Letting the Suttas Sing: An Introduction to Chanting

With our first home chanting retreat taking place this December, teacher Jaya Rudgard gives us an insight into this ancient and supportive practice:

What do you feel that a chanting practice gives you?

“Chanting gives me a sense of direct connection to a tradition and a wider community of practitioners. The chants I’ve learned from the Theravadan and Mahayana traditions often go back many centuries and are chanted by practitioners all around the world. For me they are a way to express love and gratitude, to turn the mind towards uplifting and beneficial qualities, and to memorise valued teachings. Learning some chants in both Pali and English has also been an enjoyable and fairly effortless way to learn a little bit of useful Pali language.”

What do you experience while chanting?

“Aside from the sense of connectedness I feel when using chanting, I’ve also found it very supportive for my meditation. The vibration of sound and deepening of the breath that happens when I chant soothes and helps regulate the nervous system and grounds awareness in the body. Mind and body join together in the activity and distractions quieten down. Listening inwardly and outwardly to what is being chanted tunes the attention in a way that carries over into any silence that follows. It’s as if some of the work of settling down in meditation has already been done for me, and perhaps the seeds of a particular contemplation sown.”

How easy is chanting to pick up? How did you find it at the beginning?

“We all vary as to what elements of chanting we find natural and easy to pick up and where it stretches us. When I was young I had a good memory so I found chants easy to memorise. I love language and words especially ones that I could repeat often but which revealed their meaning slowly. I had always struggled with singing, but I gradually gained some confidence about sounding my voice and learned to blend it with a group and came to love the feel of chanting. Other people may find singing or chanting very easy but remembering words more difficult. The kinds of chants I am talking about are mostly very simple – often only on two or three notes – so they don’t take a lot of musical skill. It’s most definitely not a competition to get anything “right”. If you’re perfectionist, or very musically gifted and literate, then that will challenge you in other ways. Some people also find being asked to surrender to a group activity challenging, or exploring the devotional side of practice. These are all really healthy things for dharma students to investigate.”

Why a “chanting” retreat?

“I’m offering this retreat to give people the opportunity to explore some of these potential benefits of chanting and to find others for themselves. We’ll also have times to meditate together and to reflect on some of the teachings contained in the chants. Let’s see what we can learn from adding this element to our practice!”

You can read more and register for the retreat here.