Making the Sign of the Cross

Some of us have been questioning what it means to be mechanical or not mechanical.  Months ago, in the course of reporting a story for a Buddhist magazine, I took a trip up to Leverett, Massachusetts, to visit a glorious Peace Pagoda built by the monks and nuns of a little known sect of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism, the Nipponzon Miyohoji.  My guide for the day was the warm and kindly Sister Clare Carter, who spoke with an endearing Boston accent that made me think that she might have become a Catholic nun, had circumstances been different.

Sister Clare led me through the woods beating a well-worn hand-held drum and chanting: “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.”  The Peace Pagoda looms up 75 feet in a clearing.  Gleaming white and gold, it looks like it alighted in that rural place from space.  Sister Clare bows to the pagoda and we begin to circle the base so that I can see the bas relief statues that represent the life of the Buddha.  Three men join us.  Sister Clare asks them how theye found this place.  They tell us they show about it on the local news in Boston and felt compelled to come here.  One man, Ernie, tells us he visited some Buddhist temples in Japan and Korea when he was a soldier stationed there in the Korean War.

At the mention of the Korean War,  Sister Clare softly chants: “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo.”  I’ve noticed that she chants this at the end of phone conversations and after references to violence or suffering or acts of compassion and hope, the way a Catholic nun might say, “Lord have mercy” or “God bless you.”

This is my point:  I was always inclined to dismiss this devotional chanting kind of spirituality–which I associated with the popular sect Soka Gakkai–as mechanical.   For me, at any rate, the cultivation of  awareness, had to be the guide rope.  Otherwise, it would end in delusion.  What I learned in reporting this story, however, is that for a rare few like Sister Clare chanting the seven Japanese characters of the title of the Lotus Sutra (the daimoku) actually transformed the spot where we gathered into the dharma realm, the Pure Land.

“The daimoku contains, or rather is, the entirety of the dharma realm,” writes Jacqueline Stone, a professor at Princeton in the brilliant scholarly study Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism.  Chanting the daimoku with the mind of faith contains all teachings and all the merit of all good practices of all the Buddhas.  It embraces aldl phenomena–three thousand realms in one thought moment, the entirety of all that is.”

Confronting the difference between the way Sister Clare Carter practices and what I have valued,  I was shown my own mechanicality, my own tendency to judge everything by my yardstick.  I came away realization that an awareness of limitation–a willingness to be critical of one’s own view–had to be an essential part of any authentic spiritual practice.


2 thoughts on “Making the Sign of the Cross

  1. The success afforded by the practice of devotional chanting as a way to make a crack in one’s mechanicalness must surely be one of the great spiritual ironies. One would think, as you suggested, that mumbling the same phrase over and over and over again, is the very picture “vain repetition” that Jesus forbids in Matthew 6:7.
    Just the opposite has been my experience as a practitioner of the Jesus prayer. In this path, my task is to keep the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy me, a sinner” flowing perpetually in my heart like a hidden spring of life-giving water. The golden key to this chamber of secrets is the fact that I must be consciously aware of each prayer. That is, the moment the prayers do become mechanical and unconscious, just a kind of inner babbling, they become “vain.” (And this happens much more often than not, alas!). But when one assiduously attempts to split one’s attention, holding the prayer in the heart while going about the business of my day, I actually find that I am paying more attention to both prayer and activity, and feeling more awake then when I have not intended to carry out this practice. Whenever I hunker down and get myself going again with the serious intention of repeating the prayer and carrying out my task mindfully, I feel like am walking along that proverbial “razor’s edge” Chopping outer wood, carrying inner water.
    Unfortunately, such experiences are rare. Our multi-tasking oriented society sometimes makes it impossible to carry out the practice since there are already two or three pots cooking on the back burners of the awareness. There’s just no more room left on the mental stove. I imagine that the simple lifestyle led in monasteries, in the middle ages, and even in the country was/is much more conducive to devotional repetition.
    Nevertheless, there are moments even in urban life, when it’s possible to taste those precious moments of awakening brought by devotion to the Holy Name. These few, precious moments when I have transcended mechanicality, when all of my focus is centered on juggling the prayer within and the handiwork without, definitely justify the struggle.

  2. Your description of doing the Jesus Prayer in the midst of daily life is very interesting and provocative, Seraphim. It challenges a bias that I’ve drifted into, that seeking “bare awareness” in meditation is the last word–I guess as minimalism is the last word in design. As I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation lately, however, I’ve been very aware of the need for some kind of opening to a higher level. But I wonder if being in question or maintaining a spirit of investigation or “don’t know” mind can compare to the Jesus Prayer or the practice of the Buddhist sect I observed. Is it enough to be open? Can that be a kind of wordless prayer? Or can something that is given from above like the Jesus Prayer serve as a guide rope or channel? I don’t know and I’m very interested…and that’s a start…although even that can become a kind of mantra or vain repetition.

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