One of the most beautiful and the most challenging aspects of adjusting to the practice here at Dharma Drum Mountain is the liturgical chanting. Chinese Buddhist chanting has a particular style and flavor that is both lovely and a bit mysterious. Lovely in that the melodies and harmonies seem nearly spontaneous, while the words evoke deep vows, aspirations, and a universal practice. It is also mysterious in that some of the chants are phonetic representations of indecipherable Sanskrit mantras. In other words, very few who chant these texts know what they are saying.
I have long been interested in Chinese chanting, and it has been an interesting experience to attempt to learn and join in during Morning and Evening Services here. I have had to put together my own liturgy booklet, as the only copy they had with romanized transliterations use a form I am not used to. So, with the help of some monastic friends online, I have booklets that I can now chant along.
At some point, I would like to offer a bit of explanation of the Morning and Evening Chanting, as it is quite interesting, but I will need to save it for another post. Here, I’d like to share a portion of a recording DDM made some years ago of the monastics chanting Morning Service. This particular portion focuses on the 大悲咒 (dà bēi zhòu), or the Great Compassion Mantra. At Shasta Abbey, this is known as the Litany of the Great Compassionate One.
I originally wanted to just post an abbreviated version of the chant, as the monks repeat it three times in succession. However, in listening to it, it is really all of a piece. So, I’ve included it here in its entirety. It is only 11 minutes long, and, if and when you have the time, I’d highly recommend listening to the whole thing. With headphones. The harmonies are very ethereal in places, and the pace of the chant gets faster and faster through each of the three repetitions, until it culminates with 10 short mantras and the Heart Sutra at the very end. Though, unless you know what this sounds like in Chinese, you probably won’t catch the transition from the Great Compassion Mantra to the other mantras and the Heart Sutra. Nonetheless, it will give you a sense of the chanting in the Chinese tradition.
If you want to listen to just bits of it, I’d suggest letting the whole file load, then you can move to the point in the chant you’d like to. Or, download the file to do the same thing.
Here’s the text for the Mantra, with Characters and romanized transliteration, not a translation though (pdf file):
This is one of the most well-known and most chanted scriptures in Chinese Buddhism. And, it is an example of a liturgical text that is indecipherable. There have been attempts at English translations (again, like Shasta Abbey’s), but the Chinese have always kept it in its mantra form, which means that it consists of Chinese characters that sound like the original Sanskrit mantra. This has been chanted in Chinese for close to 1,500 years. It is said to be what the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the representation and manifestation of Great Compassion, also known as Guan Yin Pusa, recited before an assembly of Buddhas. It is used in many different occasions by the Buddhist faithful.
I’m quite ignorant about its meanings, and am just struggling to follow along in the mornings, at the moment. As I learn more about it, I’ll see if I can share more. I find it very lovely.