Chanting: What Is It Good For?

Chanting is a practice that exists in most of the Buddhist world. It’s often used to prepare the mind for meditation, or to separate us from daily life and bring us into a sacred space. It can also be a focus for mindfulness, keeping our attention on the chant as a way to train the mind to focus.

And in some traditions it’s seen as a more magical practice, something more akin to prayer.

Chanting is one of those things that can be brought up when people make the claim that Buddhism is not a religion. It sure seems like it is sometimes.

I think it’s a practice that turns people off sometimes. I’ve often not been a fan and had thoughts like, “Why am I doing this?”

I was at a gathering for the Inner Peace Buddhist Center recently and I have a story to share.

Once a month this sangha takes a break from their normal routine of meditation and discussion. Instead they do what’s called Chanting and Burgers. Some short chants, then silent meditation, then going to Winstead’s to eat together.

So, anyway, I went to chanting night this one time because I like burgers, which is silly. Chanting usually doesn’t mean much to me, but there I was.

Anyway, the second chant was one that I immediately recognized. Kwan Seum Bosal. It’s a Korean Zen mantra that’s used to express great compassion. And I hadn’t chanted it since I dropped out of Zen Monk training several years ago. But during that period I chanted it and became very familiar with it.

We started doing this chant and I closed my eyes and got really into it. We were in that space together rhythmically saying those words over and over and I lost myself. I felt at one with the people around me and with the mantra itself. We chanted it for several minutes and I felt something.

It made me reflect on when I like chanting and when I don’t, because that night it meant a lot to me.

Chanting is a really big deal in a lot of Buddhism and I do think it can be helpful at times. It can bring us together in a way that just sitting doesn’t always. It can emphasize the importance and sacredness of what we’re doing.

But…here is where I think chanting fails:

  1. If a chant has to be read. If it’s so elaborate that I can’t repeat it without reading it, it’s much too complicated to be effective for me. The point is to focus on the chant itself and get lost in it. Short and simple seems best to me. I don’t think you can get lost in a chant if you’re just reading out loud the entire time.
  2. Tone matters. Too often people who chant seem to be just going through the motions. If the other people chanting are just monotone and aren’t really into it, then I’m not going to be into it either. If you’re going to be monotone and bored, you should just not do it.

 

That’s, in a nutshell, how I feel about chanting. I don’t want to say it’s a pointless practice. But I do want to say that, like most practices, don’t do it out of obligation. Do it if you think it helps.

 

 

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