1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Chanting and Singing and Mindfulness

By December 12, 2012

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The Buddha taught that mindfulness has four foundations. These are mindfulness of body (kayasati), of feelings or sensations (vedanasati), of mind or mental processes (cittasati), and of mental objects or qualities (dhammasati).

Mindfulness training often begins with mindfulness of body. Usually this begins by working with breath during meditation. Eventually there is intimacy with the body, without conceptualizing  it -- it's not my body, just body.

But not everybody meditates. Followers of Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism engage in a focused daily chanting practice instead of silent meditation.. I was thinking today about how to practice mindfulness of body with a chanting practice. Maybe this is something you daily chanters already do, and if so, please tell us how it works for you.

I've spent more of my life singing than chanting, but singing very much lends itself to body mindfulness. Old-school voice teachers will tell you that singing is making music with your whole body, not just your throat. Everything you do with your body, from feet to scalp, affects the sound. So you learn to be mindful of that.

When I first began to sit zazen, I was struck by the similarities between Zen meditation and voice training. Posture and alignment of spine, neck and head are identical. Breathing from the "belly" -- diaphragmatic breathing -- is important to both.

Zen teachers instruct us to rest our consciousness in the hara, a spot about three finger widths below the naval. I once saw a chorus director smack himself in the hara and say, Here! Sing from here!

The singer also learns to pay attention to body sensations, such as a "buzz" in the face bones when a note is pitched forward. Lower notes reverberate in the chest; higher notes in the skull. The tenor singing the soaring, emotional Nessun dorma probably is as focused on his belly and bones as on love for Princess Turandot.

Like singing, Buddhist chanting is something done with whole body and mind. One difference is that while our center-stage tenor is keenly self-conscious, the skillful chanter forgets himself in the chant.

But the larger point is that a great many activities present opportunity for body mindfulness practice.

December 13, 2012 at 3:27 am
(1) Hein says:

My practice is the Chinese Chan-Pure Land tradition. A typical service (and this also fluctuates from school to school within our tradition) will commence with prostrations, then chanting of scriptures. These would be the opening chants (devotion to all the Buddhas) and then – what I call – Scripture chants (i.e. the Heart Sutra, Great Compassion Darani, the Pure Land Darani, the larger Amitabha Sutra and concluding with purification chant and transferring of merit). Before concluding however there would be typically a chanting of the nien fo for 15 to 20 minutes followed immediately thereafter with a sitting meditation of about 40 minutes.
During the nien fo recitation (a repetitive chanting of the Buddha’s name) one will sit in the mediation posture (and one is supposed to sit in this posture during the whole of the service). Breathing in is through the nose and as one chant the Buddha’s name one naturally breath out the mouth. The process is continued right through the chanting with one’s awareness on the Buddha (if one is doing the Visualization Sutra) or simply on the process of chanting and breathing. I have never done the Visualization Sutra chanting (not strongly encouraged in Chinese Buddhism) and cannot really comment on it. Although the breathing and chanting process sounds like to different processes it actually remain a single integrated and I am unable to tell which one is first or which one is last and whether there is any sequence or not. The Master who leads the chanting will also vary the pace so that one much concentrate less one fall out of synch with the rest of the group.

December 13, 2012 at 3:28 am
(2) Hein says:


I was thinking today about how to practice mindfulness of body with a chanting practice. Maybe this is something you daily chanters already do, and if so, please tell us how it works for you.
Mindfully chanting the Buddha’s name involves one being aware of the process of chanting, but simultaneously one is also aware of your body’s posture, breathing, feelings and other bodily sensations. I have found that I am able to achieve much higher states of mediation and a certain tingling on my crown (don’t ask me why I experience sensations there, although I am aware of the yogi traditions’ reference to the crown chakra). What I specifically like about this practice is if one is on a seven day (always silent) retreat I found it allows me to rid myself of inner frustrations and a way to express my feelings without breaking the silence. Another paradox I am unable to explain.

December 13, 2012 at 7:28 am
(3) Jeff says:

To further Hein’s comments: the “nien” in “nien fo” is the same as the “nem” in “nembutsu,” and nien/nem literally means “mindfulness” (it is written with a combination of the characters for “present” and “mind”). The fo/butsu means “buddha,” so nien fo/nembutsu is literally written present-mind-buddha in East Asia. This is a direct translation of the Sanskrit, which is buddhasmrti. “Smrti” is the Sanskrit for “Sati,” the Pali term that we translate in English as “mindfulness.” So the Sanskrit word for nembutsu is literally “buddha-mindfulness,” i.e. being constantly mindful of the buddha.

December 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm
(4) Mumon says:

Wonderful post. It reminds me of what Hakuin wrote to a Nichiren nun, in which he explored the similarity of chants with the 話頭 (watoh), of koan practice.

December 15, 2012 at 1:54 am
(5) Frank Chua says:

Once or twice a week in early morning I sit in meditation position, take a deep breath and chant out “Iti pi so Bhagava-Araham Samma-sambuddho. Viijja-carana sampanno Sugato Lokavidu Anuttarro Purisa-damma-sarathi Sattha deva-manussanam Buddho Bhagavati” 108 times. Translation “Thus indeed, is that Blessed One: He is the Holy One, fully enlightened, endowed with clear vision and virtuous conduct, sublime, the Knower of the worlds, the incomparable leader of men to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, enlightened and blessed”. All other days I will be silent chanting in the mind. For each deep breath, I silent chance the verse twice. It can be once, twice or 3 times per breath.
After finishing, I chant the salutations to Buddha 3 times.
I had done this for the past 8 years.

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