For the past several months, I’ve been part of a translation team that is working on the verses of the Lotus Sutra. I think of translating as a practice; it contains a lot of different opportunities to learn about the Buddha’s teachings and about myself at the same time. I’ve been finding that translating verses in particular is a really wonderful practice, and like any Dharma practice, its benefits are gradually revealed as one delves more deeply into its subtleties.
The rhythm of a verse gets into your bones, puts a spring in your step. Its beauty inspires the heart.
A good verse can have some really wonderful qualities — it has its own rhythm, its own ways of resonating. A steady rhythm can be like a resting heartbeat, its regularity calming the mind. When chanted, regular line length regulates the breathing, which calms the body. The rhythm of a verse gets into your bones, puts a spring in your step. Its beauty inspires the heart.
I often chant while I’m translating, sometimes “working” for many hours a day, and I find that the rhythm itself has a way of inspiring creativity. Sometimes it is almost as if the translated verses appear on their own, without any effort on my part. I feel that I may be experiencing something described by many creative types, but also something that anyone who has spent time reciting a mantra, or has even gotten a favorite song stuck in their head, has probably touched upon. As Master Hua put it, “we recite until we recite without reciting.” Often I find when rendering verses, one of the most reliable ways to write something really nice is just to rely on this energy, rather than on my own understanding.
One verse I’ve been recently reciting goes into great detail about the wonderful adornments of various Buddhas’ lands and countries, all filled with joyful bodhisattvas who constantly practice selfless giving with delight and ease. Contemplating this imagery naturally adds to the experience of chanting, and just as the rhythm of the chant starts to create its own kind of energy, the mind also begins to settle into a disposition of ease and joy.
The idea is basically that when we have a recitation practice, the effort and contemplation of that practice gradually begins to resonate with aspects of our own nature.
I feel that this experience also has something to do with the idea of “other power” in the Pure Land school, referring to the power of reciting Amitabha’s name. The idea is basically that when we have a recitation practice, the effort and contemplation of that practice gradually begins to resonate with aspects of our own nature. We experience the energy of this resonance as “other” in relationship to our view of “self.” In reality, this energy is just the limitless light of unbounded, interconnected consciousness. It’s only because of our view of a self that we don’t experience it that way. However, we can still use this contemplation as a tool.
Even in reciting a verse, there’s a chance for kind of offering up, a creativity that arises with the letting go of the self, and a possibility for a new kind of experience. Speaking of translation, the expression “Pure Land” (Chinese 淨土) itself can also be rendered as 佛土 or even 佛界 (the Buddha’s land or the Buddha’s “state.”) Is this “state” a literal place, an experience, or both? At the moment, I prefer to offer the question up to my imagination. Maybe the Lotus Sutra can provide a little inspiration:
At each and every shrine and stupa,
A thousand circling banners fly,
All sewn with pearls like dangling dewdrops,
Fine bells harmoniously chime,
As all the dragons, gods and spirits,
Humans, and other kinds of beings,
With incense, flowers, lilting music,
Make offerings unceasingly.
Manjushri, all of these disciples,
Who take the Buddha as their guide,
Make offerings to these shariras,
Adorning all the stupas and shrines,
As in each realm, the natural landscape,
Abounds and blooms exquisitely,
Just like the lordly parijata,
The tree of heaven, blossoming.