Why do we chant?

Some people say that they find the chanting part of Buddhism boring and meaningless. Others say that they feel much better after chanting, and ask why that happens. Chanting is very good for the health, and also leads us eventually to “peace of mind”.

To explain the importance of chanting for spiritual growth, let’s first look at the human brain. There are two different sides to our brain. The left side controls the rational, calculating mind – this is the part of the brain that allows us to think mathematically, scientifically and logically. It breaks down ideas into a step-by-step process. Our whole modern society is based mainly on the achievements and point of view of rational thinking.

The right half of the brain controls our intuitive mind. This gives us the human ability to appreciate art, music, poetry, and religion. The intuitive mind perceives things holistically – we appreciate a piece of music or a beautiful sunset, we have a flash of insight, we aspire to become a Buddha, or we feel spiritually inspired. These feelings come from our intuitive mind, in contrast to our rational mind.

It is interesting to notice that the two halves of our brain are the same size; suggesting that human beings are made to use both sides of their mind – equally. However, since the Industrial Revolution, and our modern reliance on science and technology, the intuitive mind has been mainly ignored in Western society. But, one of the activities that exercises and brings forward our intuitive mind is chanting the sutras. And, it is this intuitive or spiritual mind that Shakyamuni Buddha encouraged us to develop.

Chanting is also good for our health, for a number of reasons:

1. The very sound of chanting helps to heal our bodies and minds. Parents have been singing lullabies to their children through the centuries. We all know that when we feel tired, it helps to listen to some soothing music. Scientists have taken this a step further through the study of plants. If you take a greenhouse full of plants, and play the music of Bach or Handel, which is very regular and rhythmical classical music, the plants flourish. But if you play discordant, disorganized, erratic music or sounds, the plants respond – by failing to grow. Plants fail to thrive in an atmosphere of disorganized sound. Discordant sound makes us nervous, and harmonious sound, such as chanting, heals us. Chanting is one of the most healing sounds in the world.

2. When we chant, it also acts to regulate our breathing. In to-day’s world of”fast lane lifestyles” whatever we can do to slow down and regulate our breathing helps us. The automatic thing to do when we become frightened or uptight is to breathe in a shallow way, and that makes us feel more tense. Do you notice, when chanting, that your breathing rate goes down? And if your breathing rate goes down, then your heart rate goes down. And if your heart rate goes down, then your blood pressure also goes down. Chanting brings a general “cooling-down” of your whole body. Some people become so stressed-out that they go to Stress Management Clinics or Relaxation Therapy. What is the first thing those relaxation therapists say? “You’ve got to learn deep abdominal breathing.” Deep abdominal breathing can be promoted through chanting.

3. Chanting is also good for the health because, if done wholeheartedly, it acts to release negative emotions. As you know, holding on to the emotions of anger and frustration over time makes us sick. We can clear out stress and irritation in several ways: by vigorous exercise, by singing, by shouting, and by chanting. Chanting is a physical exercise for the body that empties the lungs and muscles of toxins created by frustration and stress.

4. Another health benefit of regular chanting is that it brings us to a steady rhythm. The movement of the sun, the movement of the plants, the changes of season, our heartbeat, the movement of the tides – all these are done in rhythm. Balanced and healthy people are people who have balanced rhythm. The regular beat of the sutras, chanted in unison, acts on us in the same way as a parent rocking and singing to their upset child – bringing the child into healing harmonious rhythm.

5. Chanting also acts to clean our mind. The nerve pathways of the brain are like a road map in a densely populated region. Some pathways, the ones we use all the time, are like major highways; others are like countryside unpaved roads. The action of pronouncing the ancient Chinese/Japanese syllables of the sutras gives healthy variety to our brain activity, using different pathways and mixing up the brain signals for a while. This gives a rest to the regularly used pathways of the brain, and promotes cleaning of the mind.

6. Chanting also focuses our thoughts. Group chanting is really group meditation. When we put all of our attention and all of our emotion on one word at a time as we are chanting, we are learning how to focus our mind. Focusing the mind on “Dharma” or “Truth” in this way, opens us to receive the “Other Power” of Amida Buddha that is tirelessly working to transform us into Enlightened Beings. When we chant with a sincere heart, we are touched by Amida. Chanting the sutras also serves to remind us of the monks and nuns in ancient times. We know that Buddhism is 2500 years old. That means that an inconceivable number of human beings have chanted before us, and passed the Teaching down to us. It is truly amazing that the Buddhist sutras have reached us. There have been many dark periods in human history. When we think of the countless wars and famines in China and Japan, it is absolutely amazing that there were enough people who continued Buddhist chanting so that we may receive it now. By remembering our Buddhist ancestors in this way, their devotion to the Teaching is also passed down to us.

Chanting exercises our intuitive mind; it soothes our nervous tension; it regulates our breathing. It focuses our mind, and teaches our body steady rhythm. All this is being done without considering the actual words of the sutras and what they mean. “Shoshinge,” for example, describes Shinran Shonin’s conviction that he can take refuge in the Eternal Light of Amida. All over the cosmos, unhindered, omnipotent light is shining on all sentient beings. No one is excluded. We are all learning, through our life experiences, how to let go of our “ego” and become a Buddha. We have been given the Sacred Name, “Namo Amida Butsu” as a tangible gift. It is something we can touch that comes from the inconceivable, formless realm of the Pure Land, over to our uncertain lives in samsara. Chanting the sutras helps us feel the smallness of our ego cravings, compared to the unhindered All-Compassionate Wisdom of Amida. We surrender our small self. We feel refreshed after chanting, and we feel grateful.

Doreen Hamilton
Sensei, Toronto Shin Buddhist Dojo