Sunday, March 11, 2007

Chanting Buddha's Name

After a brief rest upon returning from the 2nd Session of the Middle Way Buddhist Session [(not for my wife though as there was more cooking to be done to contribute to the pot luck dinner in conjuction with the Buddhism lecture meeting organized by Gainesville Buddhist Association at the campus of the University of Florida (UF)], we hit the road again at 3.30pm, bringing along three other Buddhist friends in our Minivan.

It so happened that our S at UF is also starting his spring break this weekend, and we took the opportunity to expose him, and his sister, to Buddhist teaching. We arrived at UF just before 6pm, and went straight to Diamond Village after picking up our S.

While in the Campus, we drove past the apartment in Corry Village that we had stayed for four years when I was a UF grad student during the early half of the decade of 1990. We thought it would be nice to knock on the door and introduce ourselves to the present residents, “Hi, we stayed here more than ten years ago." That’s what a previous resident did to us while we were there, holding a bottle of wine in his hand. However, the thought stayed as that as we drove past.

We were the early birds at the venue, the commons room in Diamond Village, a family housing for UF students. Then the attendees started to trickle in, bringing their contributions to the pot luck. Soon the table was filled with yummy food items.

While the scheduled lectures are to be given by Brother Shieh on the Diamond Sutra, this evening session was a special one conducted by his wife, Sister Lily, on Chanting Buddha's Name (Namo Amitabha or the shorter version, Amitabha). Also, unlike the morning session at St. Pete, this evening’s session was in Chinese, which means that any error that arises in my translation is solely mine.

In his introduction, Brother Shieh stressed the distinction between knowing/understanding and realizing. In learning Buddhism, knowing/understanding results from a shallow level of understanding that is commonly associated with our acquisition of worldly knowledge. But realizing can only come from a deep level of understanding of the Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism emphasizes actualizing Buddhist teaching through practice, not merely acquiring the ability to recite verbatim nor shelving the teaching at a corner in the mind. Then only would we achieve a complete transformation, a thorough revamping of our value system in consonance with the teaching of Buddha.

At the start, Sister Lily circulated a set of notes to give an outline and the gist of the lessons that she would cover. I have to admit that the notes make frequent use of excerpts from scriptures and Sutras that address the what, how, and the results of chanting Buddha’s name, and a literal translation just would not do nor would it serve any purpose. On the other hand, the associated meaning of each is profound that defies my feeble attempts at translation primarily because of my limited understanding of Buddhist concepts and terms myself. But I guess one can’t really be faulted for trying. And feedback would be the best judge. So make use of the comments capability here liberally.

The basic premise for chanting Buddha’s name is the manifestation of the causal relationship that links chanting Buddha’s name (cause) to achieving buddhahood (effect).

As a broad definition, the action of chanting Buddha’s name would lead to one’s liberation from the cycle of rebirth so that one could, or rather would, be conveyed to the Western Pure Land, a heaven of buddhahood, upon leaving this present physical world, so that we could mingle amongst the enlightened denizens and become one.

As a narrow definition, the action would lead us to a focused state, thereby spawning wisdom. Being focused, we would not be trapped in the make-believe world of impure thoughts. Therefore, chanting Buddha’s name is a panacea, a purifying agent if you will, for impure thoughts that haunt us.

The direct way of chanting Buddha’s name is to recite through the mouth. A way that has worked for her is to recite the short version (Amitabha) that consists of four Chinese characters (hence, four sounds since the Chinese language is monosyllabic) in rhythm with breathing: two during inhaling and two during exhaling. Start with a small number target (say, five) and graduate to bigger number (in thousands daily) over time. In this way, the mind will achieve a focused state.

She also recommended ascending to the next level of mental recitation. First, study an image of Buddha and memorize it by heart. Then while invoking the mental image of Buddha with the eye closed, silently recite the Buddha’s name.

With diligence and perseverance, in time one would even be able to do the chanting, either verbally or mentally, by meshing it with any rhythmic motion/sound such as the to-and-fro swiping action of the car wipers while driving in the rain or the tick-tock of a clock.

The benefits of cultivating the habit of chanting Buddha’s name are threefold:

  • Obliterating bad thoughts, thereby nipping the seeds of bad action in the bud, and neutralizing bad merits that have accrued.

  • Promoting good/virtuous thoughts, thereby sowing the seeds and laying down the conditions for meeting up with Buddha.

  • Through practice, the action becomes implanted and repeated action cumulatively provides for the emergence of right mindfulness at the time we are about to depart from this physical world.

The benefits of chanting Buddha’s name accrue cumulatively. Hence, it is vital that Buddhist practitioners commence and cultivate the habit of chanting Buddha’s name as early as possible. And now it’s as good as any other time to initiate that first step toward preparing for the final moment of our present life as time is forever marching inexorably forward, so is our aging, and death is a certainty.

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