Fast Daimoku and Long Daimoku – A Middle Way?

How fast should I chant daimoku and how long?

It’s a question that is often asked when people start practicing Nichiren Buddhism.

There’s a little booklet in the top left drawer of the table on which my Butsudan sits. It was given to me by a dear friend of mine to help me record the number of daimoku I have chanted. For every thousand daimoku there’s a little circle to fill in, and the idea is that when I have filled in all of the circles, I will have chanted a million daimoku.

I believe this is a great cause in my friend’s life – her desire for me to chant more daimoku is an act of compassion and precisely what a good district leader should be doing, so let’s be clear here that what I am about to discuss in no way devalues this gift.

Anyone with the SGI have probably seen these daimoku log books or charts at some point in their practice. It’s a nice idea – after all, Nichiren said in The Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra:

The eighth volume of the Myoho-renge-kyo states, “One who receives and embraces the name of the Lotus Sutra will enjoy good fortune beyond measure.”

The reference above appears in more than one Gosho, so let’s take a moment to investigate it. The passage above attributed to the Myoho-renge-kyo (Kumarajiva’s translation upon which the SGI’s English translations are based) does not appear in verbose form in any of the English translations of volume 8 that I’m aware of.

The closest I can find in Burton Watson’s translation is in Chapter 26: Dharani:

The Buddha said, “If there are good men or good women who, with regard to this sutra, can accept and uphold even one four-line verse, if they read and recite it, understand the principle and practice it as the sutra directs, the benefits will be very many.”

Leon Hurvitz’ translation:

The Buddha said, “If a good man or good woman can accept and keep so much as a single four-foot gatha of this scripture, read and recite it, understand its meaning, and practice as it preaches, his happiness shall be very great.”

The inferred wisdom (certainly from Burton Watson’s translation), is that by repeating this activity as often as possible you are going to enjoy benefits-a-plenty.

Now, those with greater wit will instantly begin to think of ways to gain more benefit, or to gain that benefit more quickly. It’s just human nature, after all. And so, one begins to chant faster, and faster, and faster still! I think this is mistaken.

Does this mean that people who chant Namu-myoho-renge-kyo are only going to receive 6/7ths the benefit (seven sylables versus six, means one cannot recite the same number of daimoku in a given time at a given rate) of those who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo?

And why Nam-myoho-renge-kyo anyway? After all, it’s a mish mash of Sanskrit and Japanese.

Are we actually saying that the pronunciation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is somehow esoterically more highly charged than any other variation, or even translation? And how did Nichiren pronounce it exactly? Got that mp3?

How about the full Sanskrit daimoku Namu Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra, weighing in at a massive eleven syllables? That’ll really slow things down a bit! Or why not speak it in English? As an aside, when you chant through gongyo, do you actually understand the passages as you chant them, or is it all still mumbo-jumbo?

Consider if there was a translation in another language that was more succinct, requiring only two syllables instead of six? How much more quickly could you amass benefit then!

It reminds me of an apocryphal tale of a hermit and a monk.

A devout monk who had been teaching for several years had become so confident in his understanding that he felt sure he could learn no more from anyone.

The monk heard about a hermit who lived on an island in the middle of a lake and who was practicing “Om Mani Padme Hum” to awaken his yogic powers within his lifetime. The monk could not resist the urge to visit the hermit, and so set off to see him.

The monk hired a boatman to row him to the island, and when the monk reached the hermit’s retreat, he found the host courteous and humble. They drank tea while the old man explained he had no formal training, and simply recited the mantra as often as we could.

Upon reciting the mantra before the monk, the monk couldn’t resist leaning over and whispering to him that he was pronouncing the mantra incorrectly, and had wasted his time. The hermit displayed disappointment, and asked the monk in all humility how he should chant the mantra correctly. The monk instructed the hermit, and the hermit was incredibly grateful, but asked the monk to kindly leave him to his meditation so he could start again without delay.

As the monk departed and began back over the lake, he pondered how he had surely become a worthy teacher, and felt pity for the poor hermit having wasted so much time. Just then, the boatman looked shocked, and the monk turned to find the hermit begging his attention, standing upon the waters of the lake just a few feet away. The hermit begged the monk’s pardon, and pronounced the mantra once more, but only slightly differently from before, and asked if he had still got it right.

The monk, shocked, told the hermit he clearly didn’t need further instruction, but the hermit insisted until the monk recited the mantra once more in his own intonation. The hermit thanked him humbly, bid farewell, and walked back to the island, chanting slowly and carefully as he went.

The story illustrates that the practitioner’s connection with The Law is what counts, and that this connection transcends any physical or outward manifestations such as verbal or written language.

There is a long tradition of repetition in Buddhist practice. You only have to see the incredible journeys of some of the initiates to the Tibetan Kalachakra for example; travelling hundreds or thousands of miles, taking years in the process, prostrating their bodies fully to the ground with every single step. Even after arriving at Bodh Gaya, initiates are determined to prostrate themselves 100’000 times or more in such a manner. Despite this practice, you don’t see the monks racing to do the most prostrations in an hour.

I have experienced people chanting (and doing gongyo) so quickly it became a distraction trying to get my tongue around it. That’s not to say this is wrong – but it’s wrong for me, and I would argue it’s wrong in any large group where even one person has trouble keeping up.

Sometimes there can be such a focus on gaining enlightenment in this lifetime, that the original vow of the bodhisattva is in danger of being forgotten – to help all living beings gain enlightenment. The time spent chanting – the intensity, and sincerity are, in my humble opinion, more important and more beneficial than the number of “reps” – this isn’t the same as body building – there isn’t a weight lifting form of buddhahood and a marathon running form of buddhahood – there’s just buddhahood.

If I were helping a friend practice, then I would happily chant but a few daimoku each day, just so they could engage with the practice – my own enlightenment can wait!

And speaking of the time spent chanting – I think it is sometimes worth bearing in mind the difference between the monastic view of Buddhism particularly the view of the arhat – who essentially attains enlightenment for his own benefit through solitary practice away from everyday life – and the Bodhisattva who realises he gains enlightenment only through saving others from the sufferings of everyday life. Chanting several hours a day for your own benefit is to misunderstand the middle-way thinking at the heart of Myoho.

When trapped on Sado island Nichiren chanted continually – and I am sure SGI presidents Toda and Makiguchi did also during their wartime interment. When we wish to overcome a great obstacle, or pray for someone else’s benefit, then an increase in daimoku is understandable – I chanted for hours on end when my baby grand daughter had problems shortly after birth. However, most of us are surrounded by family, and career responsibilities – not to mention the all important task of engaging with people socially (even down the local pub).

If you find yourself waking at 5am, and you have nothing else to accomplish during the early hours then chanting is probably a great way to spend the time. If you need more sleep but still stubbornly chant 3hrs a day because you feel that your life is amassing great fortune, then be mindful of neglecting friends, family and obligations in favour of chasing your own buddhahood. Also, be mindful of not avoiding difficulty in the home or workplace by retreating to your Gohonzon until the problem goes away. Remember, all of reality is Dharma.

Goshos like Two kinds of Faith and the tale of the cold suffering birds, can be read in such a way to suggest that if you chant for several hours to overcome an obstacle, then you should ALWAYS chant for several hours, otherwise your faith is more like fire than water (i.e. erratic, and shallow). I think here lies the path to an obsessive, guilt driven practice, not buddhahood.

So how long should you chant? My advice is to chant until you sense inner change, however slight. This might sound a bit vague, but it’s impossible to describe. It’s perhaps an awful metaphor, but you’ll know when you have chanted enough because it’s the spiritual equivalent of taking a much needed pee! You might even smile as you let go of your attached emotional baggage and begin to see things as they really are. It feels that good.

And like peeing, once you have emptied yourself there’s little point standing there for hours – people will just wonder what you’re up to! Go away, drink some more life, and come back later and try again!

, ,

18 Responses to Fast Daimoku and Long Daimoku – A Middle Way?