Japa जप is the repetition of a word or short sentence during the practice of meditation. The letter pa stands for that which removes or destroys all impurities and obstructions and the letter ja stands for that which puts an end to the cycle of birth and death. Therefore, japa is an indirect means for liberation, moksa. By destroying the varieties of obstructions to knowledge, japa paves the way for liberation. Japa, then, is more than a mere discipline or technique.
Unpredictability of Our Thoughts
At any given time, you have only one thought and what your next thought will be is anyone’s guess. But when the next thought does occur, it will have done so because of some logic. There is no thought without a certain connection to the preceding thought. This connection may be flimsy or it may be very clear and logical. But the thought itself is never predictable.
Even now, I cannot predict what I am going to say. I simply said I would talk on japa, and I started. Even the words I am saying right now were not known to me. What is going to come is unpredictable, but when it does come, it has a logic, a reason.
Suppose you see a BMW on the road and it draws your attention. What will your next thought be?
“How can he afford it?”
“A person I work with just bought a new BMW. How can he afford such an expensive car? Last year he did not even have a job. His wife must have a lot of money. I wish my wife had a rich family. When I got married I did not think about money or my future.”
All these thoughts started from seeing a BMW and they follow a certain logic. This particular sequence is only one line of thinking. Let us look at another one:
“The German people are quite industrious. Even though their country was devastated during World War II, their economy rebounded quickly. They produce the best scientific equipment in the world.”
Where did we start? From BMW. What will come after BMW is anyone’s guess. Even in deliberate thinking you do not know what is coming next because thinking is always linear, one step at a time, one thought at a time. The connection between the thoughts can either be a logical, syntactical connection within a sentence or a simple association. But there will always be a connection, be it weak or strong.
In “BMW thinking,” the connection between thoughts is not a deliberate one. Therefore, the next thought can be anything. The sky is the limit. “The BMW emblem is different. It is not like the Mercedes insignia.” The Mercedes insignia makes you think of a star and then your next thought may be, “My astrological sign is not favorable.” This movement from one thought to the next is listless thinking, a meandering of thoughts in which there is no direction.
In listless thinking, although there is no direction, there is always some logic, some connection. It may be a simple rhyme, one word reminding you of another, or a variety of other possible connections. The one invariable is that, at any given time, there is always one thought or another in your mind.
In listless thinking, just as in deliberate thinking, you do not know what your next thought will be. But, in japa, you know what is coming next. The japa can be a word, a short sentence, a section of a Veda, or even a whole Veda, but, to be a japa, it must be repeated.
If you are repeating a word or short sentence you are sure about what is supposed to come next. If something else comes, you know you are off track. In “BMW thinking,” however, to think of Germany and then of a Mercedes or anything else is not to go off track because there is no track. Such thinking just happens. This is what is meant by listless thinking. There is no direction to it.
We really do not have a method to learn about our minds. We only know that we are subjected to a particular type of thinking. For example, we get into a reverie until something arrests our attention and only then do we come back.
Japa as a Technique
Exercising one’s choice is very important in japa. If I choose to mentally chant a word or sentence for a length of time, then I have a technique in hand and can see what happens in my mind.
In japa, I know exactly what is to come next. If something else pops up, I know this is not what is expected and I bring back the chosen thought. In the process I learn how to dismiss unwanted thoughts and retain the one I have chosen. This is one important result of japa as a technique.
As a technique, any word will work. You do not require the Lord’s name or a “spiritual” mantra. Anything can be a mantra, like gring…gring…gring…gring…gring…gring…gring. If you keep on repeating this sound, it will work. An extraneous thought will eventually come, like “What makes this kind of noise?” ”A bagpipe may be the response. Then you may ask, “What does a bagpipe have to do with my japa?” By returning to the sound, the bagpipe thought is dismissed.
In this way, japa works as a technique for gaining some mental discipline. However, japa is something more than the mere chanting of a sound. In repeating a given chant, you give yourself an occasion to see the ways of your own thinking. This repetition becomes a technique for keeping your mind directed fog a length of time – and it can also help the mind gain a certain depth.
Interval between Thoughts
The advantage of repetition is that we can appreciate the interval between two successive occupations of the mind. In “BMW thinking,” listless thinking with no direction, the mind simply moves from one thought to another. This type of thinking is like picking up noodles. If you try to pick up one noodle, you find it coming along with a few others. Similarly, the whole occupation of thinking becomes “as though” a single thought; even though there are many thoughts.
Between two thoughts there is an interval. BMW is the name of a vehicle and Germany is the name of a country. Because there is a connection between the two, the interval between them is missed. Repeating a given chant eliminates or avoids the connection between two thoughts because, between one chant and another, there is’ no connection.
Each chant is a complete unit in itself and one thought unit is not connected to the second thought unit since both are the same. Thus, between two chants, there is a period: chant…period…chant…period. There is no comma, only a period, a full stop. Therefore, each chant is complete, and between chants, the interval is available for you to recognize.
Peace of Mind: Is it Natural or do we have to Acquire it?
What is it that obtains in the interval between chants? Between one thought with a certain form and sound and the next thought, there is no given thought. There is only an interval with no form or shape. This is what we call peace or silence. Because this silence has no particular thought form, there is no thinking as We know it.
We always think that peace is something we have to acquire. Because the mind is restless, we think that peace is something new that we have to acquire, an attribute with which we have to embellish the mind. Is peace something we have to acquire or is it natural?
Restless Requires a Build up.
For peace, what do you have to do? For restlessness, you have to work; you have to create a buildup because, without one, you can never become restless. The problem is that this buildup is not something that we do consciously. It gets built up, like a wall erecting itself. Suppose you have a pile of bricks and they just assemble themselves into a wall. You would consider it a miracle, but you do not consider a buildup of thoughts a miracle because it is always happening. It is a miracle, however, because it just happens. That it just builds itself up and you have no say over it is truly amazing.
There is a helplessness in the whole process. Something triggers off a buildup; it may be a simple hormonal change, indigestion, someone’s look, a frown, a change of weather, or any number of other things. Any one thing is good enough-you may be combing your hair and a few hairs come out! Any event that you do not accept starts it off and then your mind is busy for the entire day.
Restlessness requires a buildup to which I, myself, am not a party. And yet the buildup is mine. I do not look upon it as different from myself. I see myself fuming and do not know what to do. I have to do something about it because, although I am not a party to it, I am completely involved in it.
Why is it that I cannot keep track of this thought buildup? This is because the whole habit of thinking has been “noodle thinking.” associative or nondirectional thinking. It is not “peanut thinking” where. as in eating peanuts, you take one peanut. then another peanut, and then another. It is all “noodle thinking” and, in fact, is the most common type of thinking.
The very beginning of such thinking is an association of “I.” Without that, the thoughts would not begin. Because of its association with “I,” there is no question of my being aware of the first thought because I am taken over at the outset by the thinking itself. I become the very thought and the thought becomes me.
An Occupation for the Mind
I can give the mind a meaningful occupation wherein chain thinking is broken. Then the interval that obtains between successive thoughts can reveal a great fact about myself-that I am the silence that obtains between two thoughts.
Logically, we can see how restlessness requires a buildup, whereas peace is something very natural for which we need not do anything. We do not create peace; we create only restlessness.
In japa, you deliberately create a thought. Because you have a will, you can choose. In this way, you become the author of a given thought. A specific thought is created by you because you choose it, whereas the silence that ensues is not created by you. In fact, the silence is the basis of all thought.
In the text, Panchadasi, the mind is likened to a dancer on a lighted stage. The dancer portrays a variety of aesthetic sentiments–love, helplessness, anger, cruelty, wonderment, fright. The light on the stage lights up the dancer with all of her moods and changes and when she makes her exit, it lights up the empty stage. The dancer may be performing various dance forms, or may not be on the stage at all, yet the light remains un-involved. It merely illumines.
The light itself is not a “doer,” much less an “enjoy-er,” of the dance. Nor does it light up the stage as one of its jobs. The nature of light is to illumine and it illumines; the verb “illumines” involves no action or motive on the part of the light. Therefore, the light has no doer-ship. Similarly, when I have a thought and the thought goes away, what remains is silence, which is likened to the empty stage without a dancer.
The Nature of Thought and Silence
Absence of thought is generally looked upon as peace, something to be achieved. Thought can be suppressed or negated by certain external means, such as the practice of breath control.
When you retain the breath, you cannot think. Try. Hold your nose and try to think. You cannot. Your only thought is to breathe!
Here, however, we are not interested in the absence of thought but in understanding the nature of thought and silence. The whole approach, therefore, is cognitive. Thought sometimes happens without my sanction and sometimes it happens with my sanction. In japa. thought is deliberate; it occurs with my sanction. And when the thought goes, I understand its absence as the nature of silence.
I am Silence
What I experience, or am aware of, between two thoughts is silence. If I see the silence after every thought, should I take myself to be the thought or should I take myself to be the silence? Thought arises and thought falls. Before the rise of the thought I am silence and after the departure of the thought I am silence. I am silence first and I am silence last. Thus, in spite of thoughts, I am silence.
The practice of japa does not give me this understanding. But, by doing japa, I create a situation wherein something that is understood is understood more clearly. In spite of thoughts I understand that I am silence.
In “BMW thinking,” you jump from one thought to another. You hold onto the second thought and leave the first. And you hold onto the third and leave the second. The lingering content of the first thought connects you to the next thought. This connection causes you to catch the second thought and leave the first. Thus, we go from BMW to Germany. Germany takes you to World War 11. World War takes you to Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor takes you to Hawaii. Hawaii takes you to the beach. The beach takes you to melanoma and you become sad. This is how the mind works. If you catch one thought, it means the previous one is gone because the two thoughts have nothing to do with each other.
I call this type of thinking “monkey thinking,” the mind being very much like a monkey who leaps from tree to tree. One tree may be an evergreen and the next a maple tree. The monkey just goes from one to the other. Similarly, one’s mind jumps from thought to thought and there is no control over the ways of one’s thinking. In this kind of chain thinking, one cannot arrive at the gap, the interval, that exists between thoughts.
In India there is a tree called the areca tree, from which we get the betel nut. Like a palm tree, it is very thin and fibrous and tapers at the top. Looking at the tree you may think it would break if you climbed it, but it will not. A man who goes up one of these trees to gather the small fruits at the top does not need to come down and climb another tree. Instead, by bending the tree with his own body weight, he catches hold of the next tree. In this way, he moves from tree to tree gathering fruit. Only after picking the fruit from the last tree in the garden does he come down.
This is exactly what we do in our thinking. From one thought, BMW, you catch Germany, then you catch World War 11, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the beach. Then you catch melanoma and worry about the new mole you have: “I’d better consult a doctor. Suppose it is cancer. How will I be able to handle it?” All of these problems started from BMW. This is like walking upon thoughts. You never get to the ground.
There is another tree, the coconut tree that, unlike the areca tree, cannot be bent without breaking. Thus a man picking coconuts must return to the ground before climbing the next tree. Japa is like this. You get to the ground-not after a length of time, but immediately. You chant and, like coconut-tree climbing, you come down. You chant. You come down. Chant…come down…chant…come down. In this type of chanting, being aware of the interval is as important as the chant because it is the interval that reveals your true nature-silence, awareness.
Once a person is committed to mentally repeating a given chant, his or her mind automatically goes to japa whenever it is free. Just as water draining from the mountains creates new ravines, a new track is created towards which the mind repeatedly goes. In this way, japa becomes a way of keeping the mind meaningfully occupied. As well as . being a useful activity, it is also a prayerful one.
Eventually, a time comes when the mind enjoys a certain composure. Because you appreciate that any distraction or agitation is transitory, you do not come under its spell. A mind that knows this has a ‘certain depth, a certain tranquility, even before such agitation , begins. In conjunction with the vision of the teaching that you are the whole, japa is very effective. Even without any exposure to Vedanta, japa is beneficial in that it keeps the mind meaningfully occupied.
Being Aware of the silence.
Japa is a tool that enables you to negate any distracting or improper thought by replacing it with the chosen chant. It gives you an occasion to eliminate chain thinking and to be aware of the interval, the silence, between thoughts. This is why I refer to japa as a discipline.
In keeping with the teaching, you understand this silence as something natural. You also develop the capacity to nip in the bud any thought you do not care to have. In all these ways, then, japa is helpful in gaining mastery over your mind.
Sound as a Technique
A common practice among many meditators, in the west is to chant invocatory syllables called bija-akasaras बीज-अक्षर, Srim, Hrim श्रिम्, ह्रिम् traditionally used to invoke certain deities for purposes of meditation. When these sounds or any other single syllable wads. such as Ram and Syam are chanted. the mind is naturally going to have a particular occupation. Because the chant is repetitive. chain thinking as eliminated.
That any sound will work as a technique was demonstrated by one scientist using a meaningless sound and recording changes in various human functions. While the subject chanted this sound, his thought processes and metabolism slowed down significantly. His blood pressure also came down and his heart beat rhythmically.
Since the person was sitting quietly, his mind occupied with the repetition of the meaningless sound, these findings are not surprising. Had he thought of some problem he was having, he would have begun to fume and his heartbeat would naturally have increased. Based on the results of his study,. the scientist wrote a paper in which he concluded that a special chant or mantra is not required and that the repetition of any sound, even a meaningless sound, could produce the benefits he had recorded.
As a technique, any sound that is repeated will work in the same way as any other sound. But in what way will it work? For some time, no doubt, the body and the mind will be quieter. But, then, you may become amused that you are sitting and chanting a meaningless sound. Is it not amusing to set aside a time each day to chant gring…gring…gring so seriously?
I know I would be amused. Something would tell me, “Idiot! What are you doing?” Then I would say, “Be quiet. You are always criticizing. You don’t believe in anything. Keep chanting.” Again, gring…gring…gring. “What is this gring?” someone would ask from inside. “It’s a meaningless sound,” would come the reply.
Then, “A meaningless sound? Why are you chanting a meaningless sound?”
“It’s called…Be quiet. I told you not to criticize.”
Gring…gring…gring…gring…gring. Then again from inside, “Did you pay for this? Why don’t you change gring into zring or some other sound?” Why not?”
“Be quiet! This sound was specially chosen for me.” Gring… gring…gring. It would be very difficult for me to chant this meaningless sound.
Anything you do should be meaningful. It is very difficult, therefore, to seriously sit and chant a meaningless sound. You may not know the proper meaning of a chant, but you need to know that it is meaningful. If it is the Lord’s name, you may not understand its full meaning, but because you know it means the Lord, you have enough understanding to chant it seriously.
A meaningful chant
If a sound that has no meaning is chanted, it can serve as a technique. And, for the purposes I have mentioned, it looks as though any chant will work. But all sounds you repeat will not work because you cannot give meaning to a chant that is meaningless and, therefore, you cannot be serious about it.
Suppose, however, you chant a word that does have a meaning, like carrot: carrot… carrot… carrot… carrot… carrot. Or; zucchini… zucchini…zucchini…zucchini. We have varieties of meaningful words, even the word cookie: cookie…cookie…cookie. Why not? Any meaningful word is definitely a step ahead of a meaningless word, but something more is required for it to work as a japa. A meaningless word will not bring anything to your mind and a meaningful word will cause your mind to be full of carrots, zucchinis, cookies, or whatever. Therefore, neither of these kinds of words will work.
A Meaningful word that Covers the Whole Creation
Instead, you choose one meaningful word that covers the whole creation, a word that is not one of the many objects in the world. A meaningless sound does not indicate any object, whereas a meaningful sound includes everything without indicating any one object. Since all objects are included in the form of the Lord, nothing is omitted when you repeat the Lord’s name.
In this way, the meaningful chant becomes all-inclusive. All words are included in one chosen word. All names in all languages are also included. You can say Siva, Rama, Krsna, Jesus, or Allah, but in your mind the word Chosen should stand for everything. Because the word does not stand for any one thing, you will not be reminded of a given object when you chant it.
A Word You can Relate to.
You are related to the Lord whose name you repeat. As a devotee you are related, the relationship being between the devotee and the altar of your devotion alone. One recognizes the Lord in a given name or, recognizing the Lord, a name is given. That name can be given traditionally or by education.
If it is traditionally given, the word and the Lord are already bridged in your psyche. This bridge is a blessing because the word immediately strikes in your mind as the Lord. Whether by tradition or by education, the word and its meaning must become connected in your mind.
To the meaning of a word known to you as the Lord, you are a devotee. The devotee is the fundamental person who assumes a variety of relative roles such as father, mother, wife, husband, brother, and sister. If you are an individual, you are first related to the total and, only afterwards, are you related individually.
I am Related to the Total
Individuality is possible only when I carve myself out as an entity from the total. The one who identifies with a given physical body-mind-sense complex is an individual. The individual is naturally related to the total because, from this total alone, he or she is carved out as an entity, just as a tree has an individuality carved out from the total, the forest. The forest includes the tree, but the tree does not include the forest.
In this way, there is an individual and his or her Lord is the total. The Lord is a being and I am a being. The Lord is looked upon by me as omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Thus, as an individual, my relationship with the total is fundamental, the total being the basis for the individual.
This individual entity is also related, but relatively, to all other individuals with whom he or she comes in contact—parents, aunts and uncles, husband or wife, children, neighbors, friends. And who is the person who is related? The person is fundamentally a devotee and this devotee is related to another person by assuming the role of son or daughter, sister or brother, niece or nephew, parent, and so on. Therefore, one becomes a devotee son or daughter, a devotee wife or husband, a devotee mother or father, a devotee friend, a devotee employee or employer, a devotee thinker, and a devotee seer.
Invoking the Devotee in You
The devotee, then, becomes fundamental. It is the devotee that is invoked when one repeats the name of the Lord, the name being not separate from the meaning. When the word is repeated, the meaning naturally strikes.
Once you know the meaning of any word, you cannot separate the word from its meaning. For example, try repeating the word “car” without thinking of a car. It is impossible. A word and its meaning are inseparable.
Because I am related in this form to the meaning of the name of the Lord, the total, I naturally do not chant as a husband or wife, aunt or uncle, cousin, son or daughter. Thus, I am free from the distractions of these relative roles.
If a person chants as a father, he will have a lot of problems. Suppose, being a devotee of Siva, he named his son Subrahmanya, Subbu for short. Subrahmanya 1s the name of Siva‘s son. Therefore, when the father repeats Lord Siva’s name, what happens? Subbu comes into his mind, the one who does not study as he should. Because of this Siva-Subbu association all kinds of agitations will come. Thus if the father chants, Subbu will definitely come-along with all of the fatherly concerns.
Suppose, however, the devotee is invoked by the same person, then the Lord and the simple relationship between them is recognized. The devotee alone is there when the person-chants, the role of father being relegated to a relative role assumed by the devotee. In the devotee-Lord relationship there will be none of the distractions attached to the relative roles assumed by the devotee.
Japa is a Metal Prayer
A japa is a word, sentence, or group of sentences, whose meaning is the Lord, wherein the individual invokes or salutes a certain deity as the Lord. It is neither a meaningless sound nor does it denote a certain object, like zucchini. Its meaning is the Lord, through which the devotee is invoked.
Therefore, japa not only serves as a technique but as a mental prayer. Only when the repetition is a mental prayer is it called japa. Japa is recognized as an indirect means for gaining liberation because it destroys all obstructions and impurities, thereby preparing the mind for the knowledge that is liberation.
In the tenth chapter of the Bhagavada Gita (10.25) Lord Krsna says, “There are many forms of rituals and many means through which ‘I am invoked, but among them I am japa.
यज्ञानां जपयज्ञोऽस्मि !!
yajñānāṁ japa-yajño smi!!
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Excerpts from Japa