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)
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.
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.