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Thread: Why do we chant?

  1. #1

    Why do we chant?

    Forgive a newb question but this has been on my mind for a while.

    If the practice is sitting, what is chanting?

    Is it an important adjunct to zazen? In my very limited experience I have not understood it at all.

    I did not understand about bowing at first either and then read in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind about bowing to teachers to show respect/gratitude. I found that helpful as I would like to learn to be open to learning from anyone or anything -- and therefore everyone could be my teacher.

    Is there anything I can read or that you can tell me that would help me to learn or understand this?

    Thank you.

  2. #2

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Hi Constantine,

    Well, only Zazen ... sitting "just sitting" on the Zafu Cushion ... is Zazen. There is nothing else.

    But, as well ... all of life, from chanting to washing the dishes to feeding our families to whatever wherever ... may be seen as "Zazen" in its wider meaning. There is nothing else.

    So, Zazen is just Zazen on the cushion. Zazen on the cushion is all things. All things are just Zazen. (A lot of perspectives in the Zen world have "many ways of seeing" ... all true at once, just different views from different angles and no angle at all).

    Okay, so chanting can also be "Zazen". If there is one thing about how we chant in the Zen way, it is that we should first learn and pierce the Buddhist philosophical content of the chant we are chanting ... this is true, for example, for the "Heart Sutra" and the "Identity of Relative and Absolute", the two main chants we chant around Treeleaf most often. Zen or Zazen without some understanding of Buddhist philosophy can be like clay without shaping hands.

    Once you grasp the underlying meaning of the chant ... it is fine to then drop that away into emptiness, and just chant to chant. "Just chant", just as we "Just Sit" ... for it is all "Zazen". Each note just each note, no where to "get to" even as we diligently and carefully more ahead. Got my point? We lose our self and find our Self in the action of singing.

    Around Treeleaf, as I encourage, we usually do not chant the chant for some magical power in the chant itself, like an incantation or magic spell or prayer to request some good favor or luck from a Buddha ... although such types of chants exist all through the many schools of Buddhism, including Soto Zen Buddhism. Even old Dogen had various rituals like that performed around his temple, chants to prevent disease, fire, ask for protection from various spirits of his day. It is less common a little in Western Zen centers than in Asian temples, but true as well. I, however, do not emphasize that side of chanting at Treeleaf.

    Now that being said ... when we sit just sitting, or chant just chanting, well, there is a true "magic beyond magic" there, and absolute "cosmic" power. Do not get me wrong. It is more that we get beyond the "rabbit out of a hat" magic that people expect, and get down to the true magic of this life. We find all our wishes fulfilled when we are at once with this life. We also lose the distinction between praying to a Buddha without, and finding Buddha within ... for where is "in" or "out"? So, you see, there is infinite depth in these practices, even when we stop seeing them as some kind of "hocus-pocus" or "good luck wish".

    If you would like to hear a little more about chanting and bowing, we had these lessons preparing for our last Jukai.

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/treeleafzen/2 ... eat-3.html

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/treeleafzen/2 ... eat-5.html

    Gassho, Jundo

    PS - I often do "wink at heaven" however ... as when our son was in the hospital recently ... Please do have a look at this little essay on the subject, one I keep in my heart ...

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/treeleafzen/2 ... gness.html

    This too ...

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/treeleafzen/2 ... nking.html

  3. #3

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Thank you so much. I have begun to read the links you posted.

    As is usual with what I am learning about all this your answer was both very clear and about a step or two past my understanding.

  4. #4

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Hi,

    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo
    Now that being said ... when we sit just sitting, or chant just chanting, well, there is a true "magic beyond magic" there, and absolute "cosmic" power. Do not get me wrong. It is more that we get beyond the "rabbit out of a hat" magic that people expect, and get down to the true magic of this life. We find all our wishes fulfilled when we are at once with this life. We also lose the distinction between praying to a Buddha without, and finding Buddha within ... for where is "in" or "out"? So, you see, there is infinite depth in these practices, even when we stop seeing them as some kind of "hocus-pocus" or "good luck wish".
    Yes, wonderfully said, Jundo. I'd like to ask you about another aspect of chanting as well, though. As you've mentioned above, there are many mundane 'uses' of chanting directed towards the fulfillment of personal wishes which are widespread in popular Buddhism in East Asia.

    Aside from that kind of instrumentalization, however, my understanding is that chanting is essentially one of the many forms of practicing dana paramita when seen from the perspective of the Mahayana Bodhisattva path. Merit evolving from the act of chanting is not directed towards the person doing the chanting for achieving personal goals, but rather is given as an offering for all. The exact nature of this merit is ineffable and ultimately less important than our intent, which arises from the desire to awaken all sentient beings.

    Seen this way, any chant should (implicitly or explicitly) be coupled with a dedication. One example of an explicit dedication would be the one from the Treeleaf Chant Book following the Heart Sutra and the Sandokai, another would be the 'Universal Transfer of Merit (jap. Fueko)': "May this merit universally encompass all, so that we may actualize the Budda Way together with all sentient beings." Do you agree with this interpretation of chanting as well?

    Gassho
    Bansho

  5. #5

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Hi Bansho,

    Yes, an aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, and some Theravadan traditions, that developed very early (and which some other Buddhist sometimes find hard to grasp) is the idea of "transfer of merit". Here is a simple and clear explanation from the Tricycle blog ...

    what you are referring to here is called ‘merit transfer’. The idea is that through your skilful conduct you build up a stock of merit - a kind of spiritual capital that is earning interest in your karmic bank account. According to many Buddhist traditions, this merit may be transferred to others, especially the dead, sick, or spiritually destitute.

    There are specific ceremonies and rituals by means of which merit is transferred. For instance, in Theravada Buddhism, a donor may give food or clothing to the monastic community and then ‘donate’ the merit gained to a departed relative (to help them in the ‘after-life’). As far as I know, there is no need for the other person to agree to receive merit.

    Some Mahayana traditions emphasise merit transfer as a means of overcoming spiritual acquisitiveness and expressing compassionate concern for others. The Bodhisattva, or ideal Buddhist, gives all his or her merit away because they want as many beings as possible to benefit from their spiritual virtue. A form of words that one might use to dedicate merit in this way is: ‘May the merit gained in my acting thus, go to the alleviation of the suffering of all beings.’
    A more scholarly treatment of the subject is here:

    http://74.125.153.132/search?q=cache:Ba ... en&ct=clnk

    Personally, I do not have much opinion on the cosmic and Karmic effects of transferring merit, except that I do believe it in keeping with the Bodhisattva vows, and that it is a wonderful attitude, to work for the benefit of others. Generally, I have avoided straight "dedication of merit" language in the "Eko" after our chants ... preferring wording such as "we dedicate or sincere efforts to" or "we dedicate our hopes and aspirations" or "our thoughts and caring". I simply am not much one for the belief that we are setting up a bank account of merit that we can transfer to others to help them in various ways, including a better rebirth.

    Of course, doing something for the benefit of others is a "cosmic effect", even if most ordinary.

    One of the little aspects about practice around Treeleaf.

    Gassho, Jundo

  6. #6

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Thanks, Jundo.

    Gassho
    Bansho

  7. #7
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Re: Why do we chant?

    Hi all,

    Very interesting thread! It might be a bit off topic, but I was curious about when people chant. Are there particular times people do various chants? I'd like to add some beyond the metta and meal chants...any suggestions?

    Gassho,
    Dosho

  8. #8

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Hi Dosho,

    Quote Originally Posted by Dosho
    It might be a bit off topic, but I was curious about when people chant. Are there particular times people do various chants? I'd like to add some beyond the metta and meal chants...any suggestions?
    Outside of a monastic setting, where there are specific rules for what to chant and when to chant it, I'd say that in general, following whatever is suggested by the teacher (in our case, Jundo or Taigu) and is common practice in the Sangha (in our case, Treeleaf) should be a given. In my view, this is something that unifies the Zen community and offers an opportunity for members to incorporate a practice beyond their own personal likes and dislikes. So certainly the suggested Metta and meal chants should be included, which you're already doing. Beyond that, I'd say it's something that each individual needs to find out for themselves what works best. Neither too rigid nor too lax.

    Concerning my own practice, it's something that's evolved over time. I do some chants as part of my daily Zazen (which among other things gives it more structure than simply plopping myself down on the zafu ), others are done at various times of the day as an intermittent reminder of my commitment to practice. Currently, the chants/verses surrounding my daily Zazen are: the Verse of Atonement (sange mon), the Three Refuges (sankie mon), before putting on my Rakusu, the Robe Verse (takkesa ge) and just before Zazen, the Four Vows (shigu sei gan mon). Aside from that and at various times of the day, I recite the (prescribed Treeleaf) Metta and meal chant (gokan no ge), as well as the Heart Sutra.

    Perhaps others have differing perspectives.

    Gassho
    Bansho

  9. #9

    Re: Why do we chant?

    I have not yet read the book (it is on the pile), but Thich Nhat Hanh has an interesting book on chanting, including encouraging the chanting of various Gatha for most activities of daily life, such as the before the bath, toilet, teeth brushing. That is common in a monastery setting, but he recommends it for lay folks ... for much the same reason we chant during Ango a Gatha before meals ...

    http://www.amazon.com/Chanting-Heart-Bu ... pd_sim_b_5

    Here are some that I believe TNH encourages at Plum Village

    Waking Up

    Waking up this morning, I smile.
    Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
    I vow to live fully in each moment
    and to look at beings with eyes of compassion.

    Stepping out of Bed

    If today I inadvertently step on a small insect,
    may it not suffer too much.
    May it be liberated.
    Homage to the Bodhisattva of the Land of Great Happiness.
    4
    Opening the Window

    Opening the window, I look out onto the Dharmakaya.
    How wondrous is life!
    Attentive to each moment,
    my mind is clear like a calm river.
    5
    Turning on the Water

    Water comes from high mountain sources.
    Water runs deep in the Earth.
    Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.
    My gratitude is filled to the brim.
    6
    Washing Your Hands


    Water flows over these hands.
    May I use them skillfully
    to preserve our precious planet.
    7
    Brushing Your Teeth

    Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth,
    I vow to speak purely and lovingly.
    When my mouth is fragrant with right speech,
    a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.
    8
    Rinsing Your Mouth


    Rinsing my mouth, my heart is cleansed.
    The universe is perfumed by flowers.
    Actions of body, speech, and mind are calmed.
    Hand in hand with the Buddha, I walk in the Pure Land.
    9
    Using the Toilet

    Defiled or immaculate,
    increasing or decreasing--
    these concepts exist only in our mind.
    The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.
    10
    Bathing

    Unborn and indestructible,
    beyond time and spaceÑ
    both transmission and inheritance
    lie in the wonderful nature of Dharmadhatu.*
    11
    Looking in the Mirror

    Awareness is a mirror
    reflecting the four elements.
    Beauty is a heart that generates love
    and a mind that is open.
    12
    Washing Your Feet

    The peace and joy
    of one toe
    is peace and joy
    for my whole body.

    At Plum Village in France, we practice gathas all day long--when we wake up, when we enter the meditation hall, during meals, when we wash the dishes, and with each activity. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and the world. Dwelling in the present moment, we can see so many beauties and wonders right before our eyes--a child's smile, the sun rising, the autumn leaves. We can be happy just by being aware of what is in front of us. Practicing with a gatha can help us return to ourselves and to what is going on in the present moment. It is helpful to memorize these gathas, a few at first, and more as you go on with the practice. As you silently recite the first line, breathe in; and as you silently recite the second line, breathe out. When the gatha is finished, continue your activity, and you will find that your mindfulness has increased. When we drive, road signs help us find our way. We "see" the last sign until the next one appears. Practicing with gathas is the same. When we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously, and we live our whole day in awareness.
    http://www.nuhong.org/bd_stepping_freedom.htm

  10. #10

    Re: Why do we chant?

    Wow. thanks to all for contributing to this conversation. It is wonderful to have so many teachers.

    One other question: Does this shirt make look fat?

  11. #11
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Re: Why do we chant?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bansho
    Concerning my own practice, it's something that's evolved over time. I do some chants as part of my daily Zazen (which among other things gives it more structure than simply plopping myself down on the zafu ), others are done at various times of the day as an intermittent reminder of my commitment to practice. Currently, the chants/verses surrounding my daily Zazen are: the Verse of Atonement (sange mon), the Three Refuges (sankie mon), before putting on my Rakusu, the Robe Verse (takkesa ge) and just before Zazen, the Four Vows (shigu sei gan mon). Aside from that and at various times of the day, I recite the (prescribed Treeleaf) Metta and meal chant (gokan no ge), as well as the Heart Sutra.
    Thanks for the reply Bansho!

    I think I would like to recite more verses and chants, especially before zazen, so I appreciate the input. But, as you say, it develops individually for each of us and I shall do just that.

    Gassho,
    Dosho

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