Chanting practice is usually associated with the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) branch of Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land and Nichiren traditions, however, almost all Buddhist traditions employ chanting to some degree. We can categorize chanting practice under three general headings:
a) Reciting the text of Sutras
b) Chanting the name of a Buddha or a sutra
c) Chanting mantras and dharinis
Strictly speaking, phrases constructed around a Buddha’s name, such as Namo Amito-fo (Praise to Amita Buddha) or the title of sutra, like Namu-Myoho-Renge-kyo (Praise to the Lotus Sutra) are not considered to be mantras. In my opinion they are the weakest form of chanting practice because they are faith-based practices. Faith in Buddhism has nothing to do with believing in the saving power of a particular Buddha or sutra. While the intent in some cases may be otherwise, the result is often that the practitioner ends up looking for enlightenment outside of their own life, which is the wrong direction. I am simplifying things a bit here, yet I think my criticism of this approach is nonetheless valid.
That sort of practice is very different from devata or “deity yoga” practices in Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism. While proponents of Pure Land and Nichiren schools may claim that their aim is the same, to realize the non-dual nature of the practitioner and the object of meditation, devata is a subtler practice and is best done under the guidance of a qualified teacher and with a proper empowerment or introduction to the teachings. Popular faith-based practices are transmitted widely with little or no instruction behind it.
Of course, that’s just my opinion, based on my own personal experience. I don’t disparage those who practice in that way. But since I feel as I do, I won’t dwell on that subject but instead would like to focus on chanting sutras and mantras, and I will deal with sutra recitation first.
Nearly all Buddhist traditions use sutra recitation either as part of daily practice or during the performance of rites and ceremonies. Probably the most commonly recited text is the Maha Prajna-paramita Hrdaya Sutra, popularly known as the Heart Sutra.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that sutras must be chanted in an Asian language. I often recite the Heart Sutra in English and find it just as powerful and beneficial as in Sanskrit, Chinese of Japanese. But there are a couple of caveats.
One being that when the sutras are translated into English the text is often chunky, the rhythm uneven. To illustrate what I mean, the Heart Sutra in Japanese is almost entirely made up of consonants and each “word” is one beat:
Kan ji zai bo satsu gyo jin han nya ha ra mi ta ji sho ken go on kai ku do is sai ku yaku
When translating this line for chanting purposes, one should try to keep the English words short. Here is the line in English by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association:
When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita, he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.
That’s good, but this, for me, works better:
Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering.
21 words versus 29. Less words, shorter words. Kuan Yin instead of Avalokiteshvara (which after all these years I still stumble over). “Clearly” for “illuminated” . . . You get the idea. The shorter words conform better to the rhythm set by the Japanese “consonants”.
Some sutras can’t be worked out quite as easy as the Heart Sutra, so perhaps for the rhythm’s sake, especially in group chantings, it might be better to stick with one of the other languages. The shorter Heart Sutra was edited specifically for the purpose of chanting. One of the reasons why most sutras have a prose section followed by verses restating the same content was because the verses sections were meant to be chanted.
The second caveat is that when reciting in English, chanters may be tempted to “read” the sutra. That is not what we are trying to do when we chant sutras. In some cases, the Asian words are archaic and not part of modern usage. In this way, everyone is on a somewhat even-keel. We should let the words flow through us, or from us, rather than trying to read them as we chant. The great Buddhist teacher, D.T. Suzuki once explained:
All the Mahayana sutras . . . are not meant to appeal to our reasoning faculties, that is, to our intellectual understanding, but to a different kind of understanding, which we may call intuition. When the Heart Sutra (or the Lotus) is recited in Sanskrit or Chinese or Tibetan, without trying to extract its logical meaning, but with a devotional turn of mind and with the determination to go through [the verses], the Prajna-eye (Wisdom-eye) grows gradually more and more penetrating. Finally it will see, through all the contradictions, obscurities, abstractions, and mystifications, something extra-ordinarily transparent, which reveals the ‘other side’ together with ‘this side.’ This is awakening the Prajna . . . Herein lies the secret of sutra recitation.
“Other side” and “this side” refers to the famous analogy of Prajna-paramita (Transcendent Wisdom) being the ship that ferries people away from “this” shore and across the sea of suffering to the “other” shore of Nirvana. By “devotional”, I believe Suzuki is referring to a more meditative state of mind, as opposed to a faith-oriented one discussed earlier in the post.
At the same time, sutra recitation is an external expression of our devotion to the Buddhist path. Chanting sutras can aid in getting us into the right frame of mind when it’s used as a preparatory practice, performed prior to prolonged meditative chanting of a mantra or silent meditation. And, sutra recitation can be a form of meditation in itself, if done with the proper frame of mind.
There is also the historical and traditional aspect. For many centuries, Buddhism was an oral tradition, so reciting the sutras was the only way to preserve and transmit them. Chanting the sutras is a way of connecting with the Buddha and great masters from the past. When I recite the Heart Sutra in Japanese I know that I am saying the same words in the same language as Saicho and Kukai and Dogen and other Japanese masters. I feel kenzoku (a deep spiritual bond) with them. It helps to lift me out of my own mundane self-centered thoughts and it encourages and stimulates my commitment to fare on the Buddha way.
This is a somewhat long post, and yet, it barely scratches the surface. I’ll leave the final words to Thich Nhat Hanh who summarizes a bit of what I have wanted to relate:
We do not recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or with the intellect alone. If you practice the meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the nature of interbeing with all your heart, your body, and your mind, you will realize a state that is quite concentrated. If you say the mantra then, with all your being, the mantra will have real power and you will be able to have real communication, real communion with Avalokitsevara, and you will be able to transform yourself in the direction of enlightenment. The text is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for worship. It is given to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for the liberation of all beings.
More to come. Pt. 2 will deal with mantras.