At the final sharing, after the crescendo of nembutsu at the end of the day, one of the people said, "My first thought [when I heard what you were doing] was 'why?'"
For me, the answer comes in the experience of the practice. My first experience of continuous chanting was back in 2006. I moved into the Buddhist House community mid-November and two weeks later was the Bodhi retreat, including a twenty-four hour chanting day.
I was up for the challenge of staying awake all night, and was full of fresh enthusiasm for this new practice, and my new way of life. At 3am I had forgotten the words we were supposed to be chanting. At 4am I was drumming, hitting the mokugyo, but I couldn't keep the rhythm. I was keeling over with tiredness, jerking awake, hitting the mokugyo, and falling asleep again. The bell master took pity on me, and rang the bell to signal the change from sitting to walking early. We stood up and marched around chanting. Staying awake.
What the continuous practice gave me then, and still gives me, is a deeper relationship with the practice of chanting the Buddha's name, and a deeper relationship with the Buddha. In the continuous practice you are turning yourself to the Buddha over and over again. Sometimes this happens consciously, but for me it's mostly unconscious. My thoughts wander far and wide but my voice keeps calling to the Buddha - and something sinks in. Something happens at the core of my being - I am pointed towards the light.
Sometimes this is blissful, sometimes it is painful (the light shows me how aching small and flawed I am), and sometimes I don't notice at all.
Towards the end of last week I was feeling very low. I was recovering from the flu, and had low energy, and low emotions. Feeling guilty about having missed a work of work, and goodness knows what else. Yesterday's chanting was an antidote to that. As soon as I settled onto my zafu, even before the chanting started, something began to lift.
Even before the chanting started. Because all those hours of chanting in previous years have given my relationship with the Buddha decent foundations, and yesterday just sitting in the shrine room was enough to remind me of that relationship, to plug me to the Buddha's energy.
This is what the continuous chanting gives me - decent foundations - so that when I say Namo Amida Bu a single time, every now and again, it connects with that well of experience in me. With that sense of knowing that there is something that accepts me (and you) just as we are.
This is why I ask others to join me, because my experience of a single nembutsu changed, deepened, when I put myself in a place of continuous recitation for decent lengths of time.
Honen said it was important to make time and space for chanting retreats, and I have to agree, it's good to do.
Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu. Namo Amida Bu.
I could have written an equally long post about the importance, and joy, of chanting with others, and I am grateful to every person that came through the doors yesterday, and everyone chanting all over the world.