Chanting goes back to the timeless past. Probably long before there were languages there were sounds that clans could make together. Maybe they even could make these sounds with others who were of different clans. Maybe it was to feel a connection to each other, maybe it was a primitive prayer or healing mechanism, or maybe it was thought to be a “spell” someone could sustain. Whatever the initial reasons, chanting is ancient.
Later, chanting was the form of passing learning and history on to others of the same and later generations. Chanting is, by it’s need, repetitive. In this way, there is less room for error. Each of us has some song we know all the verses to and could teach another. But if we weren’t careful and good stewards of the verses, they would mutate with each generation until the verses bore little resemblance to the original song. Chanting, because it was the ONLY way to pass on important information, was zealously guarded for accurate repetition. Sometimes, there were even “checkers” to make sure all was right. Persons able to remember well and accurately were thought to be special treasures.
Thus, during the time of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, chanting was still the form of transmission of teachings, traditions, and history. It was about a hundred years after the Buddha’s death before his teachings were beginning to be put to print on leaves. Until then, and even now, we recite his teachings when we chant the “sutras” (Buddha’s words). The original chants were in Pali and then Sanskrit. Chinese, Japanese, and English came later in this order. Scholars have worked hard to maintain the integrity of the original work, and China’s greatest gift to Buddhists were the early commentaries by their scholars that included the original words of the Buddha and lengthy commentaries.
So, why do we need to chant now? It changes us, that is why. It makes us mindful. It makes us feel the cord that connects us, hand by hand, back to the Buddha. It connects us to hundreds of millions of Buddhists, the distant past, the present, and the future.
How do we chant? The Buddha said to chant like thunder, so we can be heard throughout the universe. We may have microphones, but we should still learn the art of chanting in this way, or it becomes singing. Further, chanting is not always where a microphone is located. The Buddha also said that we should chant so beautiful that everyone will want to listen to it.
What are the characteristics of a good chanter? The Buddha said our chanting is worthy when it contains honesty and integrity; harmony and elegance; purity of sound and great depth (it comes from deep within us); it has great range; and, most importantly, if the other ingredients are present, it has the “Buddha’s voice”