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Why all the Chanting?


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Question:

A caller phoned in a question to the Voicemail Hotline: 937-660-4949:
Can you talk about chanting? It seems that many different sects do it. Why?

Answer:

Well, you are right in that Buddhism has a lot of chanting, but that’s not really exclusive. If you think about it, just about all religions do chanting in some form. If you listen to Muslim or Christian services, you’ll often hear chanting. Whether it’s the ‚ÄúLord’s Prayer‚Äù or the ‚ÄúAdhan,‚Äù the Islamic Call to Prayer, chanting and religion go hand in hand. And yes, Buddhists do it too.

Why?

The majority of Buddhist chants are not prayers, since asking a god for intervention is not really the way of Buddhism. While we have seen in the past that prayer does exist in Buddhism, it’s not really related to chanting. Instead, most chanting is done as recitation of sutras (written works attributed to the Buddha), either to help teach the sutra or to simply keep it in mind via repetition.

Examples would be chanting the Bodhisattva vows, the three refuges, the five precepts, loving-kindness (Metta Sutta), the Heart or Diamond sutras, or the very famous nianfo of Pure Land: Namu Amida Butsu or Namo Amituofo. Sometime koans or poetry are also commonly chanted.

Generally, the purpose it to set one’s mind in a particular place for a specific ritual or meditation.

Here is a site submitted by PDXyogini that has several chants in MP3 format that you can download:
http://www.zendust.org/chantsmp3.htm

Here are some Youtube examples to enjoy:

Om Mani Padme Hum:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=633eH4yajHE

Zen Chanting:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1evxMA7yYw

Buddhist Chant: The Heart Sutra:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-c9-XaA2f00

12 comments to Why all the Chanting?

  • Micah

    I went to a Zen group one time. It all made sense to me (the time for meditation, the dharma talk) until we got to the chanting. It was in Korean. I found myself stumbling around one the words, having to read the English translation in the margins, trying to see what it was that I was saying.
    I understand if the purpose of chanting is to direct one’s thoughts and to “embed” them into the mind through sheer repitition. However, what I dont understand is why western groups continue to do the chanting in the native language of that particular sect. I imagine that when the chants were first devised and practiced they were in the original language of the practioner. Why not practice chanting in English? I know one could argue that some of the original chants cannot be appropriately translated to English. But, that doesnt mean that one could not chant a close approximation or even make up an entirely new English chant based on the Buddha’s teachings. Also, one could argue that, by chanting in a different language it is soothing and helps one to focus on the present. I agree with this to a point. However, I think that it misses the point of the orignial purpose, which is to direct the thoughts on the actual message of the chant. To me, this can only be done when it is in one’s own language.
    Just my thoughts :)

  • No, they’re not just your thoughts, they’re mine too.

    I have run into the same thing with Tibetan groups here in the USA. What’s the point in chanting in Tibetan when no one in the group actually IS Tibetan? Remember back when the Catholic church chanted in Latin? Well, they changed that, and if a group as rigid as Catholicism can change, so can the ultra-flexible Buddhists.

    This dogged insistence on keeping the original Eastern-language terms was the number one main reason I started this site, to present these ideas without all the mumbo-jumbo.

  • Micah

    And I am REALLY glad that I found your site. It is nice to read and discuss Buddhist concepts, in everyday language. Being the father of two small children, the only one practicing in the family, and living in Oklahoma, there are not a whole lot of opportunities I have to form a relationship with a sangha. I rely on podcasts and groups like this to be my cyber sangha :)

    Thanks,

    Micah

  • Jami

    Sufi dhikr provides an apt example. In Arabic, ‘dhikr’translates as ‘remembrance’. In a gathering of Sufis,it is the ‘remembrance of Allah’, and the chanting of His various names-love, peace, tranquility etc.

    The basis of the chant is rooted, so argued, in the Buddhist tradition, making its way into Islam, like the rosary beads, at a particular time and place (Aghanistan and other lands were once Buddhist).

    You may chant ‘God’s’ various names in English, but the classical Arabic language, with its deep consonants, allow for deep breathing, providing for meditative profoundity. Maybe, the various Asian languages also have this practical side. Any English substitution may need to be sensitive to the linguistic power of certain words.

  • DaveT

    I too am looking for chants in English.
    I have found a few that sound like kindergarten music – unacceptable! And some that sound like Hippy stuff from the 1960s. OK-ish but not for me thank you.
    The words have to work, and the sound must be – to borrow a phrase – ‘soul-stirring’. Not that we have souls you understand, it is merely a useful phrase.
    My wife was a follower of Nichiren Buddhism. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a beautiful chant. But in all honesty I don’t believe it so I won’t chant it.
    I suppose a good English translation of Pali chants set in a Gregorian style would be just about right for us Westerners.

  • RK Henderson

    I’m a Zen student, former member and resident of an active Zen centre, and I believe I can explain why we chant in foreign languages. (Sino-Japanese in my sangha, a language that hasn’t been spoken or understood by anyone in a thousand years, give or take). Chanting is a meditation aid, meant to clear your mind; even when chanting in English, you’re not supposed to think about what you’re saying. It also serves to build unity in the sangha and frankly, as a physical workout for people who spend much of their lives sitting on their butts.

    I’m divided about chanting myself. Always seemed kind of pretentious, and greatly annoying when I was sleepy or fatigued. On the other hand, I love to hear other people do it, so I guess it’s a pay-the-piper issue.

  • Souli Sullivan

    My two cents. I think (guess) that part of the reason is because there is no “standard” or universally accepted translation of the Buddha’s teaching. The English translations I have seen so far are not “convincing” or “authentic” enough compared to Theravada chants in Lao, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese or Sri Lankan. The fear of altering the original meaning of the Buddha’s words is just too much sin any one can bear. As far as English chant goes, texts from Sri Lankan web sites seem to carry “good” translations. Of course this is just my limited experience with Buddhism on the internet.

  • Anonymous

    hi! everyone,

    Im a buddhist, and i am practicing chanting everyday, morning & evening, NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO is the only chanting for me that i will keep up to the last moment of my life, just try it…and you will know why should i keep doing this forever…this is really great…the power is boundless…all problems has a solution…all we want in life is possible…just chant as many as you can.

  • Billie

    I feel I’m finally ready to make Buddhism my final religion, I’ve studied many religions (Scientology,Catholicism,Methodist,Pentecostal,Christianity,Nazarene,Baptist,Mormon) and in theory “practice” Buddhism makes perfect since to me. I have seen an experienced a few miracles in my lifetime and I know an afterlife and a Supreme Being does exist without any doubt.

    Buddhism is still very new to me and I’m so excited to learn more. Buddhism is apart of my eternal soul and everything I’ve ever stood for in my entire life of 44 years.

    Thanking you deeply for this website

    Billie

  • Jan

    Have just found this website, and read Micah’s message in 2008. It totally resonates with my own thoughts. Then read RK Henderson’s reply in 2009 and felt that was a good explanation and quite acceptable. It just leave me with the question, “does it FEEL right for me to chant” and the answer to that is…..yes and no ! I’m very new to this, so time will tell.

  • 21st century Buddha

    Chanting. One more distraction keeping potential Buddhists from becoming actualized.
    One should study as much as possible to become wise to reality..not waste time chanting or meditating.
    No time for play.
    If suffering is to be overcome in the world people must get serious.
    It’s for your own good and the good of mankind that this foolishness ends.

  • Chantana

    Pls see the following site for thePali and English translations of many of the chants. Hope it is useful. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/dhammayut/chanting.html#buddham

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