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Why We Sing

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Chamber of Scent and Light manuscript by Master Kuan Pen. Image courtesy of Tung Lin Kok Yuen
Chamber of Scent and Light manuscript by Master Kuan Pen. Image courtesy of Tung Lin Kok Yuen

In managing change, it’s not only important to ask the questions what and how, but also the deep question of why. The why question goes straight to our heart and our mind, challenging the fundamental conceptions and perceptions behind our actions and speech. Even more importantly, it is the means to exert influence and manifest real change beyond oneself—for any change with wholehearted devotion and commitment can inspire sustainable change at an individual and societal level. And one of the most important means of changing people’s minds is through communication, affecting how we think and feel through our senses of vision, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. 

According to the Buddhist teachings, hearing is one of the most sensitive human perceptions. Through the passage of sound, we can appreciate not only meaning but feeling, not only direction but aspiration. An inspirational speech can move mountains and motivate millions, an insulting or divisive tongue can lead to conflict or even war. For bodhisattvas who develop perfections in the deep insights that bring all sentient beings from this shore of suffering to the other shore of sustainable happiness, the essential trainings are the six perfections (Skt: paramita) and four all-embracing virtues (Skt: catu-samgraha-vastu). One of the key virtues relating to sound is affectionate speech (Sanskrit: priya-vadyata), which Thich Nhat Hanh (2012) reinterprets in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings as “True Community and Communication” and “Truthful and Loving Speech.”

The training of “True Community and Communication,” suggests that a “lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech.” Compassionate listening means “listening deeply without judging or reacting,” and loving speech means refraining from “uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break.” Communication is meant to contribute to reconciliation and resolution of conflicts. In the training of “Truthful and Loving Speech,” it suggests that “aware that words can create happiness or suffering, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully, lovingly, and constructively.” Specifically:

We will use only words that inspire joy, confidence, and hope as well as promote reconciliation and peace in ourselves and among people. We will speak and listen in a way that can help ourselves and others to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. (Thich 2012)

The power of voice is demonstrated by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. (Ng 2016) In the Lotus Sutra, the practice of Avalokiteshvara is praised by the Buddha as the “Universal Gateway” because, “In all the worlds of the Ten Directions, there is no place where [Avalokiteshvara] will not manifest himself.” Whenever and wherever people contemplate his name and power,Avalokiteshvara “will immediately perceive their voices and free them from their suffering.” He “wanders through many lands in various forms, and saves sentient beings. . . . [He] bestows fearlessness. . . .” (Kubo and Yuyama 2007). 

While audible sound may not travel far, electromagnetic frequencies can travel across galaxies, light-years away from Earth. Recently, mysterious repetitive strong radio pulses were detected from another galaxy some 3 billion light-years away. It is therefore not impossible to imagine how Avalokiteshvaracould perceive voices from afar. What is difficult to comprehend is the enormous capacity of the bodhisattvato listen to all sentient beings, overcoming differences in physical appearances and form, concepts and ideologies. He could achieve the apparently impossible because he has achieved perfections in compassion, wisdom, and transcendent power—“There are no more obstacles in [the bodhisattvas’] mind, they can overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions, and realize Perfect Nirvana.” (Thich 2014)

One way to overcome obstacles in language and culture is through the universal language of music. In Buddhist practice, chanting is a unique way for multitudes to engage in a practice together, be it in Chinese, English, Pali, Sanskrit, or Tibetan. Very often we may not know the meanings of the scripture but we can follow the community in reciting. We can gather the meaning of the scripture over time, practice accordingly, and gradually integrate the sound with meaning and action. Through chanting, the sound and the rhythm can “soothe a soul, mend a heart, bring together lives that have been torn apart.” (Gilpin 2019) Sound and music can bring us all together, connecting external sound with our inner voice because “music builds a bridge, it can tear down a wall! Music is a language, that can speak to one and all. . . . It is the sound of hope, a sound of peace.” As Gilpin’s lyrics suggest, “This is why we sing!”

The challenge of applying new communication techniques to ancient traditions is not only about the choice of medium and content. Different generations and communities may require different media to express meaning, but we must never forget that the medium is just a skillful means to an end. For Buddhist practice, skillful means directed toward the propagation of the teachings could range from traditional print media, social media, video, music, lectures, meditation, chanting, and so forth. 

The real challenge is also about meeting the end, which is the purification of our mind and the cessation of suffering. When we attempt to apply new methodologies or new approaches in Buddhist practice, we must deeply reflect on why we change. And why we adopt certain skillful means to reach our goals. We must understand whether we manage to adhere to our core objectives, mission, and vision in managing and communicating change.

References

Gilpin, Greg. Why We Sing. Accessed 1 March 2019.http://resources.encoretours.com/backstage-blog/why-do-we-sing 

Kubo, Tsugunari and Arika Yuyama, trans. 2007. “The Gateway to Every Direction [Manifested by Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara].” In The Lotus Sutra (translated from the Chinese of Taishō Volume 9, Number 262 of Kumārajiva), 2nd ed., 301. Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. 

Ng, CHE. 2016. “The Terror of Wrong Views.” TSM Magazine 6: 36-37. Accessed 1 March 2019. https://www.tszshan.org/home/new/uploads/publication_doc/TSM_06_ebook.pdf 

Thich Nhat Hanh. 2012. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Plum Village. Accessed 1 March 2019. https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-14-mindfulness-trainings/ 

Thich Nhat Hanh. Trans. 2014. “The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.” Translated from The Heart Sutra. Accessed 2 August 2016. http://plumvillage.org/wpcontent/uploads/2014/09/2014-Thich-Nhat-Hanh-New-Heart-Sutraletter-cc.pdf 

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