Monday, April 11, 2011

Practice makes perfect

I recently asked folks on Twitter how they sustained their daily practice, what were the core elements that kept them active in their practice. I got some good responses and tips, because sharing what works for us can be helpful for others. Developing a routine within your practice is helpful, even if it does seem repetitious, even ritualistic. The Buddha generally didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about rites and rituals other than they can be important and useful tools for developing mindfulness.

Danny Wilson is a young man who lives in Sheffield, England, which is south of Leeds (on Twitter he’s @Danny_789). Danny says he recently starting waking up earlier to meditate and read. He’s been doing this for about a month. This may not sound like much to others, but what Danny has begun is very important. Establishing the simplest of routines provides us with structure and discipline. This is important for any practice, whether you are a musician, a doctor, a carpenter, a poet, a singer, or even someone’s lover. Heck, even being a good parent, son or daughter, brother or sister, or friend takes practice. And establishing a routine to develop that practice is critical.

It relates in many ways to what the Buddha identified as the Four Right Efforts: developing and nurturing good qualities that we currently do not posses but wish to; developing and nurturing good qualities we already posses to ensure they are sustained; removing negative qualities from our actions; preventing negative qualities we do not have from ever arising.

Adam, who goes by the moniker @flylikeacrow (he has a blog by the same name as well), said he sets aside time at work for short moments of meditating on the breath. That was an eye-opener for me, as this is something I really ought to add to my own practice. As the First Noble Truth tells us, life is often unsatisfactory because of all the stress that confronts us, and our work, our professional life, is often a prime source of this stress. And what a wonderful and simple thing to do to take just five minutes out of our work day to sit quietly, close our eyes and focus on our breath.

Adam also likes listening to chants, such as the Heart Sutra and the Faith in Mind poem. Listening to monks chant in Pali was something I really enjoyed. And there are some Pali chants that I regularly do as well. Again, some might view this as a ritual that makes Buddhism look like some archaic faith that requires people to pray to some mystical deity. But chanting can function just like silent meditation as it brings focus to our mind, targets our thinking into single-pointedness. In fact, if my mind is particularly rattled so that silent meditation is difficult for me, I will switch to chanting.

Jim Johnson, aka @pixelsrzen, gets his meditation in – “even a few minutes worth is important” – but he also recites the Bodhisattva vow daily, something he was gracious enough to share with me.

“With a wish to free all beings, I will always go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha until I reach full enlightenment. Enthused by compassion and wisdom, today in the presence of the Buddha, I will generate the mind for full awakening for the benefit of all beings throughout limitless space. As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, may I too remain to dispel the misery of this world.”

Reciting things is not quite the same as chanting, but it can yield similar results. It takes concentration when reciting something, focus to be sure that you are saying the words correctly as well as a sort of open awareness so that over time, the meaning of the words penetrate your mind to give you new understanding. For example, my understanding of the opening verses of the Dhammapada is very different today from when I first read them.

Having said that, droning on with chanting, or repetitiously reciting gathas or other verses, is a complete waste of time. These aren’t secret codes to a special cosmic cash machine of merit and good karma. Rather, these are techniques to build mindfulness.

Someone who has a very diverse practice is Marnie Louise Froberg, aka @NellaLou. Daily study and sitting meditation makes up the core of her practice, but she also adds variety with actions like walking meditation and making prostrations on an almost-daily basis. I love walking meditation, and I really should make the effort to do it more often.

Prostrations are one of those activities that some may view with disdain because it looks like obeisance. But just like chanting, making prostrations is another effective means for developing mindfulness. When bowing or making a prostration, you’re not just “doing it.” Again, it takes concentration on and awareness of your body while doing this, ensuring it is being done correctly and that your mind is fixed on the activity. It’s just another technique for honing single-pointedness of mind.

So here’s the core of my “routine.”

Daily morning seated meditation for 15 minutes. I precede the silent sitting by first chanting three times “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa,” which translated from Pali is, “I wish to revere with body, speech and mind that Lord apportioning Dhamma, that one far from defilements, that One Perfectly Enlightened by himself.” I chant this primarily because the sound of my voice reciting the words is soothing, the tone eases my mind and makes it tranquil before I begin focusing on the breath. I also strike a chime bowl as I repeat each line. Again, the sound of the bell fading helps calm my mind.

When I’m finished with the silent meditation, I then recite both in Pali and English, a variation of the Loving Kindness chant: Aham avero homi (May I be free from hatred); Aham abyapajjho homi (May I be free from oppression); Aham anigho homi (May I be free from troubles); Sukkhi attanam Pariharami (May my happiness be protected); Aham sukhito homi (May I be happy) – Sabbe satta avera hontu (May all beings be free from hatred); Sabbe satta abyapajja hontu (May all beings be free from oppression); Sabbe satta anigha hontu (May all beings be free from troubles); Sabbe satta sabba dukkha pamuccantu (May all beings be free from suffering); Sabbe satta sukhita hontu (May all beings be happy).

Reciting the Loving Kindness chant is not praying. I’m not praying for these things to occur on their own. Rather, by reciting them I fill my mind with compassion, first by planting the seed into my consciousness, and through the daily recitation, nurture this compassion and empathy for others so that it begins to be reflected in how I interact with others. I will not behave with compassion and kindness toward myself and others unless I first develop a compassionate mind. And yes, we need to show compassion and kindness toward ourselves first if we ever hope to share this with others.

After this, I finish my session by reciting a variation of the Five Remembrances: I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond aging; I am of the nature to be sick, I have not gone beyond disease; I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death; All that is mine, beloved and pleasing will change and vanish; I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma – whatever kamma I create, skillful or unskillful, light or dark, to that I fall heir.

Once a week I spend time reading from the Tipitika. Lately this has involved reading a chapter from the Majjhima Nikaya, which I read prior to my sitting meditation. On weekends, I strive to sit for longer sessions. Also, I shake things up a bit on weekends by chanting the Daimoku (Nam myho renge kyo) for about 15 minutes, which I follow sometimes by reciting the Nichiren liturgy. Again, I do this to fix my mind and relax it. When I struggle with silent sitting, I will switch to chanting the Daimoku instead.

That’s the core of my practice. Please share with us some of the core parts to your practice as well.


  1. nice post as usual. i didn't see your tweets on this, so i'll chime in here.
    my practice is fluid and i go with what feels needed. sometimes it's structured sometimes not. i used to have a random mindfulness bell program on my work computer that would fire off at different times during the day and i would stop and take 3 mindful breaths.
    sometimes meditation is focused and structured zazen but a lot of times it's mindful driving, lawn mowing, jogging, showering, photography, etc. mindfulness is a muscle and meditation is the gym. i try to make my workouts infuse my daily life so that i'm getting worked out constantly like when i wear my sketchers shape up shoes.

  2. I often chant while driving during my commute. And when I'm swimming laps, I find it really easy and very cool to be mindful as I make each stroke and turn my head for each breath. My mindfulness when biking is to be on the look out for stupid walkers and crazy-assed super cyclists! Helps me from being too distracted from the all-too-frequent eye candy, lol.

  3. your new drag name is Bodhi Whoreva

    i think as practice goes, it's important to realize that it has to change. what works today may not work tomorrow. if a practice is having any kind of positive effect, it will change you, and the new you will need new practices. if you keep doing the same thing forever then you're just...well...Catholic.

  4. Would that be pronounced "Whore-va"? Which might make for some interesting prostrations. Gives a whole new meaning to tossing a salad.

  5. Thanks for the round-up here Richard. I'd add that I prefer listening to chants in English. I just find more of a connection to the context and content that way. Though chanting daimoku is a practice that I still enjoy from time to time, when listening I just prefer English.

  6. @Adam, when I get the chance, I do enjoy listening to a group of monks chanting in Pali. Even though I do not understand, the sound is so soothing and melodic. I find it more soothing than listening to the Heart Sutra recited in Chinese.