Chanting: What It Is, And Ain’t…

The practice of chanting often gets a bad rap. Many older people, who reached adulthood in the 60s and 70s, upon hearing the word ‘chanting,’ think of the followers of Charles Manson (yes, he’s still alive and incarcerated), or are reminded of the Hare Krishna sect whose members often appeared to be either drugged, in a trance, or both; and seemed to do nothing but beg for money and – chant. And of course, there was the little matter of whether or not they were a cult.

Contrary to popular opinion, chanting is simply (and most profoundly) a form of meditation. Buddhists refer to it as “active” meditation, as opposed to “sitting” meditation, which is conducted in silence, in the posture akin to that of many statues of “Buddhas.” This distinction, between sitting and active meditation exists precisely because there is a distinction. One may engage in meditation while sitting, walking (called ‘walking’ meditation), or even washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or, in some practices, having sex (and no, that is not the “tantric” Buddhism about which you’ve probably heard – at least not in the way that so many people mis-understand it). The point, here, is that almost anything can be [a] meditation, if it is practiced “mindfully,” a term referring not to just a periodic ‘practice,’ but also the way a Buddhist should always try to live his or her life.

Ideally, when chanting, one’s purpose will be higher than (or at least, not solely dedicated to) chanting for a new TV; attracting that seemingly unavailable guy or gal; or, winning the lottery. Believe it or not, many people, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu, among others, chant for union with the Divine, peace, inner or outer transformation, and the like, as part of their meditation practices.

Now that Hare Krishna devotees are no longer a prominent strand in the cultural fabric of American alternative culture, other chanters have come to the forefront. Among them are those who claim that either this or that chant will ensure that you’ll soon be driving a Mercedes; fighting off desperate (but achingly beautiful) women; or be richer than Croesus in three months. If any, or all of this actually happens, it will not, in reality, be because of any particular chant, but rather because, perhaps for the first time, you’ve truly focused your creative energies in an unusually positive, directed, and productive manner, which is an element of any kind of success.

Many people chant to the Bodhisattva, Tara (actually a group of deities), representing compassion, liberation, and success, among other things, often with the desire to become more like her. This chant is:

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha

Chants may or may not mean anything in particular, and often contain such elements as the syllable “om,” which has no definition, per se, but is considered to be a “primeval sound,” which in itself, is supposed to be beneficial. There is not space, here to consider the full meaning of this mantra.

Contrary to people who chant to deities, some people chant to no one at all. An example of this is the chant: Om Shanti Shanti Shanti. Again, it contains the syllable “om,” and the word, Shanti, (Śānti) in the Buddha’s language, Pali, means “peace.” Thus, Shanti is a type of invocation, referring to and calling upon ‘peace’ in body, speech, and mind, for oneself and the world.

These mantras are older than time; but there are also “new” mantras, consisting of terms and “sound syllables,’ constructed by meditation masters and teachers within certain ‘spiritual’ traditions. And of course, there are the mantras that we construct for ourselves, however unknowingly, and even the mantras that shysters construct for purposes of nothing more than financial gain.

Two of the funniest mantras I’ve come across are on the Website, Guru’s Feet. The first is more ‘spiritual’ than it first appears; and the second, either quite cynical, or perhaps, even naïve. Mind you, I’m not placing these mantras in any particular tradition. On a page titled “A mantra for employment,” Michaelji Ramaprasad posts:

“I will get off my ass and work Om”
“I will get off my ass and apply Om”
“I will realize I can only control that which I can control om”
“I will drop my pride and accept what I get Om”
“I will get off my ass Om.”

Another contributor shares his own mantra:

“Om Nama Bill Gates Nama Lee Iacocca Sri Sri Write-a-resume-and-send-it-in.”

If you’ve experienced long-term unemployment in this particularly brutal jobs market, you know that it takes more than “hard work” to land a job. Only the lowest-paying jobs in the service industry sector appear to be proliferating. So, my advice would be that unless your job causes you to be in non-compliance with the Buddha’s admonition for  Right Livelihood, which would also mean you’re out of compliance with the rest of the steps along the Noble Eightfold Path, don’t quit your job, believing there’s some magical incantation that will automatically provide you with another job. That said, there’s a lot to be said for hard work, right priorities, and being flexible, very flexible…

For me, “the answer” regarding chanting is somewhere between mysticism and cynicism. Again, chanting is a form of meditation. And if it takes hard, scientific fact for you to believe in anything, it has already been proven that chanting (meditation) is “good for you.” I know someone who is constantly playing a song, the content which I cannot repeat here, is all about “’F’ you; ‘F’ her; ‘F’ that;  and ‘F’ everybody.” If he’s not blasting this through his leaky headphones, he’s blasting it on the computer, or singing it. This causes me to remember the literary essay, “As A Man Thinketh” by James Allen (published in 1902). In it, Mr. Allen says: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In a sense, we are all, always meditating. So, what kind of thought foundation are you laying down in your life?

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And here’s a link to an unforeseen “Part 2” of this post:

Why Many Americans (Buddhist or Otherwise) Should Reconsider Their Misconceptions About Chanting…

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Namaste.
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Related Readings:

Chanting Man Forces Flight to Kona From Seattle to Return from Huffington Post.com

Om — The beginning of all creation from Shamballa: A space for sharing and being

Chanting: A Basic of Buddhist Practice from About.com/Buddhism (Website)

Sacred Hebrew Chant from Sacred Hebrew Chant.com (Website)

Gospel Chanting from One Man’s Offering: Gospel Chanting (Website)

Monks Singing Gregorian Chant in a Catholic Benedictine Seminary from YouTube.com

Native American Sacred Chant and Recitation from Out of Body Travel.org (Note: It was difficult finding a link for Native American chant that would hopefully be appropriate because there are a great many links, dealing in some… incredible… ways, addressing “War chants,” as well as the racist ‘tomahawk war chants’ that are so popular at sporting events. Additionally, I found instances of Websites being challenged, or removed, due to inappropriate content. My goal here, is simply to show the diversity, and commonality, of the chanting tradition in various cultures. Hopefully, I’ve been successful.

Medieval Chanting in Stroud Green from London Strange (blog)

Understanding Islamic Chants from Complete Wellbeing (Website)

Meditative Sufi Chants — HU — Sufi Zikr Meditation from Daily Motion.com (Website)

Chanting: Why We Chant from Kwan Um School of Zen (Website)

 

 

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