Buddhist Chanting with Tenjo Hopwood
On Saturday 1st October we welcomed Tenjo Hopwood, a Buddhist priest and his daughter, Tenkai, a monk. Tenjo had visited the group when we met on Zoom during the pandemic and had promised to return for a practical session on chanting when meeting in person was possible
Before we started Tenjo and Tenkai dressed themselves in thin (as in
gossamer) black robes and wore on their wrists what looked like a long rosary
of beads and other objects. Tenjo said that Shingon Buddhism was based on
chanting mantras some of which lasted for 20 minutes, others of which were
short but repeated thousands of times, and the beads helped to keep count.
Tradition has it that the idea of chanting goes back to pre-Hindu times, when
people sought to acquire the particular gifts of animals by mimicking their cries.
One example was the peacock, thought to be immune to the poison of snakes.
We didn't try to chant the cry of a peacock.
Chants are part of modern life too, the chanting of protesters, or the hymns we
sing, or the chants from Taize. Tenjo said that Buddhism could equally be called
'Awakeism' and one purpose of chanting is to awaken the inner self by which
we are connected to everything in the universe, our universal self. Chants are
not prayers for external solutions because all solutions are within us. Buddha
said that we should not be like the man who was crying of thirst while standing
up to his waste in water.
Tenjo's first illustration of chanting was to show how they are able to calm us
down – especially the gentle ones, with a rhythmic sequence of syllables. Next
he illustrated a chant for healing. The effectiveness of a healing chant is not
because it is some kind of spell, but that it brings to our hearts compassion for
the distress of the other and we can then pour out that compassion towards
others who suffer. He described this as the universe within us meeting the
universe within the other. And because our universal selves are all connected,
the chanting produces an out-spreading of compassion more generally.
So in a sense chanting is about a flow of love. We chant first that we may
accept love from the universality of all things – the Buddha. Tenjo then spoke of
how chants need intention to be effective. If we know our intention when we
choose to sing a chant this will empower it and change can happen.
By way of illustration Tenjo compared the universal to a great ocean. The ocean
produces waves and each wave is different but it is all the ocean. So it is that
each one of us is a unique being, yet we are also part of the ocean and just as a
wave finishes and laps back into the ocean, so are we when we die still part of
the ocean of universal love.
We asked about personality, which Tenjo explained was the result of experience
and circumstance, something shaped and moulded by events. This is often the
source of unhelpfully strong attachment. Unlike when we are awake to the
universal in ourselves, personality can lead to a sense of separation and a
desire for something we do not have. Tenjo reminded us of a story from his
pilgrimage in Japan when he was alone in the forests for days and his
personality became less and less present, until he met another pilgrim going the
other way when all his acquired personality traits started to return.
Our chanting exercise
Tenjo introduced us to a chant called Komyo Shingon, which is the Mantra of
Light. Phonetically it is pronounced: ONG ABO CAR BAY ROSHANO MAKA
BUDDHA RAMONAY HANDOMA GINBARA HARA BARA TYA UN.
As we slowly repeat it, we gradually move from a spoken to a sung chant,
following Tenjo's example. The meaning is quite complex yet just saying the
words with their changing rhythms was satisfying - something which invited
more time than we had.
Often Buddhist teachings are embodied in the words of a chant. By its repeated
chanting its meaning becomes buried deep in our being in a way that a
superficial 'yes I agree' when presented with the idea contained in the words
would not. The mantra of light has meaning in every word. It tells us how we are
not separate from Buddha, (MAKABODDHA), about the attaining of a body
made up of the universe and receiving its teachings (BEI-ROSHANO) , and it
reminds us that our mental state can be transformed (UN).
Tenjo encouraged us to think of the enlightenment from chanting like being
given a baby to care for. We should spend the whole day carrying it so that it
remains a presence for us, even as we are busy with day to day duties.