This article was selected for publication in Lion’s Roar magazine. It’s about the Buddhist experience from a skeptical perspective. Please click on it and give it a read.
“For as long as space endures. For as long as living beings remain.
May I too remain to eliminate the suffering of the world.” ~ Shantideva
Chants and songs are probably present in all religious traditions.
I can imagine shamanic teachers in prehistoric societies leading chants around a campfire.
Chanting and Buddhist temples are ubiquitous, right there alongside the incense, bowing, and weird clothes. I’ve found Buddhist communities where they don’t meditate. I’ve never found one where they don’t chant.
It’s present in all schools of Buddhism, as far as I know, to greater and lesser degrees; the contents of the chants vary a great deal.
We hear chants and songs in other religions and sometimes we see these things as pointless, especially in a Buddhist context. Buddhism, we think, is supposed to be different. In other religious traditions chants and songs are a form of worship. People express their devotion in song. Buddhism is non-theistic. The Buddha doesn’t save us or even transform us. He invites us to transform ourselves.
It’s not about worship, so if they aren’t songs of devotion, why would we chant?
Sometimes when people first become exposed to Buddhism they really aren’t interested in chanting. The chanting is a tool, I think. It helps us get ready for practice. It serves to provide a doorway out of our regular day-to-day life and into the mystical place of the temple.
The purpose is to get our minds ready for the teachings and to help us awaken. This awakening is not intellectual, but a change in how we experience and perceive. Think of mindful chanting as a tool for helping us wake up.
I submit that chanting is a part of Buddhism because it’s something human beings value in spirituality.
It’s a ritual and rituals motivate and inspire us. Rituals keep us on the path, even if they seem weird or make no sense. Rituals build community too. A big part of chanting and singing is that we’re doing it together.
There are several types of Buddhist chants. Some people do believe chants produce some kinds of magical effects. That discussion is beyond the scope of what I want to discuss here.
Sometimes we chant things in the original languages and sometimes we chant things in English, like quotes from texts such as the one I put at the beginning of this article.
Chanting in a language we don’t understand, I think, makes it feel important or sacred. Maybe it’s more ritualistic and special if we don’t really understand it. OM MANI PADME HUM sounds important to us, and I think all those Ms mean something to us. If we chanted THE JEWEL IN THE LOTUS instead I think it wouldn’t mean as much.
Chanting in English obviously reminds us of the intent behind what we’re doing. When we chant things like “May I too remain to dispel the misery of the world,” we are re-dedicating ourselves verbally and generating our intention. I think this does help. It reminds us that this is important and it unites us as a community when we are doing it together.
In some branches of Buddhism, like Pure Land and Nichiren, chanting is almost the entire practice. I don’t connect with chanting nearly well enough for that, but plenty of people certainly do.
Chanting is one of the things we do in Buddhist temple. The practice would probably feel strange without it. I think it serves a useful purpose. It gives us something to do together, as a community.