When you have your first opportunity to witness a Buddhist ceremony of any kind, I imagine you will hear and see a lot of new things that have little or no explanation given to you – the ringing of bells at various times, or the rattling sound of a staff with a bunch of metal rings on it, or chanting in a language unfamiliar to you. Buddhism came a long way to reach the various countries where it is now practiced. Originally from India, the birthplace of Shakyamuni Buddha, scholars and students traveled to and from China, Thailand, Japan, and eventually here in North America, and to every other continent on the planet. As Buddhism is a person-to-person teaching – that is, that its preferred transmission is “heart-to-heart” from one person to the next so that both receive the benefit of the teaching process, and each scholar or student has a different way of expressing the teaching attuned to the particular listener involved.
Sounds are significant in Buddhism because, psychologically-speaking, the human brain expands its activity when listening to sounds or music more than any other form of sensory input. For example, when you’re singing a song, even one you know extremely well by heart, it’s difficult, or impossible to think of anything else while singing. You psychologically are focused on several things at once: the lyrics, the melody, the intonation, the timbre, your vocal muscles, your emotional state, and the vibrations coming from your larynx and body as you resonate the sounds. Ancient Buddhism understood this very well. When reciting something simple, like the often heard master syllable, “Om” your focus changes to what you are doing. Every denomination of Buddhism has its own core chant. You may have heard this one, which is related to Nichiren, one of Buddhism’s many master disciples. Or this one, which is from Shinnyo-en. Each of these repeating chants is used to bring focus to the normally unquiet human mind, and generate spiritual harmony as it is chanted in unison with others.
The chanting you hear in the background during the introduction of each of these podcasts is from Shinnyo-en and normally accompanies three bows performed at the commencement of each gathering. These are meant to remind ourselves that our teachings do not emanate from ourselves but from the many people who came before us, and those who encounter it in the future. The unfamiliar language you hear is from the ancient roots in India, known as Pali. While certain chants have been adopted to the native language of the particular practicing denomination, such as in China or Japan, the core chants which begin each service are often performed in the original Pali to respect the origins of the teaching, and for practical purposes, because the translated versions are not nearly as poetic nor rhyming. The musical melody is one from Shinnyo-en which became unified to our expression of the Goreiju (or spiritual mantra) Goreiju (instrumental) – Gamelan Bells.mp3. This mantra is found in many other denominations of Buddhism, but the melody is unique to Shinnyo-en and has many historical roots in the teaching.
Sounds from a spiritual sense, are meant as a purification process. As a pure sound is emitted from a pure source, it is believed that the sound helps purify all that it touches. Buddhist services and ceremonies are often begun and ended with sounds, whether from an instrument or the human voice.
At most every service conducted on a regular basis, you will hear the sound of a wood clave (or hyoshigi in Japanese) being struck two times, and then once. And at the end, a single strike to indicate the end of a chant or the service chanting. When conducted by a lay person, the same sounds may be produced by striking a small gong or bell. When you’re at home doing your own home practice, if you don’t have an actual set of clave or gongs to use, you can just clap your hand to your thigh to make the sound in a similar way. As many chants are repeated, and in some cases hundreds of times, hearing the sound of the gong is often your way to know this is the time for the repeating chant to finish.
During services conducted by an officiant of higher rank, or purity in a practical sense, you will hear the service chanting by the officiant begun and concluded with the bronze chime sound (or kondo kei) instead of the wood clave. They may also use a hand bell at the conclusion of their service chanting, further serving symbolically and sonically as a purification of the area of the service and of those attending it.
And for grand purification ceremonies you might see a religious leader walking with a wooden staff with a number of metal rings at the top – this is called a shakujo in Japanese. As they walk, you will hear the clatter of the rings as they strike the ground with the staff. Then at the beginning and ending of each chanting, instead of a clave, bell or gong, you might hear the shakujo being shaken in-time with the chanting, and then a final longer shake to end the chant.
So this was a little introduction to the many different sounds associated with Buddhist practice and ceremonies. I hope you will find it useful to help broaden your understanding of what is a simple and yet complex form of spiritual belief and personal development.