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

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.


Related Readings:

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)


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?


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…


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)



Soka Gakkai: Nichiren Buddhism’s Purported Cult…

There are three main branches of Nichiren Buddhism: Nichiren Shu; Nichiren Shoshu; and Soka Gakkai International. I am intimately familiar with the Soka Gakkai International (in the U.S. known as SGI-USA), but only marginally familiar with the other two branches.

Soka Gakkai is the best known of the three schools, and has been heralded as everything from “The Answer,” to a cult. The “president” of Soka Gakkai (SGI), Daisaku Ikeda, is, perhaps, the primary reason for SGI’s reputation of being somewhat “cultish,” but that’s only because Nichiren Shonin, himself, was a do-it-yourself separatist who taught that enlightenment was more than a distinct possibility, within  this, one   lifetime, simply by chanting “Daimoku,” and of course, living a good life. And did I mention that SGI  believes that the clergy is superfluous? So, it is not surprising that of the three schools, only Soka Gakkai is, literally, without a clergy – so being ex-communicated by Nichiren Shoshu wasn’t such a big deal… OK. That was a gross understatement. And in place of a clergy, SGI practitioners, a lay organization, are all supposed to believe that Mr. Ikeda is their “personal mentor,” – whether or not they have ever met or talked to him.

The whole “mentor” idea probably seems more “cultish” to people who are not Buddhist and are unfamiliar with the fact that “mentoring,” by a teacher, guru, Rinpoche, etc., is a common feature on the Buddhist path, particularly for those seeking more than a casual affiliation or practice of this particular faith. So, it is not uncommon to hear SGI practitioners refer to Daisaku Ikeda as “my” mentor. Personally, though I progressed in other ways, I never got that far. I’d never met Mr. Ikeda; never expected to; and even wrote him once (several months ago), and have yet to hear from him (but in all fairness, I was only one of thousands, if not millions, who write him yearly).

Another unique aspect of Soka Gakkai Buddhism is that it is, quite obviously, the most racially diverse group of Buddhists just about anywhere. Rocker, Tina Turner, and jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, are two of the best-known Nichiren Buddhists. Never, either before exploring Soka Gakkai International, or after, have I ever seen so many Black Buddhists, i.e., “Black” people (not “Black Hat Buddhists”). Honestly, one certainly expects a few Asian folks to be there, but then everybody else is usually, always White/Caucasian. Mind you, there are exceptions, but outside of Soka Gakkai, I have never met a “person-of-color” Buddhist. Literally, all of the Buddhists I’ve met, in the Detroit, Vermont, and New York areas have been, apparently, Caucasian, if not Asian (mostly Tibetan Buddhist groups). Nonetheless, there was only one sangha (Buddhist community of believers) where I ever felt not-so-welcome. And that says a lot considering the (*)Missouri Synod Lutheran Church I attended in 1995 with a friend whose minister refused to shake my little brown hand at the end of the service. You see, I was, until the age of 12, raised in the Lutheran Church. But that’s another post…

Nichiren, known as Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282), was a radical Japanese priest who so agitated his neighbors, fellow practitioners, and local government that he was, literally, persecuted for most of his adult life. I mean, there were samurai running around trying to take the man out! And once, just a few minutes before he was to be beheaded, there was a meteor shower (or something) which literally scared the hell out of the executioner and guards, leaving only him, a few devotees, and some disappointed sight seers at the chopping… stone. And the story has it that he called after the executioner to return, finish the job, and quit wasting his time…

Nichiren (correctly) predicted that there would be all manner of natural, and unnatural, disasters (during an unusually disastrous period in Japanese history and weather) due to people not practicing  his  Buddhism. He also declared himself the “Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” (the Lotus Sutra, according to Soka Gakkai, being not only the Buddha’s last great transmission, but essentially the only one which truly matters). The Votary was someone long-ago revealed, through ‘scripture,’ to be the one who would champion the true Way.

That said, Soka Gakkai practitioners are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There were several rather close-knit ‘communities’ of them in my area. Additionally, Soka Gakkai Buddhists are the most gung-ho Buddhists around in that they aggressively proselytize, something quite foreign to most Buddhist sects, because while they truly believe that only they practice the true faith, they can get along with almost anyone but the Nichiren Shoshu sect. But again, as I said, they’re nice folks; so, they still treat everyone with respect, and not even in private did I ever hear any one of them ridicule other faiths, or sects of Buddhism.

Nichiren Buddhists chant something called “Daimoku,” which translates as “the title.” And that title is the title of the aforementioned, all-important Lotus Sutra, or “Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo.” Soka Gakkai practitioners do not pronounce the ‘u’ in “Nam(u).” Again, the chanting, especially because it is their primary practice, is also something that many believe akin to “cults.” But I don’t know of any Buddhist traditions where chanting is not known. So, to call SGI a cult simply because they chant is, at the very least, uninformed. Nonetheless, chanting Daimoku is so fundamental, and such a primary practice to the Soka Gakkai that almost nothing else matters. Never once did I ever attend a meeting where anything like the Four Noble Truths or Noble Eightfold Path was discussed. But I could have been in the ladies room at the time… That said, chanting ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ through some of the darkest days, and nights, I’ve ever known, literally saved my life. And I know this because for awhile, that was literally all I had. Though I’m no longer part of SGI, I still chant Daimoku, among other things, and always will.

Additionally, I did eventually choose to leave Soka Gakkai (though I was never officially a dues-paying member because I was unemployed). And when I did finally leave, I wasn’t hounded, or threatened, or, as far as I know, the subject of any fire-and-brimstone-she’s-gonna-burn Buddhist talks (we didn’t have ‘sermons’). In fact, except for a couple of folks, I never heard from any of them again. And it’s important that you understand I mention this only to emphasize that no one ever tried to “drag” me back, or force me to do anything – except maybe believe…

Finally, unlike other Buddhists sects, Soka Gakkai practitioners, chant, unabashedly, and at length during marathon chanting sessions for things like cars, better jobs, raises, and nice houses. They are, unlike some people, very much concerned with  this  life. And I’m not saying that that’s good or bad; I just realize that it’s a very different focus and way of defining “life.” That’s why they claim that the secret to becoming happy and wealthy is… Oh, wow, wouldja’ look at that? I’ve reached my promised “never-more-than-two-pages-unless-it’s-a-book-review limit!”


(*) During the 1960s, Black people dared not enter Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches due to a longstanding ban on then-“Negro” membership. The other faction, the LCA (Lutheran Churches of America) prohibited racial discrimination. It was this part of the Lutheran Church to which my father belonged, and in which I was raised in the early part of my childhood. Even so, we were one of only two Black families in a church full of kind, loving, accepting blond, blue-eyed people named Svenson, Anderson, Olafson, and so on… And interestingly enough, that church was located in the poorest, Blackest part of town. When I visited my friend’s church in 1995 (in the same town), I had no idea if the ban had been lifted, or not, and I truly wasn’t that concerned. I only know that my reception was especially frosty, and I don’t know where the Missouri Synod stands to this day…
Related Reading:

Is Buddhism a Religion? from mgmgfilms: The Writings of Marc Ginsburg (blog)

(1) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Sweep the dust, Push the dirt (blog)

(2) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Humanism of Nichiren Buddhism/Soka Humanism.com (Website)

A Lotus, A Scotsman, SGI, and an Open Path from Fly Like a Crow (blog)

Unshakably Happy from Making Baby Buckley (blog)