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Barbara O'Brien

About Chanting

By August 28, 2012

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I attempted to write a beginner-level introduction to Buddhist chanting. It's tricky to write about chanting, because there must be a gazillion different chants and no two sects seem to do the same ones. So I cannot say "when you go to a Buddhist temple first you will chant this and then you will chant that," or even if you will chant a lot or not at all.

Western Zen is having a little bit of an issue with translations. Most of us appear to be using the same basic chanting liturgy, more or less, but no two Zen centers seem to use the same translations. So there can be considerable variation in the chanting between one Zen center and another, even though technically we may be chanting the same things. Maybe someday the teachers will get together and come up with a standardized English Zen chanting service, but I don't expect to live to see that.

Chanting seems to annoy a lot of newcomers. They show up expecting to meditate, and then somebody starts beating a drum and everybody chants stuff that makes no sense. And that's the English language chanting; the rest of it seems to be in no recognizable language at all. It grows on you, though.

I don't remember any more how I first felt about the chanting. After a couple of meditation periods on the zafu I probably was just happy to be standing up.  I'm fine with the chanting service now, though, especially the dharanis.

There is one bit of liturgy that is part of the oryoki service that I particularly enjoy, although I haven't done it for years. It sticks with me, for some reason.

Chant Leader:

In the midst of the Three Treasures
With all sentient beings
Let us recite the names of Buddha:


Pure Dharmakaya Vairochana Buddha
Complete Sambhogakaya Vairochana Buddha
Numerous Nirmanakaya Shakyamuni Buddhas
Future Maitreya Buddha
All Buddhas through space and time
Mahayana Sadharma Pundarika Sutra
Great Manjusri Bodhisattva
Mahayana Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
Great compassionate Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
All Bodhisattva Mahasattvas
Maha Prajna Paramita.

I didn't even know what most of those names referred to when I was a newbie, and I still liked the chant. We'd get to the part about "Great com-passion-ate A-va-lo-ki-tesh-va-ra Bod-hi-satt-va" -- that's one name I recognized -- and so much energy had built up it seemed Guanyin herself was bursting out of the walls. Well, maybe you had to be there.

Looking back, it's interesting that the Lotus Sutra -- Mahayana Sadharma Pundarika Sutra --is included as a "name of Buddha." Perhaps the chant is from the Heian period of Japanese history, when the Tendai sect dominated Japanese Buddhism. Tendai Buddhism is big on the Lotus Sutra. I'm just guessing, though.

Chants translated into English sometimes end up with an entirely different rhythm, or no rhythm at all, which changes the experience of chanting it. On the other hand -- the advantage of chanting in English, even if you don't understand what you are chanting, is that you internalize the words in a very intimate way. And sometimes later on, out of the blue, a line from a chant will pop into your consciousness and tell you something. The deeper meanings have a way of revealing themselves when you are ready.

August 29, 2012 at 10:57 am
(1) Yeshe says:

I love chanting. When I first got into Buddhism I expected much silent meditation, but now I happily do mostly prayers and mantras with visualisation of Buddhas and so forth. There is a technical aspect of Tantric practice that calm-abiding and insight meditation is included in Tantric practices of visualisation and mantra. — Incidentally, the oryoki prayer in the post may be for Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, with Vairochana, Sakyamuni, and Maitreya as Buddhas, The sutra as Dharma, and the Bodhisattvas Manjusri, Samantabhadra, and Avalokitesvara as Sangha. There are similar Tibetan prayers which include the Three Kaya Buddhas, the Prajnaparamita, and the Bodhisattvas as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

August 29, 2012 at 11:38 am
(2) Lee says:

I have found that I can sit and begin to chant – anything – just let my voice make sounds in a chanting way – and it is quite interesting. I have sometimes while driving a ways begin chanting maybe just parts of the scripture of great wisdom or the litany of the great compassionate one … or that old standby ‘om to the one who leaps beyond all fear’ … it sets up a rhythm and i’ve come to think for me the words don’t really matter at all .. it’s all in the intention and the letting go and letting the chant be until the energy wears low and it stops … it’s like when a person is really playing an instrument and thought is long gone and only the vibration is resonating … the energy passes eventually and life flows on. I too was put off by chanting and bowing initially and like you it grew on me… Gashho

August 30, 2012 at 9:10 pm
(3) Phra Ajahn Bill says:

Yes, I’m like Lee, I find myself sometimes chanting a suttra without knowing I’m chanting it. Maybe even parts of one I’m working on.

August 31, 2012 at 12:19 am
(4) Hein says:

it is not only the what you chant that is important but also the manner one does it
i was taught to sit upright, take a deep breath through the nose and then when chanting to let all the breath out
this is especially useful if one chant repetitively ‘om mani peme hung’ or ‘namo amitofo’.

August 31, 2012 at 9:11 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Don’t forget diaphragmatic breathing! Very important to support the vocalization.

August 31, 2012 at 10:58 am
(6) lee says:

does diaphragmatic breathing mean you suck the air from deep down vs shallow … ?

August 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

lee — yes, basically. You’re working your diaphragm to draw air deep into your lungs, so that when you breathe your belly moves instead of your chest.

August 31, 2012 at 10:15 pm
(8) charle Reeves says:

Chanting is not necessary to be a Buddhist. It was created in order to pass down the Buddha’s message over the years without change. That is why it is still in the old sanskrit language. However I had a personal exsperiance with chanting about 3 years ago. My wife’s father died, being Thai and a Buddhist he had a 7 day long funeral. I will never ever forget sitting in the lotus position while 12 buddhist monks, Im talking the barefooted with orange robes kind. Sat and chanted, they were telling my wifes father to go away, you are dead and you do not belong here any more. The chanting put chills up my spine. I will never forget it.

The only real thing I see wrong with chanting is that to a lay person you have no Idea what is being said and miss out on the message. My wife however grew up in Thailand and at some point learned what the monks are actualy saying. Also the problem with chanting is that it is more of a tradition, therefore is part of what makes Buddhism considered a religion rather than a Phyilosophy. I am a Buddhist that leans 99% on the facts about Buddhism and would be heart broken if they lost the chanting. You can be a Buddhist without beliefs.

Charlie the Buddhist

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