I can always tell when I need to do gongyo the most, because it’s when I feel the most reluctant to practice. When I find myself making excuses as to why I don’t really need to chant, or why taking time for my spirituality isn’t a top priority, I know that it’s especially essential to put myself in front of the mirror of the Gohonzon and focus my attention.
After chanting for a while, I have found that some of my best thinking actually happens in front of the Gohonzon while I’m chanting. I think it’s because all of the clutter of my life is set away (and I’m a messy person by nature, so that’s quite a lot!) and I’m 100% dedicated to the moment. Once I’m on that cushion, I’m focused completely to what’s in front of me. Nothing pulls me away, not the dog barking or the phone ringing. I even have chapstick in my butsudan so that chapped lips are never an excuse to stop before I’m ready to.
It’s truly amazing because the minute that I sit down and take a deep breath, I can actually feel my stress melting away. I move into a completely different headspace – a headspace that’s conducive to solving my problems and taking a fresh look at whatever’s bothering me.
After I recite the chapters of the sutra and begin chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, I’m not thinking about whatever was on my mind before, but often, through the surface of my concentration, new ideas and solutions come to me, as if by magic.
But it’s not magic: research studies have suggested that mantras improve mental acuity. In chanting and focusing, I improve my ability to work through my problems, helping myself come to solutions that I may never have been able to develop before. It’s just as when I am bursting with creativity right as I am about to fall asleep: giving my brain that fallow time allows it to bloom forth with fantastic offerings.
More than that, in chanting, I am helping myself manifest both what I want, and who I want to be. Gabriel Axel notes, “by practicing mantra, we can tap into the source of that power to manifest – we can drive our awareness deeper into the bones, muscles and tissues of the body to gain a greater sensitivity and understanding of our makeup and amplify the emotional energies latent within.”
Chanting calms me and hence makes me a calmer person. Chanting helps me be creative, and hence makes me a more creative person. When I practice the silent prayers in gongyo, I think about who I want to be and what I want from my life – and focusing my energy on those intentions brings them closer to me, drawing them into my body and mind. When I pray for peace, I bring peace to myself and others, leading me to greater peace and harmony throughout my life.
The silent prayers are, perhaps, my favorite part of gongyo. After I chant and ring the bell signalling the beginning of silent prayers, I feel this immense shroud of calm sweep over me. I feel as if I could stay in this ocean of peace forever, focusing my attention on the joy of the Gohonzon, the propagation of the Mystic Law, and bringing peace to all sentient beings. Each section of the silent prayers is a unique treasure, but I especially love contemplating peace for all beings, and every day I pray for particular individuals who I feel especially need peace and harmony in their lives. It is my daily therapy and helps me to work through my problems in a way that feels genuine to me.
Another great thing that I’ve noticed since I started practicing gongyo is that I simply don’t react to things as I used to. I strongly attribute this to my daily contemplation of peace, and how it has strengthened my understanding of empathy. Things that used to make me furious, I can face down with far less emotion. I have the strength to walk away from situations where before, I would fight to the death, draining myself and leaving nothing for more important things. I move through life far more gracefully and peacefully, able to calm down myself and others because I can draw from an internal reserve of relaxation. That makes it even more important to chant on those days when I’m feeling drained and frustrated – chanting and practicing gongyo is the very thing that gives me the courage to face those tough days.
In all these ways, gongyo – mantra and silent contemplation – is the best form of self-care I know. It allows me time to focus my attention and work through difficult problems in my life with no expectations, and it fills my spirit with peace, helping me tackle tough situations gracefully.
Whether or not you are a Nichiren Buddhist, I challenge you to develop a spiritual practice that empowers you to get through the day and brings you a sense of peace and well-being. May you find serenity, whatever your path!