Question: Is it normal to experience some bodily sensations after Nianfo (practice of mindfulness of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’) for some time (say after 10-15 minutes)?
Answer: It depends on what kind they are. Some are natural distractions. We will see further below…
Q: I had several experiences, which resulted in me stopping Nianfo immediately as they were not pleasant. An experience was feeling too much energy concentrated at the centre of my forehead, which felt uncomfortable.
A: What you had been doing is straining your concentration physically at your forehead area. As listed as steps at http://purelanders.com/2016/02/17/how-do-i-start-nianfo-practice, they should be followed. The steps on relaxation have to be more thoroughly done for your case to avoid accidental strain building up. Remember to let go of the entire body when doing Nianfo, to not strain any part at all. Once you feel a strain anywhere, make a resolution to release it instantly.
Q: When I practised Nianfo in front of my home shrine during the seventh lunar month recently, everything went smoothly until I felt tingling sensations on my legs, which spread to my forearms and face.
A: This experience has nothing to do with the month, as all year round, hungry ghosts are already around us. What more you were at home, not outdoors participating in an offering session specifically for helping ghosts.
The tingling is simply due to awareness of subtle vibrational changes in your body at the particle level. This is not a problem at all. (I personally experienced it in a very intense manner during past meditation practice.) In fact, you should see this as an accidental insight as mentioned in class, that our material bodies (made of matter) are fluctuating all the time at the cellular and particular level.
Sometimes, we experience (‘seeing’) an aspect of reality without knowing what it means. This is why we should keep learning and practising, to balance accumulation of Dharma theory for understanding with practice for seeing.
What you should simply do is see the tingling as a distraction and ignore it, by simply returning to peacefully abide upon Amituofo’s name (安住佛号): http://purelanders.com/2016/02/12/peacefully-abide-upon-amituofos-name-%E5%AE%89%E4%BD%8F%E4%BD%9B%E5%8F%B7. When you do this, sensing of the tingling will stop. If you watch the tingling instead of returning to Amituofo’s name, it will not stop, unless you are distracted by something else. In fact, it will intensify and spread, as it did, according to what you mentioned. This is natural because what we focus upon tends to grow.
The tingling is totally harmless physically and spiritually though – but since proper sincere Nianfo practice requires the seeing of everything else other than mindfulness of Amituofo’s name as a distraction, you should not be disturbed by, observe or increase the tingling. Observing it is to not let go of the body; it is to cling to the body’s sensations. When this is done, you are clearly no longer practising Nianfo. You are just distracted by a curious yet explainable common experience.
Q: I also began to experience changes to the size of my body. My arms seemed bigger than my legs, and I could feel something huge suppressing me. Being overwhelmed by the odd experience, I stopped Nianfo immediately and quickly opened my eyes to check if I am still safe at home.
A: The illusion of expansion is also a common distraction. This is felt because while there is some letting go of the body, there is also some clinging to the body, due to unfounded fear or unwillingness to let go of feeling the body entirely. The letting go creates the sensation of expansion, while the clinging creates the feeling of suppression. This tension arises from wanting to let go of the body yet not really doing so, due to half-heartedness, a mix of attachment (to the body) and aversion (to ‘alien’ experiences) and delusion (or confusion of what is being experienced).
The feeling of a part of the body being bigger than other parts is simply due to the nature of the illusion not being consistent, due to having only limited focus on certain parts of the body. Again, this is harmless totally. What you should do is return to peacefully abide upon Amituofo’s name. Again, if you cling to any stray sensation (or thought), you will be distracted from Nianfo.
What mentioned in class regularly is to let go of the body entirely – by dissolving all subtle attention or attachment to any part of it. In this way, there will not be the feeling of expansion and suppression being felt, which as above, is felt only due to some clinging to the body. The way to do this is to simply shift your entire attention wholeheartedly back to peacefully abiding upon only Amituofo’s name, chanting wholeheartedly (calmly and clearly), while listening to it equally wholeheartedly. This will fully occupy your mind, preventing any stray sensations from seeping in, thus preventing stray thoughts from arising to distract you.
Q: The tingling sensation lasted for 30 minutes before it went away. To my surprise, it returned shortly after, mainly on my upper body and face.
A: The cluster of sensation was there due to strain there, which is common as we tend to focus attention at the facial area, which is where we have the most main sense organs. The duration is simply due to the extent of your ‘entertaining’ of the sensation, by not taking your mind and thus attention off it. It returns when attention returns to the slightest tingling, which thus extends and increases it accordingly.
Question: I wondered if there were unseen beings trying to disturb me, or to get into my body.
A: Nianfo is the safest meditative practice ever taught. You must have deep Faith in Amituofo that nothing will go wrong. If not, coupled with misunderstanding of your distracting sensations, you might even give up Nianfo, thus not making it to Pure Land, missing the swiftest path to Buddhahood. As taught by Sakyamuni Buddha in the Amitabha Sutra, all Buddhas are mindfully protective of those who practise Nianfo. When there is Faith in Nianfo, there will be Nianfo and thus no fear.
Nothing untoward will happen to your body and mind when practising Nianfo sincerely. In fact, that is when you are safer than ever, than when not practising Nianfo, as that is when there is no special protection from connecting to all Buddhas via Amituofo. If you are distracted ‘enough’ in the midst of Nianfo to stop Nianfo, you will be disturbed by the sensations mentioned instead.
Q: As I got worried, I went to the shrine and chanted the Amitabha Sutra twice and dedicated merits to possibly present unseen beings.
A: Actually, Nianfo itself in the moment, as motivated by dedication of merits will serve the same function of dedicating merits with each recitation. However, as above, what you described is not due to unseen beings. Thus, switching to chanting of the Amitabha Sutra was not needed. In fact, it was interruption of your Nianfo practice then, as you digressed. If there were ghosts present, their presence will instead feel cold and sometimes sickening. (The tingling sensation was not ‘chills’; but more of buzzing.)
Q: The tingling sensation did not go away but became less intense, though I could also feel an invisible protective shield around me. As I could not figure out what exactly happened, I visited temples and burnt some joss paper to the ‘unseen beings’ to put my mind at ease. The tingling sensation eventually went away.
A: You should have asked me directly for advice first, before engaging in those other ‘practices’, as I have experience with such meditation quirks. The feeling of the shield could be imaginary, or real, due to your refuge in Amituofo despite the confusion. The sensation went away simply because it is naturally hard to replicate experiences one is not mindful of, in terms of knowing how they rise and fall.
There was no need to visit temples or burn incense paper. Burning such offering is not a Buddhist practice too, as can be seen at http://thedailyenlightenment.com/2015/08/are-there-buddhist-paper-offerings-to-burn In fact, if the paper burnt has Buddhist wordings such as mantras and names of Buddhas, negative karma would be created by destroying these representations of the Dharma. It is interesting to note too, that throughout history, there are no instances of ghosts seen buying anything with money anywhere – not even in fictional ghost stories!
Q: After this incident, I became afraid to do Nianfo practice alone at home, especially at night. But I did not want to give up practice. I thought that I should have peacefully abided upon the Buddha’s name (安住佛号), instead of observing those bodily sensations.
A: Exactly! You did not peacefully abide upon Amituofo’s name! Instead, you watched, and thus abided on the sensations, which became accidental Vipassana meditation (which involves watching your thoughts and sensation), without proper understanding, instead of practising proper Nianfo. It is important to note that by itself only, Vipassana meditation has some disadvantages compared with Nianfo, as can be seen at http://purelanders.com/2009/09/14/pure-land-practice-with-samatha-vipassana-meditation
Q: I recalled that it was shared in class that when we chant Amituofo’s name, all Buddhas will mindfully protect us, such that all disturbing beings will stay away.
A: Yes. The key for this to work is to have sincere Nianfo. If you stop Nianfo, there will be weakened or no connection for protection. Anything that ‘makes’ you stop Nianfo during your practice is a stray thought to be let go of.
Q: Hence, I started practising again but only when family members are at home and nearby. I have also attended group practice sessions as I feel safer. Despite this, I felt that my Nianfo is not as effective as it should be because the element of fear is always there.
A: Now that you understand, there is no reason to fear at all. With sincere Nianfo, which expresses deep refuge for life in Amituofo with strong Faith, there will be great peace that allays all fears: http://purelanders.com/2016/06/21/how-to-attain-great-peace-bliss All of your experiences above are typical and explainable. With Faith, there is no fear. Fear is the absence of Faith. Thus, fear must be overcome. With right Faith in Amituofo while practising Nianfo, fear will not arise. Without Faith, this first provision is absent and Pure Land cannot be reached!
Q: During a recent group practice session, while chanting, I suddenly felt that I was in a dark space and that I was really tiny. There was no limit to the space in front and I was overwhelmed in that moment. Knowing I was distracted, I quickly reminded myself to focus on Amituofo’s name. I tried to chant a few times but still got distracted by the feeling. I opened my eyes and checked my location. I was of course still in the room with the rest.
A: This again is due to lack of peacefully abiding upon Amituofo’s name. You let your imagination run wild instead. Having eyes closed, and ‘letting go of the body, mind (in terms of stray thoughts) and the world (environment)’ (放下身、心、世界) is supposed to be done quickly, followed by abiding upon only Amituofo’s name.
What you did was not let go of stray thoughts (which again, are anything other than Amituofo’s name), while half letting go of your body and the world, thus imagining yourself being small in a big place. The darkness is due to absence of light with eyes closed, yet you were still ‘looking’ at the open darkness, to be distracted by it. In darkness with no relative reference point, you will naturally feel small.
In true letting go of the body, mind and the world, none of these will be experienced. The best physical feeling of the body to have while getting into Nianfo is actually no feeling, which means you are not attached to any part of your body at all.
What you described is subtle clinging to the body (as lessened, thus ‘tiny’ but still present body), subtle clinging to mind (thus the stray thoughts about all these) and subtle clinging to the world (as empty yet present space). You did not enter another universe physically or mentally at all. You only experienced a world created by, and clung to, with your stray thoughts. Again, the solution is to dissolve all attention on these, by peacefully abiding upon only Amituofo’s name.
Q: These incidents hindered my spiritual progress. I had doubts of myself being able to reach Pure Land – if I unable to cast my fear aside, to Nianfo wholeheartedly.
A: The truth is the reverse. With wholehearted (utmost sincere) Nianfo (with Faith), there will be no fear. There will be only increasing peace (calmness with clarity) and bliss, of both body and mind. (When these are experienced, we should simply continue our sincere Nianfo.) We do not have to be totally free from fear in order to Nianfo, as we are far from enlightened, and do sometimes Nianfo due to wanting to vanquish fear. We should then simply Nianfo sincerely to vanquish fear (and any other defiled stray thoughts and sensations).
Amituofo is fully aware of our defilements, which is why he always hopes that we will be mindful of him sincerely, so that they can be dissolved with his assisting blessings. But if we are distracted by our defilements instead, to stop Nianfo, he cannot help us much, much as he wishes to.
It is good that you raised these questions. If not, they would not be clarified, and you might have given up on the precious Nianfo practice to reach Pure Land. Do remember to ask me directly in future, and come to class and our group practice sessions for more continual learning and practice. To summarise, here are some related Stonepeace verses to share:
Let go of body, mind and the world,
to uphold Amituofo’s name.
If giving rise to body, mind and the world,
again uphold [only] Amituofo’s name.
As Nianfo is mindfulness of Buddha (Nianfo)，
Nianfo is not mindfulness of stray thoughts.
As Nianfo only upholds the Buddha (Amituofo) as thought,
that not of the Buddha as thought are stray thoughts.
In one moment, only uphold one thought,
in moment to moment only uphold thought of Buddha [Amituofo].
With pure thoughts overpower stray thoughts,
perpetuate thought of Buddha to empty other thoughts.
How To Handle Pain With Nianfo
The Key Requisite To Reach Pure Land