Chanting as a Meditation Practice
by Jim Wilson
In September of 2002 I joined the Nichiren Shu Temple in San Jose. For decades I had practiced in the Zen tradition and this shift of focus for me, in terms of practice, has given me much to contemplate. The most obvious difference is that the primary practice of Zen is sitting in silence and stillness, the practice of Zazen. The primary practice of Nichiren Buddhism is mantra recitation, or chanting. I began to jot down random thoughts about the differences in these forms, and more particulary regarding chanting as a meditative practice. The following are culled from those notes.
Mantra recitation is the most widespread form of meditation in the Buddhist world. Nichiren Buddhism shares with Pure Land Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism an emphasis on this kind of practice. While the practice of mantra recitation is very common, the specific mantra used varies from tradition to tradition. Pure Land Buddhism in Japan uses the mantra "Namu Amida Butsu", which means "Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light." In Tibetan Buddhism many different mantras are used, depending upon the specific lineage. A widely used mantra in Tibetan Buddhism is "Om Mani Padme Hum." This means something like "Om, the Jewel in the Lotus, Hum." In Zen Buddhism practitioners chant the Heart Sutra which ends with the mantra "Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha!" This mantra means, "Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Beyond Beyond, Awakening, Svaha!" (Svaha is an exclamation, something like "hurray!" or "hallelujah!".) However, although the Zen tradition chants the Heart Sutra regularly, its primary meditative form is silent meditation.
The mantra used in Nichiren Buddhism is "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo." This mantra means "Homage to the Lotus Sutra." Nichiren Buddhists chant this mantra on a daily basis at their home altars, and also collectively at their temples and meetings. It is the primary practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
Mantra recitation is a highly efficacious form of meditation. As mentioned above, it is the most widespread form of meditation in the Buddhist world, a form of meditation that crosses sectarian lines. The only tradition where this might be an exception is Theravada Buddhism. However, I have recently begun to realize that chanting practice is fairly pervasive in Theravada Buddhism. For example, someone practicing the cultivation of the Four Immeasurable states of love, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity often uses a chant in which these four states are cultivated by successively focusing them on 12 types of beings in 10 directions. Since there are four contemplations, which are successively rotated through 12 types and 10 directions, this generates hundreds of verses in this simple chanting practice. It is a beautiful form of chanting practice and it allows the practitioner to dive deeply into this kind of contemplation. Though this is not specifically an example of mantra recitation, it shares many of the features of mantra recitation.
The dominance of mantra and chanting meditation in the Buddhist world may come as a surprise to western practitioners of the Dharma. This is because westerners, for the most part, when they use the term "meditation" mean the kind of silent and introspective practices that appear in concentration practices such as vipassana, or spacious awareness practices that are prominent in traditions such as Zen and Dzog Chen. Because the term "meditation" in the west has come to mean these kinds of silent practices, it is sometimes difficult to view mantra recitation as a form of meditation.
However, the term meditation in a Buddhist context means something like "mind cultivation", or "heart cultivation"; mind and heart not being viewed as mutually exclusive in a Buddhist context. If looked at from the point of view of mind cultivation, mantra recitation clearly falls within that category and constitutes an effective and powerful means for the cultivation of the mind and heart. And what is being cultivated in mantra recitation? Like all Buddhist traditions, what is being cultivated is wisdom and compassion.
Because mantra recitation is so central to Nichiren Buddhism, I want to spend some time discussing this form of practice, how it works, why it is efficacious, and why so many people in so many Buddhist traditions find this practice so rewarding.
A Personal Story
First, a personal note. My own introduction to Buddhist practice, my first retreat, was a chanting retreat. The retreat was held by Zen Master Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen Master. I was just a dharma pup at that time, knowing almost nothing about Buddhism and less about Zen. But I had read a book or two written by Seung Sahn, and found his teachings attractive. I therefore signed up for the retreat, thinking that it would consist of hours and hours of quiet sitting and the contemplation of those strange, yet oddly attractive, Zen puzzles called koans.
What actually happened shattered all my expectations. Instead of quiet sitting about 50 people spent hour after hour chanting the name of Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (in Korean, Kwan Yin is pronounced Kwan Seum Bosal). Everyone had a percussion instrument; drums, tambourines, woodblocks, gongs. It was thunderous. The melodic Korean chanting rose and fell, hour after hour, as the chanting speeded up and slowed down at the direction of the Zen Master.
I was stunned. I had a very strong image of what Zen meant, and what Buddhism looked like. My image was wood, black robes, hours of silence, bare walls; you get the picture. What in the world was going on here? I had no idea. After the first few hours, if I could have left, I would have. But I had accepted a ride from a friend, so I was there for the duration. Which was a good thing, because by the middle of the second day, my bewilderment fell away, and I was able to merge with the chanting.
The retreat turned into the pivotal experience of my spiritual life. All my preconceptions about Zen, about meditation, about the form that spiritual activity must take, fell away. Because of this pivotal experience I have always remained open to chanting as an important practice form. And because Korean Buddhism has a strong tradition of integrating both views and practices, I never felt a strong dichotomy between chanting forms of meditation and silent forms of meditation. However, I am aware that many people do reserve the term “meditation” for the silent forms of concentration/vipassana and spacious awareness/Zen. For this reason, I would like to explore the practice of chanting meditation, and mantra recitation; how it works, the effects it has. By exploring this more extroverted form of meditation I think we can gain a clearer understanding of why chanting is the central practice of Buddhism in general, and Nichiren Buddhism in particular.
The Early Roots of Chanting in the Buddhist Tradition
Chanting is deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition. This began immediately after the Buddha’s death. His disciples gathered together and worked his teachings into a form that could be chanted. Remnants of these chanted teachings are found in sources such as The Numerical Sayings. Take, for example, the Book of Sixes. At the end of the Book of Sixes, from the Numerical Sayings, three sets of six categories, one set of eleven categories, and one set of 17 categories, are all rotated through each other to generate 509 verses, each verse considered a Sutta. When chanted, these 509 verses become hypnotic and it is surprisingly easy to remeber all the categories, and how they feed into each other, after the first few verses.
This kind of repetitious chanting is very close in feeling, if not identical in structure, to mantra recitation. Some of the simpler rituals, such as chanting the Three Refuges, could easily become mantra like in both structure and feeling. I am suggesting here that mantra recitation grew naturally from the early Buddhist tradition of chanting doctrinal lists, and the simple ceremonies involving simple formulas, such as the Three Refuges, the names of the Buddha, and other widely used rituals.
Seen from this perspective, mantra recitation may be the oldest form of mental cultivation in the Buddhist world.
The Beginnings of Chanting?
I suspect that chanting was done during the Buddha’s lifetime. I sometimes imagine his disciples circumambulating the Buddha, chanting the three refuges, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, in a show of enthusiastic devotion and admiration.
Body, Breath, Voice, and Mind
Part of the power of chanting meditation is that it unites Body, Breath, Voice, and Mind as these aspects of our existence become focused through the activity of chanting. The mind itself experiences a high degree of unification when chanting. Normally the part of our brain centered on rhythmic patterns is not united with the conceptual part of the brain. Chanting brings them together into a single act. The emotions are also brought into a unity in this act as the emotions are allowed expression through the agency of the voice. Overall, I can’t think of a better means for bringing about full concentration than chanting.
Why do I say this? In chanting the mind, and its disparate functions, become unified in the act of chanting. The voice also participates in this meditative process. The breath is an additional essential component for the chanting process. Through the breath, the body as a whole is brought into the meditative practice. Thus mental, emotional, and physical functions all become engaged in, concentrated on, a single act; that of chanting the mantra. All the energy of the human organism is brought to a single purpose.
Chanting and Healing Energy
I suspect that chanting has healing effects. On the level of mind, chanting gradually, but effectively, overcomes distracted and scattered mind. It works like this; when body, breath, and mind repeat a phrase or mantra over and over, the mind has an object of focus that is both interior and exterior. The wandering mind is gently brought back to the sound. Thus, the mind learns how to focus, how to notice when it is scattered, and how to move from a scattered state to a focussed state. In this way chanting meditation heals the scattered and distracted mind.
On a physiological level, chanting seems to energize the organism. I remember the first chanting retreat I attended, the one I attended unintentionally. After chanting all day, for many hours, the chanting would end around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. No one would go to sleep. Everyone was in a state of high energy and there followed many hours of Dharma talk, forming of friendships, sharing of views.
In contrast, at the conclusion of a day of zazen, people often feel very tired and my experience is that most people head straight for bed. There is something paradoxical about this. At a chanting retreat one is engaged in activity all day long. At a zazen retreat, one is doing very little, just sitting, all day long. Yet the sitting retreats tend to be much more energy draining than the chanting retreats.
I think the reason for this is that the physical process of chanting, and the rhythm of the breathing involved in chanting, circulates energy in the body system. Blood is flowing, air is pumping, and on a more subtle level, the life energy of chi is flowing freely.
Years ago I read a story about a Trappist monastery whose Abbot had died. In accordance with traditional procedures the monks elected a new Abbot. The new Abbot decided to reduce the amount of chanting at the early morning Matins services. An immediate result was that the monks had greater difficulty staying awake. Even though the reduction in the length of the service would have seemed conducive to better attention, the opposite actually happened. The chanting that had been removed was soon reinstated and this proved conducive to a wakeful and attentive early morning service.
Body and Mind Falling Away
There is an interesting experience that sometimes happens when chanting, particularly in the case of mantra recitation. For me it only happens after a long period of chanting. What happens is that the chanting begins to unfold without any conscious effort or calculation. The process unfolds of its own accord. It is simply what is happening.
I identify this experience with Dogen’s "body and mind falling away." I understand this to mean that there is no longer a feeling of separation between the practitioner and the world. There is only the presence of the world and even such an insignificant person as I finds myself embedded in the ongoing ebb and flow of the rivering world without any sense of separation. This is a glimpse of the mind that dwells in the realization of the primal interdependence of all existence, the heart of the Buddha’s realization.
Chanting and Sangha
Chanting is often done as a group activity. Nichiren Buddhists practice at home, twice a day, and in these cases the chanting is often done solo. But most Nichiren Buddhists also belong to a Temple or group, and gather regularly for group chanting as an integral part of their commitment to Nichiren Buddhism.
The fact that chanting is often a social activity differentiates chanting from silent forms of meditation. Silent meditation, even when done in a group, tends to isolate individuals. I think this is one of the reasons why Zen appeals to the rugged individual type of personality. The practice of zazen has a lot of features that make it look like one is self-reliant. I think that is why in Japan, Zen is often referred to as a "self-powered" practice.
Chanting in a group weaves a group together. It is a demonstration of interdependence and a clear example of the Buddha’s insight into interdependent transformation. In other words, chanting in a group gives people an opportunity to directly perceive the truth of interdependent transformation, to experience this truth.
Chanting and Interdependent Transformation
Chanting, as mentioned above, gives us the opportunity to directly perceive interdependent transformation, the seed from which all the Buddha’s teachings emerge. Normally we do not perceive interdependent transformation, as our perception of objects seems to indicate a world of separate and self-sufficient things.
In contrast, with the sound of chanting, particularly chanting in a group, the sound of the chanting arises due to causes and conditions which we have clear contact with and perception of. Because the sound of the chanting emerges from our own voice, and the voices of those we are chanting with, it is a clear demonstration of the truth of interdependent transformation.
Everything is like that, like the sound of chanting voices, but normally we are unable to perceive this. In the case of chanting we can directly perceive the quality of dependence, and therefore directly perceive the emptiness that the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras refer to. This is done effortlessly and clearly when we chant together with others. This is one of the most powerful lessons of group chanting.
Chanting and Change
All things are constantly changing, but we forget this. If it is the case that all things are constantly changing, why, then, do we forget this? It is because our perception does not clearly present this truth to us. The desk I am writing on does not seem to be changing. I infer that it is changing, but I do not peceive that it is changing.
The sonic realm is different. With sound I can directly perceive the truth of constant change. Chanting offers us an opportunity to directly perceive this truth by drawing our attention to the sound we are chanting. The contours of the chanting constantly change, yet the chanting maintains a sense of coherency and pattern. This is a wonderful lesson in how constant change does not negate coherence, how form and change are compatible with each other.
Chanting and Impermanence
Chanting allows us to directly experience the meaning of impermanence. As the chanting ceases, impermanence appears. Nothing could be clearer.
Impermanence is difficult for people to understand. Why is this? It is because most objects of perception do not readily display their impermanence. We can infer thier impermanence, but we do not directly experience that impermanence. This is particularly true of visual objects which, for the most part, appear stable.
This is why a sonic object, such as a mantra, is an ideal embodiment of the Dharma. Sonic objects exhibit in a way directly accessible to our senses the core Dharma truths of dependent origination, of constant change, and of impermanence. Therefore, as an object of reverence, the mantra is the ideal teaching tool for human beings.
It is clinging which gives rise to suffering, according to numerous discourses. I think of clinging in its extreme form as obsession. In its extreme form we can observe this mechanism in various addictions, which give rise to much suffering. In silent forms of meditation obsession manifests as thoughts or images that replay, over and over, in the mind of the meditator. This is a common experience among practitioners of vipassana and zazen. It can feel very frustrating to the meditator, for no matter how hard the practitioner tries to “just let it go,” the repetitive though just keeps reappearing like some maniacal jack-in-the-box who won’t go away.
Chanting meditation in many ways resembles obsession. There is the same fixation, the same repetitiveness. Contemplating the similarities between obsession and chanting, I have tentatively come to a view which comprehends chanting meditation as the transformation of obsession into the path of realization. Instead of fighting the human tendency toward obsession, chanting meditation takes advantage of that tendency and transforms obsession into the path and into an opportunity for realization and awakening.
In order to understand how this transformation occurs I will use as a model a strcuture borrowed from Vajrayana Buddhism. This structure is referred to as the elementals. The view of the elementals is to cosider all things as manifestations of energy, of moving and flowing energy. This energy takes a number of basic forms which have certain tendencies. In Vajrayana these basic forms are called earth, water, fire, air, and space.
The key here is that the energy manifestations can be comprehended in two ways. From one perspective, a particular manifestaiton is a hindrance and obstacle to awakening. From another perspective, it is possible to use any kind of manifestation to awaken to the presence of wisdom and compassion.
Taking the specific example of obsession; this kind of repetitive attachment is an example of fire energy. Fire clings and burns. People often spontaneously use fire imagery when speaking of their own obsessions. However, this kind of fire energy is also, when comprehended clearly, the presence of, and the gateway to, compassion. In other words, when obsession is transformed, it manifests as compassion.
How does this happen? The clearest way to comprehend this transformation is to examine the Bodhisattva Vows. The first Bodhisattva Vow is, "Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all." This is a commitment to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. All means every single one. Person after person, being after being, world after world, life after life. In other words, infinite compassion has the same constantly repeated and reasserting energy that obsession does; but now that energy is subsumed to the direction of releasing others from suffering. So instead of abandoning the fire of obsession, we transform obsession into awakening itself.
How does chanting facilitate this transformation of obsession? Chanting in the form of mantra recitation deliberately cultivates the process of a repetitive presence. In other words, mantra recitation uses the mechanism of obsession, but places that mechanism in a context where the object of repetition is not only not harmful, but actually beneficial. This demonstrates to the practitioner that the mind, even in this form, is not the enemy. This constitutes a profound unification of mind, and allows the practitioner to become more whole and grounded. And it demonstrates to the practitioner the liberative potential of the mind, even in forms that under many circumstances seem like hindrances.
All of this does not necessarily happen consciously. In most cases the practitioner may not be able to articulate the nature of the transformation taking place. However, the transformation does happen. It resembles someone taking medicine; they do not necessarily know, and in most cases probably do not know, how the medicine works. Nevertheless, they get better and the disease subsides. Similarly, a practitioner does not have to be consciously aware of how mantra recitation transforms obsession in order to benefit from such a transformation. Nevertheless, the transformation occurs. The specific transformation is that repetitive desires no longer have the same fierceness and grip because the process whereby they appear is seen through and no longer considered in and of itself problematical. The energy of these obsessions can now be shifted. Shifted where? Shifted to mantra recitation. In other words, every single time someone practices mantra recitation, they are transforming the mechanism of obsession into the path of awakening itself. One can observe this happening among many practitioners as an early result of such practice. What one observes is a lessening of the grip of obsessions as one’s practice of mantra recitation deepens.
The Object of Chanting
What I have said above applies to all forms of mantra recitation, of which there are many in the Buddhist world. There are also forms of mantra recitation in Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity. Short repetitive prayers are probably universal and any kind of short, repetitive prayer, done systematically, such as the rosary, is an example of mantra recitation.
In the Nichiren tradition the specific mantra used is "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo". This mantra means "Homage to the Lotus Sutra." Why this mantra? Why not some other mantra? Does it even matter what mantra we use?
This is a good question. My old Zen teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, argued that in fact it doesn’t matter. He likes to say that chanting "Coca Cola, Coca Cola" will produce the same results as chanting "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha," or "Om Mani Padme Hum". With all due respect to my old teacher, I believe he is mistaken.
My short answer as to why it matters which mantra is used is that we become the object of our attention. For this reason it does matter what mantra we use in mantra recitation practice. Advertising is a good example of a secular technology that attempts to instill a repetitive message in our minds. Advertising jingles have a powerful tenaciousness. But what is their purpose? The purpose of advertising jingles is to instill desire. And why do advertising jingles attempt to instill desire in us? Because the premiss under which advertising operates is that the possession of material goods will bring us happiness. Chanting "Coca Cola" will not bring about a transformation in us because the object of attention is not capable of leading to such a transformation.
Once again, we become what we place our attention on. If someone wants to become a mathematician, they study mathematics every day. Soon, they are a mathematician. If someone wants to become a musician, they practice every day. Soon, they are a musician. If someone wants to lear a foreign language, they practice that language every day. Soon they can comprehend that language.
Now, if someone wants to awaken to wisdom, compassion, and the presence of eternity, what is it that needs to be practiced in order to accomplish this? It was the great discovery of Nichiren that the Lotus Sutra is the surest guide, the clearest presentation, of how this is accomplished. That’s the connection between the specific mantra recitation practice of Nichiren Buddhism and the awakening that all Buddhist schools consider their ultimate goal.
This can be comprehended more clearly if one contrasts the mantra of Nichiren Buddhism with mantras used in other Buddhist traditions and what those mantras accomplish. If one wants to be born in the Pure Land, the celestial realm, then chanting "Namu Amida Butusu", or "Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light", will accomplish this purpose. If one wants to gain facility in the doctrine of emptiness, then chanting "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha," or "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond beyond, awakening, svaha!" will accomplish this purpose.
Just as various advertising jingles accomplish different purposes by steering us in a particular product direction, just as political slogans accomplish different purposes by cajoling us into a particular political direction, so also different mantras accomplish different purposes by bringing out different aspects of our consciousness. What, then, is the particular accomplishment of the mantra "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo"?
The mantra of Nichiren Buddhism draws our attention to the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra has two primary messages (I will have more to say about this below). The first message is that all beings have Buddha Nature and that they will some day become Buddhas. This is a profoundly liberating teaching and makes the Lotus Sutra the most optimistic spiritual work I have ever encountered.
The second message of the Lotus Sutra is that the ability to awaken is eternally present, never absent, no matter what our circumstances, no matter how bleak our lives may appear. This eternal presence of the capacity for awakening is the eternal presence of the Buddha, compassionately assisting all beings in the great task of awakening to infinite wisdom and endless compassion.
These two pillars of the Lotus Sutra are condensed in the mantra of Nichiren Buddhism as "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo." How could such teachings be condensed into a mantra of only seven syllables?
Consider the power of words. I have never been to Paris, but just the word "Paris" conjures up all sorts of associations for me that have to do with art, literature, the Eiffel Tower, cafes and croissants. All of that is embedded in the single word "Paris". Or consider the power of derogatory words that are used to demean a racial or religious group. Just the uttering of these words can make us feel very uncomfortable because all sorts of negative associations crowd into our minds when we hear them.
Words are not isolated, either from each other or from the world at large. They are intimately connected to other words, concepts, and also to associations in our lives and the lives of many other people. For this reason, chanting "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo" brings with it associations that, at first, may be largely unconscious, but are nevertheless strongly present. The associations in which this mantra are embedded are the presence of Buddha Nature not only in all beings, but also in myself; and that therefore it is possible, actually possible, for I and all beings to become Buddhas. This is a powerful message, far more powerful than the associations the word "Paris" carries with it.
So the mantra of Nichiren Buddhism is carefully crafted to remind us of our capacity to awaken to the presence of eternity, manifesting as infinite wisdom and compassion, in all sentient beings. We need to be reminded of this because we forget. In our daily lives, filled with distractions of all kinds, we loose our direction. In addition, the society at large does not particularly value this message. For example, one does not come across this message when watching T.V., listening to the radio, or reading a newspaper. The mantra "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo" is a skillfull way to keep us on track, to gently remind us that this human life is a great opportunity, an opportunity for awakening, not only ourselves, but all sentient beings, everywhere, without exception.
Webroads of Meaning
The mental realm is an actual realm in which humans dwell. Just as we dwell in a visual realm, and a sonic realm, we also dwell in a mental realm, which has a geography. For the most part, people are not clear about the geography of mind. There is a way, however, to clarify the geography of mind.
Take a word, say "freedom". The word exists at a location in mental realm. Now ask yourself what words you consider synonyms for the word "freedom". Write down the words. A synonym means a word that you would use as a substitute for the word freedom, or a word that you would accept as a substitute for the word "freedom" when someone else uses it. Common synonyms include "liberty", "justice", and "choice." But you will have your own words that come to mind. Don’t worry about creating a long list. A list of three to six synonyms is sufficient. Whatever words come spontaneously to mind is best.
These synonyms are located near the word "freedom" in your mind. The word "freedom" is in the center, and these synonyms surround the word, giving you an idea of the geography of the word freedom in your mind. Now, each of the synonyms you have come up with can be similarly treated, meaning you can ask yourself what synonyms you would come up with for this other word. By engaging in this process you bring to consciousness what I refer to as a "webroad" of meaning. Each synonym carries you farther from the central term you are considering; in this case "freedom." This webroad is a path in the geography of one’s mind.
We can apply this kind of analysis to mantra recitation, with slight modification. Since mantras are usually groups of words, instead of asking what synonym I would use for the mantra, I ask myself what associations come to m!y mind with the mantra.
I’ll give some personal examples. The first mantra I chanted was "Kwan Seum Bosal", the Korean pronounciation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kwan Yin in Chinese. If I ask myself what associations come to mind, I come up with "compassion, love, caring, responding, sheltering." These are the first four terms that come to my mind when consider the mantra. This gives me an idea of the meaning of the mantra for me.
If I ask myself what associations come to mind with the possible mantra "Coca Cola", I come up with "friends, thirst, sweet." This is a good way of delineating the differences in using different recitation formulas. There is a slight overlap between the two in the term "friends", which eventually could be linked to a term from "Kwan Seum Bosal". If I subject the term "friends" to the same kind of analysis, and I subject the term "caring" to the same kind of analysis, I may at some point, say three or four levels down a webroad of meaning, come to a common term. Which places them fairly distant in the geography of mind.
The meaning of Budhist mantras can be clarified through this process. For example, the mantra "Namu Amida Butsu" bring to mind certain associations such as "grace, heaven, gratitude." This is the first step along the webroad of meaning in the geography of the mantra in my mind.
The mantra "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo" brings with it the following immediate associatons, "eternity, compassion, equality, Buddhahood." Those are the associations that immediately come to my mind when contemplating the mantra. There is some connection between "Namu Amida Butsu" and "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo" in the terms "gratitude" and "compassion". If we subject both of these terms to a similar analysis, I suspect that they will be fairly close in the geography of mind.
However, the differences are also striking. The Pure Land Mantra of Amida is focussed primarily on heaven and the grace that gets me there. The mantra of the Lotus Sutra is focussed primarily on the ability to awaken. Thus the two mantras are differently weighted.
Just as the term "Paris" conjures up in our minds certain associations, so also mantras are placed in a geography of associations and immediate meanings. Part of the meaning of a term, and of a mantra, is these associations. In some ways, these associations are more important than definitions; and when it comes to mantras, it is the associations which become primary. The associations that come with a term like "Coca Cola" are not particularly conducive to awakening. The associations with a mantra like "Namu Amida Butsu" shifts one’s focus to a celestial dimension; but, as the Buddha taught, no heaven lasts forever. The associations of the mantra "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo" are primarily to eternity, the presence of eternity, and awakening to that compassionately eternal presence. Thus the mantra "Namu Myoho Renge Kyo" is superbly crafted for entering into the ultimate awakening, which the Lotus Sutra teaches is available to all living beings.
May the Wonderful Lotus of the Dharma blossom within the hearts of all sentient beings.