Nourishing My Roots—part 2--Helping Our Chanting of Japa
(this blog is recorded on the full page: quick time player needed)
In this blog I share some basics in revitalizing or beginning your journey with japa, which my wife and I taught in a recent workshop in New Vrindavan. One might consider these aids like creating a structure to facilitate our spiritual lives. Although there are no hard and fast rules for chanting, most of us need some material support to facilitate it. The points I am going over are simple but can be powerful if applied. Regarding my japa, I have had to relearn to chant properly by slowing down and really listening, and also learning to not skip beads (my bad habits). There is a tendency after long time practice of bhakti to think that we really understand the philosophy and the basics. I would like to suggest that isn’t necessarily so. In order to discover this, one has to keep a beginner’s mind, and be willing to reexamine one’s foundational practices and assumptions. If this can be done, we may experience some surprises, even disconcerting ones, but they will help us grow spiritually. That is my experience!
The main ingredient for chanting or the path of bhakti is our attraction for Krishna—that is the ultimate reason we chant, and what we are building on. Although there are many secondary benefits which are important to aspiring devotees, at some point, we will not want anything but to serve and love Krishna, and those who are dear to Him. As we chant, read the philosophy about Krishna consciousness and Krishna’s pastimes, associate with devotees who have taste and attraction for Him, all this will make perfect sense. What seems to outsiders like so much trouble to chant Krishna’s names becomes our labor of love! Love is the answer! Love for Krishna!
harer nāma harer nāma harer nāmaiva kevalam
kalau nāsty eva nāsty eva nāsty eva gatir anyathā
“In this Age of Kali there is no other means, no other means, no other means for self-realization than chanting the holy name, chanting the holy name, chanting the holy name of Lord Hari.” From the Brihan-naradiya Purana, as often quoted by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and contained in the Chaitanya Charitamrita Adi-lila 17.23
We began the seminar by reciting verses, such as above, which glorify chanting the holy name as the most effective process of self, or God realization in this age of Kali. On a regular basis this is a good practice in order to remind ourselves how powerful chanting can be when we really give our attention and heart to it. As Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur teaches us, “Chanting should not be lip deep, but heart deep.” At least we can aim for that, and to pray to chant with feeling. We begin our chanting experiencing it as our medicine, and when we advance, we discover the chanting has become our food, or that which sustains us. Offering prayers to the holy name is very helpful as is praying to those who are adept at chanting, like our guru, Shrila Haridas Thakur, the “namacharya”( teacher of the holy name), and/or Shri Chaitanya (and His associates), who is the ultimate giver of the holy name, being the avatar of this practice of chanting.
A good exercise is to think about the difference between a good japa day and poor one, or imagine the difference if you haven’t begun chanting yet. In our workshops there is generally unanimous consensus that a poor japa brings us a more trying and difficult day, whereas focused, prayerful japa, make one’s day better, or make it easier to deal with problems or reverses which arise. This isn’t hocus pocus, but the holy name is a person, the combined form of Radha and Krishna, who are all-powerful. When we give Them our best attention, faith, and heart, They reciprocate, and we get more benefit then by mindlessness. If we are only going through the motions of chanting, as if we are multi-tasking with our attention, then our japa is like the muzak of our life!
We have the devotees rate 6 aspects of chanting, from 1-10 (one being zero, and ten being total excitement and endeavor), which I hope you will also do: 1) how much, or little, desire do you have for the practice of chanting, 2) how much or little effort do you put into chanting, or in arranging to do so, 3) how much of a priority is it in your life?, 4) what is the level of purity behind your chanting, as indicated by one’s habits, environment, and thoughts that either support or hinder one’s practice, 5) how much faith do you have in chanting—how much do you think that our perfection of life is in the holy name and developing prema, or love for Krishna, and 6) how much taste do you have for chanting?
The idea is not to make anyone feel bad, but to give us some kind of barometer for assessing our chanting, and to aspire to improve. Otherwise, one may go on for years at the same level. We want to encourage everyone to engage in supportive practices that will help devotion and taste increase. My wife and I have found that by practicing what we teach in this workshop, our japa practice has benefited in the above areas—and that is exciting! In addition to your personal practice of japa, you might consider creating a japa group where you come together with others.
Now for some structural considerations to help our chanting:
Creating a Sacred Space
Creating a sacred space begins with an intention to honor the importance of chanting. It should be a place free from clutter and distractions, which is ideally used only for prayer and worship, like in a temple room, or even a closet, or corner of a room set aside for this purpose. Generally, all persons living in a house have their own room or space, so why not the holy name? The holy name is a person, the manifestation of Radha and Krishna, and chanting is about giving them our undivided attention, and ideally our heart and life.
Time of the Day
While we can and should chant as often as possible, the early morning time is considered by Vedic scriptures as the best time for facilitating our concentration, or focused meditation on the holy name. We all do what is important to us, and while modern life isn’t very favorable for rising early, it can be done with some discipline. As I like to say, “Tomorrow morning, begins the night before.” Early to bed, early to rise! If we knew that by rising early and engaging in certain activities we could make a lot of money, or find the relationship of our dreams, we would likely find a way to do it. Chanting the holy name is the greatest treasure in our life, and Krishna is the person we are all looking for. Thus we can pray to realize this more and more.
For most of my devotional life I paced back and forth in the temple room, or outside during my prescribed chanting, as that was the normal practice in most devotee communities. We were often sleep-deprived, or just too passionate to sit still, and would naturally fall asleep, or become restless, if we sat down. However, chanting japa is actually meditation, and while there are no hard and fast rules for reciting the holy name, sitting down in our sacred space, ideally before an altar, can bring us a new level of concentration. I now sit for at least most of my rounds, and then I may stand, or gently, prayerfully walk, which is so much different than walking like on a speed marathon as I used to! And in sitting we can sit with a straight back, and not slumped over, as our physiology affects our psychology. On a japa tape with Shrila Prabhupada chanting, we have often heard him, say, “Sit properly!” A good yoga cushion (heart shaped or round) has helped my wife and I sit for long periods of time, whereas before, we could not sit on the floor for very long due to the pain.
To chant we can frequently remind ourselves that this is our private time with God, or specifically, for being with Radha and Krishna, and we receive the most benefit by giving our full attention/focus/interest. If we invited a friend to our home and neglected them by doing other things, they would be upset with us, and might even leave. Imagine someone you admire being in front of you—you would give them your full undivided attention and feel gratitude for their company. for devotees, Krishna is our very life, and the Lord of our heart, so although we are conditioned by the false ego to be self-absorbed, we want at least our japa to be different, and to give the chanting the priority it deserves.
In the japa retreats we have devotees listen to one another chant, and then give feedback. The idea behind this is to see if we are chanting the mantra correctly, by chanting all the syllables, and chanting distinctly and not slurring. It is a 32 syllable mantra, and we have to say each one. While feeling is the goal, the mechanics, while not the end in themselves, can be the proper road, along with our prayer, and humble attitude. Speaking of which we are advised to wear one verse around our necks as we chant, “tṛṇād api su-nīcena taror iva sahiṣṇunā/ amāninā māna-dena kīrtanīyaḥ sadā hariḥ” which means: "One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor yet is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord." This is spiritual humility and will naturally develop over time by realizing the greatness of Krishna—it doesn’t mean low self-esteem by being beaten down by the material world, but is an ecstatic realization that inspires one to serve.
There is much more, but as I am way over my allotted words, I will end with two last tips. A helpful practice while chanting is chant one mantra at a time, which means to be as present in the moment as possible. We can even say this to ourselves while chanting to remind ourselves, or say, “just hear,” or other such brief reminders. Additionally, I find it helpful to remember certain verses to focus and bring back the wandering mind, such as: “From wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the Self.” [Bhagavad Gita 6.26]
If you want to read more tips about chanting and what I have learned at the japa retreats you can read the following blogs:
Mahatma prabhu also teaches an online course which you can watch: