Chiang spoke slowly and watched the younger gull ever so carefully. “To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is,” he said, “you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived.”
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
The next evening, Michael and I drove to the meeting. We arrived to find a few dozen pairs of shoes and slippers neatly paired at the front door of the house. A Japanese woman escorted us inside to a waiting area. We heard harmonious voices emanating from the adjoining room—the occupants were hidden from our sight, but I could see the side of a large wooden cabinet located at the front of the room. This, I assumed, was the focal point. The occasional resonant sound of a gong punctuated the rhythmic chanting. Ten minutes later, the chanting stopped and we were asked to join the others in the meeting room. We passed by rows of devotees sitting in seiza (half-seated) position. They smiled and made small talk, greeting one another, while rubbing their eyes as if they had just woken up from an afternoon nap.
I now had an excellent view of the cabinet that was the center of their attention. An imposing structure, it stood more than 6 feet tall and measured half as wide. The front boasted ornately carved doors that were open to reveal a candlelit interior. Facing the cabinet (which I later learned was called a butsudan) was a small table that held an incense tray distributing a faint but pleasant aroma—sandalwood, as I remember it—throughout the room. A large metal bowl, perhaps 2 feet in diameter, sat to the right of the table. A strike on the bowl’s rim with a padded mallet accounted for the gong sound. We were invited to inspect the inside the butsudan. The center section held a paper scroll—a papyrus of some sort—the size of a sheet of typing paper. Inscribed on it were the Sanskrit and Japanese writings of Nichiren Dishonin. Our host explained that the vertical markings in the center of the scroll were representing the words Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, and the name Nichiren. Flanking this central inscription were instructions on the path to enlightenment.
She sat down to a round of enthusiastic applause. I noted the faces in the audience. During the talk, they had been attentive to her every word. She mentioned “burning off karma.” She gave credit to the power of uttering the magic words, Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō.
Several members now volunteered their experiences about how they chanted for health, wealth, or love. Everything they had wanted came through for them just as they had requested—only of higher quality. This was the recurring theme throughout the evening: what is asked for by chanting is even better than that which was requested. I later learned that Nam (pronounced “Naahm”) stems from the Sanskrit word, namas “I pay homage to...”, and the words Myōhō Renge Kyō, when taken as a group, represent the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese title of the Lotus Sutra. Through the practice of chanting, it was taught that enlightenment could be obtained in one.
When the speeches ended, the group turned to face the butsudan, hands prayerfully together in front of their chests. Sandalwood juzu beads were draped over their fingers. In unison, they began chanting for the better part of an hour. The session ended with three deep-throated rings of the gong. Hearing them chant for such an extended period was an intense experience. As everyone prepared to leave, I approached the cabinet. I wanted to have another look at the scroll. One of the members stopped me.
“Let me tell you about it,” he said. “That paper, which we call the Gohonzon, is an exact replica of the instructions to reach enlightenment that were carved into a large piece of tree bark by Nichiren Dishonin himself. It’s scaled down, of course, as the original, carefully preserved in our temple at the base of Mount Fuji, is over ten feet tall.” He smiled proudly. “We have pledged our lives to protecting the Gohonzon. When we clean inside the butsudan, we hold a piece of paper or green leaf between our lips. This prevents us from blowing our tainted breath on the Gohonzon.”
The scroll was the object of worship. He explained how the power of chanting had allowed him to recover from terrible illness and poverty, and that he would always be loyal to the teachings of the Great Buddha Nichiren. The host interrupted our conversation, politely apologized for the intrusion, then took me to a small writing table. Three members were seated around the table, along with Mike. They stood—all except for Mike—and bowed politely, as was the Japanese custom, then retook their seats.
“Do you, Dr. Turner, and you Michael Williams, feel that you are ready to join Nichiren Soshu of America (NSA)?” our host asked.
Mike mumbled something about how he had to “think about it.” He retreated to the back of the room. I looked at the application form that had been placed before me. I knew they were eager to sign up new members, and as a physician and a respected member of the community, my joining the organization would be “a feather in their cap.” The principle involved was sound: tapping into powerful forces to guide one’s own life and, when needed, using this energy to cure illness, poverty, and conflict. I felt that the powers they spoke of were related to my search for the spiritual world. These included the electromagnetic force, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and other even more esoteric energy fields. Nichiren taught that the “law of causality” (the relationship between cause and effect) was the principle underlying all visible and invisible phenomena and events, and that a universal field was responsible for the rotation of galaxies around galaxies and planets around stars. This was the power that Nichiren Buddhism tapped.
Born in the 13th century, 800 years before Einstein formulated the concept of “space-time,” Nichiren had an inkling of the mysterious manner in which the universe operates. I thought about the woman with the brain infection, stroke, and eventual recovery. Had she been lucky or had she plugged into this power? Whatever the explanation, I wanted a dose of it in my life—I wanted to explore its mechanism of action. This could be another method to treat dis-ease.
“Absolutely,” I said. I reviewed the application quickly, noting that it spelled out diligent practice, respect, and honor for the Gohonzon. I signed my name. Everyone clapped and stood to shake my hand.
“I’ll be coming by your house with a butsudan for you!” announced one of the female members, the one who’d cut my hair the week before. In my mind’s eye, I saw her delivering a large ornately carved cabinet with electrically operated doors. Tonight’s event reminded me of the born-again Christian experience I’d been through a couple of years earlier, when I was cleverly persuaded to join hands and recite “The Sinner’s Prayer.” I’d given it a try, but with each visit to the church, the sermon left me shedding tears. The feelings of pseudo-guilt that accompanied my “rebirth” were diametrically opposite to those that I now experienced after having joined NSA. I felt empowered to correct life’s problems armed with the universal laws of physics. The Gohonzon would point the way; I only needed to follow its written instructions. What could be easier than this?
After thanking our host and saying goodbye, we left, driving in silence for a while. Mike finally said, “Turner, I’ll try it with you, but I don’t know if I want to join anything.” I knew it was Mike’s orthodox background holding him back from participating in this strange, mystic practice.
“I understand, Michael. It’s good that you’re willing to give it a shot, brother.”
When I arrived home, I looked at the materials given to me: a small booklet containing the words to five daily prayers (a mixture of Japanese kanji and Sanskrit characters). Phonetic spelling was written below each word. All five prayers were to be recited in the morning, three of them in the evening. Both sessions concluded with an extended period of daimoku (repeated chanting of Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō). The practice was done facing the butsudan, candles lit at each side, incense burning, and the gong ready for chiming.
As promised, the woman delivered the butsudan: a small cabinet made of plain lacquered wood. My visions of a grand electrified altar evaporated in an instant. I opened the doors, and was quite surprised to find it empty!
“Excuse me,” I said, “where is the Gohonzon?”
“That,” she replied, “you must earn.” She found a suitable place on my living room bookshelf for the cabinet. “This must be in the best room of the house, the place you would reserve for an honored guest.” With that, she opened the doors of the butsudan and knelt in front of it. She took out her beads and chanted Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō a few times, then turned to me and said, “When you have proven that you are serious, and that you have practiced with true diligence, you will be rewarded with a Gohonzon.”
I got the picture—no one gets into this on a whim. That made sense. No problem. I had committed to give it a good effort twice a day for one year. She left, promising to check on my practice in the days to come.
For the next year I went down on my knees twice a day, sat seiza with lighted candles, fresh green branches in the pots, and three sticks of incense burning. I found that the practice somehow separated mind from body during the repetitive chanting and focusing upon the scroll.
In time, the butsudan came to hold a Gohonzon, presented to me by a Buddhist priest at a private ceremony held in a stately temple in
I returned to
Chanting was absolutely marvelous. Each morning, I could construct my day and decide on events that I wished to experience. Although the process did not always work in a reliable manner, for the most part it worked well. It was interesting—to say the least—to watch the events unfold just as I had requested. Furthermore, when they happened, they were delivered to me better than what I had asked for.
When I began to chant, focusing on the Sanskrit markings, I noticed that my speech soon became automatic. I could disassociate my mind from my body and become aware of remote events while continuing to utter the prayers. One session that I can clearly recall dated back to the early days when I had the empty butsudan. My mother, a child psychologist by trade, came to Hilo for a visit shortly after I joined the Nichiren organization. On that particular night, she and Mike sat outside in the hot tub. Inside the house, I chanted to the Gohonzon. As I did, I could hear their conversation clearly as if I were with them in the spa.
“Dr. Turner,” Mike said, “don’t think I’m going crazy too. When he told me you were coming for a visit, and you being a psychologist and all, I told him that he would have to chant by himself. He’s in the house now, mumbling in Japanese to an empty box!” He snickered.
“Well Mike,” she replied, “I have seen him interested in many things over the years. It’s just a phase he’s going through. He will soon move on to something else
Mike said, “I want you to know that I’m not going to join him in going nuts.” He laughed again, and even my mother began to laugh
After finishing the session, I joined them. I told them how chanting released my mind to explore other places and other dimensions. They laughed again. I let them know that throughout my chanting and ringing of the gong, I had heard their every word, although the distance from the living room to the hot tub made this seem unlikely. After I reiterated their conversation verbatim, they were amazed and a bit startled to know that such a thing was possible. They stopped laughing.
I enjoyed the dissociated awareness that I achieved while chanting. It was not like the reported out-of-the-body experience, but more akin to clarity of mental processing, as in a lucid dream. The Japanese concept of kotodama (the power of words) implies that when words are chanted, they have a power that can change the environment. I believe that chanting sets up resonant circuits in the brain that activate usually quiescent neural pathways. I came to know this feeling of attunement quite well, and after the promised 12 months I discarded the incense sticks, the gong, and the chanting. I could recreate the feeling through meditation. Conceivably, for some, NSA’s chanting could overcome personal illness and hardship, perhaps by stimulation of the immune system, through quieting the mind as in meditation. However, I saw no practical way in which to use this complex and time-consuming process for the benefits of my patients. It was time for me to move on. Time to search for other methods of healing.
But, how did chanting really work? There were times when the results were as requested and that was exciting. It seemed to be truly magical. However, I came to the realization that the changes I thought I’d made to my environment through chanting were only parts of a script (written in the spiritual world) unfolding.John L. Turner, MD, served as the first neurosurgeon on the Big Island of Hawaii. He arrived with the desire to investigate the spiritual world and understand the meaning of life, death, and life-after-death. His metaphysical experiences began the first night he was on call and continue up to the present. Dr. Turner balances his time between stargazing from an observatory dome at his rain forest home and serving as a consulting physician for the Hilo Pain Center in Hilo, Hawaii.