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Does Chanting Make Sense?
John: Dear Tan, some time ago I emailed you with a question about karma yoga (how to do it, in practice). I’m working with it now though I have to admit it’s not always easy… some days it works better than other days.
But anyway, I would like to ask you another question, also with regard to daily practice. I don’t know whether you know Gary Weber?
Tan: I do not know him.
John: He writes about Advaita too. I don’t know his books very well, I’ve just read passages of his book Happiness Beyond Thought. I think he’s a good, an honest, Advaita teacher.
One of the practices for self-inquiry he advises is a chant of negation coupled with the breath. It goes like this (maybe you know it yourself):
Vigraha naham / indriya naham / vrittiya naham / kutaham soham / kutaham soham (this body I am not / these sensations I am not / these thoughts I am not / where am I? I am That / where am I? I am That).
So I guess this is a variant of the “neti neti” method.
But I vaguely remember that James is not so enthusiastic about this method or maybe rather about the wrong use of it but I don’t remember when or where he said this, and for which reason.
Tan: I do not know if James is enthusiastic or not about this method.
Chanting a mantra is not necessarily self-inquiry. Once you have understood the meaning of the chant or the mantra the chanting can be just a practice of reminding yourself of the knowledge. Although self-knowledge once hard and fast does not need reminding, because it is just knowing yourself – how can you ever forget yourself?
Chanting, as any type of singing, done with the right attitude (e.g. the karma yoga attitude) is creating bhakti and a sattvic mindset, which is the right state of mind for self-inquiry. During that state of mind the meanings of the words of the chant you have shared are the right questions. But then you should use the words to inquire and meditate. Do not misinterpret the high state of mind that will certainly come with it for enlightenment. Enlightenment is just knowing who you are when ignorance is removed, and not any state of mind.
John: Maybe you can help: do you think this chant is useful… and if not, why not? I have to say it does appeal to me…
Thank you again for your answer!
Tan: It is not harmful. It can be useful, depending on your attitude. Chanting is an action (karma). So it has to be done with the karma yoga attitude and then the chant will create a sattvic state of mind. In that state of mind you can inquire. But just saying the words (“This body I am not”) is not sufficient to remove ignorance. Understanding why you cannot be the body by using Vedanta teachings, like the five sheaths (pancha shariram), etc. under the guidance of a teacher will remove ignorance.
John: Hi, Tan, thanks again – your answer is very clear! I think you’re right that chanting can be helpful or, on the contrary, an obstruction, depending on how one uses it. And again, it boils down to karma yoga!
I’m rereading How to Attain Enlightenment at the moment (this is for the third time, almost the fourth if I include the “random” reading of some chapters), even slower than before… I really think the Advaita message has to penetrate deeply in order to become effective.
I wish you the best and a very good holiday.
~ Kind regards, John
Tan: Yes, dedication with the right attitude and continous vigilance are required to remove ignorance because it is hardwired.