How to Chant

Humans have been chanting as long as we have been praying. Throwing our body and breath into our praise, into our request, into our blessings, into our voice….this has always been our way.

Sometimes the chants that we use in the Corvallis Zen Circle are in their original language – Pali, or are a transliteration of Sino-Japanese, or sometimes they are in English. All groups in our lineage use the same chants and many Buddhist groups around the world use some of these very chants, as well. So that when we visit other centers we may find ourselves able to join in, whether we are in the US, Europe, South America, Australia or Asian countries, we all chant the Heart Sutra, for instance.

When we chant together in our services here, we can focus on one of several aspects of the chanting – the meaning, the group sound, or the pure body experience.

ChantingLet’s start with the pure body experience. At first we may feel self-conscious chanting and so we are a little outside ourselves looking on. But soon we can simply allow our voice to relax and join in — feeling the vibration of the tones in the head, in the throat, in the chest, in the belly. We can be aware of how our experience and sound changes when we drop from head singing to throat, to chest to belly. We can notice if we hold back, or just let it flow. Our chanting reflects our state of mind. We can be wholehearted, or worried, or self-conscious, holding back or sharing freely, all the way to no self – just chanting.

We don’t always understand the meanings. This is all right. The sound alone is sufficient to practice with.

We can modulate our voice to blend with the group and sometimes the group naturally flows together. You may hear this at times, but also sometimes we all seem to be a little discordant. Then after awhile, we come together in a pure and even sound. This is part of our sangha experience, our community voice. Sometimes people are moved to harmonize because it is more comfortable for the voice.
We chant certain sutras*, mantras* and dharani’s* regularly. We chant our lineage regularly. We come to know these by heart after awhile. They are ancient and profound teachings. You may find phrases from the chants coming to mind unbidden at times in the course of your days, as their meaning for your life becomes clear.

*sutra – a Buddhist text
mantra – a word or sound repeated to aid concentration
dharani – a longer series of phonic elements that evoke a particular
energy , but don’t have a specific meaning, the way words
would have.