Every week I come here and talk about Zen practice, so for those of you who have been here before you’ve heard me likely talk about there being two fundamental activities; this universe being made up of two fundamental activities which we can call plus and minus, birth and death, male and female, we can call them all kinds of things but for tonight I’d like to talk about them in terms of these two activities of unification, or dissolution, and arising, or diversification.
When we grow up in this world, in this culture, we become enculturated, we become very much aware of only one side, one part of this complete activity of diversification/ unification, and that’s the diversification side. From the time that we are very young, we are encouraged to find ourselves, to define ourselves, to figure out who we are, and what we are, and what we want to do, and what we want to accomplish, and what we want to have.
One of the ways we clearly clarify this is by comparing and contrasting ourselves with everything else that we can perceive in this world. So we start to create this world view in which there is me standing here, sitting here, me being that which is contained within this skin bag of the body, and everything else, which is what stands outside of me. Just before the sit we were talking about the eight-fold path. The first of the steps in the eight-fold path, which is the path to the cessation of anguish, of suffering, is right or complete view.
This is where we start in Zen practice. Coming from a position of perceiving only this diversification side, the manifestation, or arising side as being the complete activity, we sit down and begin to look at the world, we begin to look at ourselves and we begin to investigate the complete activity, we begin to experience the full activity, the complete activity which has as its content, indeed, this activity of rising and diversification, but also, the activity of dissolution or unification. In the form of Zen practice, the various activities that we do in Zen practice are very strongly pointed at rounding out this side that we pay so little attention to, the minus or dissolution, unification activity. All of the practices that we do are really aimed at allowing us the greatest opportunity to experience this. So, now I come to what I actually want to talk about tonight, which is the practice of chanting. I already can feel people squirming in their seats... “Chanting? NOOOO!!!” I’ve talked a lot about sitting, and I’ve talked a little bit about walking meditation but I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about the practice of chanting. Part of it is because on Tuesday we have a lot of newcomers, and chanting, I find for many people, is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of practice.
People are really uncomfortable with chanting, even more than they are with the sitting, even more than they are with the walking. But it’s important for us to understand what the function of chanting is. So in Zen, being the experiential school, we don’t like to talk so much ... so I’m going to have us do a little bit of practice tonight where I hope we can get the spirit of this practice of chanting. So, chanting...when it comes time to do it...when the Jikijitsu says, “Take out your chant sheets and turn to the `Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra’”.
Immediately, the diversification activity begins, it fires up, we begin to think about ourselves, we begin to become really strongly self-concerned. We start to think about, “What is this I’m being asked to chant?”, “What am I supposed to do about this?”, “How do I do this?” Then we pull it out and look at it and say, “What does this mean?”, and “What does it imply if I’m chanting it?”, and “What does the person across from me think about me chanting?”, and “How do I sound?” and “What does this mean anyway?”...we keep going around and around. It’s a very strongly engaging diversification that starts to take to place, even at the thought, even at the insinuation that we might be doing some chanting. A lot of ego comes up...a lot of self.
There are two practices in Zen, or two approaches to practising this activity of dissolution, that we use in Zen practice. One is a passive approach in which while we are sitting we gradually, little bit by little bit, allow our grip, allow our tight hold on ourselves to let go, more and more and more until we dissolve into the situation, the experience. We can do this in many different circumstances. Maybe if you like music, if you listen to a really beautiful piece of music, just practice letting go of yourself little bit by little bit by little bit, until it’s as if you are absorbed by music, there is no sound, there is no you listening to the music, there is just music... WE are not separate FROM. A moment later, the self arises and we diversify and we say "that was beautiful" so this is the passive activity of dissolution, of minus. The other form, the other way that we practice this activity in Zen is to actively unify or to actively dissolve and we can do this through walking but I find it particularly effective when we do it through chanting.
So, I’m always a little bit sad on a Tuesday night when we chant, because there is this powerful potential with about 40 people here, that so often is squandered. When we have 40 people together there is this powerful potential in chanting for us to have an experience of the complete activity...dissolution, unification and diversification. So, rather than flapping our gums all the time, what’s important in Zen practice is to experience.
Now, I can understand that there are people coming in for the first time, some people that were sitting down in my row were very quiet, I couldn’t hear people chanting, it’s totally understandable, coming to this weird environment with people dressed in black uniforms and chanting this weird stuff and “I don’t know what I think about this”.
For now, we’re going to leave off the words, we don’t need the words, because in essence the practice of chanting is not about the meaning behind the words. What we’re going to look at tonight is sound. The first thing I want to do is talk about our breath while we’re chanting, because this is an important aspect. When we’re chanting, we make sound, and for everybody here, I know that you’ve been given some instruction in Zen meditation so I hope that there was some talk about breathing. In breathing we’re drawing the breath into our abdomen, breathing naturally and filling our bellies. Then as we exhale, exhaling again from the lower abdomen, this HARA, just below the navel, motivating the breath and pushing out, with a nice straight back. In chanting, we’re doing exactly the same thing...so we breathe in, we fill the belly, and then as we’re exhaling we’re making sound, but we’re just making sound with the exhalation. AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW...
At the bottom of the breath, there’s no need to panic. Nothing’s going to fall apart if you’re not continuing to make sound. The next natural thing for you to do is to take in a breath... having completely breathed in, we can make sound: AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW...
One of the difficulties with chanting that many people have is a difficulty, I think, that also comes up in people’s lives which is, that we have this really self-centred belief that if we’re not intimately involved in every aspect of everything, the world will collapse, or our workplace will collapse, or our relationship will collapse. So this practice of chanting is also one of experiencing interdependence, experiencing, or developing the trust, or the faith that the practice, that the environment will be supported even if we’re taking a breath in, if we’re catching our breath.
One of the first instructions you receive in chanting is to chant with your ears. So often when start chanting we’re thinking about ourselves, so we’re worried about what’s coming out of our mouths, what we’re producing, so one of the keys in chanting is to chant with your ears, which means to let go into the sound that surrounds you and then simply rise to meet it, O.K?
So, enough of this talk. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to chant. We’re not going to chant any words and we’re not going to use the drum to keep any kind of rhythm, we’re just going to make sound. What we’re going to do is to start off with my voice. I want you to listen and I want you to take a breath into your belly and then I want you to rise and meet the sound with your voice and we’re just going to hold this note. When you need to take a breath, take a breath. When you have completely filled your breath, when you’ve completely filled your belly with air, then turn and, again, come to meet the sound. O.K. I hope that I won’t be doing this for too long by myself. I’ll start chanting and you all join in when you feel ready and we’re going to continue to do this for a few minutes until I stick my hand up into the air. Ok. Ready? AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW...
O.K! O.K...hhmmmm... that’s much different than it sounds when we chanted the Heart Sutra, I think...just a bit! So my hope is that in this experience of dissolving into sound there’s an experience of both activities... you can hear it... even in the sound of holding the note, that there is a complete giving away to the activity of chanting. The sound rises and has a strength to it and we can feel ourselves dissolving into the sound where “I” chanting stops being so important and there is this sound, just the chanting... and then, we can experience the arising of thought, of separation from sound while we’re chanting... we think “I wonder how long we’re going to do this for”, “I wonder if we’re supposed to stop now”, and you hear the unity, the unification of the chanting fall through. This isn’t a bad thing, but what we’re coming to experience firsthand for ourselves is this complete activity, the activity of first arising as a distinct self, “Oh, I’m going to do chanting”. Then with the sound arising, we experience the activity of dissolution or unification in sound. Then, once again we experience the diversification, the arising of self which separates from sound.
This is just one aspect of practice in which we begin to, not just think about, not just understand, not just conceptualize the activity that is this universe, but we begin to experience it, and to gain a more complete view. So, chanting is not about reciting some old scripture, it’s not about worship, it’s not about religiosity... it is about giving ourselves, or pouring ourselves into, or throwing ourselves fully at the activity of unification, and the experience of the complete activity. O.K., so, now I’ve finished talking, and we try another practice...manifesting this activity as walking...