This evening and tomorrow morning we will be doing our monthly memorial ceremonies for Suzuki Roshi, who died on the morning of the 4th of December 1971. This evening's ceremony is entirely in Japanese, as we chant the Sandokai and use a Japanese dedication as well. This is another of those things we do here that can be off-putting to people who don't see why we should chant something nobody understands.
I was teasing a good friend of mine at Tassajara recently who was the kokyo (that's the person who leads the chants and offers the dedication, and is one of the many Japanese terms we always use at Zen Center, like ino), and listening to her I realised that her style of intoning reminded me of Lady Bracknell, or more particularly, Edith Evans playing Lady Bracknell in the classic film version of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. She told me that the one time she had felt most comfortable as kokyo was when she did the Japanese eko for the memorial ceremony, as it was the only time she did not try to editorialise as she was chanting.
I think this is a very useful notion. I have enjoyed chanting for many years, as I find it a strong way to continue mindfulness, especially of the breath, after sitting. Nowadays I have memorised almost all the chants we do on a regular basis, so I am not reading as we chant, but letting come out of that part of the brain where these things are stored. The whole process can be very energising; indeed with the dharanis that we chant most days, the Shosaimyo Kichijo Dharani and the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, the point of them is not the meaning of the words but the spirit and energy with which they are chanted, and then whatever positive energy or merit that is created by the chanting, we give away, and the eko, or dedication, tells us to whom we are giving this away.
Personally I love the Japanese chants, as the nature of the language with its strong vowels allows a different energy to come up to a chant in English. But that's not the reason we still chant in Japanese; we do it out of respect and gratitude for our founder, who brought the teachings to us just fifty years ago.
There is much talk these days of how Zen will transform now it is in the west, and eventually I suspect a lot of the Japanese elements will recede and be replaced, but seven hundred years elapsed between Dogen and Suzuki Roshi, so in Buddhist terms, we are just at the beginning. Which is an exciting time to be around.