Meditation and Chanting

Meditation as “the practice of the past”

During his intense study of various Buddhist sutras, Nichiren (1222-1282) practiced meditation for 20 years, aimed at finding the path that leads directly to enlightenment.  The conclusion he arrived to was that the practice of chanting the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra - considered as the final teaching of the Buddha - is the straightforward way in the process of revealing one’s Buddhanature. 

The essence of the individual's practice of meditation is observing the mind - aiming to search for one’s mind of enlightenment (Buddhamind or Buddhanature).  According to Mahayana Pre-Lotus teachings, revealing one’s Buddhanature requires meditation and Bodhisattva’s practice - spread gradually over of many lifetimes.  This was the way of Buddhist practice during the past periods of development of Buddhism (the Former and Middle Day of the Law).

Among all Mahayana sutras, the Lotus Sutra alone contains teachings for the future after Shakyamuni’s passing - or for the current period of time (the Later Day of the Law).  The teachings of the Lotus Sutra reveal that the World of Buddhahood - which meditation aimed for over many lifetimes - can in fact be revealed in this lifetime. 

The Lotus Sutra has revealed the Universal Dharma (the power operating within the reality of life: MyohoRengeKyo).  Nichiren wrote that becoming aware that the nature of one’s life is this Dharma - is in itself enlightenment, an awakening by the individual to the true nature of one’s life, the Buddhanature.  The direct path to Buddhahood, concluded Nichiren, is in the fusion or devotion (Namu) of the individual - with the essence of the teachings of Lotus Sutra (the Law of MyohoRengeKyo).  Hence, the phrase of NamuMyohoRengeKyo, when declared by the individual becomes the physical expression of one’s spiritual awareness of  (and desire for) - enlightenment.  A true awakening to one’s Buddhanature must be manifested in one’s current circumstances, body and mind. 

The Buddhanature (NamMyohoRengeKyo) - is the mental aspect of enlightenment, and

Voice, produced by the body, is the vehicle of fusion of the physical aspect of the person -with the mental aspect of the highest state of mind: the Buddhamind, or Buddhanature.

Meditation does not lead to Enlightenment

If one’s Buddhanature is inherent within one’s current life - as a potential awaiting realisation -  then a powerful enough practice should be capable of directly revealing this potential state in this lifetime.  However, all meditation-based schools of Buddhism considered that attaining Buddhahood takes many lifetimes, which means that meditation does not lead directly to enlightenment in one lifetime.

Referring to “many lifetimes of practice” means that meditation does not lead to Buddhahood in this lifetime.  One of the remarkable example of Tibetan Buddhism is the experience of the nun Tenzin Palmo, who practiced meditation in a cave for 12 hours a day for 3 years (as mentioned in page 119 of her experience book Cave in the Snow) - but finally she said that:

         “I’ve hardly even started.  There are a lot more barriers

           I have to break through in my mind. 

           You see, a flash is not enough.

           You have to repeat and repeat until the realisations are        

           stabilized in your mind.  That’s why it takes so long -

           twelve years, twenty five years, a lifetime,

           several lifetimes”(page 207, Cave in the Snow).

The mentioned statement of “lifetime after lifetime” practice is derived from provisional Pre-Lotus teachings, and Nichiren explained such a lengthy and unproven practice - as a futile way of practicing Buddhism:

        “No expedient or provisional teaching lead directly to enlightenment, and without the direct        

        path to enlightenment you cannot attain Buddhahood, even if you practice lifetime after lifetime

        for countless kalpasWND1 p3

Relying on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren devised the practice of chanting for revealing one’s Buddhanature in this lifetime.   In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha revealed the Dharma as the “Wonderful law of the Lotus”, or “Myoho-Renge-Kyo”. In this perspective, the Buddhanature emerges through one’s state of devotion (Namu) to the Dharma (Myoho-Renge-Kyo).

        If you wish to ....attain unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime,

        you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings.

        This truth [Dharma] is Myoho-renge-kyo.

        Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you

        to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life”. WND1 p3

Exclusiveness of Meditation

Excluding voice from spiritual practice raises serious questions. Voice is the most natural activity of all people. History of humanity provides records of religious practices based on hymn-chanting since the dawn of spirituality.  Rhythmic invocation (which were performed by groups of worshipers) of praise for the natural powers of life - provided also the medium for uniting the people performing the chanting and enhancing the perception of interconnectedness.

Meditation’s primary focus is on the mental aspect of the individual’s mind.  On the other hand, the essence of chanting is based on the oneness of both mental and physical aspects.  Nichiren explains that the mantra Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo expresses the reality of the ‘Middle Way’, in which both aspects emerge :

        Myo is the name given to the mystic nature of life, and Ho, to its manifestations.

        Renge, which means lotus flower, is used to symbolize the wonder of this Law.

        If we understand that our life at this moment is Myo,

        then we will also understand that our life at other moments is the Mystic Law.

        This realization is the mystic Kyo, or sutra. The Lotus Sutra is the direct path to enlightenment,

        for it explains that the entity of our life, which manifests either good or evil at each moment, is

        in fact the entity of the Mystic Law.

        If you chant myoho-renge-kyo with deep faith in this principle, you are certain to attain

        Buddhahood in this lifetime”. WND1 p3

Limitations of the practice of meditation

For many centuries, the practice of Buddhism was confined to temples and retreats, where monks dedicated their generously available time to meditation.  Obviously, silent meditation was not a practical way of practice in the busy life of ordinary people (such as farmers, mothers...). 

On the other hand, the practice of chanting can be carried out by any person in any situation in daily life, and it consequently gained a wide acceptance among ordinary people of all ages and gender.

Another difference between chanting and meditation concerns the approach towards the bodily senses. Silent meditation is focused on the mind and its process involves a certain degree of control over the bodily senses (sight and hearing).  Chanting, on the other hand, makes use of these bodily senses (the eyes are open, the sound is heard, the bodily senses are engaged). 

With the senses open for perception, chanting enables direct connection with one’s surrounding, especially with the people around in group chanting.  The effect of a common harmonious sound vibration of group chanting is very empowering and integrates self and surrounding environment.  Engagement of body’s senses during chanting expresses seeking enlightenment in one’s current form: with the physical reality of the body as important in the process as the mental aspect of the mind.

One of the first masters, who introduced Zen to the West, Dr. D.T. Suzuki, viewed meditation as unnatural practice to human beings:


     To meditate, one has to fix his thought on something;

      for instance, on the oneness of God, or his infinite love,

      or on the impermanence of things.

     But this is the very thing Zen desires to avoid.

    Meditation is something artificially put on;

    it does not belong to the native activity of the mind…

   Who wants to be arrested in the daily manifestations

of his life-activity by such meditations… (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.41)

Chanting and the fusion of “Subjective and Objective” aspects of existence

The main focus of meditation is centered on the subjective mind, while chanting expresses the fusion of the subjective mind (Chi) and objective reality (Kyo).

The mantra of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo represents the fusion of the “subjective and objective”, because ‘Nam’ represents the subjective aspect of person’s determination and conscious devotion - while ‘Myoho-Renge-Kyo’ is the objective reality of life (or the Dharma, the Universal Law of Cause and Effect).

In the phrase of chanting, the character (Namu) is related to the individual’s devotion or the state of life of the microcosm - while (Myoho Renge Kyo) is the Mystic Law , the macrocosm or the life of the universe.  Chanting unifies the microcosm and the macrocosm.


Author: Safwan Zabalawi

The Power of Voice

The Difference between Chanting and MindfulnessMeditation