Promise of Hope (video)

Hope seems like a good theme for this week. This is a song I wrote and recorded in early 2002, just a few months after 9/11. It’s not going to rival anything Dylan or Elvis Costello have ever written, but I’ve heard worse. As for the video portion, I put together last evening on the spur of the moment.

Lyrics below. For email subscribers, here is a link.

Promise of Hope

I woke up one morning
And the world had turned around
There was fire and buildings tumbling down
Fear had taken the high ground
But I held on to a promise of hope

There’s a shadow in the space of where we’ve been
And voices that say we can’t go back again
The horizon seems as lost as the world we’re in
Searching for a promise of hope

We need hope to guide us
We need a promise to carry us home

Sometimes I feel like I’m out here all alone
But if I see you walking by I’ll help you carry your load
Together somehow we’ll get down this road
We’re headed for a promise of hope

We need hope to guide us
We need a song to carry us home

David Riley


The Necessity of Hope

I read a post by a Buddhist blogger yesterday that really had me scratching my head. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. According to this guy, hope is a bad thing. It’s just another form of craving, an illusion that inhibits our spiritual growth. Pardon me, but that is complete nonsense. Another case of confusing the relative with the ultimate.

Merriam-Webster defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Well, there we have two words that have a negative connotation in Buddhism: desire and anticipation. But that’s in the ultimate sense. Sure, desire is bad when it leads to clinging but some desires are positive. Same with anticipation. Living in the present moment is an ideal, a frame of mind. Not a prison. Anyone who doesn’t think about the future to some extent, harbor a few healthy desires, and occasionally have some anticipation is only leading half a life.

Ultimately, we do not want to be constantly dwelling in anticipation, but the future is real. It will come and there is no avoiding it.  By the same token, if you don’t look back and learn from the past, you are missing out on great opportunities for growth. The past and the present both exist in the present moment, as we presently experiencing the effects from the past and making causes for the future. Dogen said, “We cannot be separated from time . . .  we, ourselves are time . . .”

In the relative, conventional world, we need hope. Without hope, we fall prey to pessimism that leads to negative states of mind. I don’t see hope as a big dilemma. The real problem is that too many people in the world don’t have any. Whether it’s a case of suffering in a third world country or in Beverly Hills, lives devoid of hope in this modern age are far too prevalent.

Hope contributes to a positive outlook on life and if that sounds too “new age” or something that’s too bad. Unless you have some sense of optimism for the future, life can be very bleak. It is through pessimism and negative thinking that we create a lot of our suffering. Hope is a necessary ingredient for a  satisfied, peaceful life, and it’s sad to me that there are some Buddhists who want to twist it around into something to avoid.

The Buddha way is the Middle Way. The balance between extremes. There’s no question that too much hope can be harmful. Living for the future excessively is not healthy. But to abandon hope and live only in the present is not the way to go either. Hope reinforces the ego only if you let it. The idea that it represents some form of control that we don’t actually have is wrong. The whole point of Buddhism is to train our minds so that we can control our thoughts, words and deeds and gravitate to wholesome states of mind and not dwell in unwholesome states. We want control and if that is just an illusion then there’s no sense in practicing Buddhism. We might as well give up.

It doesn’t matter if what you hope for will come to pass or not. The important thing is to have hope. Without it, practice as a Bodhisattva would be impossible. A Bodhisattva hopes to liberate all living beings, but it will never happen. Someone will always be suffering somewhere. The point is that with a balanced sense of hope we can aspire to this great goal and have the confidence and courage to pull ourselves and a few others out of life overshadowed by suffering and into life bright with optimism and a measure of peace.

I don’t know what else to say about this subject, so here’s some words by a few people who say better than me:

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.

Dalai Lama

It is not true that the world always has to be a mess and vale of misery. It can be beautiful and meaningful, and the human life form is a wonderful opportunity to reach the highest fulfillment imaginable . . . The Buddha’s Noble Truth of Suffering means that life dominated by misknowledge will always be unsatisfactory, but that is not a final destination; it means that we can develop wisdom to eliminate misknowledge and then live free in bliss and share that bliss with others . . . never give up. We live in hope, as the realistic way to live.

Robert Thurman

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.

Albert Einstein

A man with a grain of faith . . .  never loses hope, because he ever believes in the ultimate triumph of Truth.

Mahatma Gandhi


Chanting Pt. 2: Mantras

The Sanskrit word “mantra” is comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and “tra” meaning instrument or tool. Literally, then, an “instrument of mind.” Lama Govinda, who wrote one of the most valuable books on the subject of mantra, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, defines the word as “to protect the mind.” Another interpretation of mantra is “true word,” in Chinese zhenyan, which also corresponds to the name of a major Japanese school, Shingon.

But mantras are not really words at all, they are bija or seed syllables derived from the Vedic language. Primordial “words” or sounds. The use of mantras originated in the Vedic tradition in India and later incorporated into the practices of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

The image of the seed syllable Ham comes from Sacred Calligraphy of the East by John Stevens. Ham is associated with creativity and the throat-chakra.

Not all Buddhists are keen on mantras. From my personal experience, I can tell you that some in the Theravada tradition are extremely critical and dismissive of mantras and often they disparage those who engage in mantra practice. They claim that in the Pali suttas the Buddha disapproved of their use. However, this is not exactly the case. The Buddha was critical of the Vedas, a collection of mantras, hymns, and chants, because he considered the Vedic philosophy to be lacking and because he was pessimistic about the effectiveness of devotional chanting (bhajan) or any spiritual practice directed at an external deity. The Buddha taught that enlightenment came from within, not without. But I have yet to come across of any criticism of mantras per se, as alleged by Theravada.

I should mention the practice in Theravada of chanting parittas (literally “protection” or “safeguard”) which are short devotional prayers, and that I am not sure how that differs from what they criticize.

Most mantras have no literal meaning. They are symbolic sounds. Roger Corless, from The Vision of Buddhism explains:

Mantra is dharma manifested as, embodied or incarnated in sound. A mantra may contain words, or sounds that has a specific meaning; but meaning is not its essential feature. A mantra communicates dharma directly to the mind without the meditation of concepts.

Perhaps the most famous of all mantras, Om Mani Padme Hum, is said to mean “The Jewel in the Lotus.” However, only two of the “words” have literal meaning: mani is “jewel or gem” and padme is “lotus.” Om and hum are seed syllables. Om is said to be the seed syllable of the universe, while hum is given a number of different associations.

It is not necessary for mantras to have specific meaning, no matter how badly some Westerners want it. When we meditate, we focus on our breath, but not on the meaning of breath, simply the act of breathing in and out.  The same principles used in silent meditation apply to mantra chanting. The idea is to focus on the mantra and be in the present moment.

I feel that mantra practice is best approached as a form of meditation. I think the Buddha had good reason to be cautious about the use of prayer or devotional chanting. Prayer is usually viewed as a form of communication with a god or external force, and devotional chanting calls into question to what one is expressing devotion. When such practice crosses the line and becomes focused on anything outside of the practitioner’s own life, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s no longer Buddhism but something else.

Likewise I am not too sure about the effectiveness  of “chanting for things” as taught in the Nichiren schools. Again, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is not technically a mantra, rather merely the title of a sutra with a devotional prefix attached to it.

The Mantra of Light in a circle (from Sacred Calligraphy of the East)

Intonation or pronunciation is not something to be overly concerned about. Different people chant and pronounce mantras differently and that’s okay, since it is not the words of the mantra that have power, instead it is the state of mind of the practitioner that determines the effectiveness of mantra.

Lama Govinda:

If a mantra would act in such a mechanical way, then it should have the same effect when reproduced by a gramophone record. But its repetition even by a human medium would not have any effect, if done by an ignorant person; though the intonation may be identical with that of a master. The superstition that the efficacy of a mantra depends on its intonation is mainly due to the superficial ‘vibration-theory’  of pseudo-scientific dilettanti . . .

This means that the power and effect of a mantra depend on the spiritual attitude, the knowledge and responsiveness of the individual. The sabda or sound of the mantra is not a physical one (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears but only by the heart, and it cannot be uttered by the mouth but only by the mind.

When chanting, just focus on the mantra, surrender to its sound, become one with it. Don’t think of yesterday or tomorrow. Whether you chant fast or slow is up to you. Sometimes it helps for focus your eyes on an object like a mandala, or to hold an image in your mind. Mantras can be used to work with inner energy, such as the chakras and chi.

Mantra chanting does seem to unleash a certain amount of natural energy, sort of like a spiritual power bar. So while it is very different from silent meditation, I still think the same basic principles apply. And I think they work best when practiced in tandem with silent meditation.

That’s enough for now.


Afghan Buddhist Site + Heart Sutra Video Links

Here’s one of the untold stories around the current situation in Afghanistan. You probably remember when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues at Bamiyam – well, more historic Buddhist relics in that country are now being threatened.

Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a Buddhist temple at a place called Mes Aynak, southwest of Kabul. Apparently the temple (some reports describe it as a monastery) has existed on the spot for 2000 years. According to the, “Archaeologists describe it as a site of global historic importance and have in recent months been uncovering intricately constructed mound-like structures called stupas – with vaulted corridor and painted statues, including a magnificent reclining Buddha.”

Only there is a problem. The relics sit on top of one of the world’s largest known reserves of copper ore. Some 240 million tons of copper ore, it’s estimated. China’s state owned mining company, MCG, won the rights to mine Mes Aynak with a bid of $3.5 billion in 2007.

The Chinese government is no friend to Buddhism. In the past they have shown about as much regard for the preservation of historic Buddhist relics as the Taliban did. And this is a really big deal: MGC stands to make at least $42 billion from the project while the Afghan government should receive about $500 million a year in royalties plus another $1 billion a year in spinoff benefits to the country’s economy over the expected 25-year life of the mine, so reports the Guardian.

Naturally there are fears that the Buddhist site will not survive. The same goes for 12 other Buddhist sites in the area. One of the archaeologists, Abdul Khalid, was quoted as saying, “It is very shameful for the Afghan government to let the Chinese come here and destroy our history. People around the world only hear of the war in Afghanistan but they do not know that we have the best of things from our forefathers.”

I thought I would share some other versions of the Heart Sutra that I’ve found on YouTube.

The first the Heart Sutra in song, by the gifted Chinese actor and singer, Fay Wong (shown above in a still from Chungking Express). This is a live performance from thef the Famen Temple Ceremony in 2009 .

This clip is rather long, but worth it, for the chanting is just beautiful: Chinese Buddhist nuns reciting a portion of their Evening Ceremony.

Nice Tibetan chanting of the sutra here.

This one is very cool, although you’ll probably need to turn the volume up: An Austrian Buddhist chanting the Hannya Shingyo on a mountaintop.

An American Buddhist monk gave me a tape of this one years ago. The tape had no label, so I have absolutely no idea who the artist(s) is and I’d love to find out. This YouTube video is with Spanish titles, so it’s no help to me in that department. The audio is not the best quality and it’s also missing the Pink Floyd-like beginning, but you can still dig it: Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha.


Chanting the Heart Sutra in English

As previously mentioned, the Heart Sutra is one of the best known and most popularly chanted Buddhist sutras. It recited every day by people in many different Buddhist traditions all over the world.  And I think by now, they are often reciting the sutra in their native language, as opposed to the traditional Asian ones, which is only natural.

Although I frequently recite the Heart Sutra in English, I also chant in Japanese. Once about ten or twelve years ago, I made a determination to learn to  chant the sutra in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan also, and maybe I will one of these days . . .

The Tibetan and Japanese style of sutra recitation is very similar: deep-voiced, monotone chanting. The Chinese style is much more melodic, as though they are singing the sutras, with counter-harmonies and subtle changes in rhythm. Chinese Buddhist music is very popular these days. It’s been commercialized quite a lot but pleasant to hear.

Since the Japanese style is how I first learned the Heart Sutra, that’s what I stick with. So, here is my English version. The text is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra