Why do Buddhists recite Liturgy – prayers, chanting etc – and how can we best relate to that?


Although we offer you the opportunity to join in with our liturgy at The Hermitage and at Awakened Heart Sangha events, it is not essential to the practice and you may well choose not to use any liturgy when you are practising alone. You may prefer to use inspiring words of your own, or no words at all. If you prefer to use lines of your own choice, you might find things you want to say in the Living the Awakened Heart training course materials or elsewhere. However, if you want to use this liturgy, there are all sorts of benefits from doing so.

By ‘liturgy’ we mean the lines that we recite together as, for example, before and after meditation and teaching sessions. Every Buddhist tradition has its own selection of liturgies that it commonly uses and which many people are familiar with and even know by heart. If we use the same lines when practising alone, they remind us of our connection with the whole Sangha past, present and future, and give us a feeling of solidarity and support. It is as if the liturgy links the whole circle or body (mandala) of practitioners together in a special way.

Liturgy as Inspiration to Connect with the Teachings

The liturgy can be used simply as an inspiration with no immediate attempt to try to pin down its meaning, rather as one would read poetry. It speaks to us directly, not through reason, and our response is intuitive. It conveys more than perhaps we would be willing to accept through reason. As it is suggestive of so many things on so many different levels, it simply would be rushing things to try to understand it all at once.

We can just let it touch us, and then simply stay with the feeling, perhaps not even considering the meaning of the words very much. Somehow, like children imbibing the culture around them, over time the liturgy becomes part of us and it often happens that, as we try to apply the teachings to our lives, more and more of the meaning of the liturgy spontaneously comes alive for us.

Traditional liturgies are carefully chosen to ensure that they embody the spirit of the lineage and encapsulate the heart of its teaching.  This serves as a reminder and helps us align with and honour it. Liturgies are powerful vehicles for connecting to the power and inspiration (adhishtana) of the lineage.

By lineage, here and elsewhere, I mean the lineage of those who have linked into the Awakened Heart of the Buddha and who transmit the power (or adhishtana) of that Awakened Heart from person to person, down the ages to us at this time and place. It can be thought of as all the Awakened teachers and their disciples, or of all those ordinary practitioners like ourselves who are affected and inspired by the power of Awakening.

Liturgies are often selected from texts and inspirational lines uttered by yogins of the past that have inspired generations of practitioners. Sometimes new lines are added to capture the spirit and language of a particular time and place. However, since an important function of the liturgy is to preserve the integrity of the tradition, such new lines should be readily recognizable as expressing the heart of the teaching.

It is significant by whom, when and how liturgies are composed, arranged or altered because, as liturgy, they go deep into the heart of everyone connected to the mandala or community of people practising together, such as the Awakened Heart Sangha. It is connections of this kind that bind the Sangha together, giving it its particular character and strength.

As the years go by and we understand the teachings more deeply from our own experience, the words start to acquire nuances and depths of meaning that we could not possibly have appreciated at the outset.

Once a liturgy has taken on a life of its own in this way it becomes a powerful mandala structure with its own dynamic, and any attempt to change it becomes an emotionally charged area. People can get very upset when even just one word of a much loved liturgy is changed. This might just be a sign of attachment, but it is also a sign that the forces of the Mandala, the ‘guardians’, are on the alert, making sure that the integrity of the Mandala is not weakened or lost.

Reciting Liturgy Helps Build Confidence in Our True Nature

There are many benefits of reciting liturgy. One important benefit is that as we focus on the words and meaning, even just intuitively without really understanding them, our attention is naturally drawn to a single point and stabilizes. The more the words speak to our heart the easier it is to focus on them, because we are being drawn towards their significance.

Because the words contain profound meaning they naturally stimulate the clarity of our awareness and strengthen the tendency for insight or understanding to arise. Because we say them from our heart with a great longing to be able to understand their true meaning, they link us directly into the power of the truth (the adhishtana, influence of the truth). This is sometimes called ‘devotion’ in Buddhist books. ‘Devotion’ is rather an unfortunate translation of ‘mogu’, which means a longing with deep love and reverence for Awakening and the Truth.

If, as we recite the liturgy, we are aligning with this deep inspiration in our heart in as strong a way as we can, the liturgy energizes us and links us into the world (mandala) of Awakening in a very strong way. By entering that world we leave negative connections and negative emotional energy (karma and klesha) behind, and it is as if we step into a pure space. This is sometimes called ‘purification’. It means that at any instant we can choose to rest in the primordial purity of our true nature and that by doing so, or even by simply attempting to do so, we strengthen our connection with it.

From this place of confidence, we can more easily turn towards all the negative emotions and thoughts that come up during the meditation session and during our daily life with openness, clarity and sensitivity. This is the way to build up genuine confidence.

Lama Shenpen Hookham, written for the Awakened Heart Sangha in 2002

Find out more about Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Read more and details of how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training

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