On Reciting the Sutra – Part 2

“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.

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About Ryusho 龍昇

Nichiren Shu Buddhist priest. My home temple is Myosho-ji, Wonderful Voice Temple, in Charlotte, NC. You may visit the temple’s web page by going to http://www.myoshoji.org. I am also training at Carolinas Medical Center as a Chaplain intern. It is my hope that I eventually become a Board Certified Chaplain. Currently I am also taking healing touch classes leading to become a certified Healing Touch Practitioner. I do volunteer work with the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (you may learn more about them by following the link) caring for individuals who are HIV+ or who have AIDS/SIDA.