Once upon a time there was a ruler named Boliuli. He said to the Buddha, “Since my country is small and located in a remote region so far removed from teachers and monks, I have always felt insecure. The Dharma is deep and it seems impossible for a person here to practice and achieve everything. Please, teach me the core of the Dharma.”
The Buddha replied, “If you want to remove mental defilements, make a set of beads by piercing a hole through one hundred and eight soapberry tree seeds, string them on a thread, and carry it with you where-ever you go. Recollect the names of the Three Treasures: ‘Namo Buddha, Namo Dharma, Namo Sangha,’ and upon completing each repetition of this phrase, move one of the beads from one side of your finger to the other, and in this way you will gradually reach one thousand times and even ten thousand times. And if you feel no mental or bodily disturbance, then you will be able to leave your life and be reborn in the Yama Heaven. When you reach the number of one million times, you should be able to remove one hundred and eight delusion-bound karma and thereby realize the fruit of eternal bliss.”
The king replied that he would practice as such… ~ from The Baizhang Zen Monastic Regulations
Stories that focus on simple practice for simple people always inspire me since simplicity and pragmatism don’t directly equate with ignorance and stupidity. There is nothing lacking in any of the metaphysical or transcendental notions of the Dharma or teachings of the Buddha. What transcends the pragmatic and transcendental is a teacher that is willing to take the time to teach directly to the student’s need – to take into account the student’s situation (karmic or otherwise). In this case a king that feels he is on the outskirts of the Dharma – a meager kingdom on the edge of the borderlands. No teachers or teachings are nearby (although obviously an occasional person-of-note passes through); no mega-temples or Dharma for Dollars centers of learning; no strict bhikkhu or dynamic lay-ordained. Just a man and his kingdom. In this situation, a teacher can be either creative in the application of knowledge and methods or they can be rigid enforcer of dogma and standards. In most cases, the Buddha is creative in his approach; allowing for the differences between students to be expressed through their practice.
Rather than lofty practices that could not be supported by the king, the Buddha prescribes the counting of recitations. Simple practice with the profound result of quieting the mind. Nothing more is needed. We complicate things and lose sight of the simplicity of practice.
Just the counting of moments.