Meditation by Catholic & Buddhist Chanting

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This is a review of the article ‘His Serene Highness’ from ‘The Straits Times’ by Lee Siew Hua on 22 September 2010, which reports an interview with GIC (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation) chief of investment Ng Kok Song, a Catholic who introduced meditation by chanting ‘Ma-Ra-Na-Tha’ (Maranatha: Come, Lord) to Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Interestingly, the key points in the article are largely (though not totally) in line with general forms of Buddhist meditation, including Niànfó (念佛: Practice of mindfulness of Āmítuófó [阿弥陀佛]; Amitā(bha) Buddha).

Excerpt: Meditation gives him clarity of mind, especially in times of financial crisis.

Comments: Niànfó helps to offer clarity of mind for all crises in everyday life… including that of death and dying. Coupled with the blessings of Āmítuófó, this clarity can be so strong that one even knows exactly the time of one’s passing and announces it calmly, before departing for Pure Land blissfully.

Excerpt: Think of meditation as an antidote to the rush of the corporate world.

Comments: Likewise, we should think of Niànfó as a regular antidote for the rush of everyday life when you join in regular group practice sessions, and if you practise Niànfó daily at home.

Excerpt: Meditation brings calm and equanimity – not to be over-elated when times are good or over-depressed when times are bad.

Comments: Niànfó cultivates equanimity — to be away from needless attachment and aversion. Equanimity is also one of the primary states of mind sustained in Pure Land, where Āmítuófó shares his blessings equanimously.

Excerpt: I think it gives you greater clarity of mind, which helps in times of chaos and great stress, to see what’s the cause of things, what’s passing, what’s enduring and what’s really important.

Comments: The moment of dying is often the most chaotic times of great stress, when we have to realise that this physical life and its worldly relations are passing, that what is more enduring is the state of mind we pass away in, which bridges us accordingly to the next life with a similar nature. The best place to be reborn in is Pure Land, as swift enlightenment is guaranteed there.

Excerpt: It also lets him work with full dedication while keeping a certain “detachment” from the outcome which may be beyond his control… “It helps you not to be kan cheong”, he says, using the Cantonese word for anxiety, which he notes is stoked by the desire to be in control. “After doing your work to the best of your ability, you take a step back and go home, with some detachment from the results of your action.”

Niànfó helps us keep a healthy calm detachment from the mundane and from attachment to results after doing our best. We should ‘go with the flow’ of karmic conditions only after we have done our best. We can control our efforts, which will reap corresponding results, sooner or later, when the necessary conditions are present. In Niànfó practice, including when on the deathbed, we should just do our best to Niànfó with the Three Provisions (Faith, Aspiration and Practice).

In the silence of your meditation, in a very mysterious way, you come to understand yourself better. You come to a state where you see your limitations and also your potential… and gradually you learn to love yourself as you are.

Comments: In singleminded earnest Niànfó, insights about ourselves and the Dharma in general arise naturally, and we realise the potential of purifying our minds, of being born in Pure Land, and of becoming enlightened.

Excerpt: You can sum up meditation as the art of living and dying. Meditation is the first death, death of the ego. It’s a voluntary loss of control. This letting go is essential preparation for death, an involuntary loss of control.

Comments: Niànfó is a form of meditation when practised properly, as its results also brings calmness, concentration and insight. Nianfo is the art of living with greater mindfulness in everyday life by aligning ourselves to our Buddha-nature to live with greater happiness. Nianfo is also the art of dying gracefully, to be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss (Āmítuófó’s Pure Land). To practise Niànfó well, we should do it without egoism. We might not be able to control ourselves to ‘not die’ (live forever here), but we can control how we die when we practise Niànfó well.

Excerpt: Meditation, like the spiritual life, is paradoxical. “The way to experience joy in everything is not to seek to possess. This is in contrast to our material life.” But whatever you do, don’t say: “I want to meditate because I want peace.” Because ego and desire are abandoned in meditation, his swift rejoinder will be: “Take away ‘I’, which is self-centred ego, and ‘want’, which is desire. Then peace remains.”

Comments: The more worldly attachments we let go of when we Niànfó, the more spiritually joyful we become. In true Niànfó, the illusion of self is let go of as much as we can, along with desires to attain anything. Of course, we should set the right motivation to Niànfó first, before we begin, but during Niànfó itself, we should only be mindful of Āmítuófó’s name. Removing ‘I’ and ‘want’, we become more and more one and at peace with our Buddha-nature and Āmítuófó’s blessings.

Excerpt: Scientific studies indicate the benefits of meditation to the right brain, which is linked to intuition and the big picture. The balance of the two sides of the brain can bring more holistic views of the complex work an executive faces, he says: “To be the whole person, you need to tap into the untapped.”

Comments: The path to Buddhahood is to become holistic, complete, to take the Middle Path to be ‘Middle-brained’, balanced in maximising our left and right brain’s potential. Āmítuófó has immeasurable and all-pervading merits and blessings, which we can tap into when we Niànfó well. This is the inconceivable Other-power which can be linked to with the Self-power of personal practice.

Excerpt: Religion is a matter of choice. I think the danger is when there is competition for market share. The best form of evangelism is by example. Above all, you must have discernment.

Comments: One’s religion is definitely a matter of personal choice, but ultimate truth cannot be chosen by mere preference as there it is universal but specific. As such, we must have discernment for the absolute truth. Discernment also means having the rationality to question the questionable, to doubt and clarify the doubtful, to realise the ultimate truth. An example of violent competition for market share, that should never repeat again in another religion, is this extreme account, as recorded in a scripture (see http://tinyurl.com/3x9r39b). Indeed, the best form of evangelism is by being a good example in terms of having or cultivating universal compassion and wisdom; not by coercion.

Excerpt: Look at our five fingers – each represents a different religion. At the very top, where you are discussing theology, the fingers can be far apart. But when everybody goes deep into their own religion, they meet at the centre of the palm. Going deep means going beyond thoughts and ideas, and being contemplative.

Comments: The above analogy is true only if each religion is really like a finger bound to the palm of ultimate truth. Some religious systems are way off in terms of sharp contrasts at the fundamental level… such that they do not eventually meet at the centre of ultimate truth. Going deep, we might realise that even if two religious systems meet at a common centre, it does not mean that this centre is definitely of the ultimate truth. It might be a common delusion instead. Contemplation is still about using the thinking mind. In deep Buddhist meditational practices, the truth is realised intuitively and personally. If all truly believe that all religions finally meet at the same centre, there would be absolutely no need to evangelise or convert those of other religions.

Excerpt: You can practise meditation with a secular mindset for relaxation and serenity. These are laudable objectives. But it could be a self-centred motivation. Or you can practise with a spiritual mindset. If you go deeper, and you are nourished by reading the scriptures or by your religion, this takes you into the dimension of relationship and prayer. Prayer is relationship with God. Christian meditation is a form of prayer. That opens you up to the dimension of transcendence. You move from self-centredness to other centredness. In the Christian tradition, this is love.

Comments: Buddhist prayers (e.g. by chanting) does not centre on the concept of God, which the Buddha taught to not exist – in terms of an almighty good and all-knowing creator (as if such a deity exists, there should be no suffering or potential for suffering created in the first place). Buddhist prayers centre on mindfulness of the Buddha and his teachings. (As the Buddhas are believed to have perfect compassion and wisdom, Buddhists see the Buddhas to be ‘Teachers of Humans and Gods’.)

Niànfó practice, which is a form of prayer, is about creating a blessed and sacred teacher-student relationship with Āmítuófó. It should be practised with as little self-centred motivation as possible; and ideally with the pure motivation to be born in Pure Land, so as to better train to be enlightened to better help all beings be free from suffering. This motivation is called ‘Bodhicitta’, which is based on universal love and compassion. Niànfó opens us to transcend our self-centedness, not to embrace any other centre of self, but to realise that the perfect compassion of Āmítuófó is truly selfless and boundless, that we too can become like this Buddha eventually.

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1 Comment

  • Great article! Thks for responding and clarifying whatever LKY interpretated with his worldly intelligence, showing only his lack of understanding in Buddhism. He should have just kept quiet. Amitabha!

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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