The two practices of Buddhism:

Meditation and Chanting

Buddhist practice aims at revealing the highest state of life, the Buddhanature.  There are two ways of Buddhist practice: one is silent meditation, the other is verbal chanting.

Silent meditation was the dominant practice in various Buddhist traditions for hundreds of years.  Meditation was extensively performed daily over many hours by monks in temples and retreats.  Monks has no family or social obligations and could afford the time sitting in silent contemplation. For the majority of ordinary people, however, meditation was not an easy daily practice - as it required special conditions of quite surroundings and relatively lengthy duration of time.  Meditation was impractical to many men and women heavily engaged with daily hardships, but there was another worrying matter about meditation, namely that it did not promise a direct path to enlightenment in this lifetime.

According to Mahayana Pre-Lotus teachings, revealing one’s Buddhanature requires meditation and gradual engagement in Bodhisattva’s practice spread over of many lifetimes.  This was the way of Buddhist practice during the past periods of development of Buddhism (the Former and Middle Day of the Law).

Some traditions mixed the practice of meditation with reciting sutras and chanting mantras, but the focus on chanting - as the spiritual path to enlightenment - was particularly popularised in 13th century Japan by a reformist priest, Nichiren (whose appearance coincided with the concept of the Later Day of the Law in Buddhism). 

According to Nichiren, meditation was the practice of the past, chanting is the correct practice of the present - leading to experiencing the benefit of enlightenment in this lifetime.

The shift in Buddhist practice from meditation to chanting:

Nichiren practiced meditation for 20 years of his practice and study in various temples.  He noted that the Lotus Sutra was the only teaching that offered the possibility of the “direct path to enlightenment “ - and for this reason Nichiren arrived to the conclusion that: the process of revealing one’s Buddhanature must be then based on the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra. 

The direct path to Buddhahood, is realised in the desire of devotion of the individual - or fusion with the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.   Fusion with or devotion is encoded by the Sanskrit word (Namu), while the totality of the Lotus Sutra was encoded by the phrase (MyohoRengeKyo).  Hence, the phrase of NamuMyohoRengeKyo  -  expressing the state of inner harmony (Nam) and fusion with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, or the Dharma being the truth of the the Law of Life.  NamMyohoRengeKyo is a phrase that encodes the state of enlightenment to the truth of life.

Chanting is a conscious action aimed at reviving the state of enlightenment (Buddhanature) - which is a potential within the subconscious mind.  Chanting unites the consciousness with the subconsciousness.  The physical vibrations of voice express the “awareness of the individual” of the enlightened aspect of mind (Buddhanature).  Consequently, the conscious mind (with all its issues and hardships) experiences clarity and higher energy of the Buddhanature, empowering the individual to take action for transformation of one’s reality into that of value, wisdom, compassion and benefit for self-&-others.

Meditation does not lead to Enlightenment in this lifetime

If one’s Buddhanature is inherent within one’s current life - then why would one practice many lifetimes to reveal it?  While the Buddhanature is a “potential awaiting realisation” -  then a powerful enough practice should be capable of directly revealing this potential state in this lifetime. However, all meditation-based schools of Buddhism considered that attaining Buddhahood takes many lifetimes, a clear declaration that meditation does not lead directly to enlightenment in one lifetime.

Referring to “many lifetimes of practice” means that meditation does not lead to Buddhahood in this lifetime.  One of the remarkable example of Tibetan Buddhism dedicated practice of meditation is the experience of the nun Tenzin Palmo, who practiced meditation in a cave for 12 hours a day for 3 years (as mentioned in page 119 of her experience book Cave in the Snow) - but finally she said that:

         “I’ve hardly even started.  There are a lot more barriers

           I have to break through in my mind. 

           You see, a flash is not enough.

           You have to repeat and repeat until the realisations are        

           stabilized in your mind.  That’s why it takes so long -

           twelve years, twenty five years, a lifetime,

           several lifetimes”(page 207, Cave in the Snow).

The mentioned statement of “lifetime after lifetime” practice is derived from provisional Pre-Lotus teachings.  Nichiren explained such a lengthy and unproven practice - is a futile way of practicing Buddhism:

        “No expedient or provisional teaching lead directly to enlightenment,

        and without the direct path to enlightenment you cannot attain Buddhahood,

        even if you practice lifetime after lifetime

        for countless kalpasWND1 p3

Relying on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren devised the practice of chanting for revealing one’s Buddhanature in this lifetime.   In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha revealed the Dharma as the “Wonderful law of the Lotus”, or “Myoho-Renge-Kyo”. In this perspective, the Buddhanature emerges through one’s state of devotion (Namu) or harmony with the Dharma (Myoho-Renge-Kyo).

        If you wish to ....attain unsurpassed enlightenment in this lifetime,

        you must perceive the mystic truth that is originally inherent in all living beings.

        This truth [Dharma] is Myoho-renge-kyo.

        Chanting Myoho-renge-kyo will therefore enable you

        to grasp the mystic truth innate in all life”. WND1 p3

Exclusiveness of Meditation

Meditation has undeniably its domain of benefit, relaxing the body and enhancing wellbeing       -  but all benefits of meditation are accessible in a more efficient, more practical and deeper practice of chanting.  The spiritual practice employing voice is far reaching.

Excluding voice from spiritual practice raises serious questions. Voice is the most natural activity of all people. Rituals of all indigenous religions involve hymn-chanting.  Rhythmic invocation (which were performed by groups of worshipers) of praise for the natural powers of life - provided also the medium for uniting the people performing the chanting and enhancing the perception of interconnectedness.

Silent meditation is based on disbelief that voice (or chanting) can be a vehicle for expressing the truth of life.  Denying that sutras, words or voice can present the truth - is most met in Zen and its reliance of silent meditation.  This perspective is based on dualistic understanding of phenomena.  Voice is an expression of Nonduality, because it integrates the physical and mental aspect of the individual: it is physical in form and mental in contents, expressing both meaning and emotions of the mind. 

Meditation’s primary focus is on the mental aspect of the individual’s mind.  On the other hand, the essence of chanting is based on the oneness of both mental and physical aspects.  Nichiren explains that the mantra Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo expresses the reality of the ‘Middle Way’, in which both aspects emerge :

        Myo is the name given to the mystic nature of life, and Ho, to its manifestations.

        Renge, which means lotus flower, is used to symbolize the wonder of this Law.

        If we understand that our life at this moment is Myo,

        then we will also understand that our life at other moments is the Mystic Law.

        This realization is the mystic Kyo, or sutra. The Lotus Sutra is the direct path

        to enlightenment,

        for it explains that the entity of our life, which manifests either good or evil at each moment,

        is in fact the entity of the Mystic Law.

        If you chant myoho-renge-kyo with deep faith in this principle, you are certain to attain

        Buddhahood in this lifetime”. WND1 p3

Limitations of the practice of meditation

Obviously, silent meditation was not a practical way of practice for all people, especially those heavily engaged in a busy life (such as farmers, mothers...).  On the other hand, the practice of chanting can be carried out by any person in any situation in daily life, and it consequently gained a wide acceptance among ordinary people of all ages and gender.

Another difference between chanting and meditation concerns the approach towards the bodily senses.  Silent meditation is focused on the mind and its process involves a certain degree of control over the bodily senses (sight and hearing).  Chanting, on the other hand, makes use of these bodily senses (the eyes are open, the sound is heard, the bodily senses are engaged). 

With the senses open for perception, chanting enables direct connection with one’s surrounding (especially with the people around in group chanting).  The effect of a common harmonious sound vibration of group chanting is very empowering and integrates self and surrounding environment.  Engagement of body’s senses during chanting expresses the desire of seeking enlightenment in one’s current form: with the physical reality of the body as important in the process as the mental aspect of the mind.

Despite that various Buddhist schools such as Zen employ silent meditation, however, in his book “Introduction to Zen” - Dr. D.T. Suzuki, viewed meditation as unnatural practice to human beings:


     To meditate, one has to fix his thought on something;

      for instance, on the oneness of God, or his infinite love,

      or on the impermanence of things.

     But this is the very thing Zen desires to avoid.

    Meditation is something artificially put on;

    it does not belong to the native activity of the mind…

   Who wants to be arrested in the daily manifestations

of his life-activity by such meditations… (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, p.41)

Chanting and the fusion of “Subjective and Objective” aspects of existence

The main focus of meditation is centered on the subjective mind, while chanting expresses the fusion of the subjective mind (Chi) and objective reality (Kyo).

The mantra of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo represents the fusion of the “subjective and objective”, because ‘Nam’ represents the subjective aspect of person’s determination (and devotion) - while ‘Myoho-Renge-Kyo’ is the objective reality of life (or the Dharma, the Universal Law of Cause and Effect).

            “The blessings and wisdom of the objective and subjective worlds are immeasurable.

            Nam-myoho-renge-kyo has these two elements of blessings and wisdomOTT p. 218

In the phrase of chanting, the character (Namu) is related to the individual’s devotion or the state of life of the microcosm - while (Myoho Renge Kyo) is the Mystic Law , the macrocosm or the life of the universe.  Chanting unifies the microcosm and the macrocosm.


Author: Safwan Zabalawi (Darshams)

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