UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Because I Care ~ TO CHANT OR NOT TO CHANT

SOMEONE with whom I once briefly stayed in Melbourne appeared surprised that I ate breakfast— and early, at that— when he didn’t, as he habitually got up late; maybe he thought I shouldn’t either— or maybe should not eat at all! It’s amazing what people expect of monks!

Naturally, we all have our own viewpoints and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as we understand that other people have their viewpoints, too, and not think that our way of looking at things is the only valid one in the world. Much fanaticism, and the tragedy, violence and war that flow from it, could be avoided if we realized this. Have your viewpoint, yes— you are entitled to it— but recognize and allow the viewpoints of others, too. To judge others from your own particular standpoint will not only make your world narrow, but is productive of much bitterness and conflict; it is also as wrong as thinking of other people as greedy pigs for eating breakfast merely because one does not— for whatever reason— eat breakfast oneself!

As a monk, I am often asked if I know how to chant. This question has become rather tedious. I am aware that many Buddhists regard chanting as an important part of their spiritual practice, so let us look into it somewhat. Why is chanting central to the practice of many Buddhists?

Some people think it meritorious to chant scriptural passages, even if they don’t know the meaning of what they are chanting (the scriptures they chant are usually not in their native language, but in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, archaic Chinese or Vietnamese, etc.). Some obviously think the scriptures have magical power, like ‘Abra-ca-da-bra’ or ‘Open Sesame,’ the mere uttering of which will bring about miraculous results, while disregarding the meaning. How, then, can the advice and wisdom of the scriptures they chant— and they do contain advice and wisdom, being the teachings of the Buddha— be applied and utilized in their lives? It is rather like a cook-book in a language we do not understand: we may read and recite the recipes therein, but that would not help us to prepare the dishes described.

Because the essence is not understood or appreciated, too much importance is attached to the chanting and ceremonies of Buddhism, and they occupy a place they do not deserve. Consequently, they have come to be regarded as sacrosanct and beyond question, which is how things degenerate into superstition.

When China was about to invade and occupy Tibet, elaborate ceremonies and scripture-chanting were performed by lamas in the belief, hope and expectation that they would somehow magically protect Tibet and ward off the invaders. We know what happened, though the chanting and ceremonies were not to blame for that.

I can chant, somewhat; I learned before becoming a monk, in the Meditation Center in Penang. My ability to chant so surprised the resident monk there that he once said: "You have not been here very long, but already you could lead the chanting." No big deal, no great achievement. I have a sense of rhythm and some musical ability, so it is not hard for me to learn chanting; if I wished, I am sure I could learn to chant in Chinese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, or any other language, just as I can chant in Pali together with Thai monks, Sri Lankan monks, Nepalese monks, and Indonesian monks, in their various styles; but it hasn’t led me to enlightenment.

I’m not saying that I consider chanting wrong or useless and should be abolished, for I do not hold that view; many people psychologically need such things, and cannot and should not be denied them; if at all, they should be gently weaned from them.

Personally, I found chanting with Thai monks, especially, very soothing; when Thai monks chant together, it has a rhythm like the rippling of a stream that carries one along with it, and when one pauses to take a breath, the chanting continues and one just joins again in the uninterrupted flow. As a communal activity, it is very pleasant, with no sense of competition in it, as is found with some other monks; it has the effect of focussing and concentrating the mind, and can be very inspiring.

I still chant at times, and sometimes even perform ceremonies, but for people to whom such things are more important than to myself; yet I’m prepared to bend that far, as it may provide am opening for something more. My real joy, however, consists of sharing with others what I have experienced of Dharma, insofar as it can be shared; if it takes a ceremony to introduce people to the Dharma or lead them a bit further, I am willing to participate in it as a means to an end, but otherwise not; ceremonies, on the whole, leave me feeling ‘flat’, like Cola with the gas gone out of it.

But, to people who are so attached to chanting and ceremonies that they consider themselves better than those who do not chant, I might ask: "Did the Buddha chant?" In itself, chanting is neither good nor bad, but if people become proud thereby, it might be better if they didn’t know how to chant.

Regarding what I said earlier about everyone having their own point of view: I recently saw the tail-end of some-thing on TV showing the Anglican bishop of Wollongong, a town near Sydney, speaking of the new Buddhist temple (apparently, the largest in the southern hemisphere) in his town, and deploring the fact that Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in Australia at the present time, attracting many converts; he claimed that only through Jesus could salvation be found. He is entitled to his beliefs, of course, as I’ve said before, but I felt embarrassed for him to hear him say such things, as he only displayed his narrow-mindedness and intolerance thereby, and actually provided a good reason for people to think about religions other than his. He might believe that salvation comes only through Jesus— he obviously does— but does he know, by his own experience? And what, one wonders, does he know of other religions? Some people consider ignorance a virtue!

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