What is the purpose of chanting?

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mddrill
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What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by mddrill » Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am

I recently attended the first day of a retreat in the Nyingma lineage.

The first thing I noticed was that there was a whole lot of chanting going on and not much meditation. They did a Dharmapala which apparently is an hour and a half of chanting. I've only practiced in the Zen tradition, so this was new to me (they chant in Zen but only for like 10 minutes and it's followed with an hour of meditation). At first it turned me off of Tibetan Buddhism because the chanting comes across as superstitious to me. Like prayer in the Abrahamic religions. If that was what I was after, I would have stayed in the Western religion I was raised in rather than learning about Buddhism. But someone told me that I might be rushing to judgement here and suggested that the chanting might be a form of meditation.

Do I have the wrong understanding of chanting and Tibetan Buddhism?

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Sun Jan 14, 2018 4:05 am

mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
I recently attended the first day of a retreat in the Nyingma lineage.

The first thing I noticed was that there was a whole lot of chanting going on and not much meditation. They did a Dharmapala which apparently is an hour and a half of chanting. I've only practiced in the Zen tradition, so this was new to me (they chant in Zen but only for like 10 minutes and it's followed with an hour of meditation). At first it turned me off of Tibetan Buddhism because the chanting comes across as superstitious to me. Like prayer in the Abrahamic religions. If that was what I was after, I would have stayed in the Western religion I was raised in rather than learning about Buddhism. But someone told me that I might be rushing to judgement here and suggested that the chanting might be a form of meditation.

Do I have the wrong understanding of chanting and Tibetan Buddhism?
That's a really broad question, but yes, you are missing something vital. It's ok though, I had all the same notions before becoming involved in Tibetan traditions. Though frankly, there are certainly things in Tibetan Buddhism which appear as 'superstition', in the wrong hands, some likely are superstitions. Others are viewed as superstition particularly because the people viewing them have only Abrahamic religion or materialism as frames of reference, which sounds like it may be the case here - no offense. At any rate, the practices themselves are deeply profound, and as far as i'm concerned, far from superstition. If you are more of a "secular Buddhist" type of person, then yes, they may not meet your mindset.

That said, I was once just such a Buddhist, and I ended up being so taken with the practices that I read a ton, got lots of teachings, and ended up in these traditions, with a very different view than what I started with. Might be true for you, or it might not.

So firstly, "prayer" as such exists in pretty much all Buddhist traditions, it may have been de emphasized at your Soto center, but Soto has prayers, prostrations etc...all the things that might seem 'superstitious' to you, those are simply an intrinsic part of Buddhism, period. Anyone who claims otherwise is a revisionist. Praying to Buddha's and Bodhisattvas, or similar practices are a part of all Mahayana Buddhism that I am aware of, and arguably a smaller part of Theravadin traditions as well. Now this kind of prayer differs quite a bit in character and intent from Abrahamic prayer, but aspiration and prayer and in fact, simply a huge part of Buddhist tradition. Devotion has a different place in different methods, but almost all Buddhist schools i'm aware of consider it a prerequisite for real practice.

As to what they were doing in the Nyingma center, that again is a huge question, but i'll try to give you a shorthand answer, from my own experience, and keep in mind I am not a teacher, just a random practitioner.

As to what the "chanting" is, it is in fact a very profound way of meditating, if you receive instructions and practice them diligently. The short answer is that the Zazen meditation you have done so far in Soto primarily relies on stillness, at least in the beginning..whereas what you are seeing as "just chanting" is (among many other things) a kind of meditation on the nature of movement, in particular using sound as a way to achieve (among other things) the same state that Zazen aims for. You could say it works with the continuity of your thoughts and emotional states, rather than trying to calm them through stillness. Typically Tibetan meditation is in the form of Sadhana, a set of recitations, visualizations, and instructions that fully engage the body, speech, and mind of the practitioner. So the entire thing is a meditation..just like the bowing, Oryoki, or Kinhin you did in Soto Zen *are also meditation*, and not just the Zazen. If you do it badly, do not have instruction, or are brand new, then sure, it can be "just chanting". If so though, that is because you don't know the practice and do not have it's instructions so it is not working. You could compare it to trying to sit Zazen having never visited a Zendo, with no instruction, likely you would just be wasting time.

Frankly, if there are Zen people who believe they are only "meditating" when in Zazen, they are confused about their own tradition too, and are likely missing out. There is a lot of Western misinterpretation of the purpose and scope of Buddhist meditation, simply sitting and calming your mind is the first step, but it is a very limited place to hang out in, if you do not move past this. This should most definitely be true of Zen practice too.

Anyway, like I said these are big, big questions, I would go and actually talk to the teacher or senior students at the Nyingma center if you want more explanations of what they are doing. Try to be open to what they say, and "empty your cup" a bit. Connecting with the energy of these practices is a bigger deal than having beliefs about them, or trying to pose theoretical answers, when you may not yet understand the question.
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mddrill
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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by mddrill » Sun Jan 14, 2018 4:59 am

Thank you. I wish there was some kind of upvote button here.

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by jmlee369 » Sun Jan 14, 2018 9:09 am

It is probably much the same principle as this daily morning ceremony at one of the two head temples of Soto Zen.

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by heart » Sun Jan 14, 2018 9:27 am

mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
I recently attended the first day of a retreat in the Nyingma lineage.

The first thing I noticed was that there was a whole lot of chanting going on and not much meditation. They did a Dharmapala which apparently is an hour and a half of chanting. I've only practiced in the Zen tradition, so this was new to me (they chant in Zen but only for like 10 minutes and it's followed with an hour of meditation). At first it turned me off of Tibetan Buddhism because the chanting comes across as superstitious to me. Like prayer in the Abrahamic religions. If that was what I was after, I would have stayed in the Western religion I was raised in rather than learning about Buddhism. But someone told me that I might be rushing to judgement here and suggested that the chanting might be a form of meditation.

Do I have the wrong understanding of chanting and Tibetan Buddhism?
Yes, you have. The chanting, all chanting in Tibetan Buddhism, is meditation.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Tiago Simões » Sun Jan 14, 2018 12:05 pm

mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
At first it turned me off of Tibetan Buddhism because the chanting comes across as superstitious to me.
Interesting... I'm the complete opposite! I like the chanting of the Tibetan tradition, and I'm turned off by all the 1hr boring old meditation sessions of the Soto Zen tradition. :tongue:
Then, the Licchavi Vimalakīrti spoke to the elder Śāriputra and the great disciples: “Reverends, eat of the food of the Tathāgata! It is ambrosia perfumed by the great compassion. But do not fix your minds in narrow-minded attitudes, lest you be unable to receive its gift.”

- Chapter 9, The Feast Brought by the Emanated Incarnation
The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra “The Teaching of Vimalakīrti”

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by pael » Sun Jan 14, 2018 1:50 pm

heart wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 9:27 am
mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
I recently attended the first day of a retreat in the Nyingma lineage.

The first thing I noticed was that there was a whole lot of chanting going on and not much meditation. They did a Dharmapala which apparently is an hour and a half of chanting. I've only practiced in the Zen tradition, so this was new to me (they chant in Zen but only for like 10 minutes and it's followed with an hour of meditation). At first it turned me off of Tibetan Buddhism because the chanting comes across as superstitious to me. Like prayer in the Abrahamic religions. If that was what I was after, I would have stayed in the Western religion I was raised in rather than learning about Buddhism. But someone told me that I might be rushing to judgement here and suggested that the chanting might be a form of meditation.

Do I have the wrong understanding of chanting and Tibetan Buddhism?
Yes, you have. The chanting, all chanting in Tibetan Buddhism, is meditation.

/magnus
Is it true chanting if you don't understand Tibetan? It is hard to follow English translation when I read liturgy in Tibetan. I need also need to translate English into Finnish in my head. I fear I have done only lip service. Are there any benefit in lip service? Have I purified or accumulated anything?
May all beings be free from suffering and causes of suffering

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by seeker242 » Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:49 pm

mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
and suggested that the chanting might be a form of meditation.
Chanting has always been a form of meditation! Korean style zen has entire retreats comprised primarily of chanting. Kusan Sunim, a popular teacher, started his "career" in Buddhism with a 100 day chanting retreat. The purpose is the same as any other practice, to get enlightenment and save beings from suffering.
One should not kill any living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite any other to kill. Do never injure any being, whether strong or weak, in this entire universe!

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by heart » Sun Jan 14, 2018 4:03 pm

pael wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 1:50 pm
heart wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 9:27 am
mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
I recently attended the first day of a retreat in the Nyingma lineage.

The first thing I noticed was that there was a whole lot of chanting going on and not much meditation. They did a Dharmapala which apparently is an hour and a half of chanting. I've only practiced in the Zen tradition, so this was new to me (they chant in Zen but only for like 10 minutes and it's followed with an hour of meditation). At first it turned me off of Tibetan Buddhism because the chanting comes across as superstitious to me. Like prayer in the Abrahamic religions. If that was what I was after, I would have stayed in the Western religion I was raised in rather than learning about Buddhism. But someone told me that I might be rushing to judgement here and suggested that the chanting might be a form of meditation.

Do I have the wrong understanding of chanting and Tibetan Buddhism?
Yes, you have. The chanting, all chanting in Tibetan Buddhism, is meditation.

/magnus
Is it true chanting if you don't understand Tibetan? It is hard to follow English translation when I read liturgy in Tibetan. I need also need to translate English into Finnish in my head. I fear I have done only lip service. Are there any benefit in lip service? Have I purified or accumulated anything?
As with anything difficult you have to take time to learn. In the beginning it is difficult but with time it becomes more and more easy. Get a copy of the text and read it through many times. Ask questions about the visualisation to the Lama and google words you don't understand. You could even do your own Finnish translation. And yes, there is a great benefit to learn to do sadhanas.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Grigoris » Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:03 pm

Chanting is a way to accumulate merit through the practice of Right Speech.

Of course the chants have a meaning. Many times the words are practice instructions: Now you see blah, she looks like blah, she holds blah, her mantra blah, imagine that blah,... etc... Or they are Sutra (teachings).

When I first started in Tibetan traditions I was turned off by the endless prayers too. I still refuse to do prayers that I do not know the meaning of. I prefer, with new practices to just read them through mentally until I know what I am chanting and then...
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philji
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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by philji » Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:35 pm

There is a good explanation here of the meaning of devotional chanting in tibetan buddhsim in this video by the american Lama, Tulku Sherdor.

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Malcolm » Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:45 pm

mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 4:59 am
Thank you. I wish there was some kind of upvote button here.
Use this:

:good:
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[A]nything at all that is well spoken is the word of the Buddha.

-- Ārya-adhyāśaya-sañcodana-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra

The different sūtras in accord with the emptiness
taught by the Sugata are definitive in meaning;
One can understand that all of those Dharmas in
which a sentient being, individual, or person are taught are provisional in meaning.

-- Samadhirāja Sūtra

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Ricky » Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:56 pm

Only a guess but one of the purposes of chanting may be to get closer to your "buddha-nature"

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Mantrik » Sun Jan 14, 2018 8:07 pm

I had the reverse experience. I had some familairity with Vajrayana and was setting foot in a Zendo for the first time.
So, being clueless, I thought it was boring and sometimes just bloody uncomfortable for no apparent reason, ridiculously constrained and rigid. Then I 'got it'.

Of course, whatever Buddhist experience we have, the essence of it is the work we are doing on our own minds.

I've attended all manner of classes and rituals all over the world where I have been pretty clueless, including Vajrayana closer to home, and can only be grateful for the many many people who have taken the time to explain things to me, and that has to be the best advice in making use of those experiences - observe, participate, enjoy, question, apply.
Last edited by Mantrik on Sun Jan 14, 2018 8:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by heart » Sun Jan 14, 2018 8:07 pm

Ricky wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:56 pm
Only a guess but one of the purposes of chanting may be to get closer to your "buddha-nature"
There really is no "chanting", it is either prayers or sadhanas. It is a good idea to get to know what that is.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by TharpaChodron » Mon Jan 15, 2018 12:05 am

heart wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 8:07 pm
Ricky wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:56 pm
Only a guess but one of the purposes of chanting may be to get closer to your "buddha-nature"
There really is no "chanting", it is either prayers or sadhanas. It is a good idea to get to know what that is.

/magnus
That's what I thought, as well. I also have heard from a teacher that saying these prayers etc in Tibetan has some power. perhaps it sounds superstitious, but he said that since that's the language that these prayers were first given to us, saying them in Tibetan is a good thing.

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by heart » Mon Jan 15, 2018 8:45 am

TharpaChodron wrote:
Mon Jan 15, 2018 12:05 am
heart wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 8:07 pm
Ricky wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 7:56 pm
Only a guess but one of the purposes of chanting may be to get closer to your "buddha-nature"
There really is no "chanting", it is either prayers or sadhanas. It is a good idea to get to know what that is.

/magnus
That's what I thought, as well. I also have heard from a teacher that saying these prayers etc in Tibetan has some power. perhaps it sounds superstitious, but he said that since that's the language that these prayers were first given to us, saying them in Tibetan is a good thing.
If you don't understand the meaning the benefit is limited. Saying them in Tibetan is good when doing them together with Tibetans but when doing them alone it is also good to do them in English.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by Harimoo » Mon Jan 15, 2018 9:09 am

heart wrote:
Mon Jan 15, 2018 8:45 am
If you don't understand the meaning the benefit is limited. Saying them in Tibetan is good when doing them together with Tibetans but when doing them alone it is also good to do them in English.

/magnus
Chanting in English ?

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by PeterC » Mon Jan 15, 2018 12:25 pm

mddrill wrote:
Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:41 am
...they chant in Zen but only for like 10 minutes and it's followed with an hour of meditation...
The zen monasteries I spent time in when I practiced in that tradition spent a *lot* of time chanting, up to a couple of hours a day. I think you'll find that to be the case in pretty much all monasteries in Japan/Taiwan/Korea.

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Re: What is the purpose of chanting?

Post by heart » Mon Jan 15, 2018 1:29 pm

Harimoo wrote:
Mon Jan 15, 2018 9:09 am
heart wrote:
Mon Jan 15, 2018 8:45 am
If you don't understand the meaning the benefit is limited. Saying them in Tibetan is good when doing them together with Tibetans but when doing them alone it is also good to do them in English.

/magnus
Chanting in English ?
Yes, of course. In order to understand the meaning. And really chanting are either sadhanas or prayers.

/magnus
"We are all here to help each other go through this thing, whatever it is."
~Kurt Vonnegut

"The principal practice is Guruyoga. But we need to understand that any secondary practice combined with Guruyoga becomes a principal practice." ChNNR (Teachings on Thun and Ganapuja)

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