SGI Buddhists chant loud and long, sometimes very loud and very long. A room full of people chanting ‘nam myoho renge kyo’ in unison, over and over again for 10, 15, even 20 minutes – it’s a bit of a shock to begin with. But I have learnt to love it, though I don’t generally do it on my own (I will do if asked by someone, or in response to someone in need of prayerful support, if it is their way). The practice also recommends the chanting of an extract from the Buddhist sutras twice a day, followed by a period of silent prayer. I find that, after about 10 minutes chanting with the group my mind is still and I can just stop chanting (while everyone else continues around me) and just be in that still space that is so familiar, yet so elusive.
Attending mornings of mindfulness with a group following the teaching of Thich Nhat Hahn most of the meditation is in silence, but occasionally there is some chanting. One of the facilitators may suggest it, usually in response to someone sharing about a distressing situation. The chanting is more musical than the SGI chanting, but is fairly simple and I usually find I can join in. I do not currently know what the chanting means or why it is done, at least, not in a way I can express in words. However, one week I felt unwell when I arrived for the morning of mindfulness. When chanting was suggested, I opted initially just to listen, thinking to join in when I’d heard the first repetition. In the end, I just sat and let the chanting flow around me, and found that I felt enormously upheld by it. Perhaps others feel that too, particularly if the chanting is for them.
Other traditions also chant, and I sometimes chant ‘hare Krishna, hare Rama’ with our local Krishna Consciousness devotees. Christian traditions chant sometimes too, though Taizé chant, for instance, is less repetitive than those I’ve referred to earlier. The Taizé chants are also, for me, a good way into stillness, either just sung, or (my preference) danced as simple, meditative circle dances.
I think I’ve more to learn about chanting, perhaps by doing it, perhaps by asking questions, perhaps some other way, but what interests me most is how it can be a way into stillness – my underlying question being ‘what ways into stillness work for you?’. Somewhat to my surprise chanting is one of them.