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Why Do We Chant?


2 - Bright Way Zen Retreat Feb 2013-2At many of our meetings, we will include a chanting service. This may involve a recitation of a Zen teaching (such as on Tuesday evenings), or a rhythmic style of chanting with the accompaniment of instruments (such as on Sundays).

Some people find this somewhat shocking, particularly because they have never experienced anything like it before. Sometimes it’s because they expect Zen to be free of ritual or “religious” overtones. Click here to read about the open-minded way we engage “religious” practices at Bright Way.

So why do we chant?

Chanting as meditation: You may find the practice of chanting delightful. It can be another form of meditation – you simply breathe, produce sound, listen to others, and settle into the rhythmic patterns. You can let the words wash over you without trying to grasp their meaning. This takes a certain kind of surrender of the discriminating mind, which keeps asking, “What is this about? Why am I doing this? I don’t even know what this means. Is this weird? What if my friends saw me doing this?” When you let go of thoughts and return your awareness to the present moment – you’re meditating!

Chanting as exposure to profound teachings: Even though you may not understand the words, images, and teachings you are chanting, you are becoming familiar with them at a subconscious level. Often, you “understand” what you’re chanting better than you think you do. At some point during your week you may find certain lines of the chants popping in your head, and you may suddenly understand what they are about and how they apply to your life. It is entirely possible to study the sutras (teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha) and other scriptures we chant if you want to – sometimes we do this together in class, and there are many books available (ask Domyo for references).

Chanting as a way to connect with our tradition, and with other Zen Buddhists all over the world: It may seem inappropriate or anachronistic that we sometimes chant the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese. However, once you’re used doing it, you have the opportunity to recognize how we are participating in an ancient tradition when you hear Japanese monks chant it in exactly the same way! (Click here to see a video of a chanting service at a large monastery in Japan; there are countless English translations of the Heart Sutra, but the Japanese have standardized theirs, so you will find the same Sino-Japanese Heart Sutra recited all over the world.) Click here to view the entire morning chanting service at Sojo-ji.

In addition, it’s not just the Japanese who chant like we do. Other Soto Zen Buddhists all over the world regularly chant – and if you end up traveling, or moving away from a particular sangha (Buddhist community), it can be very comforting to encounter a familiar chanting ritual. Click to here to view the morning chanting service as it is done in a monastery in California.

Chanting as community: Our zazen practice tends to be rather solitary, even when we do it within sangha. Chanting is something we do together – we face one another, give voice together, and move in concert. Many westerners, particularly those who have had negative experiences with religion, resist the idea of participating in community. However, one of the central Buddhist teachings is that we can’t walk the path of Awakening without the support of others – even though we ultimately already have everything we need.

Chanting as an expression of gratitude: A typical part of a longer chanting service is a long list of Buddhist teachers from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha 2,500 years ago up until the present day. Chanting this list may seem boring or irrelevant to you, but it’s meant to convey that the practice of meditation and the teachings of Zen have been passed down through the generations by real people. You can only get so much from books. You need a real live teacher and sangha to get to know you and help you apply the teachings to your own life. Even if you don’t feel gratitude toward the ancestors named in our chanting, you can call to mind the people who have taught and supported you, to whom you do feel gratitude.

Chanting as training for your subconscious: We engage ritual in order to nourish and awaken a deeper part of ourselves – a part that intuits the existence of something greater than your everyday, mundane experience. A part that longs for greater intimacy and connection with life, and with other beings. Ritual circumvents our rational, discriminating mind. Even if chanting ends up feeling rather rote or boring, it is still working on you – and this can be a tremendous source of strength and solace. Domyo has personally chanted the Heart Sutra at the bedside of people who are dying, and sound of the familiar chant reaches and supports the dying person in a way that conversation no longer can.

A note on dharanis: A few of the chants we do are “dharanis,” which have been passed down through the millennia without significant change to the sound of the chant. This means the chants have not been translated in terms of meaning, so for the most part their meaning has been lost. Some people believe dharanis have a certain power when chanted, such as helping protect you against disaster. However, it isn’t necessary to believe this in order to enjoy dharanis. You can engage them energetically without worrying about the meaning, purely as a “sound” meditation.” You can also use them as mindfulness practice because they can be difficult to chant quickly unless you’re paying close attention. Finally, you can use them as an opportunity to surrender your intellect and just do.

Click here for copies of our regular chants.