Because I Care ~ TO CHANT OR NOT
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
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
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!