All human cultures employ the voice as a tool for achieving some feelings of unity or transcendence. Often, the subjects are religious in nature, making philosophical claims about the world and reality.
Zen chant is a very powerful form of meditation. Using melody and rhythm through the human voice, our breathing is situated more deeply and the arising and disappearing of conceptual thought is automatically cut off. When chanting, the Zen student not only moves the lips and voice, but reflects back to the source of mind itself: “Who is chanting?” “Who hears this chant?” “Where does this chanting come from?” “What am I?”
So, far from being used to instill religious belief, in Zen chanting we return to our before-thinking mind, before religions and teachings appear. This is our nature and her true nature and his true nature and all beings’ true nature. It has no name, and no form. It cannot be packaged as a religion.
“Why We Chant”, Zen Master Seung Sahn
Perhaps the greatest teaching on the spiritual working of Zen chanting can be found here.
Morning Bell Chant, Zen Master Seung Sahn (c. 1979)
This is the very sound of compassion itself.
The Great Dharani, Sanga together with Zen Master Seung Sahn
A “slower” version of this essential chant, available for together-practice. This version, chanted together with Zen Master Seung Sahn, is absolutely mesmerizing, and a great starter for beginners. (with transcription)
The Great Dharani, Hyon Gak Sunim
Rough-cut version of “The Great Dharani.” This is the chanting speed and intensity of deep-retreat or solo chanting practice.
Om Mani Padme Hum, Hyon Gak Sunim
Chanting this before sitting practice allows the initial dust of thinking to drop away, exposing the no-shadow light of don’t know.
Not chanted in the head, or with the throat, but from the center. The length of the breath is not forced, but is watched, intently, especially at the end. The in-breath is also an important part of the chant. “Who is doing this? Who is doing this?” “What controls this breath?” Wonderful when chanted before intensive yoga practice.