Illustration by Yuko Shimizu
The first time I ever experienced the spiritual power of chanting was about a decade ago, at an all-night kundalini yoga summer solstice celebration in New Mexico. The celebration took place beneath an enormous awning in the desert north of Santa Fe. The chanting began at sunset and lasted until dawn. Rows of white-clad people stretched as far as the eye could see, chanting mantras in unison. At one point, we each turned to the person next to us and chanted for hours while staring into each other’s eyes. As the Sanskrit words reverberated within and around us, I felt a complete sense of interconnectedness and oneness. It was one of the most powerful experiences of the divine I’ve ever had: I could feel the god-spirit in myself, my partner, and everyone around me. As we chanted together, our frequencies merging, it was like becoming part of a heartbeat.
I attended that celebration the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college in Albuquerque: it was one of the experiences that ultimately led me to Buddhism. By the time I graduated, I had become a serious student of Zen Buddhism, attending silent meditation retreats in the Jemez Mountains at the Bodhi Manda Zen Center and at the Lama Foundation in the mountains north of Taos. Coming out of several days of total silence made me acutely aware of how sacred sound is and how little we value it. As I studied and practiced different Buddhist traditions, I felt simultaneously drawn to and alienated by Buddhist styles of chanting. Not being able to keep up with the fast-paced, monotone Japanese chants made me anxious, even as I studied a book of the words to try to learn them. Conversely, I felt like the English-language chants of Kadampa Buddhism had lost their sacredness when spoken in everyday language. I wanted to learn to chant, and to do it every day, but I lacked a communal structure to help me learn and commit to the practice. I found chanting, like meditation, to be awkward and less profound when I did it on my own. However, from my summer solstice practice and other experiences with a Hindu call-and-response form of chanting, called kirtan, I knew that sound could be a powerful way to connect with the divine. I continued to think about and study the power of sound in Buddhism, a study which ultimately led me to become a dedicated student and practitioner of Buddhist chanting.
In Buddhist belief systems, sound is considered to be sacred. Moreover, sound as communicated through music and poetry is thought to have the ability to cleanse the emotional energies of the body. Finally, sound—by way of speech—is understood to be a doorway to the energetic dimensions (vibrations, or prana).1 These three sacred acts come together to support the mantra, also known as a prayer or divine utterance. In chanting, sacred mantras are repeated rhythmically, in succession, out loud. Karen Nelson Villanueva describes mantra recitation as an internal practice that need not have an audible sound, while chant is what we do when we practice aloud with others. She also conveys the Zen idea that chanting is not only for the benefit of oneself, but for the benefit of all beings.2 Mantras have the capacity to benefit those who are chanting them, as well as benefiting all living beings, since the energy of the sounds moves outward infinitely.
Chanting mantras helps to heal the body, protect the mind, and manifest human desires by connecting the person who is chanting with the divine. The ability chanting has to take those engaged in it to the innermost places within themselves is a theme for Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Hanh has established a number of communities around the world in which monks, nuns, and laypeople practice Buddhism together. In his book Chanting from the Heart, he describes in detail the day-to-day lives and rituals associated with the spiritual pursuit of mindfulness as practiced in his communities. When practitioners chant, they chant from the heart and are not performing for a deity or anyone else. He explains:
These words and music have been composed to serve as Dharma instruments helping us come back to the deepest place in ourselves, the place where we are most awake and alive. Chanting is often the most direct and immediate way to reconnect us with these places.3
Nhat Hanh further states that practitioners are not just carrying out a ritual and going through the motions of chanting while the mind wanders elsewhere.
American Hindu Priest Thomas Ashley-Farrand suggests that mantras have the power to replace unhealthy patterns with positive ones by promoting patience and giving one the ability to see a situation more clearly.4 As Tenzin Wangyal puts it:
No form of speech is more virtuous than mantra, devotional prayer, and sacred seed syllables. . . . The words and syllables themselves may carry the divine. . . . They can also be very effective in healing illness and emotions, strengthening your body’s vitality, or minimizing thoughts and confusion.5
Because the regular chanting of mantras can bring about all the benefits described here, it is thought to be a preventative measure against inappropriate thoughts lodging themselves in the mind.
Moreover, the desire to connect with the divine, or to deities, lies at the heart of mantra chanting. Buddhist teacher Dagsay Tulku Rinpoche refers to mantra as an act of respectful address and a request for protection to the deities for whom the mantras are being chanted. While chanting without proper intention of heart and mind can make the action less effective and meaningful, the act of chanting can bring one back to a place of pure mind and contact with the divine. In Ritual and Devotion in Buddhism: An Introduction (Windhorse Publications, 1995), Bhikshu Urgyen Sangharakshita, the British founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community, elucidates this idea:
The relationship between the gross, external, verbal repetition and the subtle, internal, mental repetition is not unlike that between a painted picture of a Buddha or Bodhisattva and that same figure visualized during meditation. In each case the gross experience leads towards the subtle experience. (110)
We see here that the recitation of the mantra—as a means to and a catalyst for the inner feeling of the mantra, an “inner sound and vibration”—does more than simply help the reciters get in touch with their deepest selves. “Etymologically,” Sangharakshita explains, “mantra can be defined as ‘that which protects the mind’ ” (111).
He goes on to say that mantra is essentially a sound symbol of a particular divinity, such as a Buddha or Bodhisattva.
If that divinity could become a sound, which according to Tantric Buddhism it can and does, then that sound is the mantra. . . . The mantra can therefore be thought of as the true, inherent name of the divinity—regardless of whether it includes the divinity’s conventional name. (112)
An example of this can be found in a prayer to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokita, who is known as Guanyin in East Asian traditions, a name that signifies “Perceiving the sounds (or cries) of the world.” The Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma memorably describes Avalokita’s affinity with sound:
Chanting the Lotus Sutra by night,
the sound shook the galaxies.
The next morning when planet Earth woke up,
her [Avalokita’s] lap was full of flowers. . . .
Sound of wonder, noble sound,
sound of one looking deeply into the world,
extraordinary sound, sound of the rising tide,
the sound to which we will always listen.
With mindfulness, free from doubts,
in moments of danger and affliction,
our faith in the purity of Avalokita
is where we go for refuge.6
This mantra demonstrates that the name of Avalokita is a pure sound that people can take refuge in. Just by calling her name with a pure heart, suffering can be overcome. She is so powerful that even as she chants the Lotus Sutra, she causes the galaxies to vibrate into abundance. She also hears everything and is therefore accessible to people through the medium of sound.
The positive effects of mantras can only be realized by those who open their hearts to the mantra, and who believe in the deities they are accessing through the act of chanting. But because such openness and faith cannot be seen, touched, or rationalized, the effects of these practices cannot be fully realized or judged from an outside, or “objective,” perspective.7 Historically, the word “mantra” has often been translated inappropriately as “magic words” or even “spell.” To this day, the chanting of mantras is commonly written off as superstition and witchcraft by nonparticipants.8
In my own research on lay Buddhist chanting practices in Vietnam, I discovered such a perspective among the educated elite in contemporary Vietnam. Women dominate lay Buddhist chanting practices in Vietnam, and their practices tend to be discounted and devalued and are assumed to achieve nothing, in contrast to the more scholarly practices of men. (In other communities around the world, male and female Buddhist lay practitioners, as well as monks and nuns, ritually chant mantras side by side.)9
Despite being treated as second-class citizens in religious settings, Vietnamese Buddhist women have steadfastly maintained a practice of sound. They have held on to their chanting tradition, despite years of colonization, patriarchy, war, and communism. The persistence of chanting mantra in the face of these challenges speaks volumes about the efficacy of the practice, regardless of whether or not the reciters understand the Chinese texts from which they recite. While this activity might be disparaged by the intellectual elite, clearly the women themselves find it to be a worthwhile experience. Older Vietnamese women who participate in the chanting at the pagodas told scholar Alexander Soucy that the practice gives them peaceful hearts and brings good luck to their families. I believe that connecting with the divine through chanting is an empowering activity for women, nourishing them on many levels and enabling them to gain a semblance of control and power over their lives.
Last year when I moved into a Zen center in Brighton, I began chanting regularly for the first time and have found it to be a transformative practice for me as a Buddhist and a woman. Shim Gun Do, the lineage I practice in, calls its style of Zen “the Mind Sword path.” In addition to meditation and chanting, martial arts are a cornerstone of the tradition and the defensive shout of the warrior is a vital part of the practice. When I first moved into the center, I found myself reluctant to shout and was self-conscious about my chanting. I asked myself why I didn’t want to shout and realized that, from a young age, I’d had a negative association with loud women, thinking loudness would make me come off as aggressive and unlikable. Once I realized this, I began to enter fully into the practice: through chanting and matching my martial arts moves with powerful shouts, I’m not being aggressive, but rather am training myself to conserve my voice, to harness its power with deliberation.
On most weekday mornings, I wake up before dawn to chant at 6 am. I don my white, sashed uniform and join my temple-mates in the main room that we use for meditation and martial arts training, a room that used to be the main chapel of a UCC church. Stained glass windows depicting angels and Jesus surround us, alongside Korean calligraphy, paintings of the tradition’s masters, and statues of temple guardians, swords in hand. At the center of the hall, there are two statues, of the Buddha and Guanyin, covered in brilliant twenty-four karat gold. We bow thirty-three times in honor of the thirty-three appearances of Guanyin, and then we chant the Three Jewels—Dharma, Sangha, and the Buddha—and the Heart Sutra, followed by a Korean chant distinct to the Shim Gun Do lineage that could be translated as:
Shin Gun Do is a family of heroes
Shin Gun Do unites the sky and the earth.
Repeating this almost every morning, I have experienced directly the power of chanting that I had only studied and glimpsed before. It doesn’t matter how tired I am—how poorly I slept or what kind of mood I’m in—clarity and alertness come over me when I chant. It’s almost like the vibration of the sound reaches straight to my heart: I become more attuned to myself and to my temple-mates. The more I chant, the clearer and stronger my voice gets, and the better I know what my own voice is capable of. Before I began regular chanting, there was no outlet for this energy—no other space where I could sing or speak loudly from the heart. When I chant with my temple-mates, seated in a circle on our zafu cushions, I feel that we are tuning in to the divine: I receive back tenfold the sound I put forth. By tuning in to that frequency—and some of it is getting my mind in the right place, while some of it is the reverberation of the sound itself—I feel love and gratitude and send that back out into the world. The more I chant, the more it reverberates through my life.
See Tenzin Wangyal on prana: Tibetan Yogas of Body, Speech, and Mind, ed. Polly Turner (Snow Lion Publications,
- Karen Nelson Villanueva, “Invoking the Blessings of the Tibetan Buddhist Goddess Tara through Chanting Her Mantra to Overcome Fear” (PhD diss., California Institute of Integral Studies, 2013), 120–121.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices (Parallax, 2007), 11.
- See Thomas Ashley-Farrand, Healing Mantras: Using Sound Affirmations for Personal Power, Creativity, and Healing (Gill and Macmillan, 2000).
- Wangyal, Tibetan Yogas of Body, Speech, and Mind, 83.
- Quoted in Nhat Hanh, Chanting from the Heart, 327, 330.
- See Sangharakshita, Ritual and Devotion in Buddhism, 27.
- This view can be seen in the writings of David Snellgrove; see Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors (Shambhala, 1987), 143.
- According to Alexander Soucy, in Vietnam, men “generally represented only 10 percent of participants” in sutra chanting; see his “Voice and Gender in Vietnamese Practice,” in Studying Buddhism in Practice, ed. John S. Harding (Routledge, 2012), 47.
Annemarie Mal is a second-year master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School. She lives at the Shim Gum Do Mind Light Temple in Brighton, Massachusetts, and is currently writing a book about mindful leadership for women.