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Buddhist prayer beads used for mantra recitation. Wikipedia photo by Antoine Taveneaux

Ask a Buddhist: What is the value of recitations?

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Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below orsubmit your questions online.

By Sarah Conover

What is the value of recitations?

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131Dear Reader:

As I can’t ask exactly what you mean by recitations, I’m going to address your question by discussing two distinct features of Buddhism that might fit that category: first, the use of short recitations that encompass many functions; and second, the long, chanted recitations that are most often teachings but sometimes serve as ritual paeans and affirmations of faith. I have grown to appreciate and use both.

The use of, and beliefs about, short recitations are universal in the traditional forms of Buddhism. Popularly known as mantras, the term, derived from Sanskrit, breaks down into two parts: man means to think; and tra is a suffix that designates a tool or instrument. So the literal meaning is: “an instrument of thought.” When I asked my Tibetan nun friends about their understanding of the meaning and purpose of a mantra, an immediate consensus emerged of “mind protection.” A mind tool? A mind protection? We aren’t in Kansas anymore, but clearly in Asia. I find both understandings lead us into really interesting terrain quickly.

My son, Tan Nisabho, a Thai Forest monastic, feels that the purpose of short recitations in Buddhism is fourfold. I’m going to use his structure for this discussion. For some sects, the first use is an assumption that the words themselves have power. For instance, the Pure Land sect, one of the most widely practiced forms of Buddhism in East Asia, believes that reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name actually invokes his oath to take beings to the Pure Land (a region offering respite from ordinary human karma). Other traditions like Zen utilize dharanis, nonsense syllables with intricate patterns and rhythms saturated with symbolic meaning and believed to contain spiritual powers.

The second use of recitations is as an aid for mindfulness. A familiar mantra in the Thai Forest tradition (the tradition with which I’m most familiar) in walking or breathing meditation is to repeat the phrase, buddho, which means more or less, “Awake!” (You’ll notice that it closely resembles the title of Buddha, one who is awake). In many traditions, short gathas, verses, are chanted on specific occasions, like before meals or upon opening a text to bring one’s mindfulness to the fore. Another example from many traditions is the use of a word or a longer phrase such as “May all beings be happy” throughout the day, allowing a practitioner to tether the mind and keep it from becoming lost in moods and sensations. A number of these practices have also made their way into secular Buddhism.

The third use of recitations, says Tan Nisabho, happens “during formal practice to develop samadhi, and can be looked at simply as a refinement of the second use, as samadhi is simply sustained, strong mindfulness.” He continues:

“By pairing a meditation word or phrase with the breath during sitting meditation, or with the footsteps during walking meditation, it can help keep the mind with the breath and also help the mind in other ways. For example, if one has a tendency to anger easily, the use of a recitation around loving-kindness can provide an antidote. Generally, the wilder the mind is, the longer the phrase needed to hold attention. As the formal meditation session progresses, one can shorten the phrase and eventually drop it completely, remaining simply with the breath.”

The fourth use of recitations is a way to contemplate and cultivate wisdom. When the mind has come to a state of calm, rested for a time, we have a chance to see life clearly, to know experience without the clutter of our normal preoccupations and compulsions. At this point, we are ripe for true contemplation. We can use short recitations to bring awareness and understanding to fundamental aspects of experience that the Buddha pointed out. Says Tan Nisabho:

“We can study the body, for instance, as simply a construct of nature that is constantly changing and which cannot provide a reliable refuge for our sense of self or happiness. To see that we are not the body allows us to intuitively sense that which we are. While such contemplation can use a wide variety of methods like bringing to mind pictures of various body parts, it can be really helpful to tether the mind to the contemplation with a phrase or question, such as ‘Are you these bones?’”

The Japanese use of koans such as, “What was your face before you were born?” fits in this category of contemplative recitations. We can repeat short phrases that encourage us to reflect upon the impermanence of all things, and others phrases that allow us to investigate equanimity with words that could be translated as “let go.”

My understanding of the purpose of long recitations is that they serve as affirmations of faith (such as taking refuge in the Buddha and his teachings) as commitments to precepts of virtue; as homages to the Buddha, his teachings and the communities (sangha) that have for centuries held them for the world; and, most importantly, as the repository of the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. Before the words of the Buddha were written, the details of his discourses were conveyed solely through feats of memorization and verbal recitation that would astound us today. Despite the spread of the Dharma into many cultures and schools long ago, academics now validate the accuracy of the verbal transmissions into text. This fact is celebrated and described in detail in the new book, One Teacher, Many Paths, by the Dalai Lama and the abbess of nearby Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Thubten Chodron.

While the varied cultures that adopted Buddhism emphasize different aspects of the Dharma, the practice of reciting longer discourses became a fixture in every tradition, benefitting an individual as well as a community of practitioners. I’ve found that the teachings I’ve committed “to heart” work their way into my conscious mind and my dreams; they become wells of good and wise thought that I draw from to transform my state of mind in the moment as well as my worldview over the long run.  Additionally, over the years, it’s been a delightful discovery to find that chanting the longer recitations aloud with a group creates a deep momentum of community, shared purpose and support.

Scientists such as Rick Hanson, author of “The Buddha’s Brain,” confirm that our neural pathways do in fact rewire with intentional focusing on positive and wise thoughts. Circling back to the top of the essay, “mind protection” and “tool of the mind” are apt descriptions of the benefits possible from recitations. I’m thinking of a particular inmate in a mindfulness meditation group at our local correctional facility who always sparkles when he arrives. We have a sort of ritual: every time I ask him how he is, and every time he replies: “Fantastic. You can’t hold gratitude and suffering in your mind at the same time, so I spend my days finding things to be grateful for.”

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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