Meditating with your voice: chanting

Most spiritual traditions include some form of chanting in their rituals and practices, and Buddhism is no exception. The various Buddhist schools approach chanting in very different ways. Some chants are wonderfully melodious, others resonate from deep within the belly, and still others are repetitive and mesmerizing. The words may be sung in the ancient languages Pali or Sanskrit, or as composed in lands where Buddhism later took root, or as translated recently into Western languages.

Sometimes described as “sound meditation,” chants may articulate sutras, mantras, invocations, requests for protection, or reminders of ethical commitments and vows. In Tibetan Buddhism, complex visualization practices are chanted, accompanied by ritual instruments; in Pure Land Buddhism and Nichiren, chanting is a devotional core practice that gives those with sincere aspirations access to transformative blessings; and in some forms of Zen, collective chanting offers a direct experience of reality by short-circuiting individualism and conceptual thinking.

Chanting can put the intellectual mind on hold and give access to the wisdom of traditional teachings on a different level. Those who enjoy this form of practice appreciate the meditative energy, sense of community, and connection with generations of practitioners who have given voice to their aspirations, confidence, and insights by chanting the exact same phrases. And you don’t necessarily have to understand the words or know how to carry a tune: you can just go with the flow. The Japanese Zen teacher Taizan Maezumi Roshi wrote: “Chant with your ears, not with your mouth.”


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