In praise of familiarity

In praise of familiarity November 28, 2017

Grey Buddha 150216This morning as a part of our usual morning Buddhist service I introduced the congregation to something in our Nien Fo book which we never chant: The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit.

At the start of the year I took it upon myself to record an audio version of all the liturgy and hymns in our Nien Fo book, which have been written by our teacher, Dharmavidya, and gathered together from different traditions. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

In our books we have an English translation of the Heart Sutra, alongside a romanized Japanese version which we chant with great joy and aplomb. We also have the sutra in Sanskrit, the Prajna Paramitha Hridaya Sutra. I looked this up online and found an exquisite chanted version by a Chinese-Malay singer with the glorious name of Imee Ooi.

I set about learning it. The Sanskrit words were complicated to pronounce. The Indian-sounding melody weaved all over the place, and kept surprising me with unexpected twists and turns. It was also fast! It took me many long hours of poring over the words and pressing pause and rewind, pause and rewind, before I managed to record my imperfect but good-enough version, here.

As I played Imee Ooi’s version of the sutra in the shrine room this morning, I found myself overcome with emotion. It had lived with me for the weeks I’d spent learning and rehearsing it. I knew the music so intimately – the inflection of every syllable, the timing, the tune. I realised that learning and recording it had been an act of devotion to my school of Buddhism, Amida Shu, and to the Buddha.

There is no substitute for this sort of familiarity with our practice. It reminds me of my relationship with certain beloved poems. I have read these packages of words hundreds or maybe even thousands of times, pondering over each word, and listened to them as I read them out loud. Every time, a different nuance of meaning presents itself. Every time, there is the feeling of meeting an old friend again – the friend is the same, but also different. Of course, we are different each time too.

It is good to invest our time and energy into ancient texts and traditional tunes like the Prajna Paramitha Hridaya Sutra, as it helps us to connect with the three jewels through the ages. It is also good to invest our care and attention in other things – a favourite walk through the woods, a beloved passage from a novel, or a piece of classical music. These objects become more than places, simple lists of words or sounds – they transform into “a window, through which the whole universe of Buddha’s teachings can be perceived in all its depth”. (from the Summary of Faith and Practice).

What spiritual practices are as familiar to you as your own face? Which practices would you like to come into a closer relationship with? How will you achieve this? What help do you need?

I’m very grateful for all the beautiful texts that we recite and sing during our services, and I hope to introduce them to others, just as we are desperate for our friends to read a novel or see a film that has blown us away. This morning, the Buddha’s light streamed in through the Heart Sutra, and burst my heart open. Maybe it will do the same for you.

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