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Sunday, May 15, 2011

To chant or not to chant?

I feel very fortunate that I happened upon modern secular insight meditation at the time of life that I did. The four words that typified my experience of the dharma were wisdom, practicality earthiness and humour. It meant that I could access this amazing body of insights that the Buddha had without having to wade through, and possibly be turned off by, a body of religious ritual. I was also lucky to be exposed to some excellent dharma teachers early on in my exploration, who were incredibly knowledgeable, wise, intelligent, down to earth and generous[1]

This happen-stance also led me to participate in a sangha [2] for the first time – the Blue Gum Sangha on the lower north shore of Sydney. There I encountered more of these interesting people on a similar path, embodying variations of similar qualities. Between the teachers, the teachings and the sangha, I had a sense that anything could be questioned and that was attractive to me too.

That was until one Tuesday evening someone decided it was a good idea to do some chanting at the beginning of the meeting. I can’t quite remember how it all happened but the upshot was a fairly emotional diversity of opinion about whether it was appropriate to chant at such a meeting. There was a good portion of the group who felt very strongly that it was appropriate and who seemed to have an emotional, dare I say it, attachment, to doing so and a belief that it was a good thing. It felt like I’d just found the limit of topics that were up for questioning.

There was also a good portion of the group who felt uncomfortable with it – who had aversions of varying intensity. I was one of those and the aversion came from two things. First, it reminded me of the Catholic church that I had left behind – not a negative memory but my habitual pattern was to tune out. Secondly, it seemed to me that any exotic ritual was a slippery slope that could easily tempt people into identifying themselves with an exotic image. While I wouldn’t say the group was overjoyed about having this practice questioned, I’m glad to say it tolerated it and weathered it.

A number of these knowledgeable teachers I’ve referred to have stated in one way or another, that the concept of ‘dependent arising’ is the core of the dharma; that if we see dependent arising, we see the dharma. Dependent arising is simply the observation the Buddha had that nothing happens on its own; everything is brought about by conditions being a certain way. His core teaching is that with awareness, we can see the conditions of our own experience and how they play out and this ‘in-sight’ allows us to let go of the faulty beliefs we have about things and the pain and discomfort that go along with them.

If the principle of dependent arising is correct, and certainly all the knowledge and experience I have to date concurs with it, then there are very few stimuli that can be labeled universally as good or bad, helpful or unhelpful. Whether they are helpful or unhelpful depends on the patterns of association we have with them.

Let me give an example. A couple of years ago I had lunch with an old client of mine Andrew, whom I’d worked for as a consultant and whose company I’d enjoyed. He had retired and we live not too far from each other so we caught up, had lunch and went for a walk on the beach while we chatted. On the way back to the car park I was chatting away when he said sharply “look!”. I looked and what had caught his eye was a small snake that was hurrying across our path from one bit of bush to the other. I love nature, including most critters, and I responded with delight: ‘oh wow, isn’t it beautiful!’. I remember Andrew’s surprise at my reaction. He too thought snakes were amazing creatures and he was expecting me to scream or scramble away in fright. He was surprised and pleased that I had responded differently.

This is an example of the fact that between a stimulus and a response, there is a gap, and that gap is where our six senses (sight, sound, touch[3], taste, smell and thought – the Buddha considered the mind for some purposes as a sense organ) form patterns of association that drive our reactions [4]. It’s important to point out that emotions are part of this equation – they are physical sensations. So the stimulus itself is not good or bad (in this case the snake), it’s our body/mind’s relationship to the stimulus that determines our reactions. As Rick Hanson [5] says, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, so whether something is pleasant or unpleasant depends on what we’ve associated it with. For me and Andrew, to see a snake in the wild was a privilege and we felt lucky and uplifted. For many, it’s a fearful experience.

So back to chanting. Whether or not chanting is helpful depends on two things. First, what we are trying to achieve and secondly, what associations we have with it. With regard to the first point, most who come to the dharma do so out of a wish for more happiness of some kind whether that’s peace, kindness, calm, love etc. Ultimately, the dharma is concerned with the real deal on happiness – the type that’s not dependent on certain worldly factors being ‘just so’ (e.g. living in the suburb I want in the house I want, driving the car I want, having others behave the way I want etc.). It tells us that we need to understand how experience works and let go of the craving for things to be ‘just so’ and the faulty belief that ‘just so’ would make us happy.

With regard to the second point (the associations we have with chanting), it depends on what similar experiences we’ve had before – on what neurons have previously fired together with chanting-like stimuli and how strongly they’ve wired together. In other words, whether chanting is helpful depends on what emotional memories we hold in our body/mind involving similar stimuli.

So let’s put chanting to the ‘how does it help’ test. How does chanting help us let go of clinging to things, people and experiences in the mistaken belief that they will make us happy; that they will satisfy our ‘hungers’. Let me first answer for myself, and then share with you the answer I received from one of these excellent teachers whom I respect.

For me, chanting specifically does not help at all. In a general sense, it helps in the same way any other experience does – it’s grist to the mill; a stimulus that produces a response that offers some learning about my own patterns of association if I’m interested in looking at them. I have found it very interesting to look at these patterns and I did so recently at a meditation retreat with Jason Siff[6].

Jason is an excellent dharma teacher and a real frontier pusher as far as meditation goes. He’s an ex-monk and scarily knowledgeable person who has questioned many of the commonly taught ‘shoulds’ about meditation. (Interestingly, the Buddha himself gave very little meditation instruction – all of the ‘one right way’ techniques around today have been developed by others.)

Jason teaches an approach called ‘recollective awareness’ that uses diarised recollections of meditation sits to help develop insight. It’s a very allowing approach that, unlike most other meditation ‘techniques’, doesn’t try to banish thought but rather, encourages curiosity about it as a source of insight. Curiosity and gentleness are two key attitudes as well as a trust in one’s own process to bring up what needs to be brought up and a respect and valuing of that. It has the concept of dependent arising very much at its heart and encourages you to look at your own individual version of it.

So I was on a retreat just last month and was somewhat surprised when Jason announced that one of his co-teachers John, would be chanting at the start of the evening meditation. John began to play a harmonium (a small Indian hand pumped organ) and to chant, mostly in Pali. My experience of this went as follows:

  • Pleasure at the lovely warm sounds of the harmonium and of John’s voice
  • Feelings of gratitude for John’s generosity in sharing this with us (these two experiences were both in the first minute or so)
  • Awareness that the sound stimulus was dominating my experience and overriding/ suppressing my own process
  • Frustration at hearing some Pali terms that I knew but couldn’t remember
  • Annoyance at the tones of the chanting – they sounded pious to me and reminded me of hymns from my days of forced attendance at Catholic masses
  • Mild panic[7] as I realized that Jason, the frontier pusher, someone I trusted to always question things, had possibly not questioned the helpfulness of this
  • Mild anger as I thought of the attitudes I’ve encountered before that one ‘should’ value chanting
  • A whole big blank spot where I tuned out
  • Realisation that I’d tuned out for an unknown period of time and a feeling of familiarity about that – it’s what I used to do in church.

At the end of that evening there was an opportunity to ask questions, so I asked Jason why he’d included chanting. My perception was he wasn’t expecting that question and wasn’t all that prepared for it. He gave a bit of a vague answer (which is not like him) – something about these traditional practices being good things to do – and then hand-balled the question to John to tell us what he gets out of chanting. John’s answer too was pretty vague.

Over the next 36 hours or so I found my meditations were dominated with this experience and the annoyance I felt about it grew. At one of the group reporting sessions I shared this and having done that, decided I needed to talk to Jason about it privately, so I arranged a private interview with him. (Interestingly, after I’d shared my experience, it no longer dominated my meditations.)

So I asked Jason why he’d included chanting in the retreat. It turns out having been a monk chanting was, for him, associated with some positive memories and emotions. He also said when it’s done fully, it can lead to some quite refined mind states. I asked whether he was aware of the fact that it could also conjure up some negative experiences for people given how many ‘recovering Christians'[8] there are in Australia and the fact that this is one of the most agnostic countries in the world and I shared with him my experience of it.

I was pleased to find that Jason considered my input and on the two remaining evenings, he scheduled the chant to be after the last meditation so that those who didn’t want to be there could leave. Interestingly, the first time he offered this, about a quarter of the group left. On the second night around half left. I clearly wasn’t alone in finding chanting of dubious value.

I can imagine that ‘full’ chanting could indeed bring about certain calm or joyful mind states. This is partly because it’s such a focused activity that prevents the mind from wandering too far, and partly because music is an emotional stimulant. Anyone who’s studied music knows this – even to the extent that certain keys produce certain types of mood and feeling.

Most of us have experienced this first hand. There were times in church where the songs produced positive feelings, I’ve sung in choirs that produce terrific positive emotions, and I’ve heard some Zen practitioners chant quite beautifully which gave me goose bumps. I also read some research recently that showed that people who’d just sung were happier than those who hadn’t – I suspect due to the emotional stimulation but also maybe the fact that you have long out-breaths when singing – an action associated with relaxation as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

I’ve encountered three common objections to this kind of analytic thinking being applied to experiences like chanting. The first goes something like this: ‘you can’t reduce spiritual experiences down to scientific processes’. I disagree with this and would argue that not only CAN you do so but the Buddha would have done so himself if that research was available to him.

I think it was Stephen Batchelor who called the Buddha ‘a scientist of the real’. In his talks with people the Buddha de-frocked the ambient religion of his time (Brahmanism)[9] and the importance of metaphysical phenomena to awakening [10] in favour of knowing our experience directly and honestly without frills or hype. For people who have this objection I think the challenge that is available for them is to look closely and honestly at why they don’t want to look closely and honestly at this process. I suspect the answer is related to some kind of clinging to pleasure.

The second objection centres around the positive body/mind states that can come from such a practice. This raises an important point to clarify which is this: by questioning the use of chanting I’m not asserting that it is bad. I’m suggesting that it is simply a stimulus and that we need to be mindful of the responses that can arise from it. For some of us it will have positive associations and may lead to positive and maybe even helpful experiences. But for others, especially those in the west and especially those who have had similar experiences in religions we’ve discarded, the associations and experiences may not be positive or helpful.

The third objection relates to one very important and very positive function that chanting has served in the past. The Buddha lived in a pre-literate society where information was transmitted orally. Indeed for several hundred years, the Buddha’s teachings were remembered and shared using chanting as the mnemonic (memorising) strategy (this is also why the Buddha’s teachings contain so many lists). I am genuinely in awe of these people, mostly nuns and monks, and feel an incredible sense of gratitude to them.

However, Asian nuns and monks using chants to memorise and transmit the teachings before the year had four numerals in it, has no logical link to us doing it now. Some people feel that they are part of a long history of Buddhists by joining in the practice. This is an idea that leads to certain pleasant feelings (or a ‘mental formation’ as the Buddha talked about it). There’s nothing wrong with it as long as we’re not clinging to it or identifying ourselves with it in some fixed way, but it’s certainly not necessary for practice.  I’d even like to question whether chanting as a way of imagining a connection with dead people’s experiences IS practice.

At this point, I’d like to distinguish between the usefulness of chanting in particular and ritual more generally. I suspect that ritual can be a helpful thing in creating a sense of belonging and commitment to a group (e.g. a sangha). Indeed the secular sanghas I’ve participated in do tend to have fairly non-committal cultures and I wonder whether creating more of a sense of belonging and ritual might generate a greater energy to participate more regularly and generously (with time, volunteering to help etc.). However I’d like to find some rituals that are both meaningful and culturally relevant - a topic for a separate post perhaps.

I suspect that people who practice more devotional or religious forms of Buddhism may find chanting very helpful. However this blog is concerned with the adaptation of the dharma to modern western secular society, and in general, I think that the deifying and worshipping of another doesn’t go down so well in this context. (I use the word Buddhism here rather than dharma as the former is, in my mind, associated with religious Buddhist practices.)

For those who do have positive associations with chanting I think there are a few cautions – some questions to ask and honestly answer. They are:

1)      Does the positive benefit of this practice extend beyond the practice itself? Be clear on what the benefit is and how enduring and far-reaching it is.
2)      Is there any element of joy gained from identifying with this exotic practice – a feeling of having a group identity or differentiation from others that comes from participating in it? A way of testing this might be to ask whether listening to some uplifting secular western music would produce the same feelings.
3)      When engaging in it, have we given people the opportunity to opt out if it’s not going to be a helpful stimulus for their body/mind? Or have we considered other more culturally aligned alternatives so that we can practice together?

At the end of the day, we can’t guarantee that any practice that involves a stimulus, ancient or modern, Asian or western, religious or secular, will have a helpful effect for everyone. I personally gain a great deal from good dharma talks but who’s to say someone in the group hasn’t got some painful memory of sitting in a circle listening to a person with a particular look or timbre of voice talk.

What this means is that no practice that involves a stimulus of some kind[11], including chanting, can be considered universally helpful. In my view the implication of this for chanting is that it’s not helpful to impose it upon groups of people as something that ‘should’ be done, is ‘good’ to do, or that is ‘supposed’ to deliver some benefit. In addition, where it is used as part of group ‘practice’, people need to be given the option to be present or not. We need to respect the many and varied experiences that can arise dependently from such a stimulus.

[1] Notably, Gregory Kramer, Winton Higgins, Jason Siff, Stephen Batchelor and Patrick Kearney.
[2] Sangha is the Pali word for ‘community’ – another post is brewing about the use of Pali words.
[3] ‘Touch’ is actually too narrow a definition of this sense as we tend to think of contact with the skin. This sense includes all bodily felt stimulation, so it includes body sensations such as stomach rumblings and emotions.
[4] It’s also in this gap that awareness and values-based choices can come into play.
[5] Hanson refers to this saying which is based on the work of psychologist Donald Hebb. See The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.
[7] This panic will form the basis of another post about the ‘stuff’ we create around ‘teachers’.
[8] This is said somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I personally did not find Christianity harmful and I believe it can lead to many positive benefits for people. However many also leave it disaffected, sometimes even damaged.
[9] See Trevijja Sutta: Dighanikaya 13
[10] See Culamalukya Sutta: Majjhimanikaya 63.
[11] As opposed to a practice like silent meditation which does not use external stimuli.


  1. Hello Lenore and thank you for your post. By way of introduction, I came here via TSB. Although I do not consider myself a secular Buddhist (I am equally hesitant to identify as a secularist as a Buddhist), I am sympathetic to many of the guiding principles of this growing network of practitioners.

    I have at times felt a lot of aversion to chanting, especially when it was unfamiliar or obligatory. And though I have found a particular tradition to resonate, so that it no longer arouses resistance in that context, it still comes up for me if I encounter other rituals that don't have personal meaning--prime example, first retreat in the Tibetan tradition, an empowerment ceremony in which I was the only one of maybe 250 people who did not take part because it reminded me far too much of communion and was just weird...

    My Burmese teacher is not particularly traditional, and if he had it his way we wouldn't chant. But one of the nuns wants us to chant. So there's chanting before every sitting and daily the refuges, the precepts, etc. Ideally, people have the option of being there but not participating, of being elsewhere, or of taking part fully (whatever works for them). But my teacher emphasizes that sound is just sound. That every object--especially those where we notice resistance and aversion--is an opportunity to observe the mind and heart and to understand better the nature of suffering therein.

    I don't consider chanting a pleasant (or helpful) experience nor do I consider it unpleasant (or unhelpful), just as meditation is what it is--sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so. However, I do find that when I engage in it knowing exactly why I am engaging (not why anyone else is), it can be a very grounding and meaningful practice in community.

    I can understand that your intention in this blog and this post is to challenge and queston as opposed to being primarily a practice journal but I thought it might be relevant to some folks to raise this perspective as well. Ditthi is ditthi. We can be attached to ritual just as much as no ritual.

    Through Dhamma practice we question our assumptions, and can begin to see clearly and understand the truth of reality. So much of that process is a moving away from our comfort zone and our reactivity, and allowing the space to observe whatever arises choicelessly.

    You and your readers may also be interested in what I think is a relevant post from Seth Segall on "How to Listen to a Dharma Talk".


    "But being a religious person, I would like to question the validity of everything for myself. That is the essence of religion, which is humility. Not to accept anything unless you understand the meaning there of, personally in your life. If you accept without understanding, you will be imposing upon the mind. And then you are neither true to the mind, nor true to the meaning. The essence of religion, which is humility, lies in uncovering the meaning of life, uncovering the meaning of every moment, learning the meaning for ourselves."-Vimala Thakar

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and sharing your experience Katherine. I think you are describing in more detail what I mean by 'it's all grist to the mill'. In the way you have described, chanting, and everything else for that matter, can be a source of insight into our own personal patterns of dependent arising...ultimately to be seen and let go of...treated just as the stimuli that they are, sight, sound etc.

    I guess the main thrust of my post (which is, I think, consistent with your comment) is challenging the idea that chanting is assumed to be a certain experience, generally a good or helpful one, without acknowledging that it, like all stimuli might be helpful in bringing about tranquility for some but might bring about vastly different experiences for others. Chanting is not good or bad, it's just a stimulus and the most truthful perspective I can find is to see it that way. I suspect if it were seen that way there'd be less of it. I can't help feeling that for some it encourages identification with ritual &/or exotic cultures.

    I agree too, that attachment to no ritual is no more helpful than attachment to ritual - it's just an aversion (the flip side of the clinging coin). I have a post brewing on ritual more generally.

    Interestingly, the Vimala Thakar quote triggered something for me too - the frequent use of the word 'religion' in itself probably means different things to different people. For me it has associations that are quite the opposite of the sentiment in the quote - associations of unquestioning acceptance and the need to leave one's mind at the door. The use of the word 'meaning' too, for me suggests there's a true meaning of things somewhere out there that we just have to 'uncover' rather than meaning being something we give to things - mental formations as the Buddha might have called them. I certainly don't think of my self as part of any religion..... perhaps another opportunity to be mindful of the context (i.e. modern western secular world) in which dharmic material is applied.

  3. I have a further comment, well, re-emphasis really, on the impact of chanting. That is, if many in our society, like me, are likely to associate chanting with religion when they first come across the dharma, it could turn them off exploring it. To me, this alone is a good enough reason to exercise caution in the decision to include chanting as part of group practice.

  4. the primary purpose of chanting is to remember the teachings and basic instruction; the primary purpose is wisdom development

  5. example:


    Handa mayaṃ dhammābhithutiṃ karoma se:

    Now let us give high praise to the Dhamma:


    [Yo so svākkhāto] bhagavatā dhammo,

    The Dhamma well-expounded by the Blessed One,

    Sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko,

    to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting all to come & see,

    Opanayiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhi:

    leading inward, to be seen by the wise for themselves:

    Tam-ahaṃ dhammaṃ abhipūjayāmi,
    Tam-ahaṃ dhammaṃ sirasā namāmi.

    I honor most highly that Dhamma,
    To that Dhamma I bow my head down.

    (BOW DOWN)

  6. Interesting. So the intention is to help us remember the teachings. My intention with this blog is to look at where things are going astray between the intentions of various practices and the actual impact in our modern society. As described in this post, the impact of chanting for me was not dharmic memory assistance, it was vastly different. For me, and I'm guessing possibly the others who left the chanting session when given the choice, the chanting was having a different impact to the intended one. So rather than getting attached to chanting, perhaps we need to look at other ways of remembering the teachings in our time and society.

    Chanting helped people memorise the teachings in a pre-literate society - a very effective means in that day and age for which I feel very grateful. However we now have many other means at our disposal to help us absorb, explore, understand and remember the teachings. From my own experience I've found many of these other means are more effective at achieving this intent in this day and age. So why wouldn't we adapt the means to achieve the end? It seems to me that the Buddha was all for adaptation when you look at the different ways he taught different people over time....another important intent we should try and adhere to don't you think?

  7. Personally I enjoy chanting and don't consider that its causing me any problems. In fact it helps me to focus before a meditation session.

  8. Rhythmic chanting, especially in groups, stimulates endorphin production. This creates a sense of well-being and emotional positivity - at a purely physiological level. When done in groups a sense of solidarity with, and good will towards those present can develop. Singing together is thought by anthropologists to be a form of grooming developed by humans, but in function much like the physical grooming that other apes do. All human cultures sing/chant/vocalise together.

    Having experimented with this I can say that chanting together is a very good way to be in emotional connection with other people - much more effective than simply talking together. The non-word portion of verbal interactions carries a great deal of information which is usually processed unconsciously - just like listening to music.

    The sense of well-being and positivity that can develop is an excellent start to a session of meditation. Though I do find that the slight high of extended and intense chanting can make single pointed concentration difficult until it wears off.

    If I may venture a personal comment it strikes me that your approach is quite intellectual. You seem to foreground your largely negative associations with the chanting and these eclipse the experience itself. So chanting seems like a waste of time at best.

    In the long run understanding the point of chanting is less important than paying attention to the experience of it. As in all Buddhist practices.

    I love chanting, especially in big groups, because it *feels* wonderful.

  9. Hi there Jayarava. Thanks for your comment.

    Most of what you wrote reinforces the points made in the post about the benefits of singing and communal singing in particular. The additional things I also think are important are:
    - to be aware of the reason one is chanting, or the benefits gained as you've outlined above (and as 'anonymous' above your post has done in identifying that he/she does it to focus before meditation);
    - exploring the idea that we could use a more culturally relevant means of communal singing to gain those benefits; and
    - in group settings, to be aware that chanting in particular may not bring the benefits you've outlined for some people if they have unpleasant personal histories with other 'chant-like' singing. For these people, chanting probably IS, as you've suggested, a waste of time.

    I was a little uncertain about your intent regarding your observation of my approach being intellectual. I'm interested to know if you're suggesting this is a bad thing. I agree whole-heartedly that attending to the experience is also very important - I think my post shows that I did that last time I encountered it. However the Buddha, while being very grounded in experience, was also an intellectual. His teachings were all about understanding the true nature of human experience and his many lists are evidence of him dissecting it in many ways.

    I think it's great that you love chanting and that you know why (i.e. because it feels wonderful). I'm not suggesting you or anyone else who experiences it that way stops it. I'm suggesting that it doesn't feel wonderful for everyone, especially in modern western secular society as their internal conditions may be different - so if feeling good is the goal, then maybe we can explore using other stimuli. I'm also suggesting that it be seen for just what it is (e.g. a way of feeling good, or of focusing - whatever the benefit is) and not put out there as some essential spiritual practice.

    Warm regards