Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In the beginning, there was sound

A few years back I was at a celebration at the first temple I attended when a group of visiting monks had arrived for the festivities. Part of the day included chanting. While I had heard chanting on television shows about Buddhism, I had not, until that day, experienced it “live.”

It was an awesome experience.

Interestingly, I also love Gregorian chant. And while I have not attempted to recite Latin chants, I have dabbled in Buddhist chanting. Listening to those monks – as well as the other temple members already familiar with chanting – reciting these ancient words in a beautiful, sonorous voice was almost transcending.

I can remember the Abbot explaining to the newcomers that they needn’t worry if they couldn’t follow the Pali text of the chant, copies of which were distributed among the group. Just sit back, he said, relax and meditate on the sound of the voices. Let your mind, he said, become calm while listening to the chanting. And it was true, just sitting there listening brought my mind to a stillness and focus that I seldom am able to attain during my regular sitting meditation.

I wanted to learn how to do this myself. I managed to pick up the easy parts, the phrases that were repeated plenty of times, such as, “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa.” This is part of the Refuge chant that includes this repeated part that I was able to learn as well:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
I go to the Buddha for refuge.

Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

Dutiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A second time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.

Dutiyampi dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A second time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

Dutiyampi saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A second time, I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

Tatiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A third time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.

Tatiyampi dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A third time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

Tatiyampi saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A third time, I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

Recently I learned a new chant from another Buddhist group that I have found equally as soothing. This group chants, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. I had to laugh to myself when I first heard the words to this chant, because there are so many episodes from the British sit-com “Absolutely Fabulous” during which Edina Monsoon butchers this chant as she attempts to recite it in her uniquely hedonistic and totally self-centered way.

Interestingly, a member of this particular group, which is affiliated with Soka Gakkai International, gave a brief explanation of the chant, saying that a scientist had become interested in it because the sound created by the chant was something that could be found in nature, in space.

I know what some of you are probably thinking: “Yeah, right, I bet it is.” But that was not my reaction. I found nothing absurd about this man’s explanation, and here’s why.

Among the things I am passionate about, Buddhism being just one, is Frank Zappa. I have a blog about Frank Zappa’s recordings. What, you may ask, has Frank Zappa got to do with Buddhist chanting? Not much, to be honest with you, although among the many religions he studied and poured over as a teen in the 1950s was Buddhism. But that’s not where I’m going. In doing the background research for my blog entry on the album “Lumpy Gravy,” I found something very interesting.

Among the random conversations recorded for this album is a brief discourse when someone talks about the “big note.” Here’s the relevant portion of this seemingly inane soliloquy (picture this being said by a complete stoner, who most people would look at and think, “This guy’s an idiot.”):

“Everything in the universe is, is, is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know. Which are extensions of the BIG NOTE, everything’s one note. Everything, even the ponies. The note, however, is the ultimate power, but, see, the pigs don’t know that, the ponies don’t know that.”

Hmmm, the Big Note, the universe was created by the Big Note. Hmmm, not sure about this, but wait, hold on! There has actually been scientific investigation into this by a man named Hans Jenny. Herr Jenny, a Swiss scientist, founded the scientific field known as cymantics, as opposed to semantics. And through this, he made what he perceived to be a very, very important discovery. He conducted experiments that showed that sound gave shape to matter, concluding that sound was the creative force in the universe.

So there you have it. You may have intuitively known or felt that chanting was awesome, amazing, significant, but you probably didn’t know why.

Sound really is an elemental part of the universe, and perhaps the mystics of the great religions knew this.

So the next time you think disparaging thoughts about someone who chants Nam myoho renge kyo, or who relishes in the Pali “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa,” because you think this person is a bit touched or affected, think about Hans Jenny. Then think about Frank Zappa and THE BIG NOTE.


  1. I've just started chanting Daimoku, and find it to be very beneficial. Sure, it's weird and awkward at first. But it's a form of meditation in a way. It's a way for me to clear my mind of all distractions and focus on one thing. And I feel really amazing and calm afterward.

    Nice post. "Big Note". I like that.

  2. This theory appeared in Hinduism a few thousand years ago. The universe being made up of sound and mantras all have something called a seed syllable (bija) which connects them to the diverse elements of the universe. The most prominent, all encompassing of the bija is ॐ (OM). Chanting is thought to bring one's self into alignment with the universe.
    As usual an interesting post from you. Thanks.

  3. Eek. I could see some of my fundamentalist Christian friends getting a hold of this and saying that this proves that God spoke and there was light... proving that the Bible is true and the rest of us are bound for hell.

  4. @Jamie, lol, well if they do, you can always come back with the possibility that the sound god produced was a sneeze!

    The Buddha, however, has addressed this possibility, by noting that some folks reach near Nibbana, but not the full blown Nibbana, and they "wake up" in a heavenly realm and wonder, "where the heck am I?" And they speak/think, and someone/something else appears in this realm. They still have a modicum of delusion, so they think they created this new item. The Devas are so funny sometimes.

  5. Great post! I love chanting; it's part of my practice every day.