The following I offer at the conclusion of this series as tools for your study of the Dharma.
Besides modeling this exploration of the Parable of the Magic City on the Jewish scholarly tradition of midrash I also employed a form of lectio divina from Christian traditions. I was first introduced to lectio divina while I was studying to become a chaplain. Every morning when I stayed at the Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey, near Charleston, SC lectio divina was a part of their early morning services.
The first morning service is Vigils at 3:20AM. Following Vigils was one half hour of meditation and then at 4:30AM was Lectio Divina for thirty minutes. The lectio divina as practiced by the monks was done in private so I am unsure as to how they engaged in the practice. I did learn from one of the novice monks that it was done individually and not as a group activity. I am unable to share with you the actual structure of their lectio divina practice.
If you are inclined to investigate lectio divina for yourself you will discover there are many formats for this practice and it can be done individually as well as in group. I will share with you a form of lectio divina that I used to a modified degree for this writing but one I frequently use on a more personal practice level.
Before you begin the process determine which selection of the Lotus Sutra, or even Nichiren’s writing you will be focussing on. I would suggest that you make this a multi-day practice, perhaps even a week long for one single selection. You might begin on a Sunday and continue to work with the same passages until Saturday, for example.
Once you determine the selection you will be working with I recommend chanting Odaimoku for a while. Then after you conclude chanting, while still seated in front of the mandala or in your sacred space read through the selection you have chosen. Read it slowly and carefully, paying attention to all of the words, punctuation, every detail of the physical presentation of the selection.
After you have finished reading through your selection, and you might even consider reading it out loud. Actually hearing yourself read it can have a different impact on your life from reading it silently inside your head. After you have finished reading pick one character from the selection. It might be the person speaking whether it is the narrator or one of the subjects of the selection, possibly even an unknown recipient of the writing.
Now go deeply into that character asking yourself what they are seeing in this scene, what might they be experiencing. Go as deeply exploring as much detail as you possibly can. Using the eyes and ears of the character and not your own describe or contemplate what they see, what they hear, what they smell, what they might be thinking. Try to experience this from their perspective and not your own.
Perhaps it is a letter Nichiren wrote to one of his followers. Imagine receiving this letter. Remember it will be in the format of a scroll, more than likely if it is long. What would it be like unrolling a portion at a time to read this letter to yourself? Try to soak up as many details as possible. If you are reading the Lotus Sutra, you might look around you at the others in the congregation, is the Buddha speaking to you or is he speaking to your neighbor or someone way on the other side? What are your reactions to what the Buddha is saying.
Depending upon the character you choose you may be the main person or you might be a bystander. You might even be the Buddha speaking to someone in the assembly. You might even be some supernatural deity who is raining madarava flowers on the Buddha. This is why I recommend spending several days on one selection. Every day assume some new person in the story or spend several days as the same person, either way try to experience the selection from as many different perspectives as possible. It could possibly take you a month to work through one small portion of the Lotus Sutra or Nichiren writing.
Every time you engage in this practice be aware of what you are experiencing and feeling more than you are aware of meanings or interpretations of concepts. This is intended to be primarily an experiential activity and not an intellectual process. The intellectual understanding will follow in a much more personal way through this experiencing of the sutra or gosho.
Also as part of the practice be curious about why today you chose to be a particular character or subject. Let nothing you experience go unexamined, there are lessons and messages to be found in even the smallest detail. Be less concerned with reaching a conclusion and greatly open to being as curious as you possibly can.
After you spend your time exploring as above then spend some time chanting Odaimoku letting your experience seep deeply into your body. You may feel a need to process what you experienced and that is alright but it isn’t necessary. I would recommend though avoiding rushing the conclusion as it can have a dampening affect on the process of deep assimilation of the experience. That is why allowing yourself some time to chant Odaimoku is important. This should begin and end with chanting to your hearts content. As I frequently say don’t chant until a certain time has elapsed but chant until your life is full.
I hope you try engaging in the type of lectio divina practice. As you do it more you may wish to modify it to your own personality. It is perfectly acceptable to change things to enable you to gain the most benefit. Being childlike with great curiosity is an excellent way to approach the Dharma.
In my work as a hospital chaplain I have had many opportunities to use labyrinths in the work of providing spiritual care to patients. There seems to be something about working a labyrinth that is calming and soothing. Perhaps because it is an easily grasped metaphor for our experiences in life. The history of labyrinths goes back to prehistory times and they can be found in virtually all cultures in one form or another. In a way circumambulations are a form of labyrinth.
When we circumambulate the Buddha we have an entry point, the point at which we approach the statue in the center.
First we bow to the Buddha by placing our forehead on the ground at his feet. We place our hands on the floor beside our head with the palms facing upward. We then raise our hands beside our ears as if we were picking the Buddha up by his feet and elevating him above ourselves. We do this supplication not as beggars entreating some deity to bestow gifts or rewards. Instead we do this to show our great appreciation to the teacher who leads us to enlightenment. We are humble and appreciative in front of our great teacher.
Then we begin walking around the Buddha in a clockwise direction always keeping our right shoulder towards the Buddha. We walk completely around the Buddha, even behind the statue. We can see all aspects of the Buddha from every angle. We are so very close to the Buddha, but we are not quite there yet. Our aspiration to attain enlightenment just as the Buddha is strengthened by our close proximity to the Buddha. There is nothing that is not revealed to us as we continue our walk.
We always keep our right shoulder facing the Buddha because that is the shoulder we uncover, it is the traditional weapon shoulder. We come to the Buddha bear, and vulnerable. But we are safe in the presence of the Buddha because the Buddha only wishes us to be like himself.
Our walking around the Buddha benefits us greatly as we empty our mind and leave behind all of the cares and concerns of the mundane world. We are in a sacred space it is just us and the Buddha. It is up to us to continue our mindful walk in the presence of this great example of how to live.
If we think of the great Bodhisattvas that rose up from the ground who approached the Buddha and rather than asking for reward or benefit they asked if the Buddha was in good health. Our benefits come to us in the same manner. They come not because we ask for them or because we have done anything special. They come because we think of nothing else except how we can enable others to attain what the Buddha has taught us. The great Bodhisattvas from underground asked first of the Buddha and then they began to circumambulate.
Our actions of circumambulation come directly out of the Lotus Sutra. We continue to practice as Bodhisattvas from beneath the ground. The work of the labyrinth is in many ways similar to this very ancient practice in the Lotus Sutra. Even as we perform the circumambulations around the Buddha at some point we need to carry out our vow to the Buddha to go into the Saha world and teach others of the great joy of practicing the Lotus Sutra. Just as in the labyrinth there is the going in and then coming out.
The objective in labyrinth work is not the getting to the center but the taking out of the center what we learned and experienced and bringing it with us as we exit and return to the mundane world.
I am including images of a few labyrinths which you may find helpful. There are countless versions of labyrinths from very simple to extremely complex. In all cases the principle and symbolism is the same. You may even decide to go on the web and print out some copies for you to keep handy. Or you might, as I have done, get a finger labyrinth to carry with you so you can always do labyrinth work wherever you are. I have several styles and sizes. I find them very contemplative.
Questions from the Magic City Too
In this section of the study guide I have compiled all of the various questions I have posed throughout this book. Here you can find them all in one hand location. Perhaps you may find them useful as you construct your own interpretation of the Parable of the Magic City.
Before the Journey
Do you consider how you begin something? – Setting one’s intention either as we start an activity or as we engage in the activity can help remind us what it is we really hope to accomplish.
How do we know about the place of unlimited treasure? – Perhaps ask yourself how did you hear about Nichiren Shu?
How did the travelers meed up with each other? – How do you find the people you need in your life?
What motivated the travelers? – What motivates you?
We can of course say that they represent the Bhiksus and their quest for enlightenment, but how can we read this in our own lives?
How is it that you developed a seeking or questing to learn and practice Buddhism? – For now spend some time in introspection on the reasons you began the search for and the practice of Buddhism.
What was or is going on in your life that draws you to your practice and motivates you to continue day after day?
Over time those treasures we seek change and mutate, some may even disappear because we are no longer interested in such things. How have things changed for you over the course of your practice?
When you finally decided to explore or even practice Buddhism can you recall what it was that really convinced you to take up the faith in earnest?
One thing we are not told is how these people came together. How was it they found each other, or decided collectively to undertake this journey? Can you imagine?
Considering this for a moment you might ask yourself the age old question of whether you are a spiritual being living an ordinary life or an ordinary person living a spiritual life?
So you make your decision using your set of criteria for your own individual reasons but how do you decide upon who will guide you?
How did you decide that practicing the Lotus Sutra was or is the correct path for you to follow?
If you were merely seeking out Buddhism in general, there are countless ways in which to engage in Buddhist practice and develop your Buddhist aboutness. What was it about the Lotus Sutra that caught your attention?
How do people make such life and death decisions?
Thinking about your own life, have there been times when you have had to make a very important decision?
What criteria did you use to base your decision?
How do you decide among frequently many options which course of action to take? Do you have any basic criteria, or do you just wing it?
What is your method of problem solving, have you even ever considered it?
Are there places in your life where you experience a discord between what you know you should do, or you want to do and what you actually end up doing?
If you are like most people, there are probably areas where you don’t live up to your greatest expectations. What do we do in situations like this?
Who are some of the wise people you have had in your life?
I know why I continue to follow the teachings of the Buddha but I wonder what motivates you to keep going?
What has gotten you through the tough times in the past?
There are lessons we can learn from the heroic journeys of myth and legend, and this parable is one example. – What lessons can you learn from this or other heroic journeys?
I encourage each of you to re-examine your lives and your thinking. Ask yourself if you are valuing your life from the perspective of victory or winning. Do you truly value all of your experiences and efforts from the perspective that no effort in Buddhism is wasted?
Does the hero find the guide or the guide find the hero?
Which is really the hero, the guide or the one making the journey?
Have you ever considered the role your obstacles play in your growth and movement to enlightenment?
We like things to be familiar, predictable, comfortable, which of course means that we are more inclined to stagnate and also suffer. Not everyone is this way of course but generally this is true. Is this true for you? Honestly?
What are you clinging to that may be causing suffering?
I wonder if you remember what your goals for this year were on January first. Do you, as part of your life process, make personal goals, listing things you wish to achieve over periods of time?
I wonder what changes you could accomplish in your life if you made a commitment from today for 500 days to practice on a regular consistent basis towards the achievement of some change in your life?
Would you be able to travel the entire 500 days without giving up or abandoning or forgetting your goal and effort?
What can you accomplish in twenty minutes?
Twenty minutes a day, consistently day in and day out devoted to one thing is a very powerful and important way to get things done in our lives that we may not otherwise be able to accomplish. Are there things in your life you could apply the 20 minutes a day program to?
What are the things that you find most frequently interfere with your practice and consequently your growth in life?
Have you ever looked to see if there was a trend you could identify?
What are the things you abandon even while you can admit they are beneficial?
How many times have you been in the role similar to that of the leader of our group of travelers?
Have you ever tried helping someone achieve their goal or dream only to have them abandon the effort or turn away before reaching their goal?
What were your feelings at that time?
How much control of your life are you willing to give up in order to meet the goals of someone else?
What are the things that encourage you the most when you become discouraged?
What is your personal style for becoming encouraged?
The Magic City
If there were a magic city for you to do anything you wanted in, what is it that you would do?
Think about your own real life situation for a moment. If you had to evacuate with your entire city or town, how many of your real life neighbors would do you know and could count upon for help?
Are your friends or people you know very well living close by or do they live scattered all over the city?
Do you imagine you would be able to travel with your friends if there were a mass evacuation?
How alone are you in your life?
As I ask you to think about it, do you find it uncomfortable to think about? Do you find that your defense mechanism kicks in with various excuses for the reality you have created?
Magic Cities can be very useful or they can be harmful. Depending upon the magic city you create in your own life you may find refreshing or you may find actually becomes a trap from which you can not easily escape. Think about your Magic City.
As I read this section I can’t help but wonder if the decision to go to the Magic City was unanimous and automatic. I wonder what the conversation within the group was like. What isn’t told to us in this part of the Sutra?
Have you ever been faced with a situation and simply resigned yourself to continue as before simply because doing it the same way is easier?
So what was it the prompted you to begin practicing and studying the Lotus Sutra?
Even if it was simply curiosity, I wonder if you have completely satisfied that curiosity, and yet you continue. So what is it that keeps you coming back?
Identifying the motivation for your practice can help you decided if indeed you have reached your destination?
If you have not reached your destination then I wonder at the wisdom of abandoning the effort you have made to this day.
What are the arguments that spin around in your head when you are faced with doubts and discouragement?
Is it the life condition of hell that draws you away, does your suffering part require you to continue suffering so it feels alive?
Is there an itch in your life that continually need scratching and keeps you from being liberated?
How many times in your life have you reached a long sought after goal, sat back and sighed with relief, felt contented and thought all is right with the world?
Maybe you have and maybe you were tempted to do those things but not too far off on the horizon you could clearly see that tomorrow would come and you would need to do something?
Pulling Back the Curtain
Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our Magic Cities were permanent. Are you finding at this point any resistance to the notion of the disappearance of the Magic City?
Do you tend to focus on the goal so much that what comes after the attainment of the goal slips from your thought process?
I wonder what life was like for this group of travelers when they got to their destination. If they are like immigrants throughout history they will need to find places to live, perhaps occupations to support themselves, even schools for the children, and places to shop and worship. It is pretty neat as I think about it how ordinary the extraordinary can be at times. Do you ever experience that?
This concludes the series on the Parable of the Magic City – thank you for reading this. I will be working on some edits and additions to this series and will have this available as a book sometime in the near future.