Over the last two years, I’ve written about Buddhism and practice from dozens of different angles around here.
In person, I wouldn’t have such a manic approach with you. We’d chat, I’d size you up, and then pick something from the bag that might suit you well, plucking other things from the bag as needed. You’d ask questions, I’d offer some possible answers.
Once you settled on a certain view or method, I’d push you out of the nest and ask you to rely on yourself. I’d start asking you questions, questioning your answers, and questioning your questions until your confusion cracked open like an egg.
But blogging is impersonal. Each entry is an indirect interaction with many different people of different dispositions. So I cycle through all the Dharma scraps in the bag. Some of them you’ll be able to digest, some of them you won’t. But if you can digest just one of them completely, then you can digest them all.
We’ve looked at simple baubles and complicated ones from all over the world. In this entry, I’m gonna showcase one of the simplest baubles there is. It’s also the method used by the modern Linji Chan school.
We start with a mantra. Most practitioners use, “Namo Amituofo!” Amituofo means Amitabha Buddha. The lore behind Amitabha is that he’s a Buddha in the Western Pure Land. The Amitabha Sutras tell us that, if you wholeheartedly chant his name, then you’ll be reborn in his Pure Land where you’ll quickly become a Buddha.
I’m not into that. Even when we use Amitabha as a metaphor for the True Self and the Western Pure Land as a symbol for the enlightened mind, it doesn’t do anything for me.
A chant or mantra can’t just be a series of sounds. Vedic philosophers said that seed syllables each have a kind of mystical effect, but that doesn’t work for me either. Amitabha and the Pure Land are meaningless to me, but they might work for you so by all means try it out.
A word that does carry a lot of meaning for me is, “Buddha.” Buddha is just this mind, our natural wakefulness and clarity. The mind is Buddha, so every being with a mind is a Buddha. Since a Buddha is, by definition, “in” Nirvana, this is all Nirvana.
The only reason why we can’t see that is because, well, Nirvana has no appearance and neither does the mind. So we look for Nirvana in appearances by trying to find some kind of lasting happiness, peace, or pleasure in them. But whatever appears disappears.
This world, everything and everyone in it, is the appearance of Nirvana. We grasp at the appearance without seeing what these appearances point to: ourselves. All of that is the meaning behind, “Buddha.”
In Mandarin, Buddha is Fotuo. So I use the mantra, “Namo Fotuo.”
You can recite it like any phrase, without tone or meter, and you can either think it or speak it. You can also chant it like a mantra, stretching it out, “Naaaaamoooooooo Fooooooooootuoooooooo,” silently or aloud which is what I do.
That’s not the Linji element. The Linji element is, while thinking it or saying it, asking ourselves, “Who’s chanting?” with the earnest desire to know.
In the beginning, it’s easier to speak or chant it aloud while thinking, “Who’s chanting?” at the same time. Once you get the hang of that, the question, “Who’s chanting?” becomes an attitude, so then we can recite or chant Namo Amituofo or Namo Fotuo internally.
Our hua tou, “Who’s chanting?” doesn’t have to be chained to the mantra. If, for one reason or another, we’re not chanting it aloud or silently at some moment, we can adapt the question to our circumstances. “Who’s sitting? Who’s walking? Who’s lying down? Who’s eating? Who’s listening? Who’s asking? Who’s fucking?”
If we can ask, “Who?” just one time, just once, with boundless compassion, then that’s it, there’s nothing more to do and you can go about your business.
If we ask without compassion, if we’re asking just for ourselves or asking because not knowing is unpleasant to us, then we could ask forever and still not get an adequate answer.
Without judging anything as good or bad, full of compassion, a single, “Who?” is all it takes to crack the ancient koan of life and death. The chanting or mantra helps us concentrate and avoid extremes. This naturally increases our compassion.
The mantra waters seeds, the hua tou rips out the weeds. If our intention is just to grow this garden for ourselves, then we’re never gonna pluck out all the weeds because they’re going to keep creeping in from the world outside our garden.
We have to take the whole world as our garden in order to pluck out all the weeds. To take the world as our garden, we have to water these seeds with the vow that everyone will enjoy the harvest. That’s the only way the rest of the world is gonna say, “Sure, you can plant your seeds here.”
That’s why compassion is essential. Without it, our yield is gonna be small, and we’ll always be fighting weeds.
So with the mantra we cultivate concentration. This concentration brings us a natural joy and ease. This increases our trust in the method, which increases how diligent we are about practicing it. Concentration, joy, and diligence strengthen each other. Over time, generosity, patience, and virtue arise from them. This supports them even more.
But that’s not enough in itself. We also need wisdom and clarity. That comes from doubt which is the hua tou.
With trust, doubt, and diligence in place, we can let go of our preference for knowing over not knowing, for having or not having, for our well-being over other’s well-being. Without preferences, compassion shines out. When we use the method out of limitless compassion, our delusions break apart, and there’s the mind of silent illumination.
All of that, just by chanting a mantra and asking questions.