The Zen Practice of Chanting

Chanting is an important part of an authentic Zen practice.

Learning chants takes a lot of time but is well worth the effort. When memorized, the chants become a part of us. A chant or a part thereof can be summoned at any time, any place; we won’t need to carry a chant book with us if we have committed each one to memory.

Roshi Philip Kapleau said:

“Mind is unlimited.

Chanting, when performed egolessly,

has the power to penetrate

visible and invisible worlds.”

Chanting also has the power to lift us from the realm of desire into the heavenly realms.

Roshi Kapleau advised against forced memorization, advising us to chant daily and to let the memorization happen gradually. However, some people who have practiced for more than ten years still reach for a chant book when a chanting service begins. Obviously, gradual memorization doesn’t work for everybody.

We can download a voice recording app onto our cell phone and record our own voice reading a chant we wish to memorize. Then with ear pods we listen to ourselves doing the chant as we walk. If we take a long walk on a daily basis, memorizing the chant takes place quite naturally.

Roshi Kapleau further advised us to chant in a voice near the lower end of our range. So we chant with a low pitch but not with a growl. When chanting with a group, we try to harmonize with the group. We chant in a monotone, without emphasizing syllables. This helps keep the mind on an even keel. A sing-songy, emotion-driven rendition of a chant dilutes its power.

I once had to lead a chant at a Vesak ceremony at a Unitarian-Universalist congregaton (held in May at about the time of the first full moon to observe the Buddha’s birth) because no one else in our Zen group would do it. My plan was to open the chanting session by asking the audience – a non-Buddhist crowd – to chant with our chanters – a team assembled from our local Zen center – in a low voice, but not so low as to be a growling voice. However, we were preceded in the program by a Tibetan monk who chanted The Heart Sutra in one long growling growl; it was quite pleasant and well-received but of course I had to change my opening remarks.


Vesak Day at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

As the program was closing it was announced that the Tibetan monk would be handing out necklaces to anyone who wanted one. A queue formed and I got in it in a somewhat bored state of mind. The Vesak program had gone on too long in my opinion. “Well, I’ll get me one of them there necklaces and then it will be time to enjoy the great Vesak veggie feast,” I thought. The food was why I had attended the program in the first place.

The line moved too slowly but it was finally my turn to get a necklace. “What a perfect example of spiritual materialism,” I thought as I bowed slightly to the monk to facilitate his placement of the necklace upon my personage. He leaned forward from his seated position on an elevated platform, holding the precious gift open in his two hands. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second and I went into a state of samadhi.

I have never figured out what happened. I had no particular respect for that monk or his tradition and besides the boredom and thoughts of food, I was thinking of how I had been forced to stifle my laughter during his hilarious-to-me rendition of The Heart Sutra. But I went in the twinkling of an eye from nonchalance to a mind-shattering explosion. I was the Generator, Operator and Destroyer, the G. O. D. of the universe. I was all, I knew all, I was everywhere. I wasn’t human anymore. That feeling passed quickly. The telling of the experience has taken more time than did the experience itself.

I remember thinking I had to get out of the line, that I was holding up the people behind me. I walked over to my wife who had been in front of me and asked her if she felt anything when the monk gave her a necklace. She said there was nothing in particular and I told her that that monk had some kind of amazing spiritual power. “I’m sure he does,” was her reply.

That was almost twenty years ago. Whenever I sit with a Zen group chanting The Heart Sutra, I hear that monk chanting with us in his growling voice and I always smile and thank him for joining in. He was introduced as coming from Tibet, but I know for a fact he was from one of the four heavenly realms and was merely visiting the human dharma realm that day.

To chant, we kneel on a mat, with back straight and knees forward, spread apart at a distance that is comfortable, and sit on our feet. This is the seiza position mentioned in Creating a Practice Space in Beginning Zen. We place our right hand in our lap, palm up, and then place our left hand, palm up, on top of the right hand with the thumbs crossing, not touching at the tips.

Subject to the exception of Master Hakuin’s Chant In Praise Of Zazen, chants are chanted to the beat of a mokugyo (Japanese for wooden fish). You can purchase a small one for home use at The Monastery Store.


The drumstick of the mokugyo is stored in a slot in the back of the instrument. Only the drumhead is visible in the photo.

Most Zen centers also have a large bowl-shaped gong known by its Japanese name, keisu, as well as a small one for use in chants.


All of the chants and more are in bound form and can be purchased for a nominal fee at the marketplace of The Rochester Zen Center.

On the subject of chanting, it is worth noting that many Chinese Ch’an/Zen masters promote both the practice of Zen chanting as well as the practice of Pure Land (Jin Tu) chanting.

We recommend Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen as the first chant to learn.

This very famous chant, written in the 1700s by Japanese Master Hakuin during his work to revitalize Zen practice in Japan, follows a logical flow, beginning with: “From the very beginning…” Therefore, it is not difficult to memorize.

Master Hakuin’s chant is chanted, as aforesaid, without the beat of a mokugyo, the wooden fish drum used in other chants. It is customarily chanted prior to a Teisho at retreats. However, it is so deep and so instructive that daily repetition is invaluable.

If our first thought every morning is to fire up the coffee maker, or to check Facebook, or to turn on the news, we can try chanting Mater Hakuin’s Chant In Praise of Zazen instead. The things that concern us gradually fade away as we tune into higher planes of consciousness.

Master Hakuin’s Chant In Praise of Zazen

From the very beginning, all beings are Buddha.

Like water and ice, without water no ice,

outside us, no Buddhas.

How near the truth yet how far we seek,

like one in water crying “I thirst.”

Like a child of rich birth wand’ring poor on this earth,

we endlessly circle the six worlds.

The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion.

From dark path to dark path we’ve wandered in darkness —

how can we be free from birth and death?

The gateway to freedom is zazen samadhi

beyond exaltation, beyond all our praises,

the pure Mahayana.

Upholding the precepts,

repentance and giving,

the countless good deeds,

and the Way of right-living

all come from zazen.

Thus one true samadhi extinguishes evils;

it purifies karma, dissolving obstructions.

Then where are the dark paths to lead us astray?

The pure lotus land is not far away.

Hearing this truth, heart humble and grateful,

to praise and embrace it, to practice its wisdom,

brings unending blessings,

brings mountains of merit.

And when we turn inward and prove our True-nature —

That True-self is no-self,

our own self is no-self —

we go beyond ego and past clever words.

Then the gate to the oneness

of cause and effect

is thrown open.

Not two and not three,

straight ahead runs the Way.

Our form now being no-form,

in going and returning we never leave home.

Our thought now being no-thought,

our dancing and songs are the

voice of the Dharma.

How vast is the heaven

of boundless samadhi!

How bright and transparent

the moonlight of wisdom!

What is there outside us,

what is there we lack?

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.

This earth where we stand

is the pure lotus land,

and this very body the body of Buddha.

(end of chant)

If you want to be a Buddha, you must think like a Buddha.

– Dharma Master Hsuan Hua.

Daily chanting of Master Hakuin’s Chant will help us think like a Buddha. The day will come when the truth of this chant is realized and we will understand that this earth where we stand is the pure lotus land.

Here are the next three chants that we can gradually add to our practice: Affirming Faith In Mind, the Ten Verse Kannnon Sutra, and The Dharani to Allay Disasters.

Written in the sixth century by Chinese Master Jianzhi Seng Tsan, the Third Patriarch of Zen (even though he was a Taoist), scholars have praised Affirming Faith In Mind as “the highest achievement of the human mind.”

“Thought cannot reach this state of truth” but these words come as close as it gets. This awesome work leaves no secret unrevealed. No one told me to memorize this lengthy chant. The first time I read it, I knew I would.

In Chinese it’s called the Hsin Hsin Ming. Like any chant, it can be recited aloud or silently. The Great Way is the Tao (Dao); this is a Taoist (Daoist) chant, adopted by the Zen sect.

The great American Zen master John Daido Loori was given the name Daido by his teacher because he (Loori) was fond of this chant. He is said to have imprinted it on Christmas cards, New Year greetings, and so on. “Daido” is Japanese for “Great Way.”

The author is talking about sakkaya ditthi. Only a self within can like or dislike a world without, only a self can hold opinions. The gap between where we are now and Nirvana is caused by the slightest distinction made between inside and outside; the presence of the slightest distinction is the manifestation of sakkaya ditthi.

Reciting the Hsin Hsin Ming every day provides a foundation for a strong Zen practice because it helps us to empty the cup of our opinions. As Ch’an master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud) said: “Drop everything, and let no thought arise.” Dropping everything means to drop everything. Even the wrong view, sakkaya ditthi, that we are a self in a world that is outside us.

imagesCAPZ2Y97.jpg John Daido Loori

Roshi John Daido Loori, Founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order and first abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery


Affirming Faith in Mind

(Hsin Hsin Ming)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.

When pref’rences are cast aside, the Way stands clear and undisguised.

But even slight distinctions made set earth and heaven far apart.

If you would clearly see the truth, discard opinions pro and con.

To founder in dislike and like is nothing but the mind’s disease

And not to see the Way’s deep truth disturbs the mind’s essential peace.

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.

Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our see’ng this simple truth.

Both striving for the outer world as well as for the inner void condemn us to entangled lives.

Just calmly see that all is one and by themselves false views will go.

Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity.

Remaining in duality you’ll never know of unity.

And not to know this unity lets conflict lead you far astray.

When you assert that things are real, you miss their true reality. But to assert that things are void also misses reality.

The more you talk and think on this the further from the truth you’ll be.

Cut off all useless thoughts and words and there’s nowhere you cannot go.

Returning to the root itself, you’ll find the meaning of all things.

If you pursue appearances you overlook the primal source.

Awak’ning is to go beyond both emptiness as well as form.

All changes in this empty world seem real because of ignorance.

Do not go searching for the truth, just let those fond opinions go.

Abide not in duality, refrain from all pursuit of it.

If there’s a trace of right and wrong, True-mind is lost, confused, distraught.

From One-mind comes duality, but cling not even to this One.

When this One-mind rests undisturbed, then nothing in the world offends.

And when no thing can give offense, then all obstructions cease to be.

If all thought-objects disappear, the thinking subject drops away.

For things are things because of mind, as mind is mind because of things.

These two are merely relative and both at source are emptiness.

In emptiness these are not two, yet in each are contained all forms.

Once coarse and fine are seen no more, then how can there be taking sides?

The Great Way is without limit, beyond the easy and the hard.

But those who hold to narrow views are fearful and irresolute;

their frantic haste just slows them down.

If you’re attached to anything, you surely will go far astray.

Just let go now of clinging mind, and all things are just as they are. In essence nothing goes or stays.

See into the true self of things, and you’re in step with the Great Way, thus walking freely, undisturbed.

But live in bondage to your thoughts, and you will be confused, unclear.

This heavy burden weighs you down, so why keep judging good or bad?

If you would walk the highest way, do not reject the sense domain.

For as it is, whole and complete, this sense world is enlightenment.

The wise do not strive after goals, but fools put themselves in bonds.

The One Way knows no diff’rences, the foolish cling to this and that.

To seek Great Mind with thinking mind is certainly a grave mistake.

From small mind comes rest and unrest, but mind awakened transcends both.

Delusion spawns dualities – these dreams are merely flowers of air – why work so hard at grasping them?

Both gain and loss and right and wrong – once and for all get rid of them.

When you no longer are asleep, all dreams will vanish by themselves.

If mind does not discriminate, all things are just as they are, as One.

To go to this mysterious Source frees us from all entanglements.

When all is seen with “equal mind,” to our Self-nature we return.

This single mind goes right beyond all reasons and comparison.

Seek movement and there’s no-movement, seek rest and no-rest comes instead.

When rest and no-rest cease to be, then even oneness disappears.

This ultimate finality’s beyond all laws, can’t be described.

With single mind one with the Way, all ego-centered strivings cease.

Doubts and confusion disappear and so true faith pervades our life.

There is no thing that clings to us and nothing that is left behind.

All’s self-revealing, void and clear, without exerting power of mind.

Thought cannot reach this state of truth, here feelings are of no avail.

In this true world of Emptiness, both self and other are no more.

To enter this true empty world, immediately affirm “not-two.”

In this “not-two” all is the same, with nothing separate or outside.

The wise in all times and places awaken to this primal truth.

The Way’s beyond all space, all time; one instant is ten thousand years.

Not only here, not only there, truth’s right before your very eyes.

Distinctions such as large and small have relevance for you no more.

The largest is the smallest, too – here limitations have no place.

What is is not, what is not is – if this is not yet clear to you, you’re still far from the inner truth.

One thing is all, all things are one – know this and all’s whole and complete.

When faith and Mind are not separate, and not separate are Mind and faith, this is beyond all words, all thought.

For here there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

(End of chant)

Kanzeon and Kannon are Japanese for Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion. This short chant is typically repeated a number of times. Concentrate on this chant, especially the last two lines.

Ten Verse Kannon Sutra


Praise to Buddha!

All are one with Buddha,

all awake to Buddha–

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha–

eternal, joyous, selfless, pure.

Through the day Kanzeon,

Through the night Kanzeon.

This moment arises from Mind.

This moment itself is Mind.

The next two chants include Sanskrit words transliterated phonetically into Chinese and transliterated phonetically a second time into Japanese. When chanted for long periods of time in a group, they are powerful chants.

Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani

(Dharani to Allay Disasters)

No Mo Sam Man Da Moto Nan Oha Ra

Chi Koto Sha Sono Nan To Ji To En

Gya Gya Gya Ki Gya Ki

Un Nun Shifu Ra Shifu Ra

Hara Shifu Ra Hara Shifu Ra

Chisu Sa Chisu Sa Chisu Ri Chisu Ri

Soha Ja Soha Ja Sen Chi Gya Shiri Ei

Somo Ko

Dai Hi Shin Dharani

(Dharani of the Great Compassionate One)

Namu Kara Tan No Tora Ya Ya

Namu Ori Ya Boryo Ki Chi Shifu Ra Ya

Fuji Sato Bo Ya

Moko Sato Bo Ya

Mo Ko Kya Runi Kya Ya En Sa

Hara Ha Ei Shu Tan No Ton Sha

Namu Shiki Ri Toi Mo Ori Ya

Boryo Ki Chi Shifu Ra

Rin To Bo Na Mu No Ra Kin Ji

Ki Ri Mo Ko Ho Do

Sha Mi Sa Bo O To Jo Shu Ben

O Shu In Sa Bo Sa To No Mo

Bo Gya Mo Ha Tei Cho

To Ji To En O Boryo Ki

Ru Gya Chi Kya Ra Chi I

Kiri Mo Ko Fuji Sa To Sa Bo Sa Bo

Mo Ra Mo Ra Mo Ki Mo Ki

Ri To In Ku Ryo Ku Ryo

Ke Mo To Ryo To Ryo

Ho Ja Ya Chi Mo Ko Ho Ja Ya Chi

To Ra To Ra Chiri Ni Shifu Ra Ya

Sha Ro Sha Ro Mo Mo Ha Mo Ra

Ho Chi Ri Yu Ki Yu Ki Shi No Shi No

Ora San Fura Sha Ri

Ha Za Ha Za Fura Sha Ya

Ku Ryo Ku Ryo Mo Ra Ku Ryo Ku Ryo

Ki Ri Sha Ro Sha Ro Shi Ri Shi Ri

Su Ryo Su Ryo Fuji Ya Fuji Ya

Fudo Ya Fudo Ya Mi Chiri Ya Nora Kin Ji

Chiri Shuni No Hoya Mono Somo Ko

Shido Ya Somo Ko

Moko Shido Ya Somo Ko

Shidu Yu Ki Shifu Ra Ya Somo Ko

Nora Kin Ji Somo Ko Mo Ra No Ra

Somo Ko Shira Su Omo Gya Ya

Somo Ko Sobo Moko Shido Ya

Somo Ko Shaki Ra Osho Do Ya

Somo Ko Hodo Mogya Shido Ya

Somo Ko Nora Kin Ji Ha Gyara Ya

Somo Ko Mo Hori Shin Gyara Ya

Somo Ko Namu Kara Tan No Tora Ya Ya

Namu Ori Ya Boryo Ki Chi Shifu Ra Ya

Somo Ko Shite Do Modo Ra Hodo Ya

So Mo Ko.

For those who think memorizing the Dai Hi Shin Dharani is too daunting a task, the Shurangama Mantra is many times longer than this relatively short piece. There are native speakers of English and other non-Chinese languages residing at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in northern California who have not only memorized the Shurangama Mantra in Chinese, they have also learned to read and write it in Chinese. Among them is Dharma Master Heng Sure who now resides in Berkeley as the founder of the Berkeley Institute of Religious Studies.

imagesCALUUWZV.jpg Rev. Heng Sure

Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D.

It is standard practice to conclude each chanting session with the Return of Merit:

Return of Merit

(Honzon Eko)

Faith in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha

brings true liberation.

We now return the merit of our chanting to:

Shakyamuni Buddha,

Manjusri Bodhisattva,

Avalokita Bodhisattva,

Bhadra Bodhisattva.

We place our faith in the Great Heart of Perfect Wisdom.

May all beings attain Buddhahood!

Ten Directions, Three Worlds,

All Buddhas, Bodhisattva-mahasattvas,

Maha Prajna Paramita.

In a formal setting, the italicized part is chanted by the chant leader only. Everyone joins in on the final three lines. When practicing alone, we chant the leader’s lines as well.

Chiang Mai

British Buddhists in Chiang Mai, Thailand

That concludes the daily chanting practice. However, there is one more chant worth knowing. It’s chanted at Buddhist funerals. However, I silently chanted it at my parents’ funerals, my older brother’s funeral, and I chant it for friends and acquaintances. Maybe someday I’ll chant it for strangers as well.

Memorial Prayer

O Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,

abiding in all directions,

endowed with great compassion,

endowed with love,

affording protection to sentient beings,

consent through the power

of your great compassion to come forth.

O Compassionate Ones,

you who possess

the wisdom of understanding,

the power of protecting

in incomprehensible measure,

[____] is passing from

this world to the next.

The light of this world has faded for her/him.

S/he has entered solitude

with her/his karmic forces.

S/he has gone into a vast Silence.

S/he is borne away

by the Great Ocean of birth and death.

O Compassionate Ones,

protect [_____], who is defenseless.

Be to her/him like a father and a mother.

O Compassionate Ones,

Let not the force of your compassion be weak,

but aid her/him.

Forget not your ancient vows.

We haven’t yet recited the most famous, the most-often chanted of all Buddhist chants, The Heart Sutra, also known as the Prajna Paramita Hridaya. We employ it as a part of our daily prostration practice. And there is at least one Tibetan monk who will make sure we never chant it alone.

And here’s a poem that I’ve never heard chanted but it’s beautiful and well worth committing to memory. It’s so beautifully written that I can’t understand why anyone would not want to memorize it so that it can be called up whenever desired! (Not all desires are bad!)

You may recognize it:

In the pasture of the world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the Ox. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the Ox. I only hear the locusts chirping through the forest at night.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints. Even under the fragrant grass, I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces can no more be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore – Here no Ox can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, Those majestic horns?

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The whip and rope are necessary, else he may stray off down some dusty road. Being well-trained, he become naturally gentle, Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Mounting the Ox, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Astride the Ox, I reach home. I am serene. The Ox too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, within my thatched dwelling, I have abandoned the whips and ropes.

Whip, rope, person, and bull – all merge in No Thing. This heaven is so vast no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire? Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned within and without – The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; now, before me, the dead trees become alive.