Chant / Worship : Same or Different?


Today is a magnificent spring morning, and my walk takes me past a temple from which I hear a sangha of monks whose voices seem to float in harmony on the warm spring air in the recitation of a chant.  Is this the same as a hymn? I ask my friend, Binh, a Buddhist monk, if monks are worshipping Buddha when they chant? If not, what is the sangha doing?

Webster’s Dictionary tells me that worship is, first and foremost, reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage.  The rendering of such worship is usually in a formal or ceremonious form, such as to attend worship in Sunday service.  When we worship, we show adoring reverence -  reverence being the deep respect  which overwhelms us  when we find ourselves in awe of our God.  A Buddhist monk, Binh, has recently brought to my attention that this word, worship, is often incorrectly used in the teaching of Buddhism.  It makes sense to me that terms we use to describe religious rituals we are familiar with would also be used to help us understand these ceremonies that we are not familiar with, customs which are new to us, such as those I would encounter in trying to understand Buddhism, a religion with fundamental differences from the religion within which I was raised.

So, to begin with, what is my own understanding of the word worship? That’s easy, for I vividly remember one of those stunning spring mornings, a  Sunday, and I was walking past a church whose windows were opened wide to the fresh and already warm morning air.  The congregation inside was wholly engaged in the singing of a hymn.  Powerful music and even more powerful words poured out of the open windows and added a sublime sense of joy to that spring morning whose beauty had already overwhelmed me with awe of my creator.  It was no matter which hymn was being sung nor the denomination of the congregation singing the hymn – every church I know has a choir and music.  To my mind, when we gather in a church and we lift our voices up in song, we are praising our God, we are showing reverence for our God, our devotion to our God, and yes, our love for our God.  This is worship.

But now it is another magnificent spring morning, and on this day my walk takes me past a temple.  As I approach, I hear a sangha, or a collection, of monks whose voices seem to float in harmony on the warm spring air in the recitation of a chant.  The similarity between the two events leaves me with a question. So, I ask my friend, Binh, who is a Buddhist monk , if he is worshipping Buddha when he chants? If not, what is he doing?

Monks never worship Buddha, Susan, but rather they study the Buddha’s teachings by reading them aloud or silently. When monks and Buddhist followers gather at the Buddha’s Hall, they bow to the Buddha and sit down for chanting or meditating. Chanters sometimes use instruments such as a bell, a wooden fish, or  a chime, etc. to add onto the service. The listener or participant feels that the chanting time is a moment to come back to our “true home” – the intrinsic nature of our minds. There is not any action of worshipping in any Buddhist service. Buddhist followers read/chant the teachings out loud with or without musical instruments. The purpose of the chanting is to understand what Buddha taught in the sutras, which are Buddha’s teaching in writings. When we chant the sutras, we have a chance to “water” the good seeds in us. In order to realize our Buddha nature, we need to do good deeds and purify our minds. Reading or chanting the sutras is like cleaning the mirror which is our Buddha nature,   a nature which is already within every sentient being. Buddhist followers do not worship any deity or even Buddha. We study under the guidance of Buddha and we consider Him as a teacher.  We show our respect to the Buddha, but we do not worship him like Christians worship their God.

In any language, there is a word that is used for a person a place or a thing and everyone fixes their mind on to that word for that one person, place or thing.  We need to introduce a new word when a new idea is coming into the language. Worship is a good example of this in the English language. Worship is a word that is used to describe an action in praise and adoration – and this idea is fixed in one’s mind to denote this aspect of their relationship with their creator.

As Binh has explained, the relationship that a monk has with Buddha is significantly different from  relationships with a God whom people adore.  While Christians engage in an act of adoration to their creator through hymns,  Buddhists engage in chants as an act to water the good seeds  lying within us.

Yes, Susan, and we need to understand that if  English speakers use the word worship  when speaking about Buddhism, they are misusing their language.  When we practice Buddhism, we do not use the word worship, but chant. It is my hope  that this lesson makes  this clear to each interested reader.

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