by Ryuei Michael McCormick
Basic Meditation Instructions
for Nichiren Buddhists
I would like to share with everyone what I have learned thus far in life about meditation practice. I will also explain how Odaimoku, the chanting of Namu Myoho Rene Kyo that is my primary practice, is itself a form of meditation. In fact, the first time I visited the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple, the head minister, Ven. Ryusho Matsuda, was leading their monthly session of sitting meditation. This surprised me because I believed that Nichiren Buddhists only chanted the Lotus Sutra and Odaimoku. When I asked him about it, Ven. Matsuda seemed a bit taken aback by my question. He told me, “Of course we meditate. All Buddhists meditate.” In time, I learned that Odaimoku itself is considered by Nichiren Buddhism to be a form of meditation or kanjin (spiritual introspection) to be more precise, whereas other forms of meditation like silent sitting are viewed as supportive or auxiliary practices. In particular, silent sitting is used in the practice of Shodaigyo Meditation before and after the chanting of Odaimoku in order to calm and center oneself beforehand, and to deepen one’s faith and abide in the effects of chanting Odaimoku afterwards.
I will begin these instructions, however, with the silent sitting form of focusing on the breath as I have learned it, since this method is very simple, universal, and is a basic human activity that is not intrinsically tied in to any particular religion, denomination or sect. Also, as I mentioned in respect to Shodaigyo Meditation, silent sitting can be a good preliminary and follow-up to Odaimoku chanting, acting as a kind of setting for the jewel of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. In that way, one can be more fully present and appreciative of the primary practice of Odaimoku.
To begin with, just sit down in a comfortable and stable posture, whether that is sitting up straight in a chair, in seiza, the Burmese posture, the quarter lotus, half-lotus, or even full lotus posture. If in a chair, sit on the edge of it so that your legs are level and the knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Do not rest your back against the chair but keep it upright. You can also sit in seiza, which is sitting with your legs tucked straight back underneath you with your buttocks resting on your heels and the big toes touching. This can be done with a cushion or seiza bench so that one’s weight is lifted up off the legs and the knees are not as strained. If sitting in one of the varieties of cross-legged posture on the floor, use a cushion to lift the buttocks up so that one does not need to lean forward to maintain one’s balance but can keep the back up straight. The easiest cross-legged posture is the Burmese wherein you simply fold your legs in front of you with one foot just in front of the other leg. One can also rest one foot on the calf of the opposite leg for the quarter lotus, or rest one foot on the thigh of the opposite leg for a half-lotus posture, or cross the legs and have both feet resting on the opposite thighs for a full lotus. While the lotus or half-lotus are the most stable for the body, they are difficult for most people. Initially it is best to sit in any of these postures provided that one is upright, stable, and comfortable. Another important point is to make sure the knees are lower than the abdomen. In a full lotus posture both knees should touch the floor, wherein with the other postures the knees are at least lower than the abdomen. Having the knees lowered allows for more stability and opens up the abdomen to make it easier to breathe deeply.
Again, the back should be straight, without tilting forward or backward or to either side. If you catch yourself slumping, restore your posture. This is usually a sign that you are getting either distracted or drowsy and restoring your posture usually helps you to re-center your attention as well.
Your chin should be tucked in just a bit so that your eyes, open or semi-closed, can rest their gaze downward at about a 45-degree angle. Again, if you find your eyes closing in drowsiness, or you catch yourself looking around, that is a sign to refocus and return to a restful gaze on the spot in front of you. To cut down on distractions, it is best to have an uncluttered floor and/or a blank wall in front of you. Also, make sure that your head does not slump forward, but remains upright with the ears above the shoulders. Your mouth should be closed with your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
Your open left hand should rest lightly on your open right hand with your thumb tips touching as if to form a triangle. The triangle represents the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This position of the hands is called the Hokkai Jo-in or “Dharma-realm Meditation Mudra.” Hold the Dharma-realm Meditation Mudra against your abdomen just below the belly button. If the thumb tips break apart or the hands slip down into the lap or you find yourself pressing down too hard with your hands, that is a sign to re-center your attention on the subject of meditation and to either restore or relax your hands as the situation calls for.
Once you are settled into the posture for sitting simply follow the breath. Breathe in a natural rhythm from the abdomen and try to center your awareness on the tanden, a spot that is said to be three finger widths beneath and two finger widths behind the navel. That is beneath the area that expands and contracts during abdominal breathing. It is the still point physically and mentally which abides in the midst of changing phenomena. It is our center of gravity and is said to be the center of our chi or spiritual energy.
It can be difficult to just stay with the breath, so it can be helpful to count your breath cycles from 1 to 10. Breathe in and out through your nose and then silently count "one", in and out then "two" all the way up to "ten." Don't try to force your breathing to be fast or slow, just breathe naturally and count after each cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Thoughts and feelings will arise and dissipate. Let them. If you get caught up in them and lose your count, do not get upset. Just be aware that you lost your focus and bring it back to the tanden and the counting of the breath cycles starting with "one" again. Sometimes you might have to repeatedly go back to one. Sometimes you won't get past two or three or four. That is fine. Just keep going back to one and be aware of it. Again, as long as you are sitting there and being present to whatever is happening you are having a good meditation session.
If you can keep your focus on the tanden and breathing without having to count, that is good. Just stay with the breath and be aware of its qualities, long or short, even or uneven, and so on. Alternatively you might want to recite the Odaimoku silently to yourself. What works for me is to silently recite "Namu" as I am inhaling, and then "Myoho Renge Kyo" as I am exhaling. Other variations are possible. Find whatever works for you.
Don't try to fight off thoughts and feelings, and don't try to judge them or analyze them. If you do find yourself getting caught up in them and creating trains of thought, just be with that too and, if you can, bring your focus back as above. The same applies to any distracting noises or physical sensations or other phenomena that may arise. Just be aware of it and let it go without getting caught by it.
These methods of counting, or silently reciting a mantra, or even focusing on the tanden are all just training wheels to keep you upright and aware. In time we should be able to maintain that clear upright awareness without being fixated on any particular thing. The point is to cultivate a clear and open awareness that takes in everything that arises and dissipates without judging or interference. We just let things within and around us become apparent. We may have thoughts and feelings but we do not participate in them, we just watch them come and go like passing clouds or leaves floating by in a stream. This is what "no thought" in terms of meditation actually means. It does not mean literally having no thoughts, rather it means not fixating on them or being captured by them, but just being able to let them come and go in full awareness. If we can maintain this kind of open awareness without a specific focus like the tanden, or the breath, or some active practice like mantra recitation and can just sit calmly abiding, open to whatever insights may arise or not, then that is ideal. This kind of meditation with no object or focus but just "clear awareness in the tranquility of no-thought” (as Garma C. C. Chang put it) is very difficult to do. Most of us, including those who have done a lot of silent sitting, do end up getting sleepy and dozing off or else getting caught up in schemes, daydreams, or daymares. Then it is time to go back to using the earlier techniques to re-center. However, there is no such thing as a bad meditation session. You sit just to be with whatever is there - even if it means you fall asleep or spend the time worrying or scheming or fantasizing - just be with it and aware of it.
It is good to sit at least once a day even if for only a few minutes. It is better to be consistent and to make it a part of your normal routine. Sitting in the morning is a good way to start the day, as it will help you feel calm and centered. Sitting at the end of the day is good because it can enable you to re-center and try to let go of or at least to calmly reflect upon all that has transpired throughout the day. I would not recommend sitting for more than 40 minutes at a stretch, but if one wants to do more it is good to break up long sessions with some walking meditation in order to stretch out one’s muscles and to reinvigorate oneself. Just sitting is actually hard work.
Walking meditation is just walking slowly and mindfully in awareness of our every movement. It is often done silently, but in Nichiren Shu we do this while chanting Namu as we step out on the left foot, then Myo for the right foot, Ho - left, Ren - right, Ge - left, then Kyo - right, and back to Namu - left. This can be done fast or slow. When doing walking meditation in Nichiren Shu we place our hands in front of our solar plexus with the left hand folded over the right and the right thumb over the left.
Now I shall explain how these instructions apply to chanting practice:
You should chant as much as you want (though make sure to get up and do walking meditation if chanting for longer than 40 minutes at a time), and at whatever speed or rhythm you want (though if chanting with others it is best to harmonize with them), the point is to deepen and express your trust and confidence in the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching. Chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is a way of immersing yourself in the view that all beings have Buddha-nature and that this Buddha-nature can be recognized and actualized in each other in our daily lives. What is Buddha-nature? It is that quality we all have that is selfless and reality-centered instead of self-centered and deluded. It is a treasure house within our hearts of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, generosity, virtue, patience, enthusiasm, focus, and transcendent wisdom - all the fruits of Buddhist practice. Chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is the practice in which we “abide firmly with resolute conviction that we are buddhas in a state of clearness, tranquility and freedom” (to use the definition of Buddhist faith given by Sung Bae Park). Odaimoku practice is where our expression of faith in the Lotus Sutra and the peaceful abiding of buddhahood comes together.
When chanting it does help to do so out loud when you can so that you involve not just the so-called inner voice but your whole being, body, voice, posture, everything. In doing this, one should chant from the abdomen, and not shallowly from the lungs or throat. One should not dissipate the energy by shaking or nervously rubbing beads but with a still firmness centered and grounded in the tanden. The same goes for reciting chapters or passages from the Lotus Sutra. Once when I was chanting with my sensei, Ven. Matsuda, I was sitting in seiza but my shoulders and body were moving up and down in rhythm with the chanting. Without missing a beat (he was setting the rhythm on a percussion instrument called a mokusho) or looking up from the sutra book my sensei reached out with one arm and put his hand on my right shoulder and I knew to make my body still and to keep the energy grounded in the tanden even as I continued to powerfully project my voice while chanting the sutra. The chanting became more focused and the energy less hysterical and dissipated.
Another thing about chanting that is similar to silent sitting is that you are not trying to ignore, fight off, or override any feelings, thoughts, or sensations. All you have to do is just center your awareness on the Odaimoku and let whatever comes come, and whatever goes go, and keep coming back to the Odaimoku if and when you become distracted. Don't let the chanting become rote while you daydream about something else. Bring your attention back to it and just let whatever else is happening inside or outside be what it is - illuminated by the Odaimoku. Once when Ven. Matsuda, was leading Shodaigyo chanting a spider came crawling over to him. He saw it out of the corner of his eye as he was holding a hand-drum in one hand and beating out the rhythm with the drumstick in his other hand. He could not do anything about the spider, as it would cause him to miss the beat. So he just let it be and came back to the Odaimoku. Fortunately the spider did not crawl up on his robe but went off somewhere else. He told us what happened afterwards. All our thoughts and feelings are spiders. Don't let them bug you - keep chanting.
My friend Taigen Roshi advised me not to make a big deal out of our practice - thinking that it is so exotic or special or that you are being pretentious or hypocritical in doing it, or that you should be getting something extraordinary out of it. Our practice is just ordinariness, and learning how to be with the ordinary. And that is what is really extraordinary - to deeply appreciate what arises and what falls away and just be at home with ourselves, the people around us, and the world we are in just as it is. And in that we unselfconsciously, inconspicuously, and quite naturally manifest Buddha-nature for the sake of all beings.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
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