Lotus Buddhism / Meditation and Chanting: What are the merits of Chanting?

Meditation and Chanting:
What are the merits of Chanting?

Safwan Darshams

The two practices of Buddhism: Meditation and Chanting

Buddhist practice aims at revealing the highest state of life, the Buddhanature. There are two ways of Buddhist practice: one is silent meditation, the other is chanting.

Silent meditation was the dominant practice in various Buddhist traditions for hundreds of years. Meditation was extensively performed daily over many hours by monks in temples and retreats. Monks - with no family, social or work obligations - could afford the time for lengthy silent contemplation. For the majority of ordinary people, heavily engaged with daily hardships - meditation was impractical, especially for women with family obligations.

According to Mahayana teachings preached before the Lotus Sutra, revealing one’s Buddhanature requires meditation and gradual engagement in Bodhisattva’s practice spread over many lifetimes. Mediation is not a direct path to enlightenment in this lifetime.

Some Buddhist traditions mixed the practice of meditation with reciting sutras and chanting mantras. The practice of chanting the name of “Buddha Amida” was widely spread in Japan, however, the focus of the mantra “Namu Amida Butsu” was on attaining salvation after death in a “Pure Land”, and not attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime.

The practice of chanting as a direct spiritual path to enlightenment in this lifetime was popularised in 13th century Japan by a reformist priest, Nichiren (whose appearance coincided with the concept of the Later Day of the Law, predicting a new phase of Buddhist practice).

According to Nichiren, meditation was the practice of the past, suited to Pre-Lotus teachings, in which the Universal Law (Myoho Renge Kyo) was not yet revealed. With the declaration of the Law in the Lotus teachings, the relevant practice aimed at attaining enlightenment becomes: the fusion (Namu) of the individual with the ultimate Law (Myoho-Renge-Kyo) - as this fusion or devotion is the direct path leading to experiencing the benefit of enlightenment in this lifetime.

The shift in Buddhist practice from meditation to chanting:

Nichiren practiced meditation for 20 years of his practice and study in various temples. He noted that the Lotus Sutra was the only teaching that offered the possibility of the “direct path to enlightenment “ - and for this reason Nichiren arrived to the conclusion that: the process of revealing one’s Buddhanature must be then based on the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.

The concept of attaining the highest state of spirituality is known to be the effect of the fusion of the subjective (individual) and the objective (the ultimate). According to the Lotus Sutra, the Universal Law of Life (or the Dharma) is encoded in the words Myoho-Renge-Kyo (The Mystic Law of Cause and Effect). The fusion of the life of the individual with the Law is expressed by the desire for devotion - which is encoded by the Sanskrit word (Namu).

The phrase of Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo : expresses the oneness of the subjective aspect of the practitioner and the objective truth of reality. Thus, NamMyohoRengeKyo is a phrase that encodes the state of enlightenment to the truth of life.

Chanting is a conscious action aimed at reviving the state of enlightenment (Buddhanature) - which is a potential within the subconscious mind of any person. Chanting is an action that unites the conscious mind with the depth of the subconsciousness. Consequently, the conscious mind (with all its contents of daily reality and hardships) experiences the field of Buddhanature with inner harmony, clarity of thinking and empowerment. Empowerment is important for taking action aimed at transformation of one’s reality into that of desired solutions and benefit (for self-&-others).

Meditation does not lead to Enlightenment in this lifetime

All meditation-based schools of Mahayana Buddhism consider attaining Buddhahood a journey of many lifetimes.

A remarkable example in this regard offers the experience of Tenzin Palmo, a Tibetan nun of British origin, who practiced meditation in a cave for 12 hours a day for 3 years (as mentioned in page 119 of her experience book Cave in the Snow) - but finally she said that:


“I’ve hardly even started. There are a lot more barriers
I have to break through in my mind.
You see, a flash is not enough.
You have to repeat and repeat until the realisations are
stabilized in your mind. That’s why it takes so long -
twelve years, twenty five years, a lifetime,
several lifetimes”. (page 207)

According to Nichiren, the mentioned statement of “lifetime after lifetime” practice is the result of belief in the provisional teachings, and not the final teaching of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren explained such a lengthy (and unproven practice) - is a futile way of practicing Buddhism:

“No expedient or provisional teaching lead directly to enlightenment,
and without the direct path to enlightenment you cannot attain Buddhahood,
even if you practice lifetime after lifetime
for countless kalpas” WND1 p3

In a further statement, the Tibetan nun reaffirms the implication in her statement that meditation is not the practice that can lead her personally as a woman - to enlightenment:

“The monks were kind, and I had no problems of sexual harassment or troubles of that sort,
but of course I was unfortunately within a female form.
They actually told me that they prayed that in my next life I would have the good fortune
to be born as a male so that I could join in all the monastery’s activities.” Page 155

Beliefs in such limitations for attaining enlightenment in one’s present form and in one’s present lifetime - are abolished in Nichiren Buddhism:

“If you wish to free yourself from the sufferings of birth and death ….
and attain unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime,
you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings.
This truth [Dharma] is Myoho-renge-kyo.
Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you
to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life”. WND1 p3

The importance of voice in spiritual practice

Chanting is using one’s voice in self-empowerment to experience the highest state of mind.

It is a practice that harmonises the physical and mental aspects of the individual.

Chanting automatically optimises the flow of breathing and the rhythm of heartbeat - and it creates a feeling of harmony of the body & mind.

One’s voice carries within its physical vibrations the mental aspect of meaning and emotions. Through using one’s voice in chanting – the three elements of “body-mind-spirit” are integrated.

Limitations of the practice of meditation

There is no benefit of meditation that cannot be experienced through chanting. The practice of chanting can be carried out by any person in any situation in daily life. Consequently, chanting gained wide acceptance among ordinary people.

Another difference between chanting and meditation concerns the approach towards the bodily senses. Silent meditation is focused on the mind. Focus on the mind involves a certain degree of control over the bodily senses (sight and hearing). Chanting, on the other hand, makes use of these bodily senses (the eyes are open, the sound is heard). Engagement of the senses (the physical aspect) is necessary for experiencing the state of awakening in one’s current reality, body and mind.

With the senses open for perception, chanting enables mindfulness and direct connection with one’s surroundings. Group chanting in particular is quite powerful and uniting. The common harmonious sound vibration of group chanting is empowering, integrating self and surrounding environment.

Despite that various Buddhist schools - such as Zen - employ silent meditation, however, in his book “Introduction to Zen” - Dr. D.T. Suzuki, viewed meditation as “unnatural practice to human beings”:


“To meditate, one has to fix his thought on something;
for instance, on the oneness of God, or his infinite love,
or on the impermanence of things.
But this is the very thing Zen desires to avoid.

Meditation is something artificially put on;
it does not belong to the native activity of the mind…
Who wants to be arrested in the daily manifestations
of his life-activity by such meditations… “ (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.41)

Chanting and the fusion of “Subjective and Objective” aspects of existence

The main focus of meditation is centered on the subjective mind, while chanting expresses the fusion of the subjective mind (Chi) and objective reality (Kyo).

The mantra of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo represents the fusion of the “subjective and objective”, because ‘Nam’ represents the subjective aspect of person’s determination seeking enlightenment (or devotion) - while ‘Myoho-Renge-Kyo’ is the objective reality of life (or the Dharma, the Universal Law of Cause and Effect).

“The blessings and wisdom of the objective and subjective worlds are immeasurable.
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo has these two elements of blessings and wisdom. OTT p. 218

In the phrase of chanting, the character (Namu) is related to the individual’s devotion or the state of life of the microcosm - while (Myoho Renge Kyo) is the Mystic Law , the macrocosm or the life of the universe. Chanting unifies the microcosm and the macrocosm.