Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mantras and Fundamentalism

When I was young, I lived in a temple in the Japanese countryside which had a mantra as its main practice.  The mantra is called Nembutsu, and the words are namu amida butsu, which means something like, "I call the name of Buddha."  This is the chant used in Shin Buddhism, which is one of the two main chanting sects in Japan, the other being Nichiren.  Recently, I was doing some internet browsing and came across a blog by a Nichiren Buddhist.  In Nichiren, they chant the name of a sutra, and this writer said that for Nichiren Buddhists, Nembutsu was anathema. 

I wasn't raised in a chanting environment, and I admittedly never really understood the power of Nembutsu, but I always assumed that mantras get their power from the intention of the believers who recite them.  But maybe I've missed something.  Maybe one also has to believe the chant is the one way to Buddha's heart.  If that is the case, then one would feel obliged to vilify any other mantra that claims to have the same power.

This is a kind of fundamentalism, isn't it?  I mean, the chant means nothing in itself and yet it comes to be considered a literal path to enlightenment, much like a literal reading of the Bible is considered requisite in fundamentalist Christian sects.  I hadn't expected to find this in Buddhism.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bodhi Tree Myth

I don't know how much of the story of the historical Buddha's enlightenment is apocryphal.  But even if it's true, I know it was misleading in its attractiveness to me -- especially when I was young.  This guy wanders in the forest for years with no realization of his True Nature whatsoever, and then sits under this tree, vows to stay there until he realizes Truth, and finally does.  In one fell swoop -- complete.  Nothing left to do. 

OK, so maybe it happens.  But how many of you know of people who woke up that way?  I have met some people who claimed this is how it was for them, but if I talk to them for a few minutes, I see that they still have plenty of ego left.  Nothing wrong with that (except, maybe, the self-deceit part), but the way they function doesn't really look to others the way it appears to them.  And I sometimes wonder whether they, like myself when I was younger, have been deceived by the Bodhi Tree myth into thinking that this instantaneous, complete and total awakening is the way it always is, and so have superimposed that belief onto their own experience.

For most people, including myself, it's not about one moment of transcendence which becomes the final  realization of ultimate Truth but a series of awakenings and a gradual shift in the way life is experienced and seen.  It is true that that first awakening is very marvelous -- there is, in fact, nothing so wonderful.  But those realizations that follow take you deeper into a more complete understanding of your True Nature.  Ego keeps functioning and all -- but now there is an understanding of its more limited role -- to keep the creature safe and functioning well.  What we really are, though, encompasses not only our ego and all that we as form are, but all that everyone and everything else is as well -- that's what it is important to know.  We don't transcend our lives in a moment, but rather we come to see more and more how the Eternal is always present in everything.