Chanting and Desire
by Ryuei Michael McCormick
Chanting as Prayer and Illumination
Many people have expressed some confusion and concern about chanting “for things.” Some people seem to see the practice of Odaimoku as a kind of prayer to the universe or the Eternal Buddha, or perhaps as a magical way of tapping into some impersonal force that can grant wishes. Others might view that as superstitious or self-serving. Others might go so far as to insist that one should only chant for world peace or only for the attainment of spiritual goals such as attaining buddhahood. Some might even suggest that one should not have anything in mind except the Odaimoku itself. I would like to express a Middle Way by sharing my own reflections on what our minds should be doing when we are sitting before the Gohonzon and chanting Odaimoku.
To begin with, in Nichiren Buddhism, the act of chanting or even silently reflecting upon the Odaimoku can help us to maintain our equilibrium in the midst of strong passions and desires and set our minds upon the resolution to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. At the very least, the presence of the Odaimoku acts as a cause to positively transform whatever situations we are facing and in the meantime helps us to reflect upon ourselves in the light of the Buddha Dharma.
We should not condemn ourselves for our desire, aggression, lust, hostility, indifference, agitation, doubt and other such feelings. These afflictions or defilements, as they are called in Buddhism, are the misunderstood and misdirected forces that have brought us into the life we are living and which will provide us with the energy and motivation that we need to attain buddhahood. This does not mean that we should give in to them anymore than we should reject them. We should, however, give ourselves the space to become mindful of them so that we can work with them in a more skillful way through our practice of Odaimoku.
I think that we all have a lot of very difficult issues in our lives around which we have very strong feelings both positive and negative. The best thing we can do for others and ourselves is to chant about these issues during gongyo and silently to ourselves whenever they arise during the course of a day. In that way, we embrace these issues and our feelings concerning them in the Odaimoku, thereby inviting the Buddha's insight and compassion into the actual life situations that we are faced with. We do not even need to chant for specific outcomes. It is enough to just chant with the attitude that all things can be resolved through the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha that opens up in our lives through our faith in the Wonderful Dharma.
We may also find ourselves chanting to express our thankfulness for something that worked out in our lives, perhaps in a way that was better than we could have planned ourselves. Or we might find ourselves chanting in regret or even remorse over something that we did or failed to do. Or we might chant in order to express or strengthen a resolution we have made. In these cases we are not chanting for a solution to a problem or to attain some goal, but rather to give voice through the Odaimoku to deep feelings we experience and need to express, if only to ourselves or to the Gohonzon (however we may understand that).
Aside from chanting about personal desires and issues, something should also be said about chanting as a way of generating and emanating loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Often our chanting can be a form of well wishing for the sake of others. We chant for the happiness and well being of the people in our lives, we chant that they be free of suffering, we chant as a way of rejoicing when good things happen to them, and we chant with the wish that all beings without exception live in peace and harmony. In fact, in Buddhism it is expected that one should first generate such positive feelings towards oneself as that comes most naturally, and then learn to extend loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to family, friends, benefactors, co-workers, colleagues, strangers, and even those one is at odds with. This can be a very powerful form of practice and can help us access the selfless caring and compassion of our buddha-nature.
A point should come, however, when we have chanted about all these things enough and our minds have become more settled. Then we can just entrust all these things to the Gohonzon, to the all-encompassing wisdom and compassionate embrace of the Eternal Buddha that is not other than our own inner light. We do not have to force this. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say that our minds come to be at ease through chanting about these things and is able to just naturally let them go for a time. Then we can truly abide in the Odaimoku alone and let it speak to us. In this way, we find ourselves still and centered and able to listen to the wisdom of our lives. Actually, experiencing the stillness and silence of all but the Odaimoku can itself be a powerful illuminating experience.
Chanting, or even peacefully abiding in the Odaimoku, however, is not enough. If we spend only an hour or so a day with the Odaimoku but we spend the other fifteen of our waking hours nursing our worries, fears, desires, vendettas etc., or even worse acting upon these feelings, then we are showing that our trust is really only invested in our own limited perspective and not in the Wonderful Dharma. The Odaimoku can come alive for us when it becomes our primary motivation and outlook and when we show our faith and confidence in it through our actions. Follow through in our moment-to-moment thoughts, words and deeds is what is needed to make our faith in the Odaimoku truly sincere. Even if we slip up, we should just acknowledge our mistakes and turn again and again to the Odaimoku until it does become a part of every moment and takes its place at the center of our life mandala.