Meditation and Chanting

During his intense study of Buddhism, Nichiren (1222-1282) practiced meditation for the period of the 20 years of his investigation of the practice that leads to enlightenment.

The conclusion he arrived to is that the practice of chanting the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra, - considered as the final teaching of the Buddha - surpasses meditation in its effectiveness (as a straightforward way in the process of revealing one’s Buddhanature).  Meditation (and using a statue of the Buddha as an object of devotion) -  was considered by Nichiren as a practice of the past, while chanting (and mandala Gohonzon) as the practice for the current time (The Later Day of the Law).

Revealing one’s Buddhanature through the practice of chanting

While Buddhism teaches that Buddhahood is a potential, and the state of experiencing one’s Buddhanature is a possibility, Nichiren’s view was that a fitting practice should be sufficient to enable practitioners reveal their potential of Buddhanature in this lifetime.  If one’s Buddhanature is inherent within one’s current life - as a potential awaiting realisation -  then a powerful enough practice should be capable of directly revealing this potential state in this lifetime.  All meditation-based schools of Buddhism considered that attaining Buddhahood takes many lifetimes in the future, they do not lead directly to enlightenment:

“No expedient or provisional teaching lead directly to enlightenment, and without the direct path to enlightenment you cannot attain Buddhahood, even if you practice lifetime after lifetime for countless kalpasWND1 p3

The perspective of attaining Buddhahood in one’s current lifetime was revolutionary and challenging for all sects of Mahayana Buddhism.  If one accepts that Buddhahood is attained gradually over many lifetimes, then one accepts that attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime is not possible. This is what provisional (pre-Lotus) Buddhism teach: “Attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime is ... impossibleWND1 p3 a view, which can repeat in any lifetime to come, making the goal of Buddhahood unreachable.

The Lotus Sutra, however, offers a way out of this problem.  Relying on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren devised the practice of chanting for revealing one’s Buddhanature in this lifetime.   In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha revealed the Dharma as the “Wonderful law of the Lotus”, or “Myoho-Renge-Kyo”. In this perspective, the Buddhanature emerges through one’s state of devotion (Namu) to the Dharma (Myoho-Renge-Kyo).

If you wish to ....attain unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime,

you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings.

This truth [Dharma] is Myoho-renge-kyo. Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life”. WND1 p3

What is the “cause”, which can reveals one’s Buddhanature?

The Buddhist understanding of the word “cause” relates to three expressions: thought, voice and deeds.  The practice of chanting integrates these three dimensions of “cause” into one action:

-  thoughts (and desires: what occupies the mind during chanting, hopes, aspirations...),

-  verbal invocation of the Dharma, and

-  action of engaging the physical aspect of “Body”  to create sound, also with sight and hearing active during chanting.

The practice of chanting is the inner cause or determination made by the individual.  According to the Lotus Sutra, each individual is equipped with the factor of Inner Cause (Nyo ze In) by which one can make a determination or a desire.  The inner cause we create is what decides on future effects. 

The inner cause of the person chanting is the action of using one’s physical and mental aspects - aiming at attaining happiness and enlightenment.  According to the principle of the Oneness of Cause and Effect - the result of chanting would be in the same spirit or value as the cause.  The action of chanting expresses a willingness to be in harmony (Nam) with the Law of Life (MyohoRengeKyo),  a state of experiencing one’s Buddhanature.  In this perspective, chanting is the direct path to revealing one’s Buddhanature.

Voice and the Three Truths: The importance of ‘voice’ in Buddhism can be also perceived through the perspective of the Three Truths of Phenomena: the physical (Ke), the non-physical (Ku) and the Middle Way (Chu).   The truth of the physical aspect (Ke) pertains to the mechanical vibrations, which constitutes the dynamics of voice, and the truth of the non-physical aspect (Ku : non-material substantiality or sunyatta) pertains to the meaning (or mental essence) carried by voice, while the truth of the middle-way (Chu) manifests and integrates both aspects, which cannot be separated.

Voice and the Oneness of Body and Mind: The process of chanting expresses also the Buddhist principle of the ‘Oneness of Body and Mind’: The physical aspect of chanting (voice and engagement of bodily senses) is inseparably employed with the mental aspect (thoughts, feelings and desires) - during the practice of chanting. 

In Nichiren Buddhism, earthly desires are vehicles to enlightenment, and both body and mind would experience the joy of enlightenment.  Engaging the physical aspect in the process of chanting means also that attainment of enlightenment in one’s own body is possible in this reality.

Exclusiveness of Meditation

The practice of meditation is exclusive: silent meditation excludes from the three kinds og causes the cause of voice invocation.  Chanting, on the other hand, is flexible and inclusive, as it does not exclude any of the three causes (Thoughts, Voice, Deeds).

Excluding voice from spiritual practice raises serious questions. Voice is the most natural activity of all people. History of humanity provides records of religious practices based on hymn-chanting since the dawn of spirituality. Rhythmic invocation (which were performed by groups of worshipers) of praise for the natural powers of life - provided also the medium for uniting the people performing the chanting and enhancing the perception of interconnectedness.

Meditation’s primary focus is on the mental aspect of the individual’s mind.  On the other hand, the essence of chanting is based on the oneness of both mental and physical aspects.  Nichiren explains that the mantra Myoho-Renge-Kyo expresses the reality of the ‘Middle Way’, in which both aspects emerge :

What then does ‘Myo’ signify? It is simply the mysterious nature of our life from moment to moment, which the mind cannot comprehend or words express. The mind cannot be considered either to exist or not to exist. Life is indeed an elusive reality that transcends both the words and concepts of existence and nonexistence.

It is neither existence nor nonexistence, yet exhibits the qualities of both. It is the mystic entity of the Middle Way that is the ultimate reality.

Myo is the name given to the mystic nature of life, and Ho, to its manifestations.

Renge, which means lotus flower, is used to symbolize the wonder of this Law.

If we understand that our life at this moment is Myo,

then we will also understand that our life at other moments is the Mystic Law.

This realization is the mystic Kyo, or sutra. The Lotus Sutra is the direct path to enlightenment, for it explains that the entity of our life, which manifests either good or evil at each moment, is in fact the entity of the Mystic Law.

If you chant myoho-renge-kyo with deep faith in this principle, you are certain to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime”. WND1 p3

The Power of Voice

Words conveyed by voice (physical aspect), and their meaning or essence (mental aspect) - are inseparable - and, obviously, words can trigger mental phenomena. For example: through words of encouragement, the spirit of empowerment, hope and happiness is summoned up in the life of listener.  Words can move the heart and mind of people. This is a proof of the inseparability of the physical realm of voice vibrations and the mental realm of the mind.

The mistaken separation of the invoked word from its meaning

The denial that voice or chanting can be vehicle for expressing enlightenment (to the Law of Life) - is based on a dualistic perspective, focused on the mistaken concept that physical aspect of voice - is separate from the mental content of spoken words.  Separating the physical from the mental as two aspects - this view is based on a dualistic understanding of phenomena.  It is like saying that the vibrations of music, for example, and the feeling evoked in our mind - that these are two things existing separately. 

Voice is a perfect example of the inseparability of the physical aspect of phenomenon (muscles, vibrations, ...), and the mental aspect (meaning and emotions).

The perspective that views voice (and written words) as mere physical tools incapable of encoding mental concepts of the mind - this perspective leads to disregard sutras and voice and tend towards silent meditation. 

Limitations of the practice of meditation

For many centuries, the practice of Buddhism was confined to temples and retreats, where minks dedicated their time to meditation.  Obviously, silent meditation was not a practical way of practice in the busy life of ordinary people (such as farmers, mothers...).  The monks  role was to give prayers, and ordinary people gave donations.

On the other hand, the practice of chanting can be carried out by any person in any situation in daily life, and it consequently gained a wide acceptance among ordinary people of all ages and gender.

Another difference between chanting and meditation concerns the approach towards the bodily senses. Silent meditation is focused on the mind and its process involves a certain degree of control over the bodily senses (sight and hearing).  Chanting, on the other hand, makes use of these bodily senses (the eyes are open, the sound is heard, the bodily senses are engaged). 

With the senses open for perception, chanting enables direct connection with one’s surrounding, especially with the people around in group chanting.  The effect of a common harmonious sound vibration of group chanting is very empowering and integrates self and surrounding environment.  Engagement of body’s senses during chanting expresses seeking enlightenment in one’s current form: with the physical reality of the body as important in the process as the mental aspect of the mind.

One of the first masters, who introduced Zen to the West, Dr. D.T. Suzuki, viewed meditation as unnatural to human beings:

To meditate, one has to fix his thought on something; for instance, on the oneness of God, or his infinite love, or on the impermanence of things. But this is the very thing Zen desires to avoid. Meditation is something artificially put on; it does not belong to the native activity of the mind…Who wants to be arrested in the daily manifestations of his life-activity by such meditations… (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.41)

Meditation can produce a relaxing effect, however, the same effects gained through meditation can be obtained through chanting, but in a much shorter time. 

Meditation does not lead to Enlightenment

Various Mahayana schools accepted that the path towards the goal of attaining Buddhahood is a long practice, based on meditation, through the lengthy stage of Bodhisattva practice stretching over many lifetimes. 

This means that meditation, which various Mahayana schools practice, does not lead to Buddhahood in this lifetime.  One of the remarkable example of Tibetan Buddhism is the experience of the nun Tenzin Palmo, who practiced meditation in a cave for 12 hours a day for 3 years (page 119 of her experience book Cave in the Snow) - but finally said that:

“I’ve hardly even started.  There are a lot more barriers I have to break through in my mind.  You see, a flash is not enough. You have to repeat and repeat until the realisations are stabilized in your mind.  That’s why it takes so long - twelve years, twenty five years, a lifetime, several lifetimes”(page 207, Cave in the Snow).

Chanting and the fusion of “Subjective and Objective” aspects of existence

The main focus of meditation is centered on the subjective mind, while chanting expresses the fusion of the subjective mind (Chi) and objective reality (Kyo).

The mantra of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo represents the fusion of the “subjective and objective”, because ‘Nam’ represents the subjective aspect of person’s determination and conscious devotion - while ‘Myoho-Renge-Kyo’ is the objective reality of life (or the Dharma, the Universal Law of Cause and Effect).

In the phrase of chanting, the character (Namu) is related to the individual’s devotion or the state of life of the microcosm - while (Myoho Renge Kyo) is the Mystic Law , the macrocosm or the life of the universe.  Chanting unifies the microcosm and the macrocosm.


Author: Safwan Zabalawi