Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On Chanting

I generally don't do that many posts about practice in the Zendo.  I generally don't do it because I've found others' material to be sufficient for me. 

But oddly enough for the life of me, I can't find right now exactly what I'm looking for.

I recently finally read one of Brad Warner's books, Sit Down and Shut Up.  I also don't read a lot of so-called modern teachers' books, for the simple reason that I haven't gotten through the older teachers' books first, and most of what I'd read of modern teachers seems, um...recycled?  I don't mean that in an accusative way, but rather it more or less duplicates what's already there.  Consider this the review of the book I'd been meaning to do for a while: Sit Down and Shut Up is, despite its meanderings, in many ways a better book than Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Yeah, it is, for what both purport to do: explain Zen in the Soto flavor to a modern audience.  By that I mean that its linear structure, humor, use of the Japanese language characters, etc. make the practice for more well explained than Suzuki did.  It also benefits from the lack of a section of how the poor author had died and was such a great master that...yada yada yada.  Warner's a "slob like one of us,"  who had the  fortune of being from a part of Ohio I'd bet people in Ohio joke about.

It also occurs to me that a Rinzai version of this genre ought to exist too.   Maybe it already does; maybe it might need to exist in some form on this blog, but from a lay person's perspective.  Seriously though if you want to read about what Zen (Soto-flavored) Buddhism is, Warner's book is pretty good and pretty knowledgeable.  I've some differences with him here, and there, but they're relatively minor.  So consider this an endorsement of that book from yours truly.

 Anyhow, where was I? Oh yeah, chanting. Barbara of the White Plum tradition has this to say on ritual:

Rituals in Buddhism are a upaya, which is Sanskrit for "skillful means." Rituals are performed because they are helpful for those who participate.
Of course, if you are new to Buddhism you may feel awkward and self-conscious as you try to mimic what others around you are doing. Feeling awkward and self-conscious means you are bumping into your delusional ideas about yourself. Acknowledging those feelings and getting beyond them is vital spiritual practice.
We all come into practice with issues and buttons and tender spots that hurt when something pushes them. Usually we go through our lives wrapped in ego armor to protect the tender spots. But the ego armor causes its own pain, because it cuts us off from ourselves and everyone else. Much Buddhist practice, including ritual, is about peeling off the armor. Usually this is a gradual and gentle process that you do at your own pace, but you will be challenged to step out of your comfort zone at times.

She then points to James Ford, (from within the Soto/Sambo Kyodan traditions) who says:
These rites are the family form of this community. Daido Loori, our cousin in the dharma, tells us how "generally defined, liturgy can be considered an affirmation or restatement of the common experience of a community." He explains how "all of Zen’s rites and rituals are constantly pointing to the same place, to the realization of no separation between the self and the ten thousand things. Zen liturgy is upaya, skillful means. Like zazen and all the other areas of our training, it functions as a way of uncovering the truth which is the life of each one of us."... It is our tradition to chant it in a Sino-Japanese form, a liturgical language created by pronouncing Chinese words in the Japanese manner. Here we find ourselves letting go of the meaning, and just chanting. Taizan Maezumi explains something of this. This quote is a little long, but it's helpful. Maezumi Roshi tells us:
Chanting is an effective means of harmonizing body and mind. Chant with your ears, not with your mouth. When chanting, be aware of the others who are also chanting. Blend your voice with their voices. Make one voice, all together. Chant not too high, not too low, not too fast, not too slow. Take your pace from the senior practitioner, who will take the initiative. Chanting should not be shouting. When a person chants like that, he chants as if only he exists and no one else, which is not so. Always adjust yourself to the others, rather than expecting them to adjust to you. Then there is harmony. Chant as though each syllable were a drop of rain in a steady shower. It is very mild, consistent, and sustained.
Chanting functions the same as all of our practices in Zen. On one level, we can see that the sutras we chant have their own content; they mean something. Some, like the Heart Sutra for example, are especially concise and packed with deep meaning. But again, apart from the texts, the act of chanting is in itself an absolute practice, simultaneously expressing and creating an inner state of consciousness. And as we chant together and hear each other chanting, we are helped further in joining our minds. This is harmony. This is practice together.

See what I mean about existing authors being "sufficient?" Well, I take that back, because I think there's things to add to this:

  • In this chanting, it is not, despite appearances, an invocation to anyone or anything separated from those chanting. It is not like a Christian invocation to a deity "out there" but rather to that which is far more immediate.
  • That being said, the chanting does point to a metaphysical assumption, namely that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and ancestors being invoked are immediate, and are not entities entirely separate from those doing the chanting.   This assumption I do not find unreasonable however.   These chants and rituals came from somewhere, conditioned by conditions that brought about their arising.  My hearing and my chanting of myself with others, brings us at least in part with the mind of many ancestors of my lineage in exactly the same way as a good chi sau ( 黐手, or "sticky hands") presents to my consciousness the mind of my sifu and his ancestors.  That's pretty damned intimate.
  • Rinzai chanting is different somewhat from the Soto flavor, as I touched briefly upon in this post a while back. In particular, there's more ki (qi, or 気) emphasis through breath in our chanting. It makes it more physical.  It's actually one reason I'm more drawn to Rinzai practice, at least as it exists in the US.
  • It need not be said, but I'll say it anyway: Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese chanting are different than the Japanese forms, and tend to be more "musical" than the Japanese forms.  That sort of fits with those temples' approach to Buddhism (even Zen/Chan Buddhism) as being more rococo, or more colorful than the Japanese counterparts.
  • Much of what's been written in this regard might seem to be an apology for That Which Clearly Has Supernaturalist Origins, as a way to bring in the supernatural through a back door, so to speak. I'm sure PZ Myers thinks that way.  But if Myers has been to the theatre (or a movie) or a musical performance, I wonder if he seriously thinks that those performative acts are invoking the Muses. No actually I don't; nobody save for a few out beyond the fringes fundamentalist monotheists seriously thinks that performance is "demonic."  
  • More to the point, Myers would do well to read at least some modern language theorists, who are sort of pointing in the right direction here. One J. L. Austin said, according to Wikipedia, that
    A "performative utterance," Austin argued in How to Do Things With Words, cannot be said to be either true or false, as a constative utterance might be. It can only be judged either "happy" or "infelicitous" depending upon whether the conditions required for it to succeed have been met. In this sense performativity can be said to investigate the pragmatics of language.
    Now I take some issue with the "happy" or "infelicitous" part of that (that's pretty limiting, isn't it?), but the basic direction here seems right: the point of the performance as performance is not necessarily to be "right" in the same sense as a physics lecture's content is correct (though a good physics professor is quite a performer). But even a lousy physic professor's teaching performance in no way invalidates his content. The purpose of the content of Zen Buddhist chanting is to point to the Fundamental Point, the Original Face, and the performance as chanting is to realize and express that.
  • Finally, there's a point that I think every teacher I've read has simply not seen, or forgotten, or perhaps they're inherently for more enlightened than I can ever hope to be and don't even need to make the pont.  When chanting in this foreign "language" the syllables don't have the cadence and structure of English (or for that matter, Japanese or Chinese, or even Pali, now that the Chinese Japanese ancestors have had their way with these things).  It takes real mindfulness to focus to Chant the East Asian forms of the Great Compassionate Dharani correctly just as it takes takes a great deal of mindfulness to use a sharp knife correctly.  I remember the first time I chanted it, now over 20 years ago- the thought that popped into my head was, "Ah, it's a  tongue-twister! How clever!" It brings about a more mindful state because you'll trip over yourself, vocally, that is, if you're not paying attention.
OK, that's my bit on chanting. It's just my few words; again, do your own homework.


willyh said...

Good post and reflects my experiences with chanting in both the Rinzai and Sanbo Kyodan traditions. One small correction, James Ishmael Ford stands in the Soto (dharma heir of Jiyu Kennett) and Sanbo Kyodan (dharma heir of John Tarrant) streams.

Mumon said...


Of course you're correct. I sort of conflated them because he refers to Daido roshi as his "cousin in the Dharma," which is true in a Sanbo Kyodan kind of way, and because Daido's folks used to self-identify as "Soto" as compared to "those guys uptown" at the Zen Studies Society, who were denoted by them as Rinzai. The latter is more true, but in fact both Maezumi and Eido Shimano had at least some influence from Yasutani roshi (and therefore Dogen appears on both ancestor-lineage chants).

I hope that hasn't additionally muddied things too much. :-)

I'll correct it when I can.

Barbara O'Brien said...

Well, first, I don't think you can make blanket statements about Soto v. Rinzai chanting. There's a lot of difference between one zendo and another. Chanting at Zen Mountain Monastery when I was there tended to be slow and ponderous compared to other places, but I think that was partly because of the space and the peculiar acoustics of that zendo. Usually in Soto the dharanis are chanted with great energy. Where I practice now, the zendo rocks.

I did a blog post on chanting dharanis awhile back that draws on both zendo training and also my experiences as a trained singer.


I learned about breathing from the diaphragm, channeling qi and singing from the hara from vocal coaches many years before I took up Zen. Singers have a different vocabulary for this stuff, but it's the same thing. You can't tell by watching them, but when an opera singer is singing, most of the "work" is done in the body before the sound gets to the throat.

Mumon said...

Barbara -

Thanks for the different view. I really appreciate it. My MRO experience, like yours was also mirrored in the Zen Community of Oregon's style - I think it might come from Maezumi, but I can't be sure.

Then again, I've heard "real" Japanese Soto chanting in this style too.

It's also reflected, to a lesser extent in the "Anglican High Church" style of Jiyu Kennett's tradition.

However, in the Rinzai tradition, this form of chanting is explicitly descended from what Hakuin himself had to say (write, that is, as I've encountered it) on the subject; there may be cross fertilization between Soto and Rinzai on this, but it is true in Rinzai there's a pretty clear link here back to Hakuin.

Mumon said...

One more thing - I read your post here: http://buddhism.about.com/b/2010/10/18/dancing-to-dharanis.htm

I like it.

It's right.

And I don't think "One Big Voice" accurate captures the generation, flow, and release of energy, in a very literal as well as figurative sense, I've experienced "au Rinzai."

Maybe they do do it that way in some Soto temples, but as I said, Hakuin's influence here is evident in Rinzai temples.

Barbara O'Brien said...

Chanting in the zendo for me is about losing myself in the sound, so it's sangha chanting, not me chanting. That's what I mean by One Big Voice. I'm not talking about chanting in unison. It's common for several people go up or down a third or fifth to create harmonics, which is nice. However, I choose to stay on the "base" note because I have this muscle-bound, operatic soprano voice, and if I chanted on a harmonic note it would be all about me chanting on a harmonic note. Instead I put my voice right in the middle of the "crowd" and listen to the voices all together, not me. It's a kind of chanting samadhi.