Attuning Our Hearts to the Dharma: A Path of Practice With Many Doors
“We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.
We must learn to be the world as it is.” – Anais Nin
Most of us have heard the Buddhist teaching about the finger pointing to the moon. In it, we are reminded not to confuse the finger with the moon. The intention of the Dharma teachings is to point the way to freedom, to set a direction towards liberation. The teachings are supported by a multitude of heart-settling, vision-sharpening Dharma practices. Together, like the pointing finger and the glance that follows it, study and practice give the guidance needed for clear direction in our everyday lives. Steadily, gradually, they help us to become the quietly joyful, wise and kind moon.
There are many practices that help release us from our narrow, self-focused vision. Each of us is already engaged in a number of these: the study of aspects of Dharma––on our own and with teachers and peer groups; meditations focusing on breath, body, mind, or heart; reflections and contemplations; political and social inquiry and action; relationships. Always, with Dharma pulling us towards it, there is mindfulness and open-heartedness growing. We are becoming less afraid to let go.
In recent years, the Valley Insight Sangha has been exploring the practice of chanting as another doorway to transformation and freedom. Pre-pandemic, there was a small group of us exploring chants in both English and Pali before the Thursday morning sit. Zoom brought certain challenges to group chanting, but, touched by the pending election and feeling the need for support in maintaining an ethical commitment, we began chanting together again last November .
In her essay below, Valley Insight Teacher Peg Meyer tells the story of how chanting has begun to play a part in her own unfolding journey towards the liberated moon.
The Language of the Heart
By Valley Insight teacher Peg Meyer
Our bodies have a form of knowledge different
from our cognitive brains. Our bodies hold our
fear and pain as well as love and release.
Since November 2020, VIMS teacher Doreen Schweizer has led a group of us in a half-hour morning meditation. At this quiet time of day, with palms softly touching in anjali, we chant the refuges and precepts. Body heart and mind in single union, I send my voice along with the sound of the bell says Thich Nhat Hanh. For me, this is an embodied experience of the Dharma, a path to freedom from conceptual proliferation.
In the beginning when I was new to chanting, I looked to the Buddhist monastic teacher Ajahn Sucitto for guidance. He says: “I use the ancient tones and phonemes of Pali, a language made sacred by being constructed to carry the Buddha’s teachings––a language that is not mine, and that has poured through the throats and lips of multitudes with the aim to expound the Way of Truth.” I have found it easy to follow his suggestions in the chanting. I sense that we are working with the breath again as we form sacred sounds, aware of how breath enters the nose, the throat, the lungs. Following it in and out. Our bodies have a form of knowledge different from our cognitive brains. Our bodies hold our fear and pain as well as love and release. The keys to healing are found as we steadily and gently stay with the changing body experience.
I have also found that chanting is the path that connects formal meditation and my daily life. There is wholeness to be found here, even in a society that is fractured and rushed. There are blessings to give and to receive. I go for my daily walk––humming and bestowing kindness on all I meet: “wishing in gladness and in safety, May all beings be at ease.” I am filling the space with loving, light energy.
Chanting together with the sangha in harmony, surrendering the busyness of the thinking mind, we enter the sacred space of here and now together. Tuning into the goodness frequency of the Refuges and Precepts, of non-harming any living being, ourselves included. Gacchami––I am going . . . to a frequency, a vibration in the body below the thinking, a stillness, receiving and deep listening into the nature of experience. The sangha lifts its voice as one, celebrating the teachings of the Dhamma. We are chanting, and we are cultivating collective friendship and like-mindedness: bestowing blessings on all beings.
During our daily lives as householders, we are exposed to the different, often confusing currents of what is skillful and unskillful. Chanting is one of the practices that I have found to be helpful while in the midst of all that. It can be a link between subtle meditative quiet states and daily life. Chanting is right in the middle. It is an embodied practice, which is important for contemplation. The devotional practice inherent in chanting soothes the nervous system and slows me down, bringing me into harmony with life as it is in this moment and protecting me from engaging in what is unskillful. Embodied awareness overrides the thinking mind, giving way to a well-grounded presence, enabling me to sit through habits of reactivity. Savoring the silence, I pause. The mind is slowed down and steadied with the chanting. When I am feeling sluggish, it can brighten the mind and bring energy to the practice. Chanting has been very helpful to me in reorienting again and again to this moment, to what I really value, to realigning with the wise teachings of the Buddha. It can take one into very deep, profound places, but it is also real in that it is a sound; it is a sounding and a learning, a daily practice and a recitation with meaning.
Some chants are specifically protective, almost in a magical way, settling the heart: such as the Abhaya Paritta: Whatever unlucky portents and ill omens, and whatever distressing bird calls, evil planets, upsetting nightmares; by the Buddha’s power may they be destroyed. The chanting is not for me alone, it invokes protection, healing, and blessing for self and other.
Ajahn Sucitto writes of a fellow monk, who was “hospitalized for an extended period with impaired brain capacity. [During this time] he often felt confused, with a sense of the many ‘dark forces’ of all the troubled beings who’d sickened in that hospital, gathering around him and pressing in. Fortunately, he [had the habit of chanting and] he remembered the Abhaya Paritta and silently intoned the verses. As in one of those medieval accounts, [the clearly embodied and expressed intention in the chanting allowed] a bright tone to arise and steadily spread through his body being until the darkness cleared . . . . His physical condition steadily improved.”
Buddhist teacher and avid chanter Thanissara says that when we chant we are “honoring that which is worthy of honor: this is the highest blessing.” So, like Ajahn Sucitto, I am increasing my daily chanting practice, honoring the Dhamma, memorizing the teachings, and “clearing the darkness.” I am collecting wisdom and compassion. Chanting while driving the car, while doing the housework or taking a walk, gacchami-connecting with goodness.
This is what should be done, by one who is skilled in goodness.