Making the Sign of the Cross
September 2, 2008 § 2 Comments
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.