Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone Else's Cows: The Problem With Chanting

Although reciting many religious texts,
If one does not practice accordingly,
He is a heedless man.
Like a cowherd counting the cows of others,
He has no share in the religious life.

Verse 19, Chapter One of Dhammapada (translation by Glenn Wallis, New York: Random House Modern Library, 2007)

We started our new term of the weekly study class with the topic “Dhammapada Backstories.” We are looking at the responsive reading section of our temple’s service book and comparing the Dhammapada selections with the unabridged text in various translations (Max Mueller, Thanissaro Bhikkhu at, Carter/Palihawadana and the newer book by Glenn Wallis)

In our discussion of the 19th verse of Chapter One, it occurred to me that our practice of chanting is much like being “a cowherd counting someone else’s cows.” Chanting as is done in many Jodo Shinshu temples is the sounding of syllables approximating the Japanese pronunciation of the sutras in their classical Chinese translations. It’s like being a schoolteacher who reads off the names of her students every day and hears each one respond “Here!” but she never looks up to see the face of the student or get to know any of them. There is no association of the names with actual children, only the sound of their voices.

As Glenn Wallis says in his introduction, the Dhammapada was not composed to be fine poetry but constructed in particular rhythms and “rhymes” to be conducive to instructing people on the Buddha’s basic teachings. It’s like how most of us learned the alphabet by singing it to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Not only the Dhammapada, but all the Buddhist texts in the languages of Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese etc. were composed to be orally transmitted, to be “chanted” – easily memorized by the chanters and easily understood by the listeners.

[page from the Buddhist Temple of Chicago service book – with English translation of each chanted verse]
A big disconnect happened when Buddhism came to Japan. The aristocrats had the luxury of learning classical Chinese and kept the texts in that language, totally inaccessible to everyone else. In the Kamakura period, teachers such as Shinran wrote Buddhist texts in vernacular Japanese so the common folk could learn the teachings through listening and reading (in phonetic kana letters along with kanji, Chinese characters). But somehow not much was done afterwards to convey the sutras in people’s everyday language.

I told the class a story I heard in Los Angeles from Rev. Tetsuo Unno about how one can’t be thinking about the meaning of texts while you’re chanting them. He said one time he and his brother, the late Dr. Taitetsu Unno (see my January 2015 post), were chanting Shoshinge (Shinran’s poem from Kyogyoshinsho, written in classical Chinese) together at a service. As they went along, he heard his brother getting more and more behind and when he stopped chanting altogether, Rev. Tets looked up and saw Dr. Ty pouring over some passage with his chin in his hand, nodding and muttering “Hmm…”

I’m sure others besides me have felt like that about Shoshinge – for those of us who can read the kanji, we can’t help being struck by Shinran’s expressions and want to spend some time contemplating some of the phrases. But in chanting we have to keep speeding along through the verses. Somehow I don’t think that was Shinran’s intention when he wrote them – they are lessons to be absorbed not strings of mantras to complete at a swift clip.

Sometime in the far, far future, there will be decent translations into recitable English of the texts we now chant during our services. As I told the class, chanting has its physical and mental benefits, but for me it’s mainly background music for the ritual of incense offering.


  1. If I had any sort of musical talent, I'd love to come up with chantable English versions of all the major chants - including the Shoshinge, the Amida Kyo, and the verse portions of the Larger Sutra. Keeping my fingers crossed that someone does it in my lifetime.

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