Drum of the Deathless
Shakyamuni began the propagation of his teaching by saying, “I will now travel to the city of Benares and beat the drum of the deathless. “

From the beginning, rhythm played an important part in the experience of the Dharma. Even when Shakyamuni was sitting under the Bodhi Tree a music teacher passed by with her class. She was explaining the way to string and tune a Sitar. This appealed to Shakyamuni so much that he decided to apply the principles of this lesson to his renewed search for Buddhahood.

But the connection of religion with rhythm was an ancient tradition in the teachings of India, long before the era of Shakyamuni Buddha. In this tradition the word for poet and the word for priest were one and the same word—truth speaker.

The poet-priest, as truth speaker, was supposed to capture the basic rhythms of the world in his verses using the beat of life in the notes of birth-life-old age-death-rebirth. He turned to the wind, the waters of the earth, the birds, the sound of thunder and the beating heart. This became his poetry and his revelation. His words had to reflect the truth of these basic rhythms of life. This lies at the basis of our word Dharma.  Of course this implies that our world is basically about experiencing rhythm. Dance, music and poetry all can be a form of truth speak in rhythm with that which is.

The Buddha continued in this vein by reciting poetry and presenting songs in his Dharma talks. Early Western translators wrote this marvelous tradition in bland philosophical text. Even the Dhammapada, one of the most frequently read Buddhist texts, is written in verse form for chanting, reciting and singing. Modern translations are returning to that ancient tradition of being rooted in the basic rhythms of life. This Dhammapada is becoming even more popular as a result.

Shinran continued with this tradition by casting his teachings with the rhythms of life. “The Tathagata (Nyorai—Buddha Essence) pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.”

Shinran went on to write over 300 Wasan—four line poems the reveal the heart of the nembutsu teaching.  From them we can learn the basics of our Nembutsu Dharma. Our basic chants have a variety of rhythms: four beats, five beats, six beats and seven beats. They can be monotone or carry many creative variations. So far in our otera we have learned about twenty new Wasan in the last four years. There is a subtle power in the chanting.  One of my favorites ends with the line: “Take refuge in Amida, the pure music!”

As far as the Shoshinge is concerned, I have seen people go into a kind of meditative trance while chanting it. The trance is from the rhythms of joy, awareness and homecoming.  This trance is by no means an escape, because the beat itself is derived from the rhythms of our own world, our own minds and bodies. This is genuine truth speak. When we chant together we become a community of those who speak the truth together.

When we are chanting together, listen with your no-self ear, chant with your no-self voice and be aware with the no-self mind. Then you too will hear the Buddha beating the drum of the deathless---just for you.

Sensei Ulrich

April 21, 2013