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Meditation 101: Use of Affirmations, Mantras and Gathas
Listen to this talk:
Meditation 101: Use of Affirmations, Mantras and Gathas (21 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
August 30, 2015 - Dallas, Texas

Thank you, dear friends, for your practice tonight. Our focus tonight is on the light use of affirmations, mantras, or gathas, which are short poems for our practice. Eventually, of course, it is nice if you can get to a place of silent meditation as well, but especially for beginners and also even for those who have been practicing for a long time, it is nice to have a little bit of affirmation in our meditations every once in a while.

First I would like to just share with you some thoughts that I have. You know, I was thinking about the Buddha as a template for our practice. So, I think of our Buddha nature as infinite ultimate reality and always present within and all around. This is our Buddha nature. And we are all manifestations of Buddha nature. Then, as we mature as beings, and when we awaken to the truth of who we really are, we've really truly become enlightened to Buddha nature, then we can be said to be a Buddha.

So 2,600 years ago, there was someone who was named Siddhartha Gautama, and he became a Buddha, so we call him the Shakyamuni Buddha because he is the Buddha from the Shakya clan, the sage of the Shakyas. That is what Shakyamuni means. It is just to distinguish him from other Buddhas that we may name, but basically, historically, someone awoke fully to Buddha nature, and they called him the Buddha. And so all of the teachings and practices of an enlightened person, that can also assist us in our own awakening process.

And as I was meditating on the historical Buddha as a manifestation who awoke to universal Buddha nature, I also realized that there are three particular qualities that a Buddha expresses, and that is wisdom, love or compassion, and spiritual nurturing power, or skillful means. These are the three main characteristics of an enlightened person, and they also correspond to three major energy centers of the body. In Chinese philosophy, we call it jeng, qi, and shen.

And as I meditated further on this, I realized that these qualities of the Buddha are also present within all of us, and these are the three qualities that all of Buddha nature expresses as. But when someone physically actually tangibly literally historically realizes and awakens to this, they manifest those qualities in very real ways on earth, such as Shakyamuni Buddha.

But over the centuries, we have come up with many other bodhisattvas and Buddhas to express all these different qualities of an enlightened being, that are basically combinations of these or different aspects of each one. For example, Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattva of courage, is not afraid to go into the most hellish suffering realms and send light to the beings and give them hope and show them the way out. So you might think of modern-day bodhisattvas who go into very high-crime places or war zones or someplace with a lot of suffering, but they are not afraid, and they offer the light that they have. So they are expressing that aspect of enlightened action in their own way.

But, over the several years of my own practice, I realized that there are three other bodhisattva archetypes that I really, really resonate with, and I share them with you because it simplifies. There are so many hundreds of Buddhas and bodhisattvas that have developed over the centuries to express these qualities. It can be a little confusing, so I like to simplify things and share it with you so that you can also enjoy this practice, too.

So, Shakyamuni Buddha expresses wisdom and the infinite light of Amitabha and the infinite love of Kuan Yin or Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the healing practical energy of Bhaisajyaguru, Medicine Buddha. And so, these are three very popular bodhisattva archetypes that have developed in Mahayana Buddhism over the centuries, and there are many, and many others that we can also correlate to these qualities, but these are the most popular ones.

And so I personally do not think of Amitabha, Kuan Yin, and Medicine Buddha as separate beings necessarily. I just think of them as ways to express Shakyamuni Buddha's energy. So, Shakyamuni Buddha's wisdom energy expressed Amitabha, infinite light. Shakyamuni Buddha's heart energy expressed as Kuan Yin, infinite love. Shakyamuni Buddha's healing power energy, and nurturing energy, expressed as Medicine Buddha. So you can think of them as separate beings, or you can think of them as just simply ways to express these three qualities that the Buddha historically manifested.

But of course all of these three are within a Buddha, and of course they are all aspects of our infinite universal Buddha nature. And each religious tradition may also have these qualities expressed in other ways, in other symbols or other persons or archetypes. So that is just the way I like to do it, and that is why today we actually did the chants from all three. We practice mindfulness of course, as Shakyamuni Buddha taught us, but we also chanted the Medicine Buddha mantra, Om mani padme hum, which is the main mantra of Kuan Yin, and Amitabha. We also chanted that at the end of meditation.

So, we had all three energies expressed in our chanting today. And I also gave you some mantras or affirmations to go along with the energy centers for our walking. With walking, I suggested: I am home, Thy will be done, All is well. In our sitting practice, after we first settled on the breath here and now, then I recommended: I am safe, I am loved, I am free. And then we closed with sending metta, lovingkindness, to all beings everywhere.

So, in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition that I am most familiar with because my teacher is Vietnamese—our teacher—they also use what is called gathas, G-A-T-H-A-S. Gathas. And those are short little poems that you can utilize throughout the day so that you're not just practicing mindfulness on the sitting cushion, but you are practicing mindfulness in all activities of the day.

So for example, when you wake up, you might recite this poem or gatha: "Waking up this morning, I am so happy that there are 24 brand-new hours in which to practice mindfulness and compassion for other beings." Or while brushing your teeth: "May I cleanse my mouth and also my speech to be pure." Or when you're opening a door or closing a door, you might say something like, "Opening this door in mindfulness, may more doors be open of the dharma to many beings." Or, "Lighting a candle. I light this candle. May it brighten the room and also brighten all beings with the light of lovingkindness."

You can either make up your own, or you can use the ones that Thich Nhat Hanh has created, but it is nice to have silent little gathas in your mind for different activities, because it always brings you back, reminding you to practice mindfulness throughout the day and not just in your 20 to 30 minutes of sitting meditation. So throughout the whole day.

I remember one of my first Zen teachers taught me to just choose something that I do a lot during the day and use that as my bell of mindfulness. Whenever we ring the big bell, you're supposed to just stop and breathe and come back to your breath and body here and now, if just for a few seconds. It is a reminder to stop breathing, to be here and now.

But you can also have bells of mindfulness not just from the bell, but from any activity. For example, if you open and close cabinets or doors a lot, that can be your bell of mindfulness. Or if you drive a lot, the red light can be your bell of mindfulness to stop, breathe, be here now. Or maybe if your job requires a lot of phone calls, every time you hear the phone ring, that can be a bell of mindfulness. You can just breathe in and out once or twice before picking up the phone and then hopefully it will be a much better conversation because now you are really present.

So, there is definitely a place for silent meditation, where we let go of all thinking, but there is also a place for utilizing our thinking mind in positive ways through affirmations, mantras, and gathas. And again, like I said earlier, you can take an ancient mantra, such as Om mani padme hum or Amitabha or whatever, and you can use that as sort of your base affirmation and utilize maybe English affirmations with it. For example, you can silently breathe in Amitabha and then: All is well, Amitabha, All is well, Amitabha, All is well. You can do it that way, and then you can change up the affirmation to something else like: I am home, Thy will be done, I am safe, I am loved, I am free, etcetera.

But what you do is you input those rich meanings for yourself into the base mantra Amitabha, Om mani padme hum, or whatever. And in that way eventually you don't even have to use all of these words, just one word, Amitabha or whatever you use to bring the power of all of those affirmations into one word. So it is kind of like a mantra is a shorthand.

I also wanted to share. This is something I share mostly in the beginner's meditation workshop, but I will just go very briefly over the four different aspects of meditation practice: focus, awareness, persistence, and beginning anew, which is self-compassion.

So most of us are not trained in a lot of focus. Some of us may be. We learn how to focus very well on playing the piano or an exercise program or some other way of focusing. We have certain levels of concentration, but most of us, I think, do not have 100% focus ability, and that is okay. So do not get frustrated if you do not have a very focused mind, because it does show in your meditation, doesn't it? Our unfocused mind. But it is okay. You do not need to have 100% focused mind to meditate well.

If you can have awareness, you can be aware when you are focused and aware when you are not, and then you can be aware to come back to your focus. If you can stay aware the whole time that you are wandering and coming back, you are still meditating and you are still benefiting. So focus is another word for concentration. Awareness is another word for mindfulness.

Now, when you're not that focused and your awareness slips up every few minutes, like you go and are thinking for 10 minutes before you are aware enough that, "Oh, I am meditating. Let's go back to meditation." Even if you have those 10 minute intervals, it is okay as long as you have the third quality of persistence, patience, diligence, right effort.

If you stay with your practice even when you don't feel like it is 100%, that is okay, because the fact that you're still doing your practice for the full allotted time, sitting there in your posture, there is a part of you that is still meditating. Your conscious mind may keep wandering all over the place, but the subconscious part of you, the deeper part of your mind is meditating, and it knows it is meditating because you are in the right posture.

The reason why we do it, we put ourselves in a certain posture for meditation, is because it sends a signal the body, oh, I am meditating. That is why it is nice to have a special meditation posture when you're meditating because it just sends a little extra stimulus to the body alerting it, okay, this is meditation. Not looking at Facebook time, not anything else, not thinking about your recipe for tonight, but this is meditation time.

So maybe part of your mind is racing, wandering, daydreaming, yet because your body is in the right posture for meditation, there is another part of your mind that is actually meditating whether you are conscious of it or not. So that is why never give up, just keep persisting in your posture in your meditation. Do it even if it is just 5 minutes every day. Set it up to do it every day and not only once a week.

However, there are ways you can cheat around that. For example, I do a practice every day, but sometimes I may not have time for the full long sitting meditation, so I may substitute—once in a while, not all the time, but once in a while—with a chanting practice like chanting Om mani padme hum 108 times. So I may do that once or twice during the week, but for the most part, I do try to keep with my meditation practice. So you may have a different lifestyle than me. I have a lot more leisure time than you, so if you can at least do some kind of practice every day, whether it is sitting, walking, chanting, or whatever, something mindful and focused, then that is good. Just do something every day until you have more time to do it longer or more than just 5 minutes.

But if you are not that focused, you are not that aware, you are not that persistent, well, what can you do? Well, you can still benefit from this practice if you have this last quality, which is what saved my life: beginning anew. It is self-forgiveness, self-compassion, not judging yourself, and being able to let go of the past and start fresh right here and right now. And that is what I did for—how many years has it been? 15 years or more, 17 years now that I have been practicing formally.

I have to confess I am not the most focused person, and it took me a while to get my mindfulness a little bit better, and the first couple of years, I was not so disciplined, but I eventually got disciplined. But what really saved me was this aspect of beginning anew. Okay. I didn't do so well this week. That is okay. I will start again today. And then I try to make my goals reasonable, reachable goals and not set a goal so high that you could never possibly reach it. Start small and then grow from there.

And that is what I did. Every day for 17 years, I just kept going. I might think, oh, I didn't do so well this past week. I will just start again today. And after several days and weeks and months and years of starting over again, I have a meditation center all of a sudden. I don't know how it happened anyway. You just never know. But the key is just never criticizing yourself, but believing in yourself. This is true faith, not just faith in the divine or faith in the Buddha, but faith in yourself, because all of us are manifestations of Buddha nature.

Anyway, our tradition encompasses many different aspects, so there is part of our tradition that is very Zen and very silent, very non-thinking, and there is another part of our tradition that also can incorporate sounds, words, affirmations, mantras as a part of our practice as well. The reason why we offer all kinds of practices is because everyone is different, so for some people, you may really prefer silent meditation. For others, it might be helpful at first to utilize affirmation. Some people really love walking meditation, and some people really love sitting meditation. As long as you can find what is helpful in our practice and our community that really resonates with you, that is what matters. And if nothing works for you, talk to me. I usually can help figure out something that will work for you if you can be open-hearted and brave enough to ask someone for some assistance.

All right. Thank you very much. Amitabha.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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