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Lions Roar : March 2019
ILLUSTRATIONSBYCAROLEHÉNAFF AS LONG AS BUDDHISM has existed, chanting has been one of its core prac- tices. Originally, both recitation and chanting were used as ways to help mem- orize teachings, as well as expressions of commitment. Many schools of Buddhism today still chant in Pali, the language of the historical Buddha. In some schools, such as Zen and Theravada, silent, seated meditation is regarded as the most central practice, with chanting seen as preparation for meditation. In other schools, such as Pure Land, chanting is the central prac- tice. In many schools of Mahayana Bud- dhism, chanting is viewed as coming from the deepest level of reality, the true nature of the self, which is emptiness, oneness, or the formless source of the buddha body, the dharmakaya. Chanting therefore doesn’t come from us deluded sentient beings with dualistic intentions of ego-consciousness, but instead from cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas such as Mahavairocana or Avalokitesvara, who are subtle manifestations of cosmic one- ness and buddhanature. Chanting is neither active nor pas- sive—it’s receptive. We chant so we can receive the spontaneous cosmic power of no-self, emptiness, and oneness. So rather than being the instigator, the chanting practitioner is the recipient of the power of awakening—they are the receptive vessel of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. This notion is pres- ent in many chants, such as those about entrusting ourselves to the power of cosmic buddhas, like Namo Sakyamuni MARK UNNO is associate professor of East Asian Buddhism at the University of Oregon and the fourteenth-generation ordained Shin Buddhist priest in his family lineage. HOW TO PRACTICE Chanting It’s an expression of oneness—with the Buddha, with the sangha, with the cosmos itself. MARK UNNO teaches you how to let go into the flow of chanting. Buddha, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Namu Amida Butsu, which means, “I take refuge in the Buddha Shakyamuni, I take refuge in the Lotus Sutra, I entrust myself to Amida Buddha.” Chanting involves a great deal of con- scious effort for the beginner who’s try- ing to memorize a chant, learn the right tone and tempo, and—if chanting in a group—blend with the others. But as we deepen in our practice, there’s gradually less conscious effort and a greater sense of letting go into the flow of chanting. This is often accompanied by a shift in the physical center of chanting, as we feel it move from the throat to the heart to deep in the abdomen and, ultimately, into buddhanature, the deep flow of the oneness of reality. Although Buddhist chanting can have a melody, overall, it’s more monotonic, as Buddhist contemplative practices are based in equanimity and repose. This is often in contrast with other religious traditions—in Christianity, for example, there’s more singing than chanting, and even Gregorian chants are more melodic than much of Buddhist chanting. Chris- tian melodies and chants are meant to convey the feeling of transcendence into heaven or the spirit rising in devotion to the divine. In contrast, Buddhist chant- ing conveys a deepening awareness of nirvana or cosmic oneness. But even LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2019 29 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE