Question: When I recite Amituofo’s name or meditate, I can’t close my eyes properly – in the sense that when they are closed, it’s somewhat forced and I feel my forehead and brow area tensing up. It gives me a headache when I recite longer. Here are some methods I had tried to rectify the problem before or while reciting:
1. When I massage my forehead and eyes, the tension soon returns.
2. When I look down at my nose tip, it’s not easy and the tension easily returns.
3. When I open my eyes and look at the Buddha image, I soon see its after-image.
4. When I bow, I find it harder to recite single-mindedly with the movement.
5. When I open my eyes and look ahead with a lowered gaze, it’s harder to concentrate.
6. When I finally get relaxed, drowsiness sets in.
What should I do?
Answer: The reason you find it hard to close your eyes properly is because you do it too deliberately – which is why you feel a strain. Your eyes should be closed is as if when you are sleeping – in a relaxed manner, without using them to ‘look’ anywhere. But of course, don’t go to sleep. When the eyes are relaxed sufficiently, you should not even feel their presence. This non-feeling of the eyes should apply to the whole body too – by ‘dissolving’ tension or any sensation wherever you feel it.
As Master Ouyi (Eighth Pure Land Patriarch) taught – ‘In true mindfulness of the Buddha, letting go of attachment to one’s body, mind and the world is the great perfection of giving.’ (真能念佛，放下身心世界，即大布施。) This is important because nianfo is just mindfulness of Amituofo’s name and absolutely nothing else. If it becomes mindfulness of the body in any part (e.g. of breathing or a strain), it digresses and becomes Samatha or Vipassana meditation. Since nianfo is a mental practice, don’t let any physical elements, including the body, interrupt you. (See http://tinyurl.com/Amituofo7 for comparison of nianfo with classic meditation)
Another way to handle the eyes is to not close them fully; and half-close them gently instead – as portrayed on Buddha images. Likewise, don’t look anywhere in particular. There’s no need to make sure they always gaze in front all the time; forget that your eyes are there and they will fall into place. However, this might make it harder to let go of the body, mind and world, as there is light or an image constantly ‘seen’, which one might become attached to and distracted by.
Your eyes should not be operating at all. Using them to look at the nose tip while practising nianfo actually means there is lack of single-mindedness – as the mind alternates between the eyes and the name of Amituofo. Nianfo with eyes open fully can easily cause more strain when the eyes function normally due to habit. Mindfulness of the name of Amituofo (持名念佛) is relatively the easiest of all Pure Land methods of practice, where the subject of mindfulness is just the name of Amituofo – without doing any other things at the ‘same’ time – e.g. visualising Buddha – as this makes the mind busier and harder to be single-minded.
It is indeed harder for most to nianfo well when bowing because it is a much more complex practice that also requires mindfulness of the body in motion. It is more tiring too. Remember that 持名念佛 is the most practical and bare minimal practice. It is important and the very least that we should master, because chances are that on our deathbeds, we cannot do other practices – e.g. bowing or visualising as effectively as when we are alive. When the eyes and the rest of the body are relaxed, drowsiness can be kept at bay by louder (audible or mental) nianfo. (Other tips of handling drowsiness can be seen at http://tinyurlAmituofo/75 For how to handle stray thoughts during nianfo, please see http://tinyurl.com/Amituofo206)
Sometimes, due to work stress, we might often be habitually tense unmindfully – which is why this habit has to be reversed by mindfully letting the tension go. Once you realise you are straining, let it go. When the letting go becomes the new habit, the unmindful straining will lessen. This applies when working and during nianfo too. If the tension-forming is too strong a habit, a suggestion is to dissolve the body more thoroughly before beginning to nianfo – because it can be harder to dissolve the body while practising nianfo. However, the ease of this differs from case to case, as some prefer to use nianfo itself to dissolve the body – since the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, which means that during true mindfulness of Amituofo, there is no mindfulness of body strains, which thus effectively dissolves them.
We need to remember that nianfo is to be mindful of Amituofo’s name; not strain (or pain). It is natural to alternate between the name and strain but with practice, we can let go of strains more readily and return to mindfulness of the name once we feel them. In Vow #33 of Amituofo, it is stated that when Amituofo’s light touches beings in the immeasurable and inconceivable Buddha-lands of the ten directions, they will feel [blissful] tenderness in their bodies and minds surpassing those of humans and devas. (设我得佛，十方无量不可思议诸佛世界众生之类蒙我光明触其身者， 身心柔软，超过天人。若不尔者，不取正觉。) This means that mindfulness of Amituofo has curative effects too, which relieves all strains and pains when we feel the light of his blessings enveloping us. This bliss is greater than that of the jhanas due to Amituofo’s great compassion and merits.
Here is how we can dissolve the body before nianfo: Once seated comfortably with eyes half open or fully closed (as preferred), mentally note your body for any tensions. Any part of the body you readily feel is considered tense. When you come across a tense area, visualise that part of the body dissolving into nothing. This is to let go of both physical and mental fixations on that part of the body. Keep doing this till sensations of the body are all or significantly gone, followed by the actual nianfo. As it might take some time to dissolve the body fully, you can, as mentioned, use nianfo itself to forget the body at some point too. Distractions due to the body is a major hindrance in nianfo. If overcome well, birth in Pure Land is a lot easier – because no physical (deathbed) discomfort of any kind will obstruct one from Buddha mindfulness!