Perceive Universal Sound
This interview was first printed in The American Theosophist, May 1985 and was reprinted with permission in Primary Point, volume 5, number 3 (November 1988).
American Theosophist: What is Zen chanting?
Zen Master Seung Sahn: Chanting is very important in our practice. We call it “chanting meditation.” Meditation means keeping a not-moving mind. The important thing in chanting meditation is to perceive the sound of one’s own voice; not hear, but perceive.
AT: Are you using the word “perceive” in a special sense?
ZMSS: Yes. Perceiving your voice means perceiving your true self or true nature. Then you and the sound are never separate, which means that you and the whole universe are never separate. Thus, to perceive our true nature is to perceive universal substance.
With regular chanting, our sense of being centered will get stronger. When we are strongly centered we can control our feelings, and thus our condition and situation.
AT: When you refer to a “center” do you mean any particular point in the body?
ZMSS: No, it is not just one point. To be strongly centered is to be at one with the universal center, which means infinite time and infinite space.
The first time one tries chanting meditation there will be much confused thinking, many likes, dislikes, and so on. This indicates that the whole mind is outwardly-oriented. Therefore, it is necessary first to return to one’s energy source, to return to a single point.
AT: In other words, one must first learn to concentrate?
ZMSS: Yes. Below the navel we have a center that is called an “energy garden” in Korean. We eat, we breathe, and this area becomes a source of power. If the mind becomes still, this saves energy. The mind, however, is constantly restless. There is an endless stream of desires for various kinds of experience: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings. This turning outward of the mind in search of sensory experience dissipates one’s energy until finally there is nothing left in the energy garden. Thereby one becomes subject to control by outside conditions or influences, and so loses control over his or her life.
For this reason, our meditation practice means: do not think anything. In other words, do not use your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. By doing this our center gets stronger and stronger, and there is an experience of growing clarity.
AT: How does Zen chanting differ, if at all, from the recitation of mantras?
ZMSS: In mantra practice there is no (audible) sound. It is only internal. One merely concentrates on repeating the mantra to oneself. In chanting, on the other hand, we chant out loud in a group and just perceive the sound of our voice.
When we talk about perceiving sound during chanting we mean having a clear mind. This is different from a mind that can be lost, and also different from a one-pointed mind.
For example, consider two people having a good time together, enjoying each other’s company, laughing, feeling good and so forth. Suddenly a man appears with a gun and demands money. Instantly the good feeling evaporates and there is only fear and distress. “Somebody please help! Don’t shoot!” The mind, the centeredness is completely lost.
But suppose that a person is walking in the street concentrating on a mantra with a one-pointed mind. Then if a man appears with a gun and demands money there will be only om mani padme hum or whatever. “Hey, are you crazy! I said give me your money.” Then there is still only om mani padme hum.