English Chanting

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English Chanting

Postby Zhen Li » Wed Aug 07, 2013 3:59 am

With the exception of mantras, this tends to more or less be a question of preference or what the guidance of one's teacher is.

However, chanting has been an important part of Buddhist practice in all of its incarnations. Part of creating western Buddhism is of course also creating western (English) chanting ceremonies.

If you have any experience with ways to do this in English, or any ideas, I'd invite you to share them with me. Also, thoughts on the idea of English chanting are welcome.

So far what I'm familiar with is Thich Naht Hanh's style of chanting, Buddhist Churches of America/Canada's style, and Ven. Heng Sure's style. Then of course there's the style of making it up as you go and just reciting any translation without a metre or pattern.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Indrajala » Wed Aug 07, 2013 4:11 am

I've thought about this, but since I have no musical or singing talent, I'm somewhat at a loss.

I've thought we could emulate something like this:

Flower Ornament Depository (Blog)
Indrajāla's Contemplations (Blog)
Exploring Classical Chinese (Blog)
Dharma Depository (Site)

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Re: English Chanting

Postby lobster » Wed Aug 07, 2013 4:23 am

Mantras that make sense only in a literal sense or not my cup of tea.

Certain words used in Eastern culture as power words also exist in English.
OM I would suggest is pretty well known. Variants such as HUM sing.

HA HA HA HA
and HO HO HO
are seriously laughable in any language.

The transition of English into a mantra language has only barely begun . . . :woohoo:

Now there is a mantra WU HU . . .
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Wed Aug 07, 2013 6:26 am

The melodic and tonal structure of stuff like medeival music is closer to the microtones and pitch changes that are involved in mantra chanting, and eastern music generally. So really, devising a melody shouldn't be all the difficult for a composer who'd be up to such a task. It would just have half tones in place of some quarter tones and such, and then trying to get the rhythm as close as you could to original would be the hard part, wouldn't be the same...but you could use the same general template. Organum and stuff like what Indrajala posted seem like the place to start for sure.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gq5B3M4jRtQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmkhk9Z8Lu4
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Zhen Li » Wed Aug 07, 2013 7:22 am

Interestingly, what I have experimented with myself so far has been very similar to what you suggest Indrajala and Johnny. It works with just about any language, and sounds reverential and respectful to the subject matter in question.

I personally find stuff like what Ven. Heng Sure do to be a bit too light hearted, there should be some air of solemnity I feel.

Also, one of the advantages of that type of chanting is that it sounds fine if you do it alone without harmony, and doesn't need the accompaniment of an organ or other instrument to really work.

There are also some more modern liturgical hymns in the English Hymnal, like Vaughan Williams' stuff, which might be more easy to adapt to public services, as medieval stuff is actually extremely complex. And it's an example of English chanting. http://youtu.be/7DibkDQbzEo?t=36s

But one of the things about Christian hymnals is they have such a variety, and many psalms and prayers can be set to dozens of different tunes on various occasions and with varying orchestral accompaniments. After a few centuries of English Buddhist chanting, I am sure the situation may be similar for us.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby udawa » Wed Aug 07, 2013 9:05 am

The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives use Anglican style settings of translated Soto Zen liturgy in their 'services'.

There is an example here http://www.throssel.org.uk/downloads/preceptschant

There's also this article http://companyofvoices.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/a-daily-office-in-buddhism-2.html

Some Buddhists will have serious issues with the christian associations with that style of music of course. Folk tunes are also potentially a great resource - much of Vaughan Williams' work comes from that background.

I suspect that most Western Buddhist organisations have at least one or two translated texts that are sung, either to adapted Eastern tunes or Western style forms. And it's not difficult to recite English texts rhythmically, once people get familiar with the phrasing. Ultimately, it's the only way to go.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Zhen Li » Wed Aug 07, 2013 9:46 am

Some Buddhists will have serious issues with the christian associations with that style of music of course. Folk tunes are also potentially a great resource - much of Vaughan Williams' work comes from that background.

This is more or less the hardest part with creating a liturgy for English speakers.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby muni » Sat Aug 10, 2013 11:18 am

Mantras are mantras. :smile:

Then there are teachings as well in form of song. I think we need Dharma in a language we understand, as much as possible. To chant in another exotic or historical language sounds of course lovely and authentic and correct and so on, but then, if we do not fully understand, that's it.
It for sure embellish the moment but does it give us the gift to can practice to be free?

I saw people running away, since all was chanted in lovely sounds, but they had no idea of what they meant.

The teachings by some Masters, like Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche for example are song in English by a translator.

Each being should have the opportunity to have access or to understand the teaching.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby dimeo » Mon Aug 12, 2013 4:05 am

A very interesting topic indeed. I'm looking forward to this thread evolving over time.
I've been curious about this same idea as well. I don't read or speak Sanskrit. A friend told me that it was necessary for me to do so for me to access the 'true spiritual energy' of the Sanskrit syllables and English couldn't do that. I think the teachings can have great meaning when read in the language we can read and speak.

When I was first introduced to the Chenrezig compassion / 6 syllable mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum"
I just followed along and it 'felt good' to do the chanting. I later learned that vibration of chanting in the brain has scientifically proven effects which are positive to the brain. But I still wondered how much of the teachings about the mantra was just dogma / religious tradition. I wondered if some aspects of mantras was just a cultural or ritual tradition and what be most beneficial to practice?

I understand that part of the mantra is aspect of 'enlightened sound' and how sound is experienced simultaneously with emptiness. It also makes sense to me is how this mantra can represent the essence of the core teachings of the Buddha. It acts as a key memory link (mnemonic) to the teachings. It's helps to 'chunk' the complex and almost infinite volume of teachings into a small manageable bit easy to remember.
The repetition helps to embed it deep in the unconscious memory. When we experience stress and seek refuge in meditation and return to chanting the mantra, it leads us back to the teachings that it represents. What a beautiful thing! Rinpoche taught that it is the buddha in mantra form. This makes sense in a way. And that it can be chanted to rid oneself of the defilements and purify the mind.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby muni » Mon Aug 12, 2013 8:23 am

dimeo wrote:A very interesting topic indeed. I'm looking forward to this thread evolving over time.
I've been curious about this same idea as well. I don't read or speak Sanskrit. A friend told me that it was necessary for me to do so for me to access the 'true spiritual energy' of the Sanskrit syllables and English couldn't do that. I think the teachings can have great meaning when read in the language we can read and speak.

When I was first introduced to the Chenrezig compassion / 6 syllable mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum"
I just followed along and it 'felt good' to do the chanting. I later learned that vibration of chanting in the brain has scientifically proven effects which are positive to the brain. But I still wondered how much of the teachings about the mantra was just dogma / religious tradition. I wondered if some aspects of mantras was just a cultural or ritual tradition and what be most beneficial to practice?

I understand that part of the mantra is aspect of 'enlightened sound' and how sound is experienced simultaneously with emptiness. It also makes sense to me is how this mantra can represent the essence of the core teachings of the Buddha. It acts as a key memory link (mnemonic) to the teachings. It's helps to 'chunk' the complex and almost infinite volume of teachings into a small manageable bit easy to remember.
The repetition helps to embed it deep in the unconscious memory. When we experience stress and seek refuge in meditation and return to chanting the mantra, it leads us back to the teachings that it represents. What a beautiful thing! Rinpoche taught that it is the buddha in mantra form. This makes sense in a way. And that it can be chanted to rid oneself of the defilements and purify the mind.


Yes. There also can be English or other language mantras, I heard about by some Masters( by the core of being). I don't know.
I sometimes rattle Om Mani Peme Hung while my mind is wandering away in the woods of thoughts and I still manage to continue saying the mantra. Amazing. :rolleye: In that way, distracted I can say whatever.

Mantra. A blessing, a healing, a support to remain mindful. But to describe the depth, I fail. You are revealing, which I again cannot describe.

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Re: English Chanting

Postby Dorje Shedrub » Mon Aug 12, 2013 3:20 pm

John Michael Talbot, a Catholic Franciscan Friar, has a nice style of English chant:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43QxNhzT218&feature=youtube_gdata_player
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Huifeng » Tue Aug 13, 2013 12:57 am

Zhen Li,

Have been talking about some of these ideas for English chanting with the good monastics at Nan Tien and Chung Tian in Australia. I should have recorded your Verses in Praise of Prajnaparamita! :smile: But did manage to share with them Ven. YH's audio files... hehehe...

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Re: English Chanting

Postby Konchog1 » Tue Aug 13, 2013 5:07 am

I once had a dream about this song

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uv_2x6JmuaE
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Without attachment, self-liberating, like a snake in a knot.
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Mental obscurations are purified and the dharmakaya is attained."

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Re: English Chanting

Postby dimeo » Tue Aug 13, 2013 12:30 pm

lobster wrote:Certain words used in Eastern culture as power words also exist in English. OM I would suggest is pretty well known. Variants such as HUM sing.


Agreed, an important part of aspect of chanting (in any language) are sounds that are universal in spiritual expression across time and culture. Since ancient times, chanting is a 'thought tool' which uses sound vibration to form one-pointed concentration in the mind. I've been doing some research on it. Feel free to add, comment, or correct!

Some important aspects of chanting:
- repetition of sounds (the principles of rhythm and pattern?)
- redirects and focuses the mind on the spiritual to liberate and purify the mind.
- symbolic of and represents spiritual concepts
- composed in an easier to remember verse form than prose
- The practice of Japa: chanting to evoke the presence and powers of a deity, by speaking the name of a divine power sought after. A goal may be to embody the divine attributes of a deity to purify oneself.


Lets examine Om / omkara / ॐ / AUM / Pranava / Udgitha

Origins:
- A sacred sound of ancient origin, found in similar form across many cultures.
- Chandogya Upanishad (7th century BC) discusses OM in detail.
(english translation http://www.swamij.com/upanishad-chandogya.htm)
- Ancient Egyptian god Amun /Amen in texts from about 3000BC. This god is a god of air and wind, and a protector of the weak, champion of the less fortunate, and upholds the rights of justice for the poor. Note the similarities to Avalokitesvara / Chenrezig, who looks upon all beings with compassion and liberates the suffering of all sentient beings.
- Similar to "amin" of Islam, and "amen" of the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Christians. Used to conclude prayers and hymns. Amen is also an expression of the affirmation of truth, or agreement.
- Similar to the Middle Welsh (12th cent.) word "Awen" meaning inspiration, related to the words for wind and breath.

Useage:
- Sounds like a hum: a wordless tone made with the mouth (opened or closed).
- begins sacred texts as a sacred incantation. Intoned at the start and end of scripture, prayer or mantra.
- The vedas are chanted always after chanting this mantra and always concluded with this mantra
- constantly repeated in unison with the breath. Awareness of breathing is of central importance to the practice of meditation. It is called pranava because it pervades life through prana (breath).

Meaning:
- Hindu belief is it is a primal sound existent before creation, from which the whole universe was created. It represents the non-dualistic universe as a whole. And the sound that all existence makes when one listens to all in unison. It is a sound that symbolizes and embodies absolute reality (Brahman). Brahman is the energy essence of all reality, or the fabric of space-time from where all things manifest; tranquil, unaging, immortal, fearless, and supreme.
- Represents the energy of wave vibration movement in space (emptyness) through time. Wave vibration is sound, light, and heat. The act of humming AUM provides direct experience of this.
- In tantra yoga it corresponds to the crown chakra and white light.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Huifeng » Tue Aug 13, 2013 11:44 pm

While the brahmanic notion of a sacred language which was essential to preserve to preserve the meaning content itself became pretty much a pan-Indic norm, and so affected Buddhism (eg. the tantric traditions), this was not at all the case in the first 500+ years of Buddhism. Buddhaghosa also had such an idea, but many now consider that he misrepresented the Buddha's own words on the matter, ie. the "in his own language" - is the "his" the Buddha's, or the individual's, language?

~~ Huifeng
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Re: English Chanting

Postby anjali » Wed Aug 14, 2013 2:51 am

Some years ago I looked into this and discovered the Christian tradition of chanting the psalms. At the time, I read Cynthia Bourgeault's book, Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD. It's actually pretty good. Unfortunately, I never had much time to devote to it, so I didn't get very far with exploring the possibilities for Buddhist English chant.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby PorkChop » Wed Aug 14, 2013 6:56 am

Few random thoughts on this topic...

I believe intentionally making chanting more melodic might be against some forms of Vinaya. I only say this because I've already seen videos of Theravadan monks in Thailand criticizing Chinese monks for the melodic nature of their chants (though they may have actually meant Japanese chanting, as it hits much higher pitches). Of course, the Sinhalese monks have some beautiful chants, so I don't know how valid the criticism is.

Personally, I'd be happy if we could chant in English anywhere near as well as this (skip to 3:30).
Hsi Lai temple seems to be teaching Chinese hymns to English speakers.
The Kwan Um Zen folks have made a very good start with good chanting in English...

All this posting of Catholic chanting brings me back to my days growing up. On one hand, I wish the Buddhist services I've come into contact had more of that feeling of the utterly sublime. On the other hand, people in the West seem to have enough trouble with anything remotely Christian.

Here's a clip from some Buddhist nuns who seem to be doing Christian-influenced Buddhist chanting (though not the Medieval style posted earlier on this thread). Here's another clip of some ladies doing Buddhist chanting in Pali and English.

From the Tibetans, my favorites are probably this guy and this guy. Not sure how many Westerners could hit the deep throat stuff of Lama Tashi. I know Thubten Chodron has some tracks of the Heart Sutra in English that are somewhat similar to the Kwan Um Zen folks.

From the Japanese, I've never really been able to get into Shoumyou, but this is pretty darn good.
The Heart Sutra in Japanese is pretty good as well.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby Huifeng » Wed Aug 14, 2013 7:41 am

PorkChop wrote:Hsi Lai temple seems to be teaching Chinese hymns to English speakers.


This is from the Great Compassion Repentance, the basic tune is quite repetitive, while the lyric content changes.
But, this is still in Chinese....

PorkChop wrote:Here's a clip from some Buddhist nuns who seem to be doing Christian-influenced Buddhist chanting (though not the Medieval style posted earlier on this thread).


This is the standard "Dedication of Merit" song for the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. I've sung it more than a few times myself, when staying with them, and have it memorized -- but little opportunity to use in Taiwan... Though, I don't think it's Christian. If I recall correctly from talking about this with Ven. Heng Sure, I think the tune comes from some 60s (or maybe 70s) folk song.

~~ Huifeng
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Re: English Chanting

Postby plwk » Wed Aug 14, 2013 8:27 am

I guess for now, in many places, traditional tunes will just have to do.

A Venerable once shared that she tried to sing/chant with her fellow monastics a traditional repentance text and was reprimanded by her seniors over lineage & authority issues of modifying stuff and messing around with traditional chants...

Every now and then I still experiment with humming to myself Dharma verses using my previous background of the Christian hymnal tradition and the Psalter liturgy.
For instance, this goldie Sunday School tune, fitted for a Dharma verse in the Lotus Sutra about how the Buddha is likened to a great compassionate father and we the children in the burning house...

Buddha loves me tis I know,
For the Sutra tells me so,
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak but He is strong

Yes, Buddha loves me.
Yes, Buddha loves me.
Yes, Buddha loves me.
The Sutra tells me so


And one of my fav hymns retrofitted with anatta :mrgreen:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, I has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with not self.

Refrain
It is well, with not self,
It is well, with not self,
It is well, it is well, with not self.
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Re: English Chanting

Postby PorkChop » Wed Aug 14, 2013 4:14 pm

Huifeng wrote:
PorkChop wrote:Hsi Lai temple seems to be teaching Chinese hymns to English speakers.


This is from the Great Compassion Repentance, the basic tune is quite repetitive, while the lyric content changes.
But, this is still in Chinese....


Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that it was in English. My thought was that if enough English speakers learn the chants/hymns in Chinese, then maybe we'll get English chants with the same melodies. We do chants in English where I practice, but the chanting is strictly monotone (except for the Great Compassion Mantra, which has a slight melody). I think a more melody would be a good thing.

Huifeng wrote:
PorkChop wrote:Here's a clip from some Buddhist nuns who seem to be doing Christian-influenced Buddhist chanting (though not the Medieval style posted earlier on this thread).


This is the standard "Dedication of Merit" song for the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. I've sung it more than a few times myself, when staying with them, and have it memorized -- but little opportunity to use in Taiwan... Though, I don't think it's Christian. If I recall correctly from talking about this with Ven. Heng Sure, I think the tune comes from some 60s (or maybe 70s) folk song.

~~ Huifeng

Wow, didn't realize that.
I've heard very similar melodies at Catholic services.
I think it's a step in the right direction though, as far as adding some Western culture into the mix.
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