The Amitofo Mantra
The Amitofo mantra, or mantra of Amitabha Buddha, is a very popular mantra, for it is the main cultivation technique of the Buddhist Pure Land school founded by the Chinese monk Hui-Yuan.
Before becoming a monk, Hui-Yuan had studied Confucianism and Taoism but found both lacking, so he went over to Buddhism to look for that transcendental something beyond the physical immortality promised by Taoism, and beyond the rules of behavior espoused by the Confucianism of his times. He was like Ibn Arabi, who turned to Sufism because he could not find the cultivation techniques and results he was looking for in basic, orthodox Islam.
After his own success in self-cultivation, and noting the difficulties he had himself encountered along the way, Hui-Yuan fully realized how difficult it would be for people in later generations to achieve enlightenment. Thus he promoted the simple technique of chanting Amitofo's name and listening to the sound within, because this method could be practiced by every sort of individual--the privileged or poor, the intelligent or the dull, the skeptic or religious-minded. Because the practice methodology is so simple, it's predicted that this will be the last of the Buddhist cultivation methods to die out in this world.
I used to hate this mantra, which goes to show that it must be powerful since we tend to hate the really powerful cultivation methods that will change us. However, once in retreat I discovered that the various mantras produced a different emphasis effect on the body's chakras. No other mantra worked to open up the head chakra, or crown chakra, other than the golden Amitofo mantra. It doesn't mean other mantras don't do that; I was just surprised to find that of all the mantras I practiced, the Amitofo mantra worked exceptionally well on opening up the thousand petals of the crown chakra at the top of the head, which is why, perhaps, it helps one be reborn in a pure enlightenment land where you can make further cultivation practice.
To practice the Amitofo mantra, an individual need only silently mantra "Namo Amitofo" or "Amitofo" wherever they are, constantly keeping both the mantra and Amitofo in their mind and heart. Sometimes one concentrates on visualizing a yellowish golden or whitish picture of Amitofo during the practice of japa repetition, (you can try the region of the heart, or top of the head) but the major basis of this technique is single-minded, pure, sincere invocation.
Such devotion is like bhakti yoga, and when practiced in conjunction with breath relaxation, it becomes a type of one-pointed concentration practice leading to samadhi. Success in cultivation does not depend on any outside force, it depends entirely on your own efforts and achievements. However, if an individual feels they're not strong enough to succeed in cultivation by themselves, this method gives them an outside force to rely upon.
Some individuals recite the Amitofo mantra simply because they wish to be reborn in Amitofo's Buddha land after their death, and they carry the hopes of using this more favorable environment (known as the "Western Heaven") as a better staging ground for making further cultivation progress. The Zen school, however, takes a different approach to this practice, for the Zen school teaches people to recite this mantra in order to attain samadhi and see the "Pure Land" in this very life. It teaches that the Pure Land of Amitofo shouldn't be viewed as a physical place, but a state of mind which is forever blissful and pure; your own wisdom light is the Pure Land, so you're already functioning in the Western Paradise of Amitofo. When you achieve the true immediate reality, this is the Pure Land of the human world.
Christianity also tells us that the coming of Heaven should actually be experienced in the mind, for as the Thomas Gospel states: "The Kingdom of God will not come by expectation. The Kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it." Hence by reciting this mantra and listening inwards to calm the mind, you can enter into samadhi and attain to this realm; without moving one step, you're already in the Heaven of Amitofo. This realm is the same as what Amitofo experiences, and thus in attaining samadhi through the Amitofo method, you will see what Amitofo sees, which is the Pure Land in every situation at every moment.
When you mantra "Namo Amitofo", the key point is to mantra with the mind and to listen within, not simply to loudly chant "Amitofo" with your tongue. Actually, mantra recitation, or japa, doesn't really mean reciting with your mind either because the purpose of the practice is to focus your mind, to keep your mind on that clear moment of perfect presence where there is no body, no self, no sound. So no matter which cultivation school you follow or which mantra you use, you should always be physically relaxed during mantra recitation, practicing until the sound disappears and you attain the silence of samadhi.
Contemplating this silence and investigating this clear state which is produced, chanting "Namo Amitofo" will let you realize the message indicated by the mantra: "Ah" stands for a limitlessness without boundaries, "Mi" stands for endless life and endless time, "To" stands for unbounded light (the true self nature), while "Fo" stands for Buddha--someone who is clear, aware, awake and enlightened. The "Namo" in this mantra stands for "surrendering to" or "giving oneself over to" in the sense of "surrendering to Christ". Hence reciting "Namo Amitofo" is not only a means to attain samadhi, but it's also telling us that the very original substance of our being extends across infinite space as infinite life and infinite light, which is the clear knowing nature of transcendental wisdom. The Bible also tells us that "God is light", so there's no distinction between religions when they're talking about your own inherent wisdom; we use the word "light" as an analogous reference to this clear, primordial wisdom nature, but it isn't anything physical.
In mantra practice, you don't measure your progress by the number of mantras you perform, but by the state of internal quiet which is produced. Then, of course, you must switch to the act of contemplation and observe what it is that perceives this state of silence or emptiness. The state of silence "floats" in a formless, empty awareness which extends everywhere. That's what you're trying to find, for it's beyond both the mundane silence we call emptiness and the state of noisy mentation as well; they're both its constructions.
What's the best way to mantra to reach this state of mental cessation wherein you can finally perceive the true nature of the mind? It all depends on your situation at the time, as to whatever is the best medicine for the situation you're in. But as the Kularnava Tantra states in general, "Japa [mantra repetition] is of three kinds. Japa done aloud is the lowest, japa done in low tones is the middle, and japa done mentally is the best." If you are single-minded in your mantra practice, then all sorts of transcendental results are sure to follow.
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