Friday, December 13, 2013

What Does Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Mean?

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo: the original PowerPrayer.

The following is an excerpt from the book Science and the Practice of Buddhism by William Woollard (permission granted) 

What Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means...

Let's look at a more detailed and yet wholly practical account of the meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Not one that carries us off into the deepest realms, but one that might serve as a working model, bearing in mind that if it stimulates you to want to know more you can seek out more references at the end of this book. 

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is the original and ultimate power prayer, and contained within these syllables arise innumerable meanings. These explorations are excerpted from Oxford graduate and documentary film maker, William Woollard's book, Buddhism and the Science of Happiness. We have added to Woollard's excellent consideration our own additional information or formatting especially where it pertains to the creation of power prayers (in different colored text, for clarity.)

So, the word nam comes from the sanskrit word namas and although it is commonly translated as, to devote oneself to, it has a very wide range of meanings. Perhaps the most important among those are the phrases 'to summon up' or 'awaken,' or to 'draw forth' or 'to make great effort.' It is also interpreted to mean 'to take refuge within' or 'to fuse one's life with.' Why is knowing about these different meanings helpful? Because they express subtle differences in our approach or our state of mind when we are chanting at different times. When we are faced with something of a crisis, for example, we may well be thinking about summoning up or making great effort rather than just awakening.

In terms of the practice of power prayer, you will see that we are choosing our very particular meaning of Nam to use at the beginning of the prayers themselves.

Myoho ultimately describes the profound relationship between the very essence of life, or the life force inherent throughout the universe and the literally millions of physical forms in which that life force is manifest or expressed. In Buddhism, everything that exists, sentient and insentient, is both a manifestation of that life force, and subject to the eternal rhythm of life … formation, continuation, decline and disintegration. Everything is subject to that process of change, of impermanence as it is often called. As Nichiren Daishonin defines that thought,

Myo is the name given to the mystic nature of life, and ho to its manifestations.” 
Myoho is made up of two elements, myo, which refers to the unseen or spiritual element that is inherent in all things and ho which refers to the tangible, physical manifestation which we can apprehend with our senses. In Buddhism all things, all phenomena have a myo aspect and a ho aspect. They are two different but inseparable aspects of life, “two but not two” as Buddhism expresses it, as inextricably interlinked as the two sides of a sheet of paper. You cannot have one without the other.

Thus the ho aspect of a painting for example, is made up of the canvas and the paint that is spread across it. The myo aspect is the feeling or the emotion or the creative energy within the artist as s/he applied the paint in a particular way, and the emotional impact upon us as we view it. Music, similarly, has a clearly recognizable ho aspect in the arrangement of the black and white marks or the notes on the page, and the physical vibrations produced by the instruments as they interpret them. The profound myo aspect is the effect the music has on our emotions and feelings, as we receive the sounds produced by the instruments in that particular sequence. As Shakespeare expressed it so pithily in Much Ado About Nothing... “it is wholly inexplicable that a sequence of sounds produced on violin strings made out of the guts of a sheep... can move our heart so readily to tears!”

If we think of ourselves, ho is used to refer to all the elements in our physical make up that can be observed with the senses, our appearance, the way we stand, the way we walk and talk, the way we gesture with our hands and the various expressions we use to communicate. All the things in fact that enable someone to recognize us as who we are.

But what is quite clear is that so many of those physical gestures and movements, the expression in our eyes and the tone and modulation of the voice, the animation in the face, the posture of the body are also an expression of our inner life, our myo. The two aspects are, as we have said, inextricably interwoven. As we practice and seek to strengthen the vitality of the myo or spiritual aspect of our lives, there is no question that it has a powerful effect upon our physical persona, the expression on our face, the look in our eyes, our tone of voice, our readiness to smile and so on.
Those are perhaps very obvious examples. Rather more difficult to understand, indeed one of the most difficult concepts to accept, particularly if you have a background in science,I suspect, is the Buddhist belief that all material existence, everything on earth and in the universe, both animate and inanimate has a physical and a spiritual aspect. Everything but everything, we are told, has both myo and ho. The tree, the rock, the river, the mountain. A difficult idea undoubtedly, although Buddhism of course, is by no means alone in holding this view. Throughout the length and breadth of human history, artists and poets have been constantly seeking to open our eyes to this truth, in all languages and in all cultures.

Wordsworth,for example, when he famously described the dance of a bunch of daffodils,

“The waves beside then danced; but they outdid the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not be but gay,
in such a jocund company,
I gazed and gazed... but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought;
for oft when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon my inward eye,
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills
and dances,with the daffodils.”

Buddhism stresses this aspect of the continuity and association that runs through all things, so that we are not separate from but closely linked to everything around us. Thus, in Buddhist terms, statements such as being in harmony with, or being at odds with one's environment may not be simply casual figures of speech, they can represent a fundamental truth; a truth that is the basis for the Buddhist principle of oneness of self and environment. This argues that as we change, gradually strengthening and revealing our Buddha  nature through our practice, so that change resonates throughout our environment, sending out beneficial ripples in all directions.

A Horse and Cart... or Horses and Cart:

One analogy that paints a graphic if somewhat simplified picture of the relationship between our myo and ho is that of the horse and cart, or horses and cart to be more accurate.

Our life is the cart, pulled along by our myo horse, or our deepest spiritual energy, and our ho horse, our physical life. In general it is true to say that we are accustomed to spending a great deal of time and effort nurturing the strength and well being of our ho horse, because it is so visible and so physically accessible to us. We can look at it in the mirror for example, and worry about its shape. We can feed it three times a day, and take it to the gym to work out, and off to play sports to ensure that it's kept fit and healthy and suitably diverted. As a result we tend very much to equate our happiness or our sense of well being with how well we are getting on with looking after our ho horse.

By contrast we tend to spend relatively little time if any, nurturing and exercising our myo horse, because of course it is wholly unseen and in general has a less powerful presence. The result is imbalance. The wagon of our life is at best pulled strongly off in one direction, the direction governed by our physical needs. At worst it is pulled round and round in circles, repeating patterns of behavior, because the spiritual side of our make up simply hasn't been nurtured enough to influence, to change that is, our habitual behavior.(underlining added)

So, we can become very much creatures of habit, tending to repeat patterns of behavior even when they lead to pain and suffering. 

What we need to do, Buddhism argues, is to become aware of the danger of imbalance, and to allocate more time and energy to keeping both the ho and the myo horses in a healthy state.

Renge means lotus flower. It also means cause and effect. The lotus flower, adopted as the title of Shakyamuni's ultimate teaching is an immensely significant symbol in Buddhism for many reasons. It is a plant with a particularly beautiful flower that grows and flourishes most strongly, in mucky, muddy, swampy environments. In this sense it is taken to symbolize the great potential locked up in every human life, the promise that we can build strong and positive and flourishing lives, however difficult the circumstances and the environment we find ourselves in.

Moreover, the lotus happens to carry both blossoms and seed pods at the same time, simultaneously, and in this sense, it is seen to symbolize one of the fundamental and most important principles of Buddhism known as the simultaneity of cause and effect. Once again, it is a principle with which Buddhism asks us to challenge the way we are accustomed to thinking about our everyday lives and relationships. Basically it argues that every cause we make, good, bad and indifferent plants a balancing effect in our lives, that will, without fail, sooner or later, make itself felt. Thus there is, for all of us, an on-going chain of causes and effects. That is, if you like, the fundamental dynamic of our lives, it ties together the past and the present and the future. Buddhism argues that only by coming to understand this can we grasp fully what it means to take responsibility for our actions, and change those inherent tendencies that are causing us to suffer.

So it is a fundamental teaching that has all sorts of ramifications, since we are, of course, making causes all the time, within our own lives and in relation to the lives of those with whom we come in contact, all day, every day, in everything we do say and think. Good causes, good effects; bad causes, bad effects. That process of linked causes and effects is going on all the time. So, in other words, where we are now, who we are now, how we act now, could be seen as the sum of all the causes we have made in the past, that have planted effects in our lives.

At the same time, the causes we are making now contain the seeds of our future. So, that is saying, the key factor in shaping our lives is how we respond to the situations that face us now.* However much we might feel it to be the case, we are not simply subject to chance and accident that come at us out of our environment. The key factor is how we respond to those situations, the causes that we make, and therefore the effects that we generate. The huge message of hope is that whatever has happened in the past, good, positive causes made now, will plant good effects in the future. [* underlining added]

Just as with myoho and renge, kyo has many meanings, but it is literally translated as 'sutra' or the voice or teaching of the Buddha. It also means vibration or sound. So it can be taken to represent the vibrations that spread out from someone in the process of chanting. Indeed there is a common Buddhist saying that 'the voice does the Buddha's work' and there is no question that the sound or the vibration that is created by a group of people chanting together, even quite a small group, can be very powerful indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, classic Wordsworth poem -- many remember it from from high school:
    "And then my heart with pleasure fills and dances,with the daffodils."
    Perhaps he would have chanted, too, had he know about the practice ....