Zen - Chanting 'What am I?'

January 15, 2012

Just a few years ago I wouldn't be caught dead chanting. I'm not a praying man, and chanting to deities that I don't know or believe in, that's not me.

Then, some time after participating in a Yong Mang Jong Jin (YMJJ) sesshin at the Providence Zen Center, I found that one of my fondest memories of the Zen Center was the chanting time. Maybe it's because, other than the interviews with a Zen Master, it's the only chance you have to speak. After leaving the Zen Center I'd often listen to audio recordings of their chanting sessions just so I could remember the pace of each "song" that we chanted.

That being said, many of the things we chanted didn't mean anything to me, either because they were in a different language (Korean), or because they referred to the deities I mentioned.

Asking "What am I?"

During the YMJJ sesshin, I had an interview with a Zen Master, and he told me that during meditation I should only ask myself, "What am I?" while meditating. I share that freely here because it's no big secret, you'll find similar approaches in many off the shelf Zen books.

Getting to the point of today's writing, over time I got bored with asking myself, "What am I?" ... I kept asking myself that, and then I'd say, "Well, I know I'm not this body, or not just this body", then ask it again. Rather than just keep asking myself, "What am I?", I wanted to add more context to the question, and in recent days I've turned this into a chant of my own, which I thought I'd share here today. The words I've come up with are entirely inspired by Buddhist texts, and are shared in the next section.

Chanting "What am I?"

If I'm not this body,
what am I?

Giving up attachment to this body,
what am I?

Knowing that the six senses deceive me,
what am I?

Knowing that the true me is without the six senses,
what am I?

No eyes, no ears, no nose,
no tongue, no body, no mind,
what am I?

Letting go of the past and future,
living only in the present moment,
what am I?

Knowing that, like a wave on the ocean,
birth, life, and death are just events
in an ever-running, eternal transformation,
what am I?

Knowing that in enlightenment,
death has no relevance to one's state of being,
what am I?

Recognizing the dreamlike quality of life,
and letting go of my attachment to it,
what am I?

Letting go of this dream
I let go of suffering,
what am I?

Letting go of anger,
what am I?

Letting go of desire,
what am I?

Wishing that all beings find freedom from suffering,
what am I?

Releasing all attachments and desires to find a greater love,
what am I?

Cutting off all selfish desires to only help others,
what am I?

Knowing that our understanding
of science and the universe
is incomplete,
I vow to keep an open mind.
What am I?

Breaking the wall of my self
to become infinite in time and space,
what am I?

Become one, infinite time, infinite space, Buddha.
What am I?

Who is asking,
what am I?

Brief discussion

This is still a work in progress, but it's a start. The thing I'm trying to do here is to find words that I'm willing to chant, words that are meaningful to me, and are also based on Buddhist texts.

The important thing about these words is that when I say them before going to sleep, they help change my frame of mind, helping me to forget about what has happened during the day, and to focus only on the present moment. (To that end I'm probably going to add a few "repent" lines in there, such as "I repent for my evil tongue", and so on.) I may also add the other lines I've mentioned on this blog before, "Everyone deserves some time to themselves, some time to relax, to not work, and this is my time", "Nobody needs me right now, and I don't need anyone else", and so on. For some reason I occasionally feel guilty for taking the time to meditate, so all of this is about changing my frame of mind.

(I should also add that "Zen is the mind that is before thinking", and maybe I need to squeeze that in there somewhere.)

In the end, all I can suggest is that you find something that works for you. If you want to chant to a deity, by all means do so. I just don't feel that in my bones, and I have a hard time believing in gods, so chanting to them doesn't work for me, but if it's something you feel strongly about, or you feel like you have to chant the exact words in the Providence Zen Center handbook, go for it. As one Zen Master said (possibly ZMSS), it doesn't matter if you chant "Coca Cola" all day, as long as you believe in it.

A new favorite phrase

I just ran into this quote from Rumi, and I like it: 

“I am not this hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.”

2017 update

In mid-2017, my current favorite mantra is:

I am more than this physical body
I wish to know all that I am.

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