Hal Atwood explores the meaning and use of sound in Buddhist practice.
Sounds — such as mantras and the ringing of bells — have always been part of Buddhist practice. Sound can rouse contemplative action and conjure diligent focus. It is powerful, but also fleeting. Constant in its impermanence, it can be a reminder that this moment is just that — only a moment.
Reciting a mantra may seem easy, but it takes discipline. We count the repetitions and strive to master the pronunciation, all while paying attention to the essence of the mantra. We may be chanting in another language, words awkwardly rolling off our tongues, but nonetheless, the sounds contain a distinct meaning and purpose.
For hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha, Buddhism was solely an oral tradition, dependent on sound to pass from one generation to the next. The tantric yogi and poet Milarepa taught his students about impermanence, meditation, and enlightenment through song. In many images, Milarepa is portrayed with his head cocked and a hand cupped to his ear, listening with his whole body. Sound, ancient and ubiquitous, urges us to remember what we often forget. Reverberating off the walls of history, the ring of a bell acts as a humble reminder that this sound has existed longer than any one of us.This ringing, which has brought calm to countless minds, can remind us of our interconnectedness.
The articles below look at the role of sound in Buddhism. Sound can motivate our spiritual practice and bring us together, like monks gathering to chant at dawn. And, of course, there is silence, the space in which sound exists, much like inner stillness is the space in which thoughts are perceived.
If the dharma can speak through the medium of sound, then each of us, as practitioners, must learn to listen with our whole body.
—Hal Atwood, editorial assistant, Lion’s Roar magazine
The Power of Sound
Shinso Ito, the head of the Shinnyo-en school of Buddhism, explains the role of bells and chanting in Shinnyo practice.
When we practice chanting as a form of meditative prayer, offering it with our whole being, we absorb within ourselves both the sound and energy of the wisdom and compassion imbued in the mantra. The melodic chanting allows us to awaken to and enhance our own abilities so that each living person can cultivate their inner wisdom and act with compassion in their interactions with others.
What Does the Bardo Sound Like?
Forty years ago, Éliane Radigue synthesized The Tibetan Book of the Dead into a sonic masterpiece.
When it comes to Buddhist art, we often first think visually: Buddha statues, Himalayan thangkas, Zen calligraphy. But sound has always been key to Buddhism — an oral tradition, primarily, for hundreds of years — from spontaneous poets like Milarepa to musical mantra chanting and Tibetan throat singers. With her Trilogie de la Mort, French electronic composer Éliane Radigue created a modern masterpiece of dharma-infused sound.
The Sound of Silence
Ajahn Amaro explains how to practice nada yoga and why this simple act of listening to inner sound can help you realize emptiness.
While focusing on the inner sound, recollect that the world is in your mind: “My body and the world are here in this space of awareness, permeated with the sound of silence.” This will eventually bring about a shift of vision. You will find your body, your mind, and the world arriving at a resolution — a realization of orderly perfection in which the world is balanced within the heart of vibrant silence.