Meditation is a natural expression of spiritual liberation. When we are swimming in grace, the heart lifts and sings. In following the Dharma one is filled with joy and gratitude that Buddha’s appear in the world. The traditional way to express this is through one or other of the formulas of Refuge, and especially nembutsu.
Meditation in Buddhism reaches its full form in keeping Buddha ever in mind and the nembutsu is a simple way to express this. The actual form of words varies a little from culture to culture - “Namo Amida Bu”, “Amitabhaya”, “Namo Omito Fo”, and so forth.
A most natural form of meditation, therefore, is to, as they say, mount the words upon the breath. Thus one can sit for a time and be aware of the breathing and with each in-breath and each out-breath, say the words… Namo Amida Bu; Namo Amida Bu.
To sustain this for a period one needs to maintain a certain balance. The mind is such that other thoughts, images and feelings will arise. Thus it is possible for the mind to wander or even for sleep to supervene. If you are happy to fall asleep, no problem. In fact, this can be a fine way to end the day, entering slumber with the sacred words in mind.
However, if you want to maintain your practice, it is important to learn to let the intruding mental impulses enter but not dominate. To do this one should not let them get a grip upon the mind, but allow them to fragment even as they are forming. Then the nembutsu remains centre stage and other thoughts become like a background of white noise, gently pulsing in and out of awareness, but never so strong as to carry one away.
Of course, for this to be successful, one must not deem anything more important than the nembutsu itself. This can mean that a very slight effort is required as each thought or image enters, to let it drop down in importance. This is because one has already established many habits of prioritising certain ideas. If something that seems particularly important comes into one’s mind, one might need to inwardly smile and say, “Later,” and set it aside just for now. Meditation is substantially a matter of giving the object of meditation absolute priority for the time of the exercise.
I was recently a subject in a piece of research in which measurements were made of the wave patterns in my brain while meditating, and I was using this method. I am told that the results showed an unusual degree of stability in my concentration and in the presence of a steady rhythm of alpha waves. I was very interested in this. It seems that the repetitions of nembutsu do not show up in the way that thought does, but serve rather to stabilise the contemplative exercise.
I find this much more satisfactory than such methods as counting the breaths. Counting has no devotional element and is merely mechanical, whereas the nembutsu is essentially a love song and its repetition is like the beating of the heart.
Many people like to meditate and find it beneficial. We should not, however, regard it purely as a psychological self-help technique. If you meditate, do it in a way that deepens your spirit and connects you with the universal grace. I, therefore, recommend this practice. A period of sitting quietly centring all upon the nembutsu is a beautiful way to deepen one’s life.