Meditation and Chanting

Benefits acquired through meditation are undeniably valuable.  In the same time, widely proven also are the benefits acquired through the practice of chanting.  In fact, there are some limitations in the practice of meditation, which chanting can successfully override.

Nichiren practiced meditation during the 20 years of his study in various Buddhist temples (13th century Japan)  - after which he arrived to the conclusion that the practice of chanting the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra, considered as the final teaching of the Buddha, is a straightforward and more efficient 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 the Buddhanature through the practice of chanting

The basic question of Mahayana Buddhism was: what is the way to attain Buddhahood. In other words: how to reveal one’s Buddhanature, inherent in one’s life as a potential. Nichiren’s answer to this central question was that a fitting practice should be sufficient to enable practitioners reveal their potential of Buddhanature. 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:

“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

What pre-Lotus Buddhism offered was a practice of countless kaplas.  Therefore, 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: it is a doctrine which offers the possibility of attaining Buddhahood in one’s current form in this lifetime. Relying on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren devised the practice of chanting for revealing one’s Buddhanature in this lifetime (through the chanting the Dharma to which Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened.  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

The Cause for Revealing 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 (what occupies the mind during chanting, hopes, desires...),

-  verbal invocation of the Dharma, and

-  action of engaging the bodily senses - with sight and hearing active during chanting.

The importance of ‘voice’ in Buddhism can be also perceived through the perspective of the Three Truths of Phenomena: the physical, the non-physical and the middle way.   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 or non- substantial) pertains to the meaning or mental essence of voice, while the truth of the middle-way (CHU) manifests and integrates both aspects, which cannot be separated.

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.

Exclusiveness of Meditation

The practice of meditation is exclusive: silent meditation excludes voice invocation. Chanting, on the other hand, is flexible and inclusive, as it does not exclude the observing of the mind. 

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 p 3

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.

Dualism in Zen view about chanting

Zen denial that voice or chanting can be vehicle expressing enlightenment is based on a dualistic perspective, focused on the mistaken concept that physical phenomenon (such as voice) - is separate from their mental content.  Separating the physical from the mental as two different aspects - this view is based on a dualistic understanding of phenomena. 

The perspective that 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. But the acoustical vibrations, which carry profound meaning (and also the acoustical vibrations which encode - for example - music) are - necessarily - inseparable part from their mental effect, taking place deep within one’s consciousness. 


Limitations of the practice of meditation

For many centuries, the practice of Buddhism was confined to temples and retreats. Buddhism was performed by dedicated monks: it did not spread widely in the daily life of ordinary people - and this fact can be attributed to the limitations associated with the practice of meditation, practiced by monks - but was not on the daily schedule of ordinary people, farmers, housewives etc... 

While dedicated monks and nuns were able to practice silent meditation for any period of time in temples, this was not practical for ordinary people - especially with family responsibilities, or with a difficult and busy work and life style.  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, in many cases, a practitioner is not seeking relaxation but a vibrant lifeforce and seeking solutions for emerging problems. 

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 admitted 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.