Posts Tagged ‘tei dai denpo’

Like forms in the natural world, musical forms have their own, distinct identities. A ballad is one thing, a sonata another. In his review of the Cowley Carol Book (1902), a collection of traditional Christmas carols, the British musicologist Sir William Henry Hadow (1859-1937) explores the differences between two such forms: the carol and the hymn. Although Sir Henry’s discussion has nothing overtly to do with Zen, it brings to mind an important component of Zen practice.

As Sir Henry explains, a carol is the “folk-song of religious music; its essential character is simple, human, direct; it sings its message of joy and welcome, of peace and goodwill, and remembers, while it sings, the sanctity of motherhood and the gentleness of little children.” Carols are by nature democratic. They appeal to emotions that are “the common heritage of mankind,” and they aim at “no display of learning, no pageantry of ceremonial.” They are “the service of poor men in their working garb,” and they bring “tidings which all may hear and understand.” In keeping with their humble origins, the melodies of carols are “simple and flowing” and “easy to remember.” Their native place is the “open air,” where a “few rude voices” are singing “under the frosty stars.”

By contrast, hymns are most at home in churches and cathedrals. They are an instrument of worship, and they have an authorized place in the Sunday service. In their solemnity and grandeur, hymns represent the “majesty and erudition of the Church.” Marked by “intricacy of contrapuntal device,” “ingenuity of modulation,” and “colored or perfumed harmony,” hymns by the likes of William Byrd sort well with the “fretted aisles and blazoned windows” of the great English cathedrals.  Unlike the carol, which evokes a beautiful “beggar-maiden” in peasant rags,  the hymn wears “a sumptuous habit of jewels and brocade.” It is an integral part of Anglican liturgy, and it carries the weight of ecclesiastical authority.*

Zen has no exact equivalent of the hymn or carol. Western “bare-bones” Zen, as practiced by Toni Packer, Joan Tollifson, and others, dispenses with liturgy altogether; and even the liturgy of formal Zen, with its wood-blocks, bows, and bells, is a plain austere affair, at least when contrasted with Sunday morning at York Minster or Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge.

Yet formal Zen does make use of chants, which combine the most prominent features of hymns and carols. Like the hymn, such chants as Atta Dipa (“You are the Light”), the Heart Sutra, and the Four Great Vows embody the authority of a venerable tradition. Chanted in Pali or Sino-Japanese, they evoke a strangeness comparable to that of an Anglican Mass. At the same time, most Zen chants are, in musical terms, rudimentary. The Heart Sutra is chanted in a rhythmic monotone, and Atta Dipa consists of two notes at an interval of a fourth (do-fa). However strange their idiom or formidable their authority, they can be learned and chanted by anyone.

Unlike its counterpart in Christian liturgy, Zen chanting is not a form of worship. Its functions are, first, to loosen the diaphragm in preparation for seated meditation, and second, to unify the body, breath, and mind in the act of chanting. As John Daido Loori Roshi has noted, Zen chanting grounds the practitioner in the here-and-now. No less important, it serves to cultivate wholesome states of mind, particularly those of respect and gratitude. In Daido Roshi’s words, Zen chanting has “little to do with the volume of your voice. It has all to do with the state of your mind.”*

Nowhere are these purposes more evident than in Tei Dai Denpo, or lineage chanting, in which Zen practitioners intone the names of their ancestral teachers. Shido Bunan Zenji. Dokyo Etan Zenji. Hakuin Ekaku Zenji. . .  Echoing in the zendo, this ancient chant evokes a mood of profound communal gratitude. Traversing the centuries, it conjures an unbroken lineage of practice, thought, and feeling, extending from the fifth century B.C. E. to the present day. An amalgam, if you like, of hymn and carol, it also honors the teachers in ourselves.


*Sir Henry Hadow, “Carol Singing,” Times Literary Supplement, January 2, 1903.

*John Daido Loori Roshi,  Bringing the Sacred to Life : The Daily Practice of Zen Ritual (Shambhala, 2008),  65-66.

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