An Elemental Experience of Chanting



Illustration by Roberta Sisson

Working recently with the elements within meditation practice, the mind was further drawn to investigate possible connections between the elements and the practice of chanting.

Preceding the practice with the threefold introductory homage to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha offers an opportunity to connect with the Earth as a starting point, producing the sense of being firmly rooted. The image of a rock or mountain, or an oak or beech tree may come to mind following the thrice-repeated simple act of inclining one’s hands or bowing towards the ground. The sound also seems to possess an earthy quality, and to resonate and travel towards the base.

The three refuges seem to deepen the earth contact, while the five precepts bring the flowing quality of water, like a shower permeating the body and cleansing the mind in preparation for meditation practice.

Another chant that brings to mind the Earth-Water combination is the Mettasutta. At the earth base, there are the “upright” and “straight- forward” mind and body, balanced by the watery qualities of “gentle speech” and of being “humble, not conceited.” Again, the water element has a purifying function: any wish to act in a harmful way, or to exclude any being from the field of loving-kindness, is washed away. Air and fire then come into life as the warmth of the wish for all beings to be well and happy gathers strength and expands, travelling far and wide through the air. When the four elements are aroused and balanced in this way, they provide an energised but, at the same time, tranquil opening for the practice to follow.

Reflecting on The Buddhamangalagatha, one again senses firstly the Earth at the centre. Here, we find the historical connection with the Buddha at the heart of the Dhamma brought into contact with the essential Buddha-nature of all beings. The eight Arahats guard the directions and the breath of the chanting travels outwards then returns to the centre – buoyed up by the energy gathered in by the air. There is a feeling of heat increasing gently, flowing around the body in response to the recollection of the eight enlightened beings. The melodious sound quality of the Buddhamangalagatha evokes a sense of warm water flowing, suffusing a strong sense of the calm and protection offered by this chant.

In the Twenty-eight Buddhas chant, we find another example of the fire element. Energy is raised as each of the Buddhas is acknowledged. Stability at the base is maintained by the contact with the ground, while the power of this strong Chant appears to generate a heat within. This has the effect of arousing both mind and body, first introducing and then increasing strength and confidence within them, and providing the energy needed to proceed into meditation practice.

It is possible examine the experience of many different chants in this way, and to notice the elements with which they appear to connect. It is interesting to investigate whether and how those elemental qualities, once aroused, may affect the ensuing practice. One may also ask if the experience of chanting before a sitting practice is different to that of chanting afterwards. What, if any, are the effects? Are they beneficial? This may lead to a clearer appreciation of which chants are useful to our practice, and when. One may well find that this, like all things, changes over time. As always, this is an individual journey for each person to explore.

May these reflections be useful for the journey and bring wellbeing!