Thursday, December 01, 2005


How I Celebrate the New Year

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

For the past six years I have seen in the New Year with the “Ringing of the 108 Bells.”

I knew that the 108 beads on our O-juzu represented the “108 Desires” (jap. Bonno) of human beings, and that through our practice we can purify and inform our lives with the Dharma, thus changing these “defilements” into our Enlightenment (bonno soku bodai).

Over the many years of my practice, I have come to understand that life reminds us all too often that things will not always turn out as we want them to, and that we should never become attached to specific outcomes. I have learned this time and again. The only plan that has absolutely held true is the fact that I am still practicing the Buddha-Dharma and that I will welcome in the New Year sitting in front of my shrine.

At around 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve, I will begin my evening meditation by reciting the entire Second and Sixteenth Chapters of the Lotus Flower Sutra and then chant the Sacred Title 108 times, in a slow, resonating and stately manner, meditating on each of those 108 Bonno, while ringing the bell with each invocation and offering the “Five Point Prostration,” (forehead, knees and elbows touching the floor with the palms raised upward above one’s ears), with each repetition.108 Desires (Bonno)

In order to better understand the concept behind the choice of the number 108, I decided to find out just what those desires were. My reason for doing this was to prepare myself mentally and spiritually for the year and the work ahead.

The 108 Bonno can be broken down as follows: Six types of Bonno can arise when the six sense organs of sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and thought (mentation) perceive an object in the environment, which for our purposes can be a person, place, thing or even situation or outcome. These can be perceived in two different ways.

First, they are considered from the active viewpoint of our want or desire to have an influence on our environment; i.e., in terms of things we either want or don't want in our life, or things about which we are ambivalent, neither wanting to have, nor wanting to avoid.The second way of perceiving has to do with our feelings or reactions to how the environment elicits a response from us, i.e., in terms of whether that which we perceive makes us feel either happy or unhappy, or causes us neither emotional reaction.

Thus, there are six possibilities for each of our six senses, yielding 36 possibilities. Because each of these 36 possibilities exists in the future, present, or past, the total number of Bonno possible is 108. (Additionally, the number 108 is traditionally an ideal number, since it is a multiple of the number nine, which has the greatest potential for variation.)

Many people also wonder about the four smaller beads, in the 7th and 21st positions up from the bottom of the O-juzu. They represent the qualities of the Four Great Bodhisattvas: Superior-Practice = True Self which is the selflessness of Nirvana; Limitless-Practice = Eternity which is the unborn and undying nature of Nirvana; Pure-Practice = Nirvana's freedom from all that is impure; and Steadfast-Practice = Bliss which is Nirvana's liberation from suffering.

Beginning the New Year

Once I have completed the invocation of the 108 Bells, at midnight I then shave my head. This is my first task of the New Year and I do it as a reminder that I want to enter this New Year with a “clean slate,” as it were, without attachments.

My second task of the New Year is to offer my Blessing to my Home. I do this with burning sage as I stand before each doorway in my home and invoke the following:

Bless this Door (or Gate if outside)
And all who enter.
May they abide in Joy
And leave in Peace

I then go to the middle of my home and face:

The East:

I invoke Dhritarashtra,
Lord of the East,
Who protects the World.
Watch over this Home
And All who rest here.

The South:

I invoke Virudhaka,
Lord of the South,
Who relieves all people of their suffering.
Watch over this Home
And all who rest here.

The West:

I invoke Virupaksha,
Lord of the West,
Who attends to evil-doers
And encourages all to the Bodhisattva Path.
Watch over this Home
And all who rest here.

The North:

I invoke Vaishravana,
Lord of the North,
Who hears the Dharma
And protects the place where it is expounded.
Watch over this Home
And all who rest here.

Facing my Shrine:

I ask the blessings of all the Buddhas of the Ten Directions,
Past, Present and Future
And all the benevolent forces of the Universe,
Who protect the Dharma;
Especially my personal Guardian (insert name),
Watch over all those I love and care about,
Be they near or far.

I am now ready to sleep peacefully and arise to a “new and glorious morn!”


© Stephen Schwichow

The Death of Practice

"He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flaut.
But Love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in!”
-- Edwin Markham

The Buddha-Dharma of the Lotus Sutra is the perfect Circle of Salvation that surrounds us all.

I’ve often wondered what kind of a person Nichiren Shonin must have been. Certainly the stories about his childhood seem to show a fairly precocious and yet serious kid who early on was aware of the suffering of the people around him.

That awareness and his own determination to find out the “why” of it and the “ending” of that suffering are the very reasons we today have the practice of invoking the Sacred Title of the Lotus Sutra; i.e., chanting the Odaimoku.

I have this idealized vision of Nichiren Shonin always uttering every invocation as if it were his first and last such utterance. His recitation of the sutras was read as if every character were a golden buddha and every Odaimoku was equivalent to the recitation of the entire “Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching.”

Based on my reading of his various letters and commentaries, I don’t believe I may be far off the mark, because he truly was an extraordinary individual, who clearly understood his mission in life and did not allow anything to stand between him and his self-realized mission to save his suffering nation.

Nichiren’s years of careful study, through to the writings of the great teacher (Dai-shi) T’ien T’ai opened him, and thus us, to the realization that the “Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching” was the ultimate expression of the Buddha-Dharma. And in “going for refuge to” (Sino-Japanese, Namu) the Lotus Sutra, one would find the complete refuge of the Buddha-Dharma itself.

Among the great realizations of Nichiren Shonin was the propagation of the Odaimoku as the efficacious access for opening one’s life to the Lotus Sutra and thus to its profound power to open our individual lives to the Buddha-Dharma within us.

Today we have a plethora of Nichiren-esque groups, many of which presume to assert sole ownership to the mantle of Nichiren. I consider myself personally lucky to practice with Rissho Kosei-kai, where diversity of opinion is not considered heretical and mutual respect for differences is de rigueur. While RKK considers Nichiren to be a Great Bodhisattva, it looks to the great Chinese Teacher, T’ien T’ai as the one who reawakened us all to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teachings.

In observing the behavior of many fellow Buddhists who practice in the various Nichiren schools, I’ve come to question why there is so much rancor, ill will, and attachment to being “right.” In other words, and apropos of the Four Noble Truths, why do so many Nichiren Buddhists “suffer or cause suffering” as a result of their practice?

Over the many years of my evolving practice I have come to recognize three tendencies in my practice as being easy and dangerous traps to fall into.

The first trap is that of a “superstitious practice.” The danger signs of which practice are those of turning the Focus of Devotion (Gohonzon), whether a Memorial Tablet, Statue, Mandala or Image, into an object which then becomes a literal “wish fulfilling jewel” to which one chants for things. In this way one’s Odaimoku begins to become a magic incantation offered to the “happiness manufactory,” as the scroll mandala was referred to by Josei Toda, second president of the Soka Gakkai.

I believe it is imperative that we keep in mind the fact that our focus of devotion is the Unborn and Deathless Buddha, surrounded by the Four Great Bodhisattvas, as they manifested at the “Ceremony in the Air,” depicted in the 16th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Our daily meditation is, in effect, our participation in this on-going event. It is the event where we receive our commission, and reaffirm our determination, to act as Bodhisattvas from Under the Earth, pledging our lives to spreading the universal Buddha-Dharma of the Lotus Sutra teachings in order to save all beings.

The second trap is one of “formality of practice;” allowing one’s practice to become a force of habit, a rut one mindlessly falls into.

I believe it is a positive thing to move from the attitude that one “sets aside” time in the morning and evening to do one’s practice to the attitude that the time spent in practice is an integral part of one’s day. However, it is equally easy to reach a time when one “zones out” while reciting p4assages frow the Lotus Sutra or, especially, when chanting the Odaimoku, having little recollection of having offered one’s practice once finished.

When one’s practice gets to the point that one’s body is doing the practice while one’s mind is elsewhere, the second trap has been realized and the spirit of immanence at the Ceremony in the Air has been lost.

To be “awake” is to be “aware.” The question is: “How does one remain aware during the process of awakening?” Can a practice without awareness lead to awakening?

My “skillful means” is to consciously pay attention during practice. In order to support and encourage a mindful practice, rather than offer my recitation exclusively in Sino-Japanese, I most often recite from the Lotus Sutra in English or other languages in which I have some fluency. At times I will vary the speed of my recitation. I endeavor to keep my practice fresh After all, the Buddha himself exhorted people to spread the Dharma in the language of the aspirant. The Buddha taught in his own birth language and encouraged that his teachings be translated so that others could learn in their own languages.

The Odaimoku is even more problematic and, I believe, requires constant vigilance in order to avoid becoming autonomic – something the mouth does automatically, while one’s mind is wandering the universe. The fact that one can chant for hours, to the point of not even remembering that one has done so, bespeaks a lack of mindfulness. But it also leads to what I believe may be the third and most dangerous of the traps we fall into.

The Great Sage Nichiren exalted and worshipped the Lotus Sutra. He taught the primary practice of chanting the Sacred Title of the Lotus Sutra and the secondary practice of reading portions of it out loud and/or reciting portions from memory. Clearly, he went to the Lotus Sutra for refuge.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. I believe none of us can find an argument with his great insight that life can sometimes be pretty unpleasant. Nor can we disagree with the fact that a contributing factor to that unpleasantness is the attachments we create that become the seeds of our own unhappiness.

The Buddha, in warning about the danger of becoming attached, also cautioned about the hubris of becoming attached to non-attachment. This all starts to get confusing. Nevertheless, I interpret all this to be an exhortation to mindfulness.

When is the line crossed between “going for refuge to” the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching and becoming “attached to” the very act of “going” itself? When is our recitation of the Sacred Title or sutra passages no longer the “means” but rather the “end” in and of itself?

I always tried to understand Nichiren Shonin’s teachings in the context of his culture and times. Buddhist Sutras at that time were read in the original Chinese with a Japanese pronunciation. The Chinese themselves received them as translations from Pali and/or Sanskrit. For instance, the Sanskrit term for “meditation, djanna, became in Chinese cha’an and in Japanese zen. Regardless of the language, it was the Buddha-Dharma that was being transmitted cross culturally.

As it relates to the Sa’cred Title of the Lotus Sutra, the big question for me is, did the Sage Nichiren teach that “going for refuge to” (Namu) the “wonderful Dharma of” (Myoho) the “lotus flower” (Renge) “teaching/sutra” (Kyo) mean chanting only in Sino-Japanese or was it all about going for refuge to the Lotus Sutra through the invoking its Sacred Title, not necessarily through a specific combinations of sound. Is the recitation of the Sacred Title the process, the goal, or both?

In Korea and China, practitioners chant in their native languages, paralleling the rhythm of the Sino-Japanese 6 beats with the double beat on the namu / namo. In my own effort to not became attached to, and yet remain mindful of, what my practice is really about, I “Namu;“ i.e., go for refuge in various ways.

The three forms of invoking the Sacred Title that I find most satisfying are in Sanskrit, Sino-Japanese and a hybrid version of the invocation: Námmah Sád-Dharma Púnda-Ríka Sútra (8 beats); Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (6 beats); and Namu Damma Flower Sutra (8 beats).

In the last version, I particularly like the idea of bringing together Sino-Japanese, Pali, English and Sanskrit. There’s a certain balance to it that I find comfortable. I just won’t let myself get too comfortable. My practice is not about getting into a rut, believing that the Odaimoku unleashes any magical powers, or that the Lotus Sutra; i.e., the Buddha-Dharma can be defined in its totality or trapped in any ceremony, book or set of sounds. Which, ultimately, is more important, the sounds one produces, or the reason one is producing those sounds?

We create our karma through our intentions, words and actions. If the intention is to “go for refuge to” the Lotus Sutra and the “words” happen to be in a comprehensible language, does that then make that action a valid and efficacious form of “going for refuge?”

The tome we call The Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Teaching is the best literary expression that Dharma practitioners have yet devised to bring clarity and understanding to the Buddha-Dharma, but I will not forget that, as inspiring as it is, it is still the “finger pointing at the moon” of the Buddha-Dharma itself.

I welcome others’ comments.


© Stephen Schwichow

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