Morning Chanting at Willow
This week, we’ve opened up our zendo doors to the online public during our morning period with a 6-day Chant and Meditation Challenge. In the first few days, I found myself reflecting a lot on the practice of chanting and how I relate to it, and wondering how it was feeling for those who were joining us.
There is something incredibly beautiful and powerful about starting the day with explicit shared intentions and commitments with your friends — but I definitely didn’t have that relationship with chanting when I first started. In fact, at first I found it a strange and uncomfortable experience — I could accept that it may be a good way for some people to practice, but it didn’t suit my particular… sensibilities.
And yet these days I love it — so I wanted to write a little bit about how I relate to our morning schedule at Willow, in the hopes that it may demystify some of the practices and perhaps add more context to those of you who have been joining us online 🙂
The Dalai Lama has said that his first thought upon waking is compassion for all beings. I wish I could tell you what my first thought of the day is, but unless I’m on retreat I usually have many thoughts before I even step into the space of meta-awareness that can observe thoughts as sensory phenomena.
One of my teachers has said that the purpose of morning chanting is to begin the day with the kind of thoughts you want to be having.
It’s obvious that our thoughts and emotions influence our actions, but it’s less obvious that we can feed certain thoughts and not feed others, and by doing so create significant changes in our way of being.
I can’t overstate how empowering that can be.
So, we begin our day with chanting.
Our first chant of the day is an homage to the Buddhas.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammāsambuddhassa.
Homage to the exalted, noble, fully and self-enlightened one.
So… I was born and raised an atheist, and despite being quite happily on this Buddhist path, I still largely see myself as an atheist, whatever that means. So it’s probably not surprising that starting my day with a chant like this one would immediately hit into some loud internal protests.
Or rather… it used to. These days I use it to connect with my humility and gratitude that there are so many people out there in the world who can teach me things, people who are far wiser and more capable than I currently am. I draw inspiration from them and the hard work they have done. I can look at the archetypal Buddha as a north star, a force that calls forth my highest potential. Deep humility and deep confidence, all wrapped up in one…
Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the practice to refrain from killing living beings.
Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the practice to refrain from taking what is not given.
Kāmesu micchācārā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the practice to refrain from sexual misconduct.
Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the practice to refrain from false speech.
Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the practice to refrain from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness.
The five precepts, as I understand them, aren’t intended as black-and-white commandments to be followed, but rather a basic ethical starting point for developing moral character. The less remorse we have about our actions, the more easily we can cultivate good qualities of mind in meditation and beyond. We ask anyone training at Willow to hold these ethical precepts for the duration of their stay.
Every morning, I commit to looking at my daily actions and inquiring whether they lead to killing, stealing, sexual harm, lying, or heedlessness. Every morning, those around me do the same. Every day, we help each other hold to these values.
To live in a community and to make these commitments together every day is deeply empowering and beautiful.
Sabba pāpassa akaraṇaṃ kusalassa upasampadā, Sacittapariyodapanaṃ;
To do no evil, to practice good, and to purify one’s own mind;
Etaṃ Buddhāna sāsanaṃ.
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
This summarizes the teachings of the Buddha. It is short and concise, and deceptively simple.
Every day, I commit to looking at the way my mind works and learning to steer it towards good.
Emmei Jikku Kannon Gyō
Yo butsu u in
Yo butsu u en
Jō raku ga jō
Chō nen kanzeon
Bo nen kanzeon
Nen nen jū shin ki
Nen nen fu ri shin
This is the first of our Japanese chants. It begins with the phrase “We offer the following chant for all those facing sickness and death.”
Kanzeon is the Japanese name for the bodhisattva Guan Yin (Chinese) or Avalokiteśvara (Sanskrit). There are pages upon pages I could write about this bodhisattva (very loosely speaking, a bodhisattva is like a saint) but for now I will say that Kanzeon is known for being able to hear the cries of the world, and offers himself in boundless compassion in whatever way is needed.
This is a chant in which we connect with the spirit of boundless compassion in ourselves.
At MAPLE (our sister organization), a long list of names is read out prior to this chant — loved ones who are ill, dying, or have died. We hold them in our hearts as we invoke the spirit of Kanzeon within us. At Willow, our list is currently empty, but community members can request to add a loved one’s name to the list, and together we all chant for them with care and compassion.
I am subject to aging; aging is unavoidable.
I am subject to illness; illness is unavoidable.
I am subject to death; death is unavoidable.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions,
Related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions
Whatever I do for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
We should often reflect on this.
These are the Five Remembrances. We don’t chant this at MAPLE, but we introduced it to Willow this summer.
During my most recent 11-week solo retreat, I began to read this every morning to prepare for the day of practice. In particular, I am most drawn to the section about actions (some versions translate this as “karma”) — in many ways, I view the training we do at Willow as intending to help us feel deeply in our bones how much our actions in the world matter.
It makes a difference if I speak with kindness or not. It makes a difference whether I bring myself fully to chanting or not. It makes a difference if I work to bring clarity to my mind or not.
Actions matter. I remind myself of this every day.
Gate gate pāragate
gone, gone, gone beyond
pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā.
completely gone beyond, enlightenment, so be it!
This is a chant that has many different translations. It is from the Sutra of the Heart of Transcendent Knowledge.
This is the chant that I am usually most afraid to introduce to people, because it’s, by our cultural standards, the weirdest and scariest.
It’s also by far the most powerful chant I do every day.
In this chant, we repeat that one sentence over and over for 15-25 minutes. It begins softly and slowly, and gradually picks up speed and volume until, at its peak, the entire group is practically screaming.
We use this chant to build energy, to fully release and let go into it, to completely forget any concept we have of ourselves. We chant and chant and chant until the only thing that exists is the chant, the drum, the voices, and the tangible feeling of powerful energy that flows within us.
Some teachers have said that chanting is the easiest way to get into deep concentrated states of non-self. I can say that some of my most powerful experiences of self-release have been during gate.
There is also a physical movement associated with this chant, a forward-and-back tilting from the core. I keep my attention on my core (tanden, dantian, hara) and allow the sensations there to flow how they want to — sometimes my awareness grows to encompass my whole body, sometimes just the legs, sometimes it stays only in the core. This can be a way of building piti (pleasure-energy) in the body.
It’s important to keep the body relaxed while doing this movement. Many people scrunch up their faces as they begin to chant with intensity — it’s good to see what happens when you can relax your face and allow the sensations to move more freely through your body. The relationship and interdependency between energy and relaxation is fascinating, and very worth exploring.
With this, our chanting period ends and we move into an hour of silent meditation. We use the energy cultivated during the gate chant as fuel for our seated practice, to further continue learning to let go of all the things that hold us back.
There are two more days left in our Chant and Meditation Challenge. It has been absolutely beautiful to be able to share these practices with our friends online, and if what I have written here intrigues you, I invite you to join us for the final stretch and experience for yourself what these practices are like.
All my love,
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