A Buddhist chant is a form of musical verse or incantation, in some ways analogous to Hindu or Christian religious recitations. They exist in just about every part of the Buddhist world, from the Wats in Thailand to the Tibetan Buddhist temples of India (re: Tibetan Government in Exile). Almost every Buddhist school has some tradition of chanting associated with it, regardless of being Theravada or Mahayana.
In Buddhism, chanting is the traditional means of preparing the mind for meditation; especially as part of formal practice (in either a lay or monastic context). Some forms of Buddhism also use chanting for ritualistic purposes.
While the basis for most Theravada chants is the Pali Canon, Mahayana and Vajrayana chants draw from a wider range of sources.
- Buddhabhivadana (Preliminary Reverence for the Buddha)
- Tisarana (The Three Refuges)
- Pancasila (The Five Precepts)
- Buddha Vandana (Salutation to the Buddha)
- Dhamma Vandana (Salutation to his Teaching)
- Sangha Vandana (Salutation to his Community of Noble Disciples)
- Upajjhatthana (The Five Remembrances)
- Metta Sutta (Discourse on Loving Kindness)
- Reflection on the Body (recitation of the 32 parts of the body).
Critique of melodious chanting
In the Ghitassara Sutta, the Buddha teaches:
- Bhikkhus, there are five dangers of reciting the Dhamma with a musical intonation. What five?
- Oneself gets attached to the sound, others get attached to the sound, householders are annoyed, saying, “Just as we sing, these sons of the Sakyan sing”, the concentration of those who do not like the sound is destroyed, and later generations copy it.
- These, monks, are the five dangers of reciting the Dhamma with a musical intonation.
In the Mahayana tradition, different schools are known for different chants, often accompanied by melodious chanting, elaborate rituals and utilization of musical instruments, such as the wooden fish, rin gong and drums (either of which are not used by its Theravadin counterpart):
- Central to daily Nichiren practice is the chanting of the phrase Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (Homage to the Lotus Sutra). Nichiren practitioners will sometimes chant certain chapters from the Lotus Sutra, in particular the 2nd and 16th chapters.
- Pure Land Buddhists chant nianfo, Namu Amida Butsu or Namo Amituofo (Homage to Amitabha Buddha). In more formal services, practitioners will also chant excerpts from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life or occasionally the entire Smaller Sutra of Immeasurable Life.
- Popular with Zen, Shingon or other Mahayana practitioners is chanting the Prajñāpāramitā Hridaya Sūtra (Heart Sutra). In more formal settings, larger discourses of the Buddha (such as the Diamond Sutra) may be chanted as well. Particularly in the Chinese and the Japanese traditions, repentance ceremonies involving paying deep reverence to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as executing rituals to rescue and feed hungry ghosts are also occasionally practiced.
For Vajrayana practitioners, the chant Om Mani Padme Hum is very popular around the world as both a praise of peace and the primary mantra of Avalokitesvara. Other popular chants include those of Tara, Bhaisajyaguru, and Amitabha.
Tibetan monks are noted for their skill at throat-singing, a specialized form of chanting in which, by amplifying the voice's upper partials, the chanter can produce multiple distinct pitches simultaneously.
Non-canonical uses of Buddhist chanting
There are also a number of New Age and experimental schools related to Buddhist thought which practise chanting, some with understanding of the words, others merely based on repetition. A large number of these schools tend to be syncretic and incorporate Hindu japa and other such traditions alongside the Buddhist influences.
While not strictly a variation of Buddhist chanting in itself, Japanese Shigin (詩吟) is a form of chanted poetry that reflects several principles of Zen Buddhism. It is sung in the seiza position, and participants are encouraged to sing from the gut - the Zen locus of power. Shigin and related practices are often sung at Buddhist ceremonies and quasi-religious gatherings in Japan.
- Khantipalo (1982, 1995).
- For an example of Pali text and an English translation of this chant, see Indaratana (2002), pp. 1-2. To listen to this being chanted in Pali by Venerable Indaratana Maha Thera, go to http://www.buddhanet.net/filelib/mp3/02-chant-02.mp3.
- Ibid., pp. 1-2. Audio file at http://www.buddhanet.net/filelib/mp3/03-chant-03.mp3
- Ibid., pp. 1-2. Audio file at http://www.buddhanet.net/filelib/mp3/04-chant-04.mp3
- Ibid., pp. 3-4. Audio file at http://www.buddhanet.net/filelib/mp3/05-chant-05.mp3
- Ibid., pp. 5-6. Audio file at http://www.buddhanet.net/filelib/mp3/06-chant-06.mp3
- Ibid., pp. 7-8. Audio file at http://www.buddhanet.net/filelib/mp3/07-chant-07.mp3
- For the text, see Thanisaro (1997).
- For a bilingual edition, see, for instance, Indaratana (2002), pp. 32-34. To listen to this being chanted by the Abhayagiri Sangha in English, go to http://www.abhayagiri.org/index.php/main/medium/379/.
- Gītassara Sutta (A.iii.250) from "Association for Insight Meditation" at http://www.aimwell.org/Books/Suttas/Ghitassara/ghitassara.html.
- Indaratana Maha Thera, Elgiriye (2002). Vandana: The Album of Pali Devotional Chanting and Hymns. Penang, Malaysia:Mahindarama Dhamma Publication. Available on-line at: http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/vandana02.pdf.
- Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (1982). Lay Buddhist Practice: The Shrine Room, Uposatha Day, Rains Residence (The Wheel No. 206/207). Kandy, Sri Lanka:Buddhist Publication Society. Also transcribed (1995) and available on-line at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel206.html.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997). AN 5.57, Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation. Available on-line at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html.
- "Buddhist Chanting" at BuddhaNet Audio.
- "A Chanting Guide", by The Dhammayut Order in the United States of America.
- "Chanting with English translations and Temple Rules", chant book of the Kwan Um School of Zen.
- "Perceive Universal Sound", article on Zen chanting by Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, originally published in "The American Theosophist" (May 1985) and reprinted in "Primary Point," Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 1988).
- Buddhist Chanting Service Important Theravada chanting texts digitized for online contemplation and chanting
- Pali Chants A collection of audio files of Pali chants. Morning/Evening chants, reflections, discource, blessings, etc.