I recently published a post titled Chanting: What It Is, And What It Ain’t. When I published that post, my goal was to proffer an ‘objective,’ brief discussion on this topic. So, I somewhat less than briefly shared my own feelings, and instead, offered several examples of how other people feel about chanting. In addition, I posted my longest “Related Readings” list ever, hoping folks would do a little independent reading. Unlike birds who chew (premastication), digest, and then regurgitate that food to feed to their newborns, human adults usually don’t do that for other human adults. And in the arena of intelligent thinking, no one wants another to do their thinking for them, either.
Imagining I was finished with the topic of chanting, I moved on, only to find myself strangely unsettled by that post. I even mentioned, in a subsequent post, that I regretted not having said more about the fact that I chant every day, and believe in it whole-heartedly. Then, today, I woke up, and the first thought that flashed through my mind was that horrible, horrible chanting scene from the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I’m including a link to this scene in my Related Readings section below. I am American born, and consider myself to be quite a fan of American Culture, but I must admit, until a few months ago, I’d never seen an entire Indiana Jones movie. A friend of mine was watching Temple of Doom when I walked into the room, and it was there that I witnessed what has famously come to be known as “Temple of Doom’s Heart Removal Scene.”
To summarize briefly: Indiana and his latest squeeze, along with a few other flunkies, are observing a bunch of “savages,” in some huge, (underground?) mine/cavern that nonetheless contains a deep shaft filled with fire and molten lava. Except for Indiana and his crew, they are all chanting something about ‘Shiva’ (usually a blesséd name), and the focus of the scene is a “medicine man” who is chanting something else, and quite obviously preparing to do no good to a man, bound, fearful, and suspended before him. After a little “mumbo jumbo,” the “medicine man” (please forgive the terminology – that’s why I use quotation marks), makes a grotesque claw out of his hand, places it over his victim’s heart, plunges it into the man’s chest, and rips the heart out. He then turns around, facing the crowd, and exhibits the man’s heart for all to see. The beautiful blond screams in horror, and the manly men are just really and truly disgusted.
I believe I got that right.
Anyway, even as a chanter, myself, it never occurred to me that others would view this scene (an amazing cinematic feat of the truly disturbing), simply as further proof of the “fact” that people who chant are deranged “followers” of deranged “leaders.” In all honesty, there are some “black arts” known to Buddhism, which involve such practices as praying with malas (rosaries) made from such enticing materials as human bones, but I know nothing of that. And we do know that in certain civilizations, Mayan, for example, human sacrifice was quite prevalent. Nonetheless, human sacrifice, hanging out in dark caves, and black magic is not what chanting is “about.”
Though chanting is not “magic,” it is nonetheless, magical. The practice of chanting, a form of sacred meditation, can not only change your ‘mind,’ it can change your life. People chant for such reasons as seeking protection; desiring to ‘quiet’ and focus the mind; and out of devotion to a particular ‘deity’ or personage through feeling a connection to that exceptional being through veneration, imitation, and dedication so as to, perhaps, become more like that being. The chant known as the Vajra Guru Padmasambhava [chant] is a beautiful example of a chant that inspires beautiful, benevolent, worshipful (remember, Christians ‘worship’ too!) behavior that is nothing like the “gonna-rip-yer-effin’-heart-out” behavior depicted in the chanting scene of the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Chanting isn’t just a form of meditation; it’s also another way of ‘praying.’ Chanting can be practiced in a seated position, while using a mala (rosary); it can be practiced alone or in groups; it can be practiced without a mala (rosary) while standing, walking, driving, or even washing the dishes. Chanting can also be practiced aloud, or silently. We chant for joy; we chant in despair; we chant for encouragement; we chant to overcome discouragement; we chant for people we love; we chant for people we don’t so much love. We chant to connect to whatever our conception of the divine may be.
I recently came to realize that even American Buddhists, as well as Americans who practice Buddhist meditation, but not the “religion,” itself, aren’t always thrilled with the concept, much less the practice of chanting. One day, after visiting a Buddhist meditation center and completing about an hour of silent meditation which included both ‘sitting’ and ‘walking’ meditation, I gathered with a group of practitioners afterwards for tea. There is always “chanting” at the end of the meditation period from “chant” books. After the second or third visit to this Center, it occurred to me that something seemed ‘strange’ to me. I finally figured out what it was. Their “chanting” consisted of reading some names of deities, along with a few poem-type prayers that appeared to have been translated from another language.
Unlike the chanting to which I had become accustomed (briefer ‘texts’ recited from memory instead of pages-long stuff read from a book) this was a fairly quick, dry reading of words which obviously referred, and deferred, to the Divine. I’m not saying there was no love and devotion there, only that there did not appear to be. And in all fairness, I also have experience in chanting, from memory, rather large excerpts of chapters of Buddhist texts. But again, it was not in an “Oh, let’s just get this the hell-over-with way.” So, as we discussed chanting while having tea, I asked, “Is the ‘reading’ you do after the meditation session is over what ‘you all’ call… chanting?” Someone responded “Yes, it is. We don’t really do much with chanting here. And that’s probably not good, but to me, at least, chanting has always seemed so… creepy.”
Another thing I’ve noticed is that ex-Catholics are often turned off by chanting – even if they’ve “converted” to Buddhism, because Catholics chant and burn incense just like Buddhists! Well, maybe not “just like,” but close enough. And there are “tons” of ex-Catholics now practicing Buddhism, as well as practicing Catholics who practice Buddhist meditation. So, aversion to past practices, a little too much Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and ignorance of the deep, rich, so movingly and beautifully devotional aspects of the practice of chanting add up to… nothing.
The Catholic prayer, ‘Hail, Mary,’ repeated over and over again, is ‘chanting, ’ and can be considered a ‘mantra.’ The practice of reciting the word, ‘peace,’ is chanting, and can be considered a mantra. And usually, when one chants “Om Namah Shivaya,” a mantra, it doesn’t mean “I’m gonna’ rip your heart out!” A closer approximation of its meaning is: I bow to Shiva (for numerous and exceptionally beautiful, loving reasons). Also known as “the great redeeming mantra,” it expresses a love and devotion for the Divine that is for all practical purposes, inexpressible. And that’s the magic of mantra(s). Chanting is a way of connecting to the inexpressibly ‘good,’ by saying ‘it’ in a way we couldn’t possibly, humanly, or adequately say by ourselves. Some people ‘say it with flowers,’ we say it with chanting. And I deeply regret having made the decision not to delve more deeply into this topic when first writing about it.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s “Heart Removal Scene” from YouTube
Good Vibrations — Jois on Mantras from Irish Ashtangi (blog)
Chanting: What It Is, And Ain’t… from Mindful Ejaculations (this blog)
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)
Chanting: Why We Chant from Kwan Um School of Zen (Website)