Perhaps this week in our group studying Celtic spirituality we will have an opportunity to chant together. We shall have read Chapter 5 of John Philip Newell's book, The Rebirthing of God. That chapter is devoted to reconnecting with spiritual practice, so practicing would not seem out of place. As he commonly does, John Philip in this chapter invokes a particular person whose work elucidates the themes he is addressing. In this event, that person is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Newell writes, "Merton's first emphasis is that which is deepest in us, is like 'pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.' In meditation, he says, we penetrate the innermost ground of our life. This allows us to find our true meaning not from the outside, he says, but from within."
"Merton," Newell adds, "says we may not want to be seen as beginners in spiritual practice. 'But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!' The first people to acknowledge this are usually those who are most committed to the spiritual disciplines of silence, meditation, and mindfulness."
Chanting is a practice common to all spiritual traditions I know, and I could have chosen as illustration here a chant from the Taizé community in France, or part of a psalm from the Torah. Instead, I have chosen a short line translated from the original Sanscrit, a Buddhist text of just sixteen syllables. I include it below, along with a very short essay on its meaning written by the Dalai Lama.
Om mani padme hum
The first word Om is a sacred syllable. The word Mani means "jewel" or "bead." Padme is the lotus flower (the Buddhist sacred flower), and Hum represents the spirit of enlightenment.
"The jewel is in the lotus." or "Praise to the jewel in the lotus."
On the meaning of OM MANI PADME HUM:
by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
It is very good to recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking of its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast. The first, OM, is composed of three pure letters, A, U, and M. These symbolize the practitioner's impure body, speech, and mind; they also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha.
All Buddhas are beings who were like ourselves and then following the path became enlightened…The development of pure body, speech, and mind comes from gradually leaving the impure states and their being transformed into the pure.
How is this done? The path is indicated by the next four syllables. MANI, meaning jewel, symbolizes the method—the altruistic intention to become enlightened, through compassion and love. Just as a jewel is capable of removing poverty, so the altruistic mind of enlightenment is capable of removing the difficulties of cyclic existence and of solitary peace. Similarly, just as a jewel fulfills the wishes of sentient beings, so the altruistic intention to become enlightened fulfills the wishes of sentient beings.
The two syllables, PADME, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom. Just as a lotus grows forth from mud but is not sullied by the faults of mud, so wisdom is capable of putting you in a situation of non-contradiction whereas there would be contradiction if you did not have wisdom. There is wisdom realizing impermanence, wisdom realizing that persons are empty of self-sufficient or substantial existence, wisdom that realizes the emptiness of duality, and wisdom that realizes the emptiness of inherent existence. Though there are many different types of wisdom, the main [one] is the wisdom realizing emptiness.
Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable, HUM, which indicates indivisibility. According to the sutra system, this indivisibility of method and wisdom refers to one consciousness in which there is both wisdom affected by method and method affected by wisdom. In the mantra, it refers to one consciousness in which there is both wisdom and method as one undifferentiable entity. HUM is the seed syllable—the immovable, the unfluctuating, that which cannot be disturbed by anything.
Thus the six syllables, OM MANI PADME HUM, mean that in your practice, through indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. It is said that you should not seek Buddhahood outside of yourself; the substances for the achievement of Buddhahood are within. All beings naturally have the Buddha nature in their own continuum. We have within us the seed of purity, the essence to be transformed and fully developed into Buddhahood.