Thursday, January 21, 2010


I have read a really fascinating and enlightening new academic article by Mark W. McLeod called 'The Way of the Mendicants'. If you can get it at all (it might be available on-line through your library) it is well worth reading, as it as an absolutely unique contribution to Vietnamese and Buddhist studies, and the first thing of its kind to appear in the English language. Mr. McLeod humbles me with his erudition and excellent knowledge of the Vietnamese language, religion and culture.
The article is about the Tang Gia Khat Si, an indigenous Vietnamese Buddhist Order that I was involved with for many years, and who are referred to in passing in Destination Saigon. Reading it, I was reminded of the many hours I have spent chanting with a Buddhist congregation, either in Vietnam or here in Australia.
In popular Vietnamese Buddhist practice, chanting is seen to be the premier obligation of the committed lay-Buddhist, along with the observation of vegetarianism and the recitation of the Buddha's name. Chanting sessions take place each night in Buddhist pagodas, and in Vietnam they can be quite heavily attended. The lay people (invariably women, middle-aged or older) wear loose grey robes to signify their status as serious practitioners, and they manage to remain fit and nimble well into old age through the physical rigours involved with regular chanting.
You see, and average chanting session lasts for over an hour, during which devotees are seated directly on hard tiled floors, reading from the sutras kept open on special little wooden stands. It's not one long sit, however - there are also long periods of kneeling, and sections where you have to stand up and prostrate yourself on the floor over and over again. It's a regular work out.
Even more difficult are the days of sam hoi, or repentance. These days - preceding the sabbath days of the full and new moons - are when Buddhists should recall their faults and sins and renounce them. The accompanying ceremony is exhausting, involving a whopping 108 prostrations whle chanting the names of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. By the end everyone is in a lather of sweat, particularly on hot Saigon nights.
Chanting as a spiritual discipline is interesting, because it relies on the power of sound and the hypnotic effects of group recitation and repetition. In general the scriptures being chanted (invariably a chapter of the Lotus Sutra, plus extras) are a combination of meaningless mantra and difficult-to-understand Sino-Vietnamese, so the act of chanting is not really an intellectual process.

No comments: