Chanting the Sutras

Chanting the Sutras

Chanting scriptures and prayers to buddhas and bodhisattvas is a central practice in all streams of Buddhism, intended both to reflect upon content and to focus the mind.



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Chanting is part of the practice of most streams of the Buddhist tradition. Theravada monks and Euro-American practitioners chant portions of the Buddhist scriptures in Pali. Practitioners of the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition also chant, and some of the monks are skilled in the multi-tonal chord chanting distinctive to that tradition. In America, Korean Son practitioners chant the Heart Sutra and other scriptures in Korean and, increasingly, in English. Chanting is not so much a way of reflecting upon the content of the scriptures as it is a way of concentrating and focusing the mind.

The Pure Land traditions practice the devotional recitation of the Buddha’s name. Traditional Chinese Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes three elements of Buddhist life as being essential for rebirth in the Pure Land: faith, vows, and chanting the Buddha’s name. The Pure Land to which the faithful refer is a realm in which the Buddha Amitabha (in Chinese, Emituo Fo), literally “Infinite Light,” resides. To be reborn in the Pure Land can mean rebirth in that realm after one’s physical death, or it can mean rebirth here and now into a pure mind. Practitioners of Pure Land Buddhism have faith that chanting the name of the Buddha will bestow upon them the grace and blessing of rebirth into the Pure Land.

Today the chanting of Amitabha’s name can be heard in Pure Land Chinese temples, such as the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. There are special early morning chanting services on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month when all the monks and nuns walk slowly in serpentine procession around the Buddha Hall chanting:


In Japanese Pure Land temples, such as those of the “True Pure Land” or Jodo Shinshu tradition, the chanting of the name of Amida is also central. The recitation is understood as an expression of gratitude for the grace of Amida Buddha. These Japanese Buddhists, whose many temples are linked together by the national Buddhist Churches of America organization, are among the earliest Buddhist immigrants to the United States, and are now in their fourth and fifth generations. In their temples in San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, or New York one will hear the recitation in Japanese:


Chanting is also central to the Japanese Nichiren tradition, represented most vibrantly in the United States by the Soka Gakkai International (formerly Nichiren Shoshu of America). The many adherents of this tradition recite the name of its most sacred scripture, the Lotus Sutra (in Japanese Myoho Renge Kyo), which emphasizes the universality of Buddha nature and the unity of all Buddhist teachings. The SGI traces its roots to the Japanese monk, Nichiren (1222 – 1282 CE), who argued that it is not necessary to read and reflect on the whole of the Lotus Sutra, but that salvation is assured to those who recite but the name of this powerful scripture with reverence:


Chanting forms the basis for both the community practice of the Nichiren Buddhists and their individual daily practice before the gohonzon, a mandala inscribed with the characters of this powerful name and enshrined on each member’s home altar.

Additional Content

Students from the Kwan Um School of Zen, Cambridge Zen Centers, and International Zen Center of New York perform the Maha Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra. This version of the Heart Sutra was translated into English by the students of the Kwan Um School of Zen, an international organization with headquarters in Cumberland, Rhode Island, and is a frequent component of their daily chanting schedule.

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Words of the Maha Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra:
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita perceives that all five skandhas are empty and is saved from all suffering and distress.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease. Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feelings, perceptions, impulses, consiousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind, no realm of eyes, and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness. No ignorance, and also no extinction of it, and so forth until no old age and death and also no extinction of them. No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.
The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in Nirvana.
In the three worlds all Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.
Therefore, know that Prajna Paramita is the great transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra, which is able to relieve all suffering and is true, not false. So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:
gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.
gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.
gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.
gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.