But does it work?

Question: When people say that chanting Daimoku “works,” what do they mean?

Jutta: For many, the question is: “If I chant, will it help me get what I want?” When people say chanting works, most of the time they mean, yes, chanting will help you get what you want.

After decades of chanting, however, I feel confident that it works, but not in the sense of giving me what I want. I can think of very few times when I chanted for a specific resolution to a problem and when it worked out exactly the way I wanted. Chanting is not like rubbing a magic lamp or bossing a Genie who grants wishes.

I hasten to add that I have experienced uncanny coincidences or serendipity which I consider benefits of practice, certainly. My greatest benefits, I believe, have been insights about my life, specifically about my mission and purpose in this world, and knowing who I am, and coming to genuinely like myself.

Montepulciano: I remember a big cheese in Soka Gakkai who claimed that chanting Daimoku to the Gohonzon was “a happiness machine.” You input Daimoku into the machine, and it spits out happiness for you. I nominate this as the worst analogy ever. Daimoku works, but not in a mechanistic or predictable way. I’ve heard people compare the mystic law (Daimoku) to the law of gravity, as if Daimoku is a demonstrable law that governs our physical world. Nonsense. When we say “chanting works,” we have to be clear that we’re talking about the realms of faith, belief, and subjective perception. We are not talking about science or empirical, measurable results.

Carmelight: Many practitioners swear they have received tangible benefits from chanting, though.

Montepulciano: Yes, that’s what I would call subjective perception.

Carmelight: Scientific studies have been conducted on the power of Buddhist meditation, which has been shown to have health benefits. Studies on the power of prayer have been conducted. Science can only measure things that we have the tools to measure. Suppose the benefits of chanting Daimoku are as physically tangible as the workings of gravity, but we don’t have the instrumentation to track the effects.

Montepulciano: Believe what you want to believe. Just be clear that you are talking about belief and faith rather than objective facts.

Jutta: I think Daimoku works similar to the “flow state.” Being in “the zone” is a mental state that has been studied by researchers and is attested to by athletes, artists, and all kinds of people. It has nothing to do with religious beliefs. I have experienced flow in my own life since I started chanting. Maybe this is another example of subjective perception. Maybe I’m “flowing” as much as I ever did but am more aware of it since I started chanting. Focus, calm, ease, balance, confidence, a feeling of floating beyond time and space — these are all associated with the flow state. My perception is that chanting Daimoku puts me in flow, or makes it easier for me to get into flow.

Jones: Back when I worked for SGI-USA, one of my jobs was editing “experiences” for the organizational newspaper. An “experience” was a story that followed a specific formula. First, a person has some kind of problem or challenge in life. Second, this person chants about the problem. Third, this person comes to understand something they hadn’t understood before. Fourth, the problem is resolved, or nearly so, all thanks to chanting and working hard for the sake of SGI-USA.

These “experience” stories were the centerpieces of meetings and publications, and engaged people’s emotions. By shaping and sharing faith stories in this way, the organization very deliberately trained people to perceive chanting and benefit in a mechanistic way. So, yeah, thinking of chanting as a “happiness machine,” accords perfectly with the formula. If you apply this basic formula to your own experiences, you probably believe that this is how chanting works.

Montepulciano: Then again, doesn’t every life problem/challenge fit the formula, with or without chanting? Most people just call it living, learning, winning some, losing some, and trying to do better.

Jones: It’s all about perception. I agree that uncanny things have happened, and I perceive these events to be connected to chanting. I once made a wish list about a job I wanted. This was a job that didn’t exist, as far as I knew. My demands were specifically tailored to my skills, personality, and ambition. I chanted, but not with anything like white-hot intensity. A month or two later, I was offered a job that fit my wish list so perfectly it seemed like a joke.

The real joke, I guess, is that I declined the offer. Because of a family situation, I made a different choice. One of my friends lamented, “The Gohonzon gave you everything you wanted, and yet you refused it.” As if I was an ingrate who turned up my nose at good fortune. As I saw it, I got exactly what I wanted, and at the same time, my life path became clearer — like, double benefit. We were looking at the same situation, but perceiving it totally differently.

Wade: A sudden shift in perception can seem miraculous. Take, for example, Nichiren’s “meteor moment.” A military executioner was about to behead Nichiren when a fireball streaked across the sky. As I understand it, this celestial event was observed and recorded by people who were not present at the execution site. Seeing this fireball frightened the soldiers so much that they could not carry out their orders to kill Nichiren. They took it as a sign or warning. In other words, they associated the appearance of this fireball with what they were ordered to do to Nichiren. Based on this sudden, strange event, they changed their minds. Their perceptions shifted.

Montepulciano: Nichiren’s perceptions shifted, too. Later he wrote that the “old” Nichiren died that night. The “new” Nichiren lived on with a renewed sense of mission as a bodhisattva. In our own lives, many of can say that we’ve had our own meteor moments. I know that I connect these pivotal moments with my Buddhist practice, but I have no objective proof that chanting causes these things to occur. It’s a matter of faith and belief, not scientific fact.

Carmelight: The ultimate shift in perception is enlightenment. Nichiren and other Buddhist teachers tell us that this saha world — our ordinary world of suffering and impermanence — is also the Buddhaland. Buddhist practice is intended to shift our perception so we can see the Buddhaland in our midst. Our minds are clouded by delusion, which is why we can’t see the Buddhaland. With practice, we polish the mirror of our mind, as Nichiren says, in order to clearly reflect the enlightened aspect of existence. To ask if Buddhism works means to ask if it leads to enlightenment. I believe it works. But I can’t prove it to anyone’s satisfaction but my own.

Montepulciano: In the realm of faith, proving it means doing it. It means demonstrating these workings to ourselves and to others in our lives who know us and see us. I have always been skeptical of publicly presented “experience” stories because they feel emotionally manipulative. Some are so sincere they make me cry, such as mothers reuniting with lost children. Others are focused on material success and are like prosperity-gospel bragging. As long as you’re convinced that chanting works for you, what does it matter if other people remain unconvinced?

Carmelight: My next question is, How does one demonstrate enlightenment? Can it be demonstrated?