At the local Soto Zen temple which I use to attend, the Buddhists practitioners chant sutras which are Roman-lettered transliterations of Japanese. Almost none of these Americans know Japanese and so have no idea what they are reading. And worse than that, the translated Japanese is itself just transliterations of the archaic Chinese — so even Japanese speakers don’t know what it means. In other words, these Zen practitioners chant complete nonsense.
Here, for example is some of the Heart Sutra which they chant without knowing the meaning:
“Kan ji zai bo satsu. Gyo jin han nya hara mita ji. Sho ken (*)GO on kai ku. Do issai ku yaku. Sha ri shi. Shiki fu i ku. Ku fu i shiki. Shiki soku ze ku. Ku soku ze shiki. Ju so gyo shiki. Yaku bu nyo ze. Shari shi. Ze sho ho ku so. Fu sho fu metsu. Fu ku fu jo. Fu zo fu gen. Ze ko ku chu. Mu shiki mu ju so gyo shiki. “
At the Hindu temple I visited last week, the priests and many worshipers chanted the Ganesh Purana. There are two temples in town: one visited mainly by North Indians and this one visited by those from the South. And at this temple the main spoken language is Tamil (a non-Indo-European Dravidian language). Tamil is unrelated to Sanskrit yet the the Ganesh Purana is written in Sanskrit (not Tamil). Since Tamil and Sanskrit use different scripts, these Hindu worshipers chanted in a Tamil script nonsense transliteration of ancient Sanskrit (which itself is a dead language and unknown to the chanters). So like the Buddhists in their temple, these Hindu worshipers chant complete nonsense. They have no idea what they are reading.
See a pattern? But please don’t think I am just picking on Asians. It is not just Buddhist and Hindus who are drawn toward nonsense. A Catholic Church here in town still brags of doing its Mass in Latin — a language precious few of the worshipers understand at all. Protestants are equally drawn to the mystique of ancient original languages in their awe-filled admirance of Greek, as my post describes here.
I am not discussing the pros and cons of chanting. Mindless chanting may have benefits. All I am describing is the naive magical-original-language bias found in many religions. No matter how useful the chant or what theological contortions a religion uses to justify unintelligible chants, it is obvious that the “magical language bias” is part of the picture.
Let me give one more example of the silly idealization that many Westerners have of Eastern religions: The Americans in the Soto Zen temple not only chant unintelligible transliterated archaic Chinese, the temple also has all kinds of objects labeled with Japanese words to help teach the believers Japanese. For instance, there is a big dinner bell in the Zendo which has a beautiful calligraphied-labeled declaring “kane” which is a romanization of the character for bell (鐘). Go figure. Like speaking Japanese brings you closer to enlightenment.
Humans never cease to amaze me!