Author  DRBU Staff

Read Parts I & II

Q&A Session at Kalyana Tea with Kittisaro Weinberg at Sudhana Center-DRBU

Q: You once said that the Shurangama mantra or the Great Compassion mantra potentize and give power to whatever one’s spiritual aspirations are. I’m curious if you could say more about that, either if you have any insights on how that process works, or if it’s almost like a faith process that it does work?

The Buddha taught protection chants right from the early days of the Buddha’s teaching career. They are called Parittas, and we used to chant them every day in the monastery. For example, we recited the Recollection of the Triple Jewel chant every day, and frequently recited other parittas, like the Metta Sutta and the Mangala Sutta, on blessings. The Buddha taught that when you chant certain chants that are honoring the qualities of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, that there is protection. Some people think, “Oh, that’s just some fanciful thing.” No, we are taught that principle in the classical Theravada teachings. In fact, when there was a plague, when there were malevolent spirits troubling the whole village, when there was famine, the Buddha got his beloved disciple Ananda and others to go and recite another one of these parittas — the Ratana Sutta — while they walked through the village. Then a big storm came and washed it all away, freeing the town of these ills.

In the Mangala sutta, in the first major stanza, there is the word “puja”:

Asevana ca balanam
Panditananca ‘sevana
Puja ca pujaniyanam
Etam mangalamuttamam

Puja is the Pali word for honoring something, like when you chant. Here it has the meaning of “honoring what is worthy of honor.” So that first line is “Asevana ca balanam” (Don’t hang out with foolish people). Then, “Panditananca ‘sevana,” (associate with pundits, the wise beings). Then he skips from the physically external foolish people and wise people to “Puja ca pujaniyanam,” (honoring what is worthy of honor). So that’s another kind of friendship. But it’s talking about what you hang out with internally, what you honor in your own mind. “Etam mangalamuttamam” (this is a great blessing, the highest blessing). Mangala is an auspicious energy that blesses, protects, transforms. So, already in the meditative practices, you are potentizing the moment when you’re practicing awareness and mindfulness of breathing, Then the Buddha teaches us to learn to be sensitive to the whole body when breathing. So you have a whole field of intimate presence, vibratory presence. Then, “honoring what is worthy of honor.” What does it mean to honor the Buddha, to honor the Dharma, to honor wisdom? When you’re chanting you cultivate this attitude of honor, the attitude of celebrating, cherishing, and revering.

Even though your nervous system might be a mess, and you might not feel good — I felt poorly for years with the protracted illness resulting from typhoid. Just not feeling good doesn’t stop you from knowing that this unpleasant feeling is part of nature, this is the Dharma. You can honor that moment. So however you feel, whatever it is, if you then do a chant, carried on the breath, vibrating through body, those ancient sacred phrases work like magnifiers. With this intention to honor and revere, the recitation is then potentized. This confluence of conditions allows the vow power of the chant and the heart that’s practicing it to bring forth a wonderful and mysterious response. I didn’t even consider myself a devotional person when I was doing these paritta (protection) chants over the years in the monastery, I started feeling all these responses. At first I didn’t know what it was. Master Hua talked more overtly about it, but presences that come and energy changes started to manifest. And I just felt so good when I did it.

What blocks us so much is our mind and our thinking, what the Master called the sixth sense consciousness, and what in Theravada is called papañca (conceptual proliferation). We get lost in our thoughts. When one has a chant, especially in a foreign language and a magical language, it’s hard to get lost in our regular habitual thinking. For example, while chanting the Great Compassion mantra, allowing the syllables and sounds to come and go, there’s not so many edges on them that can lead one into reactive thought. While chanting with the attitude of honoring and appreciating the Dharma, the refuge — that’s one’s holding ground. So even though the syllables of the mantra are really flowing, the attitude of inner listening presence is absolutely still, the heart is resting in the listening, resting in the refuge.

When you honor what is worthy of honor, a miracle happens, something else appears. There’s an outcome — the mysterious alchemy of embodied presence, the mantra, and an honoring intention. I just noticed, “Wow, something happens.” I’m not making it happen. I found reciting the Shurangama and the Great Compassion mantras, and also holding the name, helped me go back to the “Buddho” mantric practice in Thailand. In the early part of my monastic life, I practiced holding the Buddha’s name Bud-dho, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. With every step recite bud-dho. Bud on the in-breath dho on the out-breath. Buddho, Buddho, Buddho. I was wanting something to happen and getting frustrated. But then after years of practice, getting a bit wiser, and remembering little by little the Buddhist teachings, when you honor what is worthy of honor, there is an auspicious response. What is worthy? Now when reciting Buddho, rather than wanting to get somewhere else, I realized that Buddho, like Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa, are sounds that remind one to honor and rest in the refuge. Each sound is a deepening of the trust, reminding the heart what I’m cherishing — this listening, or what Ajahn Chah would call this knowing, this abiding. So I really find the longer mantras and also the parittas really helped that deepening of nippapañca, nonproliferation.

We’re in the Dharma ending age. Ajahn Chah and Master Hua both talked about it, how the more we dedicate ourselves to what is good, there is an equal and opposite challenge, which is not wrong; it’s just what happens. But particularly now when there’s so much that is misleading beings, the devotional practices are really helpful. I really appreciate how Master Hua taught the devotional practices in a very non-dual way. You might start wanting Guan Yin to help us. In the languaging of the repentance ceremony, however, I love how deeply dharmic it is. In the bowing we contemplate, “The worshiped and the worshiper are empty and still in nature, the response and the Way are intertwined inconceivably.” Whatever you are bowing to, Guan Yin, the Buddha, the worshiped and the worshiper are not separate. Since I had been really sick, I couldn’t do the fast version of the repentance ceremony. We did it really slow. In the middle of that is the recitation of the Great Compassion mantra. Through the ceremony, one is continually offering all of these obstructions that come up, these obstacles, inwardly and outwardly, offering them to Guan Yin, to deep listening. It’s hard to create a lot of afflictions when you’re going, “Namo he la da nwo dwo la ye ye….” In the various chants that we do, if one can keep the quality of heart humble and respectful, we’re not blocking the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and all the mysterious forces of help that are within the heart, within the center of the dharma body. It allows them to work on us. I think one of the problems in some of the secular practices, which are wonderful dharma, is that they don’t have this devotional element. Sometimes your refuge then is just your habitual views and opinions.

This devotional element allows us to remember refuge and deepen our trust in that. When the devotional practices are then mixed with the “who,” the way the Master articulated the chan practice, then that is a powerful and efficacious combination. Continually coming from time to time back to the vajra sword of the huatou — or as Ajahn Chah would say frequently, “Who does this belong to? Who’s struggling?” — stops the mind, allowing the light to keep returning to this presence. I love devotional practices. I love the practices where one lets all thoughts subside. For anyone who’s new to devotional practices, I really am so glad that I believed the Master when he said, “Just learn it and try it. Give it a chance.” Give it a chance. I’m grateful that I trusted him.

Q: Were there ever times when you’ve gotten discouraged? 

Oh, countless times. I’ve had many shouting matches with Guan Yin. But I also appreciate it. To me, it’s not just the name. I first thought, “You helped me get better.” But then I realized these practices are continually bringing up the afflictions, the attachment to wanting things to go well, the impatience, the aversions. This happened, especially in the first year-long silent retreat I did in 1989 right before and right after I met Master Hua. I was living in a little tiny hut in a forest at Chithurst Monastery. I did a lot of chanting; I did the repentance ceremony every day. I was chanting the Great Compassion mantra and learning the Shurangama mantra. Sometimes when I was really upset and discouraged, I’d say, “Oh, but you promised, Guan Yin!” And yet, if you’re practicing, you just see that. It was important to allow it. And thank goodness, from my monastic training, I learned to endure. There’s a Thai phrase, “Otone (endure).” We just learned to endure. You learn this from the Master, from all of the teachers. Even if you do have a breakthrough, and you see the truth, you taste the truth, which is wonderful, you don’t make a big announcement. That’s only the beginning. I appreciated how Ajahn Chah encouraged us when he said, “The Buddha wouldn’t have taught this if it was impossible to realize. You can know this. In fact, if you really apply yourself, you will know this.” But just because one sees the truth — and the Master was so good at underlining this — you don’t put a flag up. You see the truth; well there’s a little hole in the wall. Okay. It’s wonderful. But there’s still this big wall, you know. There’s still all of these other dormant tendencies that we still need to work through.

Guan Yin is a living response. That mysterious energy of Guan Yin helped me see, “Hey, okay, so you’re seeing this, Kittisaro, work with it.” And so yes, at times I was despairing, hopeless, resentful. But the process kept deepening my trust. Yes, grist for the mill. And so now, why do I have to do this? How many years have I been chanting the Great Compassion mantra, forty-two years. But to me, it’s important, I promised I’ll just do it. And sometimes I do many more times, but at least, as a minimum even if I feel terrible, it’s really important to do those five recitations in the morning and evening as a sense of duty. Now, over all these years, I realize it is so much more valuable — no matter how important some preoccupation seems  — to stop and remember that non-judgmental reverential attitude and allow these ancient dharanis to flow through and reset one’s nervous system. When one does that, one is presenting oneself to the measureless Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, to the Dharma protectors. I just know, “Wow, that is so important to do, no matter how you feel.” And for me, it really helps. In fact, as for me, I would have died otherwise, many times. To me, it’s kept me alive. For me, it helps me reset.

Not being in a monastery that does this practice everyday, keeping the Shurangama mantra going, has been hard. Because if you learn it, it’s easy to forget it. I have to do it every day. It’s been so wonderful. That practice, plus the paritta protection chants I spoke about, were very helpful for our time in South Africa. When we arrived there, there was still a tribal war happening around us, the AIDS pandemic, the incredible poverty, the wreckage from the Apartheid regime, the damage, the trauma in the land. To practice, yes, was really important, along with metta, kindness — allowing these blessing chants to be infused. I really think they helped us stay alive. Master Hua talks about the power of the Shurangama and the Great Compassion mantras to mysteriously heal the rifts in the field. The rifts in the field are the resentment and the rage and the anger and the confusion. He also talks about the power of these mantras helping living beings wake up out of the spell, and come back to our own sense of decency, our own humanity.

I also feel at this time now, it’s really important to have a whole university built on this principle. I know this sounds crazy, but I felt Master Hua told me to go to this program. He didn’t physically tell me, “I want you to go,” but I felt his guidance. For me, it wasn’t easy to get here. To have the chance to be a part of a radical rethink of what it means to have a university, going back to the original essence of education that was not just a cookie cutter indoctrination and conditioning, but an “educare,” a drawing out, and allowing to flourish the inherent qualities of wisdom, compassion, truthfulness, generosity, all these treasures of the heart.

So, I’m stretched. My aging brain is really stretched, but it feels so right. This weekend, I was quite tired, getting my papers in. And so excited about a whole university that’s all — faculty, staff, students — going to recite Guan Yin’s name. Wow. Wow. So anyway, I am glad to be here. But some of you have known the Master and been with the Master much more than I have. The limited time I had with him was so deeply inspiring. I rejoice in those of you who got to be with him much more and rejoice in your good fortune to be helping manifest his vision.

Q: You think you all (to other senior disciples of Master Hua in the audience) crossed paths like in the late ’80s?

Yeah, we were at an ordination in ’89 when I was a monk. Somehow it happened that Master Hua invited Ajahn Sumedho and a delegation to come to the City in the autumn of ’89, September, October. There was going to be some sort of ordination ceremony with Chinese masters from different places. At the time I was on a year-long retreat, still quite ill, silent. But Ajahn Sumedho knew how much I was devoted to the Master, so he invited me to join him. And so I said to Ajahn Sumedho [that] I was thrilled, even though I was on my retreat, to get to see my hero. Then I asked Ajahn Sumedho “Can I make a gift to Master Hua?” And Ajahn said, “Yes, you can.”

There was going to be a private audience with Master Hua and Ajahn Sumedho, Dharma Master Heng Sure, and a few of the monks with him. Ajahn Sumedho said to me, “I’ll let you know. There’ll be a time when you can make your gift.” Over the years, as a monk, I had received a few gifts, including a beautiful little box from Japanese monks who had done peace pilgrimages. I was going to put my gift for the Master in that little box. And I had a little Buddha and a few crystals that had been given to me. I had this little gift to give the Master. And really, his teachings had already so changed my life, I just wanted to bow. Ajahn Sumedho also was worried about my health. And we all believed in the Master’s incredible, deep transcendent understanding. Ajahn Sumedho was hoping to find out maybe some more tips on what might help me get better. Also, Ajahn Sumedho knew how devoted I was to Guan Yin and he was happy I was doing these Guan Yin practices. Anyway, we went to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and participated in the ceremony. We had our private meeting with the Master. We were all talking about different things. At a certain point, Ajahn Sumedho said, “Kittisaro, you can give your gift.” Excited, I had my little special Japanese box with all my special gifts inside. I kneel down and then offer the gift to the Master, and the Master said, “I don’t accept gifts.” (audience laugh) And so, at first, I was crestfallen. And then he said, “Oh, all right, let’s have a look.” And so, the Master is really something else. So then, we opened it up. I was explaining the Buddha and the crystals, and also these offerings were reflecting the vows that had emerged in my heart. I didn’t say the vows, but I trusted the Master could see my vows. He had opened the door to the Bodhisattva vows. He revealed that; he had embodied it. So I was showing him. And then the Master said, “Did you buy this with your own money?” And again, I was horrified, because that is something that our order was so proud of, that we were the pure order that follows the Buddha’s teachings on money. We didn’t have any. “What do you mean, ‘Buy with my own money,’ we don’t have money!” And so you know, I was like, no, no, no, no… He was like, “Oh okay”. He was just touching these little sensitive spots. And that wasn’t only for me, I think that was also for the other monks in our tradition who were there. And they might have been having a few so-called false thoughts about things.

Then the Master did something so beautiful. He then said, “I accept it. This is mine.” He did what’s called a sangha karma. There were seven monks present, I think. Sangha karma. He had us all follow the Chinese monastic tradition and say some word three times. That was an action of the Sangha. This officially verified that these crystals, this Buddha, this gift, the special shell with the beautiful colors of the ocean, all belongs to Master Hua. And then he said, “Kittisaro, I want you to look after this, to make offerings to this Buddha on my behalf.” And that just melted me. So I have this little Buddha that I make offerings to, with the crystals belonging to Master Hua. That was so skillful, and then Ajahn Sumedho was still worried about my health. So he asked Master Hua, “What about his health?” And Master Hua said, “He shouldn’t have any desire.” And to me that meant to keep emptying everything, to keep deepening that trust. He didn’t say, “Oh, you shouldn’t worship Guan Yin.” He didn’t say that. But to keep bringing everything back to a deep trust, a deep honoring just what is, that was his message to me. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.

And it’s so wonderful that the blending and synthesis of the two traditions is continuing to happen so naturally and to have you [Ajahn Kovilo, a Theravada monk] here, and then of course, Master Hua made the offering of the land to Abhayagiri (Theravada Monastery), and the connection over the years between the traditions has flourished..

Dr. Rounds: We’re glad you’re here. 

Glad there was such a warm welcome and a kind welcome. And I’m grateful for that.