How does sound serve as a medium in conveying values within a religious context? As most people in the western world, I grew up within a Christian ethical framework. However, I have come to disbelieve that there is only a Christian truth. First of all, what does one mean by truth? We understand refined “literal” truths through the advancements of science within the material world, e.g. a developed theory. However, we understand how to orient ourselves within the world, at least in part, by phenomenological truth, or truth by how our senses our affected. The Enlightenment Period brought about the divorce of belief by word of mouth, and placed emphasis on reason. However, reason can only go so far in orienting an individual in the world. If one had to rely on reason in quickly identifying if a venomous snake that suddenly appeared in front of them was a garden hose, a branch, or a jump rope, one would be bitten. Although, a snake does hiss, and somehow after we recognize the snake is in fact a snake, our inner voice tells us to stay away!
The ancient religions that have continued to develop over millennia, e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. were not concerned with literal truth because there was no scientific mindset during the founding of these religions. Rather, the founding people of these ancient religions were affect oriented. So what role does sound play in transforming suffering between different religious cultures? I traveled to the Buddha Mind Monastery and the Oklahoma Buddhist Vihāra Temple in Oklahoma City, OK in order to find examples of affective sound experiences that aim to transcend suffering. I was curious to see if I could record audio clips of my Buddhist observations. However, both Buddhist temples denied me permission to record audio of their services, so I will describe my experiences during my visits as best as I can.
The Buddhist service was lead in many ways different than a Christian service, and notably so since this culture communicates differently than a Christian culture. The leaders of this service were notably all women at this monastery. This service’s chants were opened and closed by bell ringing. The chants were fixed to certain pitches and melodic ranges, usually relating to a pentatonic scale, and accompanied by a constant pulse of a percussive stick. The Buddhist nuns would allow the congregation to lead the chant by themselves about 5 percent of the time.. Also, the chanting of this service was spoken in Chinese. Sometimes the services include an English speaker, but this visit was during a normal Chinese speaking service. The chant, translated into English, spoke about how material objects are empty but full, describing the wisdom of how the meaning found in life transforms the material world into a realized state of purpose to set against suffering. While, I didn’t understand the Chinese spoken, my inner voice clinged to the concept of finding meaning in life, and I felt full of vigor!
From my previous knowledge of Buddhism, meditation seeks to unite the logical (literal truth rationalized) with the biological (the nervous system responding to patterns) by using the voice to guide a relationship between the feeling of the body and the breath. The chant was followed by a 10-15 minute silent meditation without guidance, where the congregation was instructed, only at the beginning, to allow the breath to serve as a center point to breathe into sore parts of the body where thoughts may arise. Further instruction was given for the congregation to allow thoughts to pass and flow back to the center breath point. I found this process similar to the Christian prayer in church services, but saw how much more agency is given to the individual to find their “inner voice,” or center point, as a phenomenological truth in orienting their life. I sensed strong devotion all around me throughout this meditation. There was a peaceful atmosphere established by the silent meditation, despite the sound of breaths.
My inner voice began to speak as thoughts came and went, but the centering of the breath, in addition to the devoted environment established by all practicing the meditation, helped me center in on my breath and the meditation. There may have been an inner voice in others that was screaming, laughing, or taunting. However, the meditation united all of our inner voices through our individual practice. The prayer section of a typical traditional church service is guided by a religious leader, with music usually accompanying the guided prayer. Here, the Buddhist monk led us to explore our inner voices by guiding the meditation with a gentle tone and contrasting the guidance with silence, giving us agency over our meditation. I found the Buddhist phenomenon of guided meditation, with the use of silence, helping me focus in the moment, despite any thoughts of distraction coming or going. I’m sure this practice of focus with the use of breath and hearing the inner voice can help in other situations of life!
In contrast, my visit to the Oklahoma Buddhist Vihāra temple proved a different sonic experience. The Vihāra temple follows the teaching of Theravada Buddhism, which takes away the savior archetype Mahayana Buddhists (which the Buddha Mind Monastery falls under) use for the Buddha in order to find the essence of the archetype within the self. In other words, Theravada Buddhists recognize that the Buddha exemplified the model of balance in life, but they do not put as much emphasis on revering the Buddha, but rather developing the self. The monk initiated the service with the ring of a bell and began chanting in a specific set of pitches (usually an interval between unison and a major 3rd). The chant language was Telugu, and the cadence was not held by a constant percussive instrument like the Buddha Mind Monastery nuns used.
Rather, the monk led the chant, and everybody tried to match the read-aloud cadence the monk spoke with. Here, the Buddhist monk led us to explore our inner voices by guiding the meditation with a gentle tone and contrasting the guidance with silence, giving us agency over our meditation. This sound experience proved different from the Buddha Mind Monastery’s silent meditation with no guiding voice and no sounds, other than a rung bell to initiate and end the meditation. Following the bells, a leading monk gave one final chan before the end of the service. Although these two Buddhist temples provided different sonic experiences in silent meditation, the Vihāra temple seemed to help me connect more with my feeling of the inner voice by becoming more aware of how my body feels in relation to thoughts, with the help of a guided voice of what to focus on in the mediation prior to meditating.
The monk and the small congregation (This temple was located in a house of about 7 people.) thanked me happily to read an English translation of the chant, which led to the monk describing the meaning of the chant. Following the chanting, the monk led the congregation into a group meditation, which lasted for 30-40 minutes. The monk told the congregation to find our breath as our center point and to breathe into any tense parts of the body. Additionally, the monk told the congregation that thoughts will flow as we breathe into different parts of the body, but one should not dwell on the thoughts but rather use the breath as a center point. Silence played a huge role in this service, which contrasted with the constant percussive instrument cadence the Buddha Mind Monastery nuns used. Between both services I attended, I noticed more awareness of how to unite my logical mind with my biological body. Both of these services helped guide my inner voice to unite my body and mind. I felt more development coming from the guided meditation at the Vihāra temple. However, after having done Buddhist meditation before, the Buddha Mind Monastery experience felt easier because I had more of an idea of how to guide my inner voice. I think the Vihāra temple would serve as a good starting Buddhist meditation practice, but I enjoyed both experiences.
By Collin Pollitt