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.
Ju Kyo Mon
“When we chant the sutra all the heavenly dragons, the eight kinds of supernatural beings, the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen will all gather round to listen. When we become a Dharma-master we must understand that we are to convey the True Dharma and teach the four kinds of devotees. After we finish chanting the sutra we must pray that in the future we will attain awakening together with all sentien beings by this merit.” Grand Master T’ien-t’ai Chih’i from Kanjin-jukyo-ho (The Way of Contemplative Recitation)
I am unsure it can be said often enough or even too much that chanting the sutra yields immeasurable benefits. I think we all know that or at least we all say we know that. I wonder though how deeply aware we are of that in the depths of our lives? I wonder if there are those who maybe perhaps will say this is true yet deep down inside find a space in their lives that is unsure? I don’t think there is anything broken in you if you are such a person with some of those thoughts creeping around in your thoughts and feelings. Nope, nothing wrong with you at all, in fact it would perhaps be more normal than not.
All too often in matters of faith there is a supposition that true faith is a faith without even the slightest of doubt or questioning. Because of this people often fear reveling the truth of their lives and so everyone wanders around thinking they must be the only one who has some doubt. It is like we don’t want to reveal the chink in our armor fearing that the next person will use that as a way to attack us or ridicule us for not have a ‘pure undoubting faith’ whatever that might look like.
I like to think of those spots as exciting places. They are places of discovery and invite curiosity. They also mean we are human and when we can relish our doubts we can humanize our beliefs and our practice. Pure faith, again whatever the heck that is, is inhuman, it isn’t approachable. I mean seriously, how do you relate to someone who is perfect? Knowing that I’m not perfect I would find such a person quite avoidable, even avoidable at all costs perhaps. Rather the person without those doubts lurking around and yet being quite human would be rather someone I could relate to. The person who wears a sandwich board advertising their perfection would I suspect be trying to sell me snake oil and not something that really worked.
For me my doubts center around whether I am qualified to even teach others about the Dharma. Who am I to think he has any claim to any wisdom or knowledge that everyone else has long ago sorted out. In fact writers often engage in writing to sort out those things, the things that others have sorted and who now delight in the humor of witnessing someone try to get to where they already are. I also have doubts about whether I am offering any thing of value with regard to understanding and practicing the Lotus Sutra. I’m not fishing for compliments or assurances, rather to let you peek inside my mind.
Since I’ve been writing I’ve had numerous people come to me and say complimentary things about how what they have read helped them understand and have a deeper relation to their practice of the Lotus Sutra. I am left speechless often fearing that if I say anything it will ruin the illusion. Yet I am aware also that what they say is true, and they are being sincere. I am thankful that I can have such an ability, though I am doubtful that I can claim it as my own. I know that it only comes from my faith in and my practice of the Lotus Sutra. Even if unskilled it is still my wish to somehow share with and encourage others to find the joy I have found, not exactly like mine but their own version.
When we recite the sutra we should do so with a clear voice, strong and confident, clear and melodic. In my writing this is how I hope to be. Whether you write, draw, make music, add up numbers on a spread sheet, direct planes in an airport, guard resources, answer telephones, field consumer complaints on a hot line, report the news, care for children, make babies, arrange flowers, collect the refuse of humanity, test water quality, drive a bus, guard the cross walk for children going to school, represent voters as a politician, litigate matters before a judge, cary a weapon in combat, train for combat, and on and on the list could go you have an opportunity to sing the phrases of the Lotus Sutra with the very actions of your task. This is how we can recite the sutra with our lives.
Reciting the sutra traditionally means doing so from memory whereas reading is the actual eyes on paper reading the text on the page either out loud or silently. When we do our daily service we are encouraged not to recite but to read as this ensure we don’t take shortcuts or mispronounce the words. Of course we can recite, yet we should be mindful of checking our recitation frequently to ensure we remain faithful to the words of the text.
Our actions in our lives are as I said an opportunity to recite the sutra with our lives. We have a choice as to whether our actions in life can be melodic, in harmony with the situation and task at hand or if they will be discordant and at odds with our environment. Harmony yields joy, disharmony yields discomfort. When we are in harmony with the Lotus Sutra and our environment it makes it easy for others to enter into the wonderful benefits of the Dharma even without them being aware. This the Buddha responds to, this their Buddha nature responds to and this awakens the seed to their enlightenment. There is nothing we need to but provide the nutrients to the awakening of their Buddha.
The notion of converting people, or convincing them to take faith in the Lotus Sutra is at odds with any belief in everyone possessing Buddha within their lives. Seriously what is there I can convince someone of, or convert them to if they are already Buddha. Rather it is incumbent on my to provide the fertile field for their Buddha to sprout and grow from within their lives. Conversion, is a mind game and one of dominance. It is operating from a mindset of superiority and subjugation, which is contrary to anything taught or found in the heart of the Lotus Sutra.
Just this past Sunday one of the members of the Sangha asked a question about chanting the Sutra in English. The stated that it didn’t seem melodic or have the same affect on them as chanting the Shindoku. Another member of the Sangha shared that when the recite in English they modulate their voice as they would normally when reading. They add emphasis to the parts they feel moved to emphasize, they raise the pitch of their voice when so moved and in doing so their voice reflects their feelings in the moment to the words they are reading.
I fully support this way of reciting in English for your personal practice. When we read in group it isn’t always the case that people will modulate the same way which can cause a discordant sound to our English chanting. So adopting a monotone voice is perhaps appropriate, even if it isn’t the natural way English is spoken. I do think eventually this will change and I’d be glad to see it happening sooner rather than later. The monotone voice is a Japanese sensibility based on the fact that there are no accented sounds with everything receiving relatively equal weight, except in the affected speech patterns of young people and women. Currently the Japanese way has the upper hand, it won’t always be the case I believe. I feel it more appropriate to adopt a more natural manner in our English recitation. And this notion is supported with in the Hoyo Shiki which I’ll talk more about in a later section on vocal quality. Briefly though we as priests are encouraged to be melodic and not unnatural or unpleasing. Of course all of that is subjective and currently Japanese sensibilities are the subjective measure. I suppose I should end this line of thought here because it isn’t my intent to stir up trouble.
“With a scattered mind you cannot chant the Lotus Sutra, nor can you enter into the concentration meditative absorption. Concentrate and be mindful of each word of the Lotus Sutra when you practice it whether sitting or standing. If you accomplish this practice you will see the body of Universal Sage Bodhisattva.” Grand Mater Nan-yüeh Hui-ssu, Hokekyo-anrakugoy-gi (Annotations on the Peaceful Practices Chapter of the Lotus Sutra)
What I’m about to say won’t end the debate over whether or not chanting or sutra reciting is meditation, yet I am going to once again say that in every way it is as much meditation as anything is including silent sitting. Silent sitting and all the permutations of mindfulness practice is mostly a Western phenomena and in many cases an attempt to market for profit a misrepresentation of Buddhism and its practices.
That may sound rather harsh, yet when I look around the evidence I see is devoid of much that contradicts this. Silent meditation is not now nor has it ever been a primary practice for Buddhists. Even today the most common form of practice is sutra chanting. This is not a Japanese thing, this is a Buddhist thing.
For those who lightly toss off notions of chanting as being meditative I suspect they really haven’t fully engaged in a practice that has challenged them to go beyond their comfort zone. For many it is the pitfall of Buddhism of Convenience. When it becomes inconvenient they loose their attention. Chanting the sutra is extremely difficult, and even more so if one tries to maintain a concentrated mind. Try chanting Odaimoku for 10 minutes and see how prone your mind is to wandering. It isn’t because chanting hinders meditation it’s because chanting challenges you to concentrate your mind in ways that silence and sitting in groups of individuals isolated in their own minds does not. Chanting and reciting are difficult enough as a solitary practice and the challenge is jumped up 10-fold in group.
The concentration one can achieve by chanting can elevate the mind and life condition in ways I do not believe silent sitting can. The transcendent affect of meditation is multiplied when the mind is carried into the heart of the sutra or Odaimoku through concentrated meditative active presence. You can’t simply check out when your reciting the sutra. Well, you can, and so it is with sitting there in your self-group-isolation in silence.
In group chanting or reciting it is not only your voice, it is your voice along with other voices. You are a part of and not isolated from the experience. You both give and receive. You contribute and you partake. Your voice naturally seeks harmony with the group voice, your ears hear the voices of others as well as the modified voice of self. Your voice you hear is not the same voice the others hear and what you hear of others is not what they hear of themselves. You add to the group voice as well as take from the group voice. Your listening does not diminish nor lessen the sounds others are making. It is like a candle light which is not diminished because it lights other candles, and the light of a candle can illuminate darkness without being consumed regardless of how long the darkness has persisted.
To chant the sutra together with others requires courage. We don’t often think of that. But think back to your first times chanting in group. If you are like most people you were shy, hesitant, and even afraid. You probably were hyper-aware of your voice, and most likely you were the only one so aware of your voice. Over time those fears became less and you perhaps now gladly and with confidence join your voice with others in recitation. Just because you are more confident now does not mean you don’t have courage when you chant. Your lack of awareness of the courage it takes to chant is merely a function of your practice and continually shoring up your courage. I’m guessing the first times you recited the sutra alone you were just as shy and timid as in group, even though perhaps no one was around.
To chant the sutra take incredible courage. The sutra talks about the roar of the lion, yet for many when we first start chanting a lion is not what would come to mind. Over time you overcame those doubts and fears, you were manifesting the behavior of a lion, though you probably didn’t think about it at the time. The lion is fearless, and over time you become fearless in your recitation.
The lion, besides being fearless also focuses on the task at hand, acquiring a good meal. So too, even though we may be confident in our recitation and chanting Odaimoku, we need to remain focused on the sutra, the task at hand, acquiring the nourishment of the Dharma.
“If a Phrase of the sutra fills your heart it will be an aid to reaching the other shore. By deeply reflecting on and mastering the Dharma it will become a great vessel for crossing over. Being able to see and hear the Dharma follows upon it’s joyful reception, as a vassal always follow after his lord. Whether somebody accepts this teaching or abandons it, they will form a causal connection with it through hearing. Whether somebody follows it or goes against it, they will finally be able to achieve liberation through hearing it.” Venerable Ching-hsi (aka Miao-lê Chan-jan), Hokke-mongu-ki (Annotations on the Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra)
It is interesting and noteworthy the quote does not say when you have memorized a phrase, nor does it say when you have comprehended a phrase. Instead it speaks of when your heart is full of the sutra, that is when you have joy and excitement, even irrational, then you have the tool you need to liberate yourself from suffering.
Reflecting while certainly engages the mind it is generally thought of as heart centered. Know what makes your heart sing, understanding and being aware of that is introspective. All too often in life we ignore the heart, and even more frequently we fail to hear the quite whispers of the soul. The mind shouts with a loud voice and generally the only voice that shouts louder is when we have passion, when we are in love. Both are extreme and in reflection, in introspection we can create space for the voice of the soul and its connection to the spirit of the universe.
When we have great joy the sutra says in Chapter II, we will become Buddhas. Joy is not a mental phenomena. Miao-lo says that being able to see and hear the Dharma is connected to our joyful reception. These ancient wise Dharma masters had an admirable passion for the Dharma. It seems from this distance of several hundred years that their passion was so great one would be greatly influenced simply by being in their presence even if you didn’t understand a word they spoke.
There is something about being passionate that radiates in a person, certainly different from someone who is well versed but passionless in theory. I think back to the story I was told when I first began practicing Nichiren Buddhism. It was about two brothers who were so intellectually challenged they didn’t even know their own names, and would answer to the name of their brother before answering to their own. Or the story of someone who recently converted to Buddhism after meeting the Buddha. In the case of the brothers they were able to ‘teach’ Buddhism through their very being. In the case of the newly converted man, while traveling he met someone and converted them to Buddhism simply by saying he didn’t know anything but he had met the Buddha. In both cases it was the passion that filled their lives that communicated in ways words could not.
I wonder if in our time we have somehow relegated passion to the bin or feel it inappropriate, or even substandard to intellectual mastery. It’s as if intellectualism has replaced rather than being simultaneous with passion.
Your words, however eloquent or not they may be, when coupled with your passion of faith can move people and cause them to become happy. Your passion for the Dharma and the joy it brings you is capable of awakening the Buddha in other you meet. That little spark of your passion is like a small jolt of electricity that startles the slumbering Buddha in other people causing it open its eyes and begin to seek out its full awakening. You may not see it, you may think your efforts are inconsequential, and this is the mistake of the intellect. Because you don’t see it, because you can’t measure it, because it isn’t quantifiable there is the tendency to ignore it. In Chapter XXII we are told our mission is to cause people to have great joy, simply by sharing any truth of the Buddha’s teachings not just the Lotus Sutra. Causing people to have great joy is not about convincing someone of some intellectual or philosophical profundity. It is about having great joy in yourself for them and the Buddha already in their lives.
None of us fully knows the route we took to have faith in Buddhism, much less the Lotus Sutra. We may know the path in this lifetime but before that what do we know. We may have been the Walmart cashier in some distant realm of the universe who one day had someone check out in their line who simply smiled and said thank you wishing for you great joy. Long ago in the past our flame was ignited, and we began our search for a way to fully manifest our Buddha self. Eventually after traveling thousand of galaxies and being reborn in untold realms sometimes as a humanoid and other times as some other being, finally we were reborn in this place in this time and seemingly quite by accident we came across the Lotus Sutra and took faith. Then bam we are here, and now what shall we do? Shall we think about it? Or shall we embrace it, feel it, be energized by it?
Hear me now roar like the lion!
“The Buddha is the unexcelled King of the Dharma. Once we chant what he preached with his golden lips, the spiritual phrases of the sacred teachings, those words will become a Dharma-wheel that travels throughout the earth. The yakshas chant to the sky as an offering to the Four Heavenly Kings. After the Heavenly Kings hear it, they then pass it on until it reaches the King of the Brahma Heaven. This chanting spreads out to the dead and to the living. The dragon-gods are as pleased as when people listen to the speech of a king. Who would not praise it? The merit of chanting is like this.” Wu-chin, Goho-ron (Treatise on Protecting the Dharma)
Even though our ears are not fine tuned and so are unable to hear many frequencies our voices are heard and cause the universe to move. We can have a voice of love or of hate, and then what we hear in return, what we experience is in accord with our voice. Think how the universe is moved when we recite the words of the Buddha. Even our small voice reaches the heavens.
I remember as a child one night while taking a bath my parents got into an argument in another room and started yelling at each other. My father stormed into the bathroom grabbed some things and turned out the lights as he slammed the door. There I was alone in the bathtub with no lights. I hit my head on the water spout and got a cut which started bleeding. Maybe that’s why to this day I don’t like taking baths, maybe not. Regardless their voices and their actions reverberated, and were felt by me. We know the energy of angry words are powerful, I think we often discount the equal power that words of kindness have and the even greater power of our voice lifting up the words and phrases in the sutra, especially the Lotus Sutra.
I wish for you great joy. Is a powerful statement. What’s even more beautiful about this wish based upon the Lotus Sutra is that it doesn’t contain any mention of what it might be so it is up to each individual what there great joy is. That is why when I pray for someone who has requested a specific prayer from me I simply pray that they have the necessary resources to solve their situation. I am not capable of knowing exactly what someone needs, I can’t know the specifics, but I can easily put my life energy into a prayer for the necessary resources whatever they may be.
Contained within the teachings of the Lotus Sutra are limitless resources for us to navigate our life situation. We will never know them if we ignore reading, reciting, and studying. As Nichiren says in the Shoho Jisso Sho, “Endeavor, endeavor to strengthen your faith”.
As Wu-chin says, our small voices are relayed to the King of the Brahma Heaven. And this pleases not only the living and the dead it also pleases the Brahma King. It’s always nice to make the Brahma King happy.
I feel as if I am being a bit redundant here so rather than continuing to repeat myself and the wise ancient elders I wrap it up by simply encouraging you to pursue with joy, with vigor, with determination the practice of reciting the sutra. Get a hold of a copy of the romanized version of the Shindoku text of the Lotus Sutra and practice reciting in this way. If you are unable to do that right now have it as an eventual goal and recite from the English a portion of the Lotus Sutra every day. Your life will change, and your faith with strengthen.
Add a Comment