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Chanting the "Mirror of the Dhamma"

Ajahn Punnadhammo

In all Theravada countries chanting is a large part of the religious observance, both for the laity and in the monastic life. Morning and evening chanting is pretty well universal in the monasteries in Asia. What's usually chanted are passages either taken directly from the suttas or worked over a bit for phonic and mnemonic reasons to create a chant that has some musical quality to it.

The act of chanting is a devotional meditation practice. It is a form of contemplation. The centerpiece of our own morning and evening chanting is built around the contemplation of the Three Jewels or Three Refuges: Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. These contemplations are three of the forty contemplations listed in the commentarial texts, so they are very traditional.

The benefits of contemplating the Three Jewels are manifold. We experience an uplifting sensation in the heart as we align ourselves with that which is higher and nobler. We're tuning in to the frequency of our highest potential -- the Buddha being representative of a human being who achieved his full potential; the Dhamma being the expression of ultimate truth; and the Sangha being the body of enlightened beings, past, present and future.

By aligning the deepest aspect of ourselves with the highest potential through the contemplation of the Three Jewels, we overcome negative mind-states. Buddhanusati, the contemplation of the Buddha, is one of the meditations called the Four Protections. They protect us from all manner of unwholesome mind-states, lift us out of dullness and depression, and bring us into joy and light. Joy is a very strong characteristic of devotional practice. It helps us to overcome the self-view and ego-clinging through the surrender to that which is the highest potential.

So, I thought I'd go through the words for what's called "The Mirror of the Dhamma," which is the chant that begins with "itipi so." It is the formal contemplation of the Three Jewels and occurs in our evening chanting.

The basis for this passage occurs several times in the Pali Canon. Perhaps the most important is in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the sutta concerning the death, or parinibbana, of the Buddha. At that time, when he was close to death, many of the bhikkhus were asking the Buddha what happened to such and such a monk or nun who died last year. The Buddha replied, "Well, she was an anagami; she's gone to the highest heavens and will have one more life there and then go on to final liberation." Or, "He was a stream-enterer; he has seven more births."He then went on to explain the characteristics of a sotapanna, a streamenterer. In this formulation he described four traits, the first being very good morality, or sila, and the other three being faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha and their attributes. He listed these attributes, and this is the passage that begins "itipi so bhagava araham."

I'll start with the attributes of the Dhamma, which is the shortest list.

Svakkhato bhagavata dhammo. The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One. The Dhamma is well expounded because it's meant to be perfect in meaning and perfect in letter. It's quite an amazing body of literature -- a huge corpus of texts with a very high degree of internal consistency, a brilliant structure, and a lot of natural cross-references between teachings. When you study the texts in depth, you'll find all kinds of nuances: the way the different elements in a list of dhammas are ordered, the rich and very evocative similes and metaphors, even humor. Take advantage of this feature: the well expoundedness of the Blessed One's teachings. I encourage everyone to dip into this treasure house of spiritual literature and read the Pali Canon.

The next characteristic of the Dhamma is sanditthiko, which is translated as apparent here and now. This is a slightly loose translation. Basically, it means "visible." The root -- ditthi -- is "view."The Dhamma is something that can be seen. It's not some abstruse theory; it's immediate reality, and we can experience it.

Akaliko is timeless. That's a very literal translation. There are many levels and layers to this word. The Dhamma is timeless because it expresses universal truths that were valid 2,500 years ago, are valid today, and will be valid 2,500 years from now. The Buddha made it clear that the Dhamma was not something he invented; it's something timeless that he discovered. He gives the analogy of uncovering a lost city in the jungle -- overgrown with creepers and discovered by archeologists. This is what the Buddha did; he discovered an ancient truth.

Another meaning of timeless is that the Dhamma is immediate. The realization of nibbana is always just an instant away. The ultimate Dhamma is also timeless in the sense that it is outside of samsaric concepts such as space and time. It is completely "other"; it can't be framed in terms of time.

The literal meaning of ehipassiko is come and see. Ehi is an imperative verb that means "come." There is another use of this verb in the Canon; it's what was called the "ehi bhikkhu" ordination. In the early days of the Buddha's teaching, he would simply say, "Come, bhikkhu." It's said that the person would miraculously lose all their hair and have robes. So the verb ehi is an invitation. Passiko is another form of the verb to see. It means "come and see."

The quality of Dhamma is that it's inviting us to check it out. This is a very strong characteristic of the Buddha's teaching. There's no heavy-handed demand: "Believe this." The faith element doesn't have the same role as in some other religions. We're asked, we're invited,to examine the teachings to see whether they fit. This is also an expression of the confidence that the Buddha and arahants had in their Dhamma; they realized it for themselves and know that we can, too.

The translation of opanayiko is undecided in our community; it's either leading onwards or leading inwards. I'm not quite sure what's the current "high church" dispensation on the issue, but both inwards and onwards are quite reasonable. In terms of the Dhamma the two are almost synonymous. It's a characteristic of the Dhamma that it leads us into our depths, which is where truth and liberation and relief are found. They're not found anywhere else.

Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi'ti is all one phrase. It means that the Dhamma is realizable for oneself by the wise. The Dhamma is of benefit for those with little dust in their eyes.

Taken together, these characteristics of the Dhamma emphasize its immediacy and possibility. This is very important.

Next, I'd like to speak about the characteristics of the Sangha. The meaning and usage of the term sangha is sometimes a bit confused and controversial. The original meaning of the word was simply "community" in the loosest possible sense. In some modern Indian languages it's still used in a similar way. But like many common words of the time, the Buddha gave them technical meanings. In the Pali Canon these are two: there's the Bhikkhu Sangha and the Ariya Sangha. The Bhikkhu Sangha is the order of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, the monks and nuns, the fully ordained ones. The Ariya Sangha, or the Noble Sangha, has a higher meaning; it's the sangha of beings who have obtained some degree of enlightenment on the Buddhist path. These are the stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants, whether they are lay or ordained, male or female, past or present.

The current American Buddhist usage of the term refers to the people we practice with -- our sangha. Some "purists" object to that usage because it's looser than the narrow, technical meaning. But it's close to the original broad meaning of sangha, so I really don't have an issue with it. But in terms of this passage in our chanting, the reference is clearly to the Ariya Sangha, and this will become clear below.

The first characteristic of the Sangha is supatipanno bhagavato savakasangho, the Blessed One's disciples who have practiced well. The word savaka literally means "one who listens, one who hears." Those beings who became enlightened from following the teachings of a buddha are classed as savakas. Among the classes of enlightened beings there are also paccekabuddhas and buddhas. A paccekabuddha and a buddha are beings who became enlightened by their own effort without hearing a teaching, so they had a more difficult path. Well-practiced means they practiced the eightfold path to its completion.

The word uju means "straight," as in upright as opposed to crooked. In English the word crooked has the connotation of being criminal or dishonest. The opposite is straight or upright. It has that sense in Pali, too.

Nyaya is "with knowledge" or "with wisdom." The disciples of the Blessed One have practiced with knowledge. Samicipatipanno: they practice the Eightfold Path completely. The description of enlightenment in some contexts -- particularly in the commentarial and Abhidhamma texts -- is based on two moments. The path moment occurs when the factors of the Eightfold Path are perfected and reach into the transcendental level, which results in the fruition moment. The path moment is considered karmically active, and the fruit moment is considered karmically resultant, or passive.

This leads to the next line: Yadidam cattari purisayugani attha purisapuggala. That is the four pairs, the eight kinds of noble beings. This refers to the four levels of enlightenment -- stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant -- multiplied by two since each level has a path moment and a fruit moment. There is an interesting and controversial technicality here. In the orthodox Theravada interpretation, fruit moment always follows path moment instantaneously, so in any given moment the odds that there's anybody at path moment are pretty small. Some of the other early schools of Buddhism taught that it was possible for a path moment and fruition moment to be separated, that there may be beings who have perfected the path at one of the levels and are waiting for the fruition moment. In that sense, there could be eight types of noble beings. This is controversial, speculative stuff, which probably leaves you just as confused as ever!

Ahuneyyo pahuneyyo dakkhi-neyyo anjalikaraniyo. Worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect. Anjali is the gesture of placing one's palms together in respect.

Anuttaram puññakkhettam lokassa'ti. They give occasion for incomparable goodness to arise in the world. Khetti means "field," like a farmer's field. The metaphor that's being alluded to here is that gifts, offerings, or respect given to noble ones is like throwing seeds into a field. They will fruit into meritorious karma or an "incomparable field of merit." Some texts describe the multiplication factor of giving: if you give food to an animal, the karma is such that the results will come back to you 100 times; if to an unworthy human, 1,000 times; if to someone who is practicing on the path to liberation, 100,000 times; and if to an enlightened being, myriads and myriads of times.

Finally, I saved a discussion of the characteristics of the Buddha for last because it's in some ways the most interesting of the three. Buddhanusati, or contemplation of the Buddha, is a highly recommended meditation. It's one of the protective meditations. When we contemplate the Buddha, we're contemplating the highest potential of a human being. What I find inspiring about the Pali Canon's descriptions of the Buddha is that they combine the attributes of a very human individual with those of a marvelous, liberated mind.

There is a discourse by the medieval Zen teacher Dogen in which he talks about seeing the Buddha and seeing the old man Shakyamuni at the same time. That is, when you see the old man Shakyamuni, do you also see the Buddha? And when you see the Buddha, do you also see the old man Shakyamuni?

In a certain phase of Buddhist history -- medieval times -- there was a tendency in India to reify and deify the Buddha. It was a gradual thing. First, they said that his feces didn't stink, next that he didn't defecate at all, then that he didn't need to eat but did so only out of compassion for sentient beings to allow them to make merit by offering him food. At the extreme, one particular text describes the Buddha as appearing miraculously on this earth -- he had been enlightened from beginningless time -- sitting in full lotus in a golden pavilion, remaining there for forty years without moving a muscle, continually emitting a single tone in which all the teachings and discourses could be heard by highly evolved beings who then wrote them down. This is an exaggerated example of seeing the Buddha but not seeing the old man Shakyamuni. There's no contact with humanity left in that sort of conception.

In modern times, I fear that some are swinging to the other extreme. There's a kind of mean-spiritedness; people love debunking and knocking their heroes down off the pedestal. It's almost a fanatical egalitarianism: if people raise their head above the common level, we've got to drag them back down. I've heard people say things like, "Well, the Buddha was, after all, a man of his times. He had some opinions that were incorrect because they didn't know any better in those days, and he didn't rise above that." This despite the Pali Canon's teaching that there's nothing the Buddha isn't enlightened about and that the teaching is perfect in word and letter. Whether one believes that or not, it loses the point if all we see is the old man Shakyamuni without seeing the Buddha.

The attributes of the Buddha included in the chanting emphasize the marvelous, but it's important to bear in mind that the vehicle for these attributes was a human being. He suffered in his old age from backaches and dysentery -- very human, earthy experiences -- and he obtained his enlightenment after great struggle and sacrifice. Yet a buddha is someone who has reached the full, absolute human potential, and the idea behind this is that our deepest level is intrinsically pure. The Buddha is someone who has removed all the obscurations and demonstrated the potential of a human life.

The first characteristic is araham, which is another grammatical form of the word arahant. This word was used prior to the Buddha's time in general Indian religious discourse to mean "a perfected one." It's technical meaning in the Buddhist texts is "someone who has eliminated all the defilements," or someone who has reached the state of great purity and perfection. Gotama Buddha is a special arahant because he's a buddha. All buddhas are arahants, but only a few arahants are buddhas.

Sammasambuddho. Fully enlightened by himself. In the classification of enlightened beings there are paccekabuddhas and sammasambuddhas. A paccekabuddha is someone who does not establish a teaching, sometimes called "silent" or "solitary" buddhas. They may teach in a small way -- perhaps to a few individuals -- but they don't establish a dispensation and are forgotten after their own time. Whereas a sammasambuddha establishes a teaching -- a Dhamma and a Sangha -- and their influence survives their time. The influence of Gotama Buddha is still vast in the world today.

Vijjacarana-sampanno. Impeccable in conduct and understanding. Carana literally means "walking fair in traveling." The Buddha walks through the world perfectly. This includes the concept of keeping perfectly all ethical principles, but it goes beyond that. It also includes being perfectly mindful. The Buddha makes no mistakes; he is flawless. Vijja-sampanno means "perfect in knowledge."

This leads into areas that are somewhat controversial historically. There's been debate within Buddhism about the range of a buddha's knowledge. To my mind, it is a particularly pointless discussion for those of us who are not buddhas to speculate on the range of a buddha's knowledge. There is a strong tendency within the Theravada to want to give the Buddha one form or another of omniscience. In the commentaries, the official definition of the range of the Buddha's knowledge is that anything he wanted to know he could know -- like the number of fish in the Ganges. He didn't automatically know it to start with, but if he turned his mind toward that question, he could find the answer.

What the Buddha actually said about his own knowledge is marvelous enough. He spoke particularly about the Three Knowledges he obtained on his enlightenment night. The first was the penetration of his past lives for hundreds of thousands of world eons. He saw the pattern of his own karma and the enfoldment of his journey in great detail and in great depth. In the second watch of the night he obtained the knowledge of the rising and falling of beings, seeing beings taking rebirth in various lower and higher realms. This was a generalization of the first knowledge -- of his own special case to universal law. In the final watch of the night, he came to the knowledge of the extinction of the asavas, sometimes called the taints or out-flows.He knew that he had destroyed all the defilements to the depths. This was the moment of attainment.

This points to the Buddha's understanding that the mind is intrinsically enlightened -- intrinsically void, blissful, and immeasureably, infinitely radiant -- but obscured. We don't experience the mind's radiance all the time because of defilement on the surface of the mind. There are lists and lists of unwholesome mind-states, but they all boil down to ignorance, desire, and ill will. Not knowing, wanting, and repelling. In fact, they all really boil down to ignorance, not knowing. At that point, the Buddha had eliminated all the defilements. That's essentially all he did for buddhahood to arrive. It was not something created, something new. It was just allowing the deepest truth of his own nature to shine forth through the extinction of the asavas.

Sugato means "well-going." Su is "well, good," and gato is the verb "going" or "walking." This is a very commonly used epithet of the Buddha in the Canon. It is sometimes translated as the well-farer.

Lokavidu. The Knower of the Worlds. This again points to the Buddha's knowledge and his penetration.Whether or not we take it that he was omniscient, the potential that he unleashed with buddhahood allowed him to know and experience many, many things and have a wide range of what we would call psychic powers, which are really just a natural potential. He could know things like whether someone coming to the discourse that evening that was ripe for enlightenment. If that person was late for some reason, the Buddha would make everybody wait until this one person arrived because the Buddha knew that he or she was just on the brink.

Anuttaro purisadamma-sarathi. Anuttaro means "supreme, without a superior." Sarathi is a charioteer. Purisadamma is a compound word meaning "human, person." Damma is not the same as dhamma with a dh. It's a different word entirely and is used to refer to horses and cattle and so on. The metaphor is of a trainer of horses. The Buddha came out of the noble warrior class, so this sort of imagery occurs fairly commonly. The idea is that his teaching is like a training, and as a charioteer trains horses, so he trains men and women to practice and attain on the path.

Sattha deva-manussanam. Teacher of gods and humans. Sattha is a word meaning "teacher," and it's pretty well restricted to references to the Buddha. When you see "The Teacher" in texts, it's a translation of sattha. That the Buddha was a teacher of gods and humans is very significant praise. There are many, many places in the Canon describing the Buddha teaching in the various heavenly realms. He spent an entire Rains Retreat in Tushita Heaven teaching the Abhidhamma.Whether or not you want to follow the mythology, it's very evocative. I encourage you not to be too dismissive of these stories, because we don't know the full range and potential of this universe and what other kind of possible existences there may be. In the Buddhist conception of the universe, the Buddha is the teacher of the gods. This was an important statement for religious understanding at the time, and later. Human beings were not helpless pawns of the gods, and the gods had something to learn from the Buddha.

The attribute buddho is the same form as buddha. This is a particularly beautiful word; it simply means "awake." This is what we call the Buddha today. It's an oddity, though, that in the Canon he is seldom referred to by this epithet. In the Canon he refers to himself as Tathagata, and other people refer to him very often as Bhagava, or Blessed One. If you want a simple form for contemplation of the Buddha, repeat the syllables bud-dho while visualizing the Buddha and thinking of "awake." One of the times this term does occur in the Canon is shortly after his enlightenment. A wanderer asks him, "Are you a god?" And he replies, "No, I'm not a god." Then, "Are you a demon? ""No, I'm not a demon." Then, "Are you a human being?""No, I'm not a human being."And finally, "Well, what are you?" And he says, "I am Buddho."

The final attribute is bhagava, which means "the Blessed One." In the Indian languages it is a very common title of respect for holy people. One aspect of this term is that the Buddha was blessed by the previous buddha or, to be more accurate, by a previous buddha many, many buddha's ago not even on this earth. The Theravadan understanding is that the Bodhisatta vow is only considered binding when it's made before a fully enlightened buddha. The Buddha made his supreme Bodhisatta vow before Dipamkara Buddha many eons ago, and Dipamkara said, "Yes, indeed, you shall attain." So, this was the seal, this was the esoteric transmission that goes back beyond the origins of this earth. That's one meaning of bhagava, but the more mundane level of meaning is simply as a title of respect for a Holy One.

So, taken together, this entire "Itipi so" passage that we chant, this list of attributes, is a formula of recollecting the Three Jewels. When we recite this chant, we are practicing a form of contemplation of Buddha, contemplation of Dhamma, and contemplation of Sangha.

Ajahn Punnadhammo has been studying and practicing Buddhism since 1979 and was ordained in 1990. He is abbot of Arrow River Forest Hermitage in Ontario.


Source: Fearless Mountain Newsletter, Spring 2005, https://www.abhayagiri.org 

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