to devotion to the Lotus Sutra.  It can be a space on a shelf in a small apartment.  Also it can be a shared meeting space in someone’s home or even a more formal space such as a temple.  However for most of us the place of practice we most frequently enter is our own home sacred space. And because it is in our home it is also the one most at risk of being taken for granted or given slighted attention.

The space in our home may be a space we walk by throughout our day in our home.  The sacred space may out of necessity be a small portion of a single room used for many functions.  This is the reality for many people.  Not everyone, in fact few, may be able to afford to live in a place that a dedicated room can serve the single function of a practice space.  One is not less significant or less important or meaningful.  What makes it so is our attitude to the space.  

I have encouraged people who need to have their practice area as part of a multipurpose space to at least try to have the practice or sacred space set off to the side so that it isn’t crossed over or passed in front of frequently during the course of everyday usage of the space.  So if the sacred space or altar is shared with a computer/entertainment space then have it so those activities are the once which get passed in front of to access the altar and not the other way around.  Crossing in front of the altar several times a day to do other things increases the risk that the altar simply becomes part of the scenery.  So perhaps if you have such an arrangement consider moving the altar to a far corner so it becomes the focal point for that portion of the room.  In such a location it becomes the destination for practice and not a waypoint to doing other things.  

Because this section deals with a physical solid structure, a house, building, altar, temple and so forth, the starting reference point is four great elements.  Those elements are earth, air, water, and fire, not in any particular order.  Everything in the practice space, ourselves included are comprised of these four elements.  Because we, the subject, and the space, the object are all composed of the same four elements we are in many respects not separated or different.  We ourselves are both the practitioner as well as the place of practice.  Our actions towards and in the place of practice are the manifestation of the actions within our own lives.  

These four elements have existed in the past, now exist in the present, and will continue to exist into the future even if their physical manifestation is changed.  So within the four elements as manifest in this particular time and place in which we are currently practicing in they are connected throughout space and time.  

Thinking about what this means can provide a profoundness to something we may not have considered previously.  In this moment as we enter or settle in our place of practice we are connected to the infinite past and the infinite future both metaphysically, in our minds and live force, as well as physically in our four elements.  As we enter into the practice space whether it is a great hall or the altar on the bookshelf in our tiny apartment we are entering into a much deeper experience than the mere appearance of the altar or room or even the aches of our bones as we take our seat.  This space is the space of the entire universe from the past into the future.  From this perspective our reciting of the sutra, which we may at times feel insignificant or tiny is expansive enough to fill the entire universe.  No longer are you seated in front of a cardboard box with a piece of paper hanging in front of you.  You have entered into the great and infinite universe as told by the Buddha in the Sutras.

This practice space is not simply a place of practice it is the place of practice.  

The Shute Hoyo Shiki says:

“When the practitioner enters into the place of practice he [she] should contemplate the following:  Now this place of practice is composed of the four great elements.  These four great elements pervade the ten directions in the past, present, and future.”

In our present existence it isn’t possible for us to see deep into the molecular structure of all that exists along side of us.  We are not naturally endowed with electron microscopic eyesight.  Yet even though imperceptible everything around and within us is composed of the elements of earth, wind, water, and fire from a Buddhist perspective.  And just as all the things manifest around us are composed of these elements so too are our very on bodies.  

We may tend to view things in terms of this and that, self and other, in fact there is no distiction when viewed from the perspective of Buddhism.  The sepperation is merely an illusion, one that can at times serve us well or serve us poorly.  When we ignore or fail to appreciate the things around us we are failing to appreciate the very essence of our own lives, or worse perhaps we may consider ouselves supperior and even removed from the things in our environment.  The attitudes we hold about our environment are ultimately reflected in our attitudes about self.

How we treat our home and our practice space whether it be in our home or in a great temple is not seperable from how we fundamentally treat our lives.  It is only an illusion or a fairy tale that one can slight or treat casually the practice space and then say they treat their own lives with reverence. From the truth of oneness of subject and object it isn’t possible to treat the object one way and then say the subject is treated another way.  The reverse is also true.  Treating the object or place of practice with reverence is not possible if one does not truly treat one’s own life as equally reverential.

All of this is also influenced by the results of past causes.  Our past causes manifesting in the present are the ground upon which we need to make changes.  In the past one may have ignored the place of practice, or taken it for granted.  That space then becomes harder to change into a place of reverence and respect.  We have set in motion the nature of our behavior and the current manifestations are the hurdles we will need to overcome in order to significantly make necessary changes in order to have future manifestations be altered.

In the Lotus Sutra before the Buddha elevates the congregation to enable everyone to see Many Treasures Buddha he first purifies the land.  The new space is not large enough so he brings in more realms from the universe.  These too he purifies.  This continues until he finally has enough space for all beings.  As we approach our practice space regardless of its location we have a choice in how we do this.

We can simply enter, giving no thought to purification and expansion. This limits us and inhibits a profound and infinite connection to the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra, the Dharma for the infinite universe, the Dharma for time past, present, and future.  It is as if we only are interested in purifying and making space for a small part of the infinite Dharma the Buddha has given in the Lotus Sutra.

It isn’t possible to welcome all the gods and Buddhas from the infinite past to the infinite future from all directions of the infinite universe if we have only cleared away one chair.  Where will everyone sit in such a cramped way, some may choose not to respond to your invitation at all.  They may grumble saying why go, there won’t be space anyway.

The space here is not however a physical space it is a space of mind.  If we enter our place of practice as if it were the door to the entire universe and our dusting and changing water and offerings is the equivalent of preparing a grand banquet with copious snacks and drinks, then this is the place the Buddhas and gods from the ten directions will eagerly wish to visit.  With one’s whole being one engages in these actions from the mind of the great expanse of space and time then one’s life throughout the day expands far beyond the bounds of trifles and trivia.  

From the outside it may all look the same, yet from the inside the eye can not see from one end of the horizon to the other.  From the outside it may appear there are mere inches between your nose and the great mandala but from the inside your body and voice reverberate throughout the entire infinite universe.  That distance is not measurable yet it is all present in those few inches, if that is your mind.  The difference exists solely within one’s self.

And so, every yarn thread of your carpet, every splinter of wood in the floor are all dharma threads and splinters.  That shabby thread bare carpet then is transformed to a grand hand woven carpet on which the Buddhas walk barefooted and in luxury.  Whether the pillars be concrete or wood matters not as they are all transformed into the Dharma-realm by your life.

The pillars and posts and support structure of the place of practice is comparable to your Dharma-nature, and the strength of your faith and practice.  Without a strong practice, including study, then there is only a weak structure to support your faith.  Entering or approaching your practice space is an opportunity to strengthen your faith, your practice is not only supported by the beams and pillars of the space, it is also supported by the “beams” and “pillars” of your practice. 

The walls represent the Dharma-realm and as I previously stated they are not merely the physical confines of the actual place you are practicing in, they represent the expansive infinite universe of Buddhism.  It is only your mind that places limits on the space.  As you gaze upon your practice space imagine that entire universe existing within.

The nails and planks are as if the sands of the river Ganges is laid out before you, where as the roofing material covers and protects the vastness of space.  This space is so large that it will comfortably allow innumerable Buddhas and bodhisattvas and other heavenly beings to be present, as many as the sands of the Ganges.  Your vision can be that of a mere mortal looking through human eyes or that of a practitioner of the great Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra.  In one case you see only as far as your eyesight in the other case you can see as far as the Buddha when he emits a ray of light from between his eyebrows.  

Let your seeing be like the light of a candle which shines through darkness and illuminates the treasure land.  Let your mind be as if the fragrance of incense spreading to the past, present, and future.

Now tell me honest, wouldn’t you rather practice in such a grand space or if you are content to remain locked into a practice space you take for granted and ignore and treat as secondary to all else?  Most would probably say the former over the later, yet how do our actions compare?  The subject and the object are inseparable.  If the place where you practice is not the Buddha land then the Buddha is not present practicing.  

The Shutei Hoyo Shiki says:

“You should know this place of practice is the inconceivable sphere [of activity] of all Buddhas.”

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