Chanting and Liturgy

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Chanting and ritual are the liturgical means of transforming doctrinal and moral ideals into experience. The types, uses, and meanings of chants and rituals are vast, ranging from those performed by individuals as everyday custom, to elaborate temple ceremonies for large groups. There are appropriate rituals for serious ascetics seeking enlightenment, as well as for casual believers seeking worldly benefits such as health, wealth, and a good spouse. Defined by scriptures and sectarian traditions, chanting and ritual are carried out as prescribed actions, but they are also the means by which practitioners express their own concerns. The repeated performances of certain chants and rituals are part of the everyday fabric of Buddhist cultures, and give members their religious identities.

Repetition also invites people to lose or forget the doctrinal meanings of chants and rituals. Chanting produces liturgical rhythms valued for their audible or musical effects rather than their textual messages. Since chants consist of words, they have linguistic meaning, but chanting often produces sounds that cannot be recognized as a regular spoken language. The HeartSŪtra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra), for example, is popular in East Asia as a Chinese text about emptiness, a fundamental MahĀyĀna teaching, but when it is chanted in Japan, each Chinese character is given a Japanese pronunciation without any change in the Chinese grammatical word order of the text. The audible result is neither Japanese nor Chinese, but a ritual language unto itself. Many Japanese laypersons who have memorized the Heart Sūtra as a chant do not know what it means, but they are untroubled by the question of meaning since the value of the chant lies in its phonetics rather than its philosophy. This is the case for other Chinese Buddhist texts chanted with Japanese pronunciations.

Chanting in this sense supersedes reading. Chanting only the first Chinese character on each page of an entire scripture is believed to be equal to reading every character. Understood as a consummation rather than a subversion of reading, chanting first characters is based on the idea that single words or phrases can evoke the virtue and power that all of the words combined are trying to explain. Reading for meaning is a useful step for grasping the truth of a text, but it is a means, not the final objective. All Buddhist traditions emphasize the supreme value of experiencing the truth of a text, and chanting aims at that objective. Chanting the Heart Sūtra without

understanding its discursive meaning is not a violation of the text, but the fulfillment of it.

Just as single words can epitomize entire pages, so can the title of a scripture embrace its totality. Chanting sūtra titles is a common practice, and in Japan, for example, the basic practice of Nichiren school Buddhism is chanting the phrase Namu Myōhōrenge-kyō (Homage to the Lotus Sūtra). While Nichiren Buddhists chant the text of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra) as well, chanting the Japanese title, Myōhō-renge-kyō, is a necessary and sufficient means for relating the truth of the sūtra to the individual believer and his or her concerns. Chanted repeatedly, the title itself bears the power of the entire scripture, and is regarded by some Nichiren traditions as the main object of worship. The popular Sanskrit mantra, OṂ maṆi padme hŪṂ (Praise be the jewel lotus) and its Tibetan version, not only evokes the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, but also epitomizes all of the Buddhist teachings.

In a similar manner, chanting the name of a deity evokes all of its power. One of the most popular practices in East Asia is chanting the name of the Buddha of the Western Paradise (Sanskrit, AmitĀbha; Japanese, Amida; Chinese, Amituo). Pure Land Buddhist traditions are built on recitations of Amitābha's name, and countless Japanese Buddhists over the centuries have chanted the phrase Namu Amida Butsu (Homage to Amitābha Buddha) in hopes that they will be reborn into Amitābha's pure land. This practice is known as the nenbutsu in Japan, nianfo in China, and yŏmbul in Korea.

All of these terms conflate recitation with mindfulness. Nenbutsu, for instance, means to be mindful of a buddha, and does not signify chanting. The term, however, is used synonymously with chanting because a proper state of mindfulness is essential to it. In addition to the formulaic words or phrases, which are also known as mantra, it is the quality of mind that distinguishes chanting from other oral functions such as speaking and singing. The effectiveness of mantras in bringing about intended effects depends on the chanter's state of mind, as well as the power of the words and the format of articulation.

Chanting is a form of sacred music, and its ritual format often includes instrumental accompaniment. Bells, gongs, drums, horns, and other instruments are used to provide rhythm and emphasis. In East Asia a common accoutrement is a hollowed-out piece of wood that is hit with a padded stick to produce resonant thumps setting the pace. Round in shape, it is covered with fish scales and is called the "wooden fish" because fish do not close their eyes even when they sleep. In shape and sound, the instrument makes a point about mindfulness.

Chanting and ritual give shape to abstract doctrines, moral values, individual concerns, and communal identity. They provide structures through which important transactions take place. Clerical and lay participants sing praises, submit petitions, make confessions, request absolutions, present dedications, give offerings, receive blessings, and transfer the merit of the ritual to others, often the deceased. Nearly all Buddhists seek their highest spiritual—and often worldly—aspirations through ritual means. A few traditions, such as Jōdo Shinshū in Japan, deny that chanting and ritual are mechanisms for salvation, but even in this case, believers fervently chant the nenbutsu not as a ritual means for gaining rebirth in the pure land but as an expression of gratitude for having already been saved by the grace of Amitabha.

See also:Buddhānusmrti (Recollection of the Buddha); Entertainment and Performance; Etiquette; Language, Buddhist Philosophy of; Meditation; Merit and Merit-Making; Mudrā and Visual Imagery; Nenbutsu (Chinese, Nianfo; Korean, Yŏmbul)


Kalupahana, David, ed. Buddhist Thought and Ritual. St. Paul,

MN: Paragon House, 1991.

Lopez, Donald S., ed. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1995.

Nhat Hahn, Thich, comp. Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2000.

Wong, Deborah Anne. Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

George J. Tanabe, Jr.