How to chant the Sutras
I’m enjoying Eat Sleep Sit, Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at a Soto Zen temple. Not just any Zen temple, but Kaoru trained for a year at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan, founded by Dogen himself. I have to say the training, as Kaoru describes it, is a bit harsh for my taste. It reminded me of Sesshins I’ve attended in the past, though the monastic training at Eiheiji is of course several notches more structured and demanding.
I’ll be sharing interesting excerpts from the book over the next few weeks. Here’s one which describes the proper way to chant sutras:
We were taught to “chant with the ears”, not the mouth. The ideas was not to open your book and sing out randomly, but to listen to the voices of others and try to blend in. Even if not used in a particularly musical way, the human voice in combination with others forms a rich tapestry of sound that moves the listener’s heart. Although there was no special melody because of the very simplicity of the vocalization, the slight variations in each voice produced a mysterious resonance with beautiful overtones.
The reading of the sutras has two meanings or purposes. One is to encounter the thought of the founder, a form of reading that closely resembles study. The other is to gain spiritual merit, which is done purely by chanting; questions of meaning and content are secondary in this case. The act of chanting a sutra is considered to have intrinsic merit. The chanting that takes place each morning (at Eiheiji) fall into this category.
[page 73 of Eat Sleep Sit]