Clear Water Zen Center - Chanting

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Zen altar with chanting instruments.

About Chanting


To help awaken us to this world of Buddha-nature, Zen masters employ another mode of zazen, the chanting of dharani and sutras. A dharani has been described as "a more or less meaningless chain of words or names that is supposed to have a magical power in helping the one who is repeating it at some time of extremity." As phonetic transliterations of Sanskrit words, dharani have doubtlessly lost much of their profound meaning through the inevitable alteration of the original sounds. But as anyone who has recited them for any length of time knows, in their effect on the spirit they are anything but meaningless. To the degree that the discursive mind is held at bay during the voicing of dharani, they are valuable as another exercise in training the mind to cease clinging to dualistic modes of thought.

Sutras are the recorded words and sermons of the Buddha, and do in some degree make a direct appeal to the intellect. Thus for those whose faith in the Buddha's Way is shallow the repeated chanting of sutras eventually leads to a measure of understanding, and this serves to strengthen faith in the truth of the Buddha's teachings. As faith grows, however, there is less need for chanting them.

Frequently chanting is accompanied by the steady thumping of the mokugyo or punctuated by the sonorous reverberations of the keisu. When the heart and mind are truly one with it, this combination of chanting and the throb of percussion instruments can arouse the deepest feelings and bring about a vibrant, heightened sense of awareness. At the very least it provides variety in what could otherwise become a somber and rigorous discipline of unrelieved Zen sitting.

It is best, while chanting, to maintain a straight back while sitting or kneeling in order to open up the abdomen and diaphragm. To that effect, it is preferable to raise the chant book, if needed, to eye level in order to avoid looking down. The head should be held up so that the chants may be made clearly and exuberantly.

(Adapted from The Three Pillars of Zen, edited by Philip Kapleau, 2000, pages 21 - 22)

Keisu chanting bell.


The keisu is a bronze bowl-shaped drum used during chanting by all Buddhist sects in Japan. It is struck on the rim by a small padded club held with both hands. The smaller one, a Shôkei, is also used in this connection.


Mokugyo chanting drum.


The mokugyo (lit., "wooden fish") is a hollowed-out roundish wooden block, fashioned after some sort of sea creature, with a long, horizontal slit for resonance, employed as an accompaniment to sutra chanting in Buddhist temples. When struck by a padded stick it emits a distinctive sound. Originally Chinese, this "wooden drum" may be as large as three feet in height or small enough to hold in the lap. Frequently it is lacquered bright red. Fish, since they never sleep, are symbolic in Buddhism of the alertness and watchfulness required of the aspirant to Buddhahood.


Selected Chants

(Click to download a copy of the Chant Book)

Verse of the Rakusu

Wondrous is the robe of liberation,
a treasure beyond form and emptiness.
Wearing it I will unfold Buddha's teaching
for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Heart of Perfect Wisdom

The Bodhisattva of Compassion
from the depths of prajna wisdom
saw the emptiness of all five skandhas
and sundered the bonds that cause all suff'ring.

Know then:
Form here is only emptiness,
emptiness only form.
Form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness no other than form.
Feeling, thought and choice
consciousness itself
are the same as this.

Dharmas here are empty,
all are the primal void.
None are born or die,
nor are they stained or pure,
nor do they wax or wane.

So in emptiness no form,
no feeling, thought or choice,
nor is there consciousness.
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
no color, sound, smell, taste, touch,
or what the mind takes hold of,
nor even act of sensing.

No ignorance or end of it,
nor all that comes of ignorance:
No withering, no death, no end of them.

Nor is there pain or cause of pain,
or cease in pain or
noble path to lead from pain,
not even wisdom to attain,
attainment too is emptiness.

So know that the Bodhisattva,
holding to nothing whatever
but dwelling in prajna wisdom,
is freed of delusive hindrance,
rid of the fear bred by it,
and reaches clearest nirvana.

All buddhas of past and present,
buddhas of future time
through faith in prajna wisdom
come to full enlightenment.

Know then the great dharani,
the radiant peerless mantra,
the supreme unfailing mantra,
the Prajna Paramita,
whose words allay all pain.
This is highest wisdom,
true beyond all doubt,
know and proclaim its truth:

Gate, gate
bodhi, svaha!

Dharani to Allay Disasters

No Mo San 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
Chishu Sa Chishu Sa Chishu Ri Chishu Ri
Sowa Ja Sowa Ja Sen Ghi Gya Shiri Ei
Somo Ko.


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.

Honzon Eko

Faith in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha
brings true liberation.
We now return the merit of our chanting to:
Shakyamuni Buddha,
Manjushri 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.


All beings without number,
--I vow to liberate.
Endless blind passions,
--I vow to uproot.
Dharma gates beyond measure,
--I vow to penetrate.
The Great Way of Buddha,
--I vow to attain.


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