Sacred Sounds in Baton Rouge
By Maureen Loughran as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.
Vietnamese Buddhist Chant
Another community with an equally ancient tradition of chant is the Vietnamese Buddhist community in Baton Rouge. Like with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Buddhist traditional liturgy involves an almost seamless flow of chant throughout the service. The congregation participates in the service by chanting, bowing, praying silently, and listening attentively to the priest during the Dharma talk. In Baton Rouge, a large community of Vietnamese Buddhist worshipers attend the Tam Bo Meditation Temple, where the practice is focused on a Zen Buddhist tradition. While the majority of those who attend the temple are Vietnamese, there are also many Westerners who are able to follow the liturgy through the aid of translation via wireless headphones. Another member of the congregation simultaneously translates the service for those without the Vietnamese language.
The temple is located within a large compound, beautifully landscaped with flowering plants and trees, and situated alongside a courtyard shaded by large live oak trees, from which hang large metal wind chimes. After a Sunday service, the congregation gathers in the courtyard to eat a vegetarian lunch and visit with the monks at the temple. The atmosphere on a Sunday is warm and welcoming. The congregation, also known as the sanga, meets at various times in smaller groups throughout the week, but just like other religious institutions in Baton Rouge, Sunday morning is dedicated to the largest gathering of those who attend the temple each week.
Before the service, members will slowly take their place on the floor, sitting on a round cushion and placed before them, a wooden book holder on which are two books containing the chants, songs and order of service for the temple. The liturgy begins with the ringing of a large bell right outside the door to the temple, alerting stragglers that the service is soon to start. A group of chanters, dressed in grey robes, sit at the front of the temple facing the congregation, and begin a series of chants. The title and page number of the chant is announced, usually in Vietnamese and sometimes in English, and the congregation is encouraged to sing along.
Behind the chanters is the altar space where the Abbot sits, and behind the abbot is a large stone statue of the Buddha. On either side of the altar are two instruments that are played by a designated chanter at specific times during the service. One is a large brass bowl, the chong gia tri that acts like a bell and is both struck and dampened on its rim. It is used to highlight specific moments when the congregation changes to a new chant or shifts to a new part of the ceremony. The second instrument used in the service is a large wooden drum, which is shaped like a fish. One of the chanters will use a large mallet to strike the drum on its dome-like top, usually during the recitation of sutras. The drum is used in a portion of the service when chanting takes on a very deliberate speed, with the drum inciting a faster rhythm to the chant. Before the service begins, however, the speed is slower, and the chants are each led by different members of the chanting group facing the congregation.
Thich Dao Quang, the Abbot of the Tam Bao Temple, explained that the service structure for a typical Sunday as such:
Usually, this is our life, the structure of the Sunday service. I start at 11:30 am Louisiana time. I like to be on time, by inviting the whole sanga, the whole community to sit down and quiet their mind within 10 minutes. And then stand up, we prostration three times. We show love and respect to the Buddha, Dharma and Sanga. Buddha the founder of Buddhism. Dharma, his teaching, teaching of love and compassion. And Sanga, the community in which everyone practice living in peace and happiness. Then, depends, for example, beginning a new service or repentance service, so the chanting is emphasizing about everyone makes mistakes but then everyone has potential to learn lessons from his or her mistakes and move on and make their life better, . . . And also following fifteen minutes chanting maximum, then I prepare a short lesson or sermon you call, or dharma talk within 40 minutes. And the themes of every Sunday depends on what's going on. It's not about what I like to teach but what's going on in the community. And I think that is the most appropriate topic for the community. For example, on this Sunday, I have a thought to offer for the dharma talk, "How to transform the negative karma into positive karma." And following the service, after the dharma talk, people stay together, enjoy the community lunch and do the community work. I see that this is the best way to enrich the brotherhood and sisterhood of the community. So that is the typical service on Sunday. (Quang 2016)
As the Abbot explains, the chanting during the service has a direct connection to the topic of that day's lesson and also to the general teachings of Buddhism. The basis of the chanting comes from different main texts within the religion, which are called sutras. These are the teachings of the Buddha and are chanted during specific times within the service. The sutras are known by names like the Heart sutra, the Lotus sutra, and the Diamond sutra. For the Abbot, he chooses a sutra for the service that will fit with the main theme he will be reflecting upon during the service. Another chant present in the service are mantras, which are short sequences of chant that are recited to encourage meditation. Mindfulness is an important part of the practice and chanting is used as a tool for gaining "bright attention." The Abbot, in particular, mentioned that there is a structure to chant which aids in the attainment of mindfulness. Quang explained it this way:
Phase One, or Part One, you may say that, you're accepting your weaknesses. Second part, this is understanding the weaknesses, if you're not transformed, create more weaknesses in your life, in the community, in the society. So the second part is promises to transform your negative behavior, actions and so forth. The third part is that you believe in yourself. That you have a self confidence that you can do it. You can transform it and then you promise you can contribute back and help the community. That's the powers in all the chanting here I pick. And sometimes I emphasize on the concept of compassion, so all the chanting is become compassion with yourself, compassion with the others, and compassion with all things in your life so that you can get more benefit and also create the good merit.
Chant also has a function outside of the temple service, especially as it is used as a tool for creating good merit. Brother Fred Van, a young monk at the Temple, explained that chanting gives you positive energy and helps you keep mindful in situations outside the temple walls. The important focus is not on memorizing words and reciting them in a mechanical way, but instead a focus on the meaning of the words will bring centeredness and reflection to aid in any situation. As Brother Fred shared:
When you chant with your whole heart, just like singing a song and you understand what the music means and you put your whole heart into it, and the meaning of what you are chanting, like what I just went through, invoking the name of Buddha. If you understand when you are chanting deeply and are full of peace, full of love and full of energy, it brings, it nourish the wholesomeness, that good seed in yourself. It's like, yes I have the ability and today I'm going to conduct my life in that way. It's just a reminder. And when we are going through difficulties in our life, those chants, those evoking certain mantras or certaingathas, it helps remind us, "Ok, let's come back to my breathing. Let's come to my understanding and have compassion for this person." And we do that daily, just like music. If you could just sing that one song that connects with you and awakens you in that moment. (Van 2016)
While the chant helps to awaken the chanter through the words of the chant, the language of the chant can be an impediment, not only in the style of the language but also the terminology. At the Tam Bao Meditation Temple, Modern Vietnamese is the main language used by thesanga. However, many of the original religious texts, themantras and the gathas(verses used to help breathing in meditation), used more ancient forms of the language. According to the Abbot, these ancient languages are an impediment to understanding for a modern congregation. But the adaptations he makes in the texts not only focus on the language, but also on the content. He shared an example of Buddhist monks who cited the holy River Ganges in India as a specific symbol. The Abbot felt that the resonance of the example would be lost with such a foreign and unknown river used as the important metaphor. His solution was to make the example closer to home, "But how many people here know about the Ganges River? So I just say Mississippi River--that is the language I may prefer." By making these kind of adaptations, the tradition is allowed to continue with resonances that connect the congregation to the lived reality of their everyday lives.
Chanting takes place within other services at the temple, including a special gathering that is called the Forty-Nine day service. At Tam Bao temple, this service is celebrated 49 days following the death of a member of the congregation. That member's family will request the service in order to show respect and love to the spirit of their loved one in the wake of their passing. Quang considers the Forty-Nine day service to be a important part of the grieving process and a way to "transform negative emotions." The family, along with the monks, will meet at a section of the temple dedicated to the ancestors, prior to the Sunday service. The service includes a short period of chanting, during which time the family reflects on their deceased family member. Then, the family will join the sanga for the usual Sunday service, which, in a way, allows them to knit themselves back into the fabric of the congregation. Again, the chant in the different services acts as prayer and the prayer brings attention and mindfulness both to the individual and the community.
In all of these conversations about chant and recitation, the use of the term "music" seemed a clumsy way to talk about sacred language and sacred sounds. In Islamic tradition, there is a complete division between music and recitation. Music is secular, while recitation is sacred. There are musical elements in recitation, but these elements are not conceived of as musical by those who recite. Likewise, in the Buddhist tradition, musical elements are part of the experience of chanting, but chant is not considered to be music. The Abbot at Tam Bao temple reflected on the issue:
"When we borrow the language, when we say chanting, different people come from different culture, background, they may have a different perception. But from my personal experience, I can see that chanting is the spiritual food. We need it. Even I practice by myself. I feel that I have a more positive energy after I practice seated meditation and short chanting in the morning. [It] promotes me, motivates me to overcome all obstacles in life. It motivates me to continue my dissertation research! So for me, if you truly understand the language of chanting, that's the powerful spiritual tool you should carry even when you stuck in traffic. Instead of worry, [it is a] great opportunity to chant."