NonSense Chanting Pragmatics

Chanting has been with us for a long time.  Non-literate societies use it as a technique of remembering and passing on information before leaves, scrolls, books and computer chips made it easy.  Chanting is also connected to singing and music which have very interesting effects on the human brain.

Let me be outright about my pragmatic, naturalistic propensities:  Chanting can have many desirable effects on the human mind: memory, mood shifting, consciousness-altering and perhaps others.  All of these, I am sure, can also be detected with measurements to some degree.

Though chanting most likely evolved essentially as a memory heuristic, I think NonSense chanting (discussed in my post on magic-language bias) evolved because people valued the mood/consciousness shifting effect over the information-transmission effect.  Or perhaps they just valued the “traditions-re-enforcing” effect over information.   But why not keep the information-transmission component?

Well, I think that the magic-language-illusion played a role in this.  Many humans associate the way of their elders as sacred tradition and full of deep wisdom.  This is a conservative reflex which many people share.  Thus, to make the chanting effective as a mood shifter, religious specialists tied (perhaps sub-consciously) this magic-language-bias to the chanting to amplify its mind shifting effect or social-ordering effect.  Indeed, since people could no longer understand the words, they could no longer be distracted by them and thus the focus of the activity/ritual was on the other desired mental state.

Can “NonSense Chanting” be useful?

I don’t believe in Magic.  So I don’t believe NonSense Chanting can effect the external world.  But sure, it can alter internal moods, train the mind or alter consciousness — and such activities can be useful.  Likewise, singing, droning, dancing and much more can do the same.  To engage in these activities, people ritualized them so as to make group practice easier.

Can “NonSense Chanting” be counter-productive?

Sure it can.  What if the activity is re-enforcing negative habits of mind.  Well, belief in magic (over the long haul) I think is a negative habit.  Belief in the sacredness of a given language (over other languages) is a mistake and can have bad effects on the mind.  You see, I think an accurately discerning mind is highly valuable.  I could go on, but let me get to the last important question.

Can self-deceptive mental habits be useful?

Yes, I think it is a matter of deciding if the trade-off is worth it.  This issue is sometimes called “Skillful Means” in Buddhism and “Consequentialism” in ethics.  But truly understanding the long-term effect of such a compromise is difficult.  Sometimes such a trade-off is undesirable.

Ideally we have both good means and good ends.  Ideally we don’t have to deceive ourselves or others to accomplish desirable goals.  Here on my blog I like to be open about how we deceive ourselves.  I am not saying it is always bad to deceive ourselves (though many Atheists think it is), but I am always hoping that slowly we can recognize what is actually the case in the world (“truth”) and build mental technology which does not need to much compromise.  This may often an unreasonable goal, but it is the conversation I enjoy.


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18 responses to “NonSense Chanting Pragmatics

  1. Quick caveat: I shot this post quickly as a reply to a few fine folks who questioned my last post. But my family is traveling this weekend so I only had a few hours this morning to compose it. Please forgive poor grammar and typos ect….

  2. I’ve used nonsense words for years, not for chanting, but just blurting them out every now and then around the house. I learned it from my dad. It serves no real purpose, at least not one I can think of, except that it can be mildly entertaining for anyone within earshot.

    I spent a week with the Oglala Lakota at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota when I was a young teenager. We had the pleasure of observing a Pow Wow while we were with them, a very cool experience. When it was over we asked one of our new friends what the words meant, he told us it was just nonsense chanting. That was the first time I was exposed to the idea. Previously I thought that all chanting and singing were made up of actual words.

  3. I think a pretty good example of a system of useful self-deceptive mental habits can be found in Tantric Buddhism.

    There’s a lot of magical and supernatural stuff there, but as I understand it, it involves a sequence of peeling back each of these layers, and eventually ending somewhere rather interesting—more or less the same place other flavors of Buddhism shoot for.

    IOW, if you’re the kind of person who likes to believe in angels, demons, miracles, and magic, that sort of thing might work out pretty well for you. (I’ve little doubt, though, that if you don’t, it won’t.)

  4. Sabio Lantz

    @ Mike :
    The Indian (“n.A.”) Pow-Wow example was great. I always wondered how much of that is gibberish vs actual Native American langauge of some sort. I hope to look into that further.

    @ Petteri :
    Agreed, useful self-deceptive is abundant. But (and these are questions for Mike or any reader)…

    If we realize it is non-sense, shouldn’t we move beyond this? Why, because of all the bad habits of mind that must be nurtured to maintain the effectiveness of nonsense chanting.

    If we are after mystic altered states, why not just drone or whirl or whatever?

    Sure, some folks still love magic, miracles and demons and such and this may continue to work for them, I get that. But is it also not good for some of us to push for a science of religion that moves beyond the compromises of our ancestors?

  5. Some of my suspicions have been confirmed, S.
    Even when I try to expand upon your ideas or break apart your ideas, I am really just finding other paths in order to agree with you.

    “why not keep the information-transmission component?”

    To an extent I think the information-transmission component is in fact being kept, but in some strange ways.
    1. It’s fuzzy-information rather than clear information, but it still works. It acts as a clear signal to the participant — “something is now different”, “we are going deeper”, “participate in the awe”, etc. Maybe a weak analogy but why are koans used in zen when answers are slapped away anyway?
    2. Information is now managed by the priestly caste. Transcendence becomes a mediated thing. In order to manage it, the priests need authoritative control over the information and the comprehension of the information.

    For me, ‘1’ can still lead to good means/good ends, but ‘2’ has muddled motives of authority/power so may lead to deception for undesirable goals (this goes for religious priests as well as scientific priests).

    But what seems most promising to me is that even things like states of transcendence are being stripped of their magical veils so as to be measured and studied now.

  6. CRL

    If we realize that what we are chanting is nonsense, and do not expect any “magic” to come of it, than I see no problem. Personally, I find nonsense chanting to be extremely helpful in calming nerves and relieving stress. And there is nothing self deceptive in this.

    Problems do arise when we assign magic properties to languages, phrases (spells?), and prayers. Often, the “magic language” is used to shut out outsiders, and even to confuse insiders. But again, this isn’t really self deception, it is more of “other-deception.”

  7. @ CRL :
    interesting observations !

    @Andrew :
    You said,

    “states of transcendence are being stripped of their magical veils so as to be measured and studied”

    — I think the science of religion is a wonderful thing and I am hopeful of where it will carry us.

  8. @Sabio: “But is it also not good for some of us to push for a science of religion that moves beyond the compromises of our ancestors?”

    Of course it is, silly! 😀

    (But that doesn’t mean we should simultaneously try to get rid of the magical ones… unless the magic is doing some real harm. Thinking mostly of militant fundamentalism here, in any of a wide variety of religions.)

  9. Sam

    “Here on my blog I like to be open about how we deceive ourselves.”

    Sabio, this is by far my favorite line. I’ve got nothing clever to say like your other commenters just that I love this line.

  10. johnl

    Hi, I just saw this blog for the first time today (don’t worry, I read posting rules). This topic is pretty complex. I have been studying (informally) Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan–it is related distantly to Tibetan tantra/vajrayana. Here are some of my thoughts: 1) chanting nonsense can be calming. 2) chanting religious texts in an unfamiliar language would seem to be magic, but I think there is more to it from the vajrayana point of view. Just seeing the Chinese characters (or Tibetan or whatever) does create certain neurological patterns in the sensory and nervous systems. From the esoteric point of view, these can have an effect on you eventually. It is related to the notion of intention. Visualization is a big part of vajrayana–you visualize a deity and try to become the deity. Sort of like a karate student watches the teacher and tries to imitate. Certain texts contain the intention of the teacher in a kind of symbolic form. Even though we don’t understand the symbolic system, the patterns are still present in our consciousness and can potentially have effects on us and our world. At least that is the theory. 3) My experience was a bit like Ed’s, except I was chanting the romanized Sino Japanese in the US without understanding much (at first). Then, I began to study and went to Japan, where I found that exposure to some of the characters brought quick familiarity once I was in an environment where they are prevalent. So I think unfamiliar languages can affect us in a way that is outside the realm of lexical understanding. (I hope this isn’t too incoherent.) Anyway, thanks for the interesting blog, and thanks for the ‘random Buddhist blog’ button on the Reformed Buddhist blog.

  11. Nitram

    For sure if it is “nonsense chanting” then it is not sacred chanting, to say someone is “nonsense chanting” is to be arrogantly dismissive, as if that reductionist point of view is “obviously-the-true-one” in the sense of a fundamentalist bias.

    To break it down (as I see it) or take it further from the this line of argument all religious practice is “nonsense chanting”, which may be useful (perhaps) to keep the dupes healthy and prevent them from going off the edge if they knew the “awful truth” — that there is no Divinity (how ever that may be conceived) in existence– and that a level of self deception may be beneficial.

    This is actually correct in regards to every exoteric religion I have encountered. “The Holy Fathers” of any religion either consciously or unconsciously factored this in on some level- that is a level of sensible social control via religion.

    But what a strange turn of events that a man or woman knowing this to be “nonsense chanting” would then practice it as a remedial method. That just seems bizarre to me and would rest on the “loss-of-faith” and fundamental despair inherent in such ways of seeing things. That is, that – There Is No Divine Reality- and thus all action becomes at best remedial since the Inherent Sacred is dismissed totally, this then becomes not a truly religious or sacred act but a self serving nonsense act.

  12. @ Sam : (are you Ereusso?)
    Thank you — that was one of the most important sentences in the post. Thank you for noticing.

  13. @ Nitram:
    It has been a long time since I have read the language of Franklin Jones (Da Free John…). For us to communicate effectively, we may need more shared notions and language. I read through what you wrote several times and still needed to be certain I understood your main point(s). Mind you, I could guess, but I don’t like to guess when communicating.

    @ Johnl:
    You bring up the key objections (I think). I hope to address them in a while, either here or another post. Thank you. BTW, your link is dead so I deleted it. Be sure to give us a working link next time. I’d love to visit your site.

  14. Sam

    @ Sabio:

    Yes, Eruesso is my uber-nerdy pen name.

  15. Nitram

    in short this my own own language by the way apart from the term ” Divine Reality” these are my own words and based on observation.

    If you label a sacred act ( to the devout) such as chanting mantras “nonsense chanting” then it already precludes any sacred dimension.

    The religious councils of all exoteric (do you know what this means?) religions seem to factor in religious ritual as form of social control rather than an inherently sacred act.

    To then take what you believe to be mere nonsense action (mere ritual) and use it is as artifice for gaining a sort of pleasant self delusion or positive but only self serving effect, would be a deeply cynical act based in the utter “loss of faith” (do you know what this means?) and despair of the actual “Divine Reality” which of course does exist. So the agreement we hcve is on the use of “nonsense chanting” by the “Churches” as a pragmatic but also inherently “faithless” means of social control. The difference we have is more in perception, “cheese and chalk”, you seem from my point of view completely devoid of any knowledge or intuition of the Inherent Divine Nature (or perhaps Buddha Nature or Christ consciousness) so you guys seem very odd to me (as I do to you perhaps) Yet I have no belief in a creator god, mother god, father god or god of mind form etc.

  16. @ Nitram :
    If I am not mistaken – “exoteric” and “esoteric” classification was one of Franklin’s classification schemes for religions.

    And your use of “loss of faith” seems similar to the rather unique sense Franklin put on it.

    Franklin, like many philosophers, had a way to put his unique spin on everyday words and thus creating his own Divine language.

    Even though I don’t buy your terms and presuppositions, I find it amazing that you can freely and easily say,

    “you seem from my point of view completely devoid of any knowledge or intuition of the Inherent Divine Nature”

    completely devoid ! !

    Welcome to the crowd! Many of my religious acquaintances feel I must be completely devoid of the divine — you are just one more. After all, I don’t use the right words or acknowledge the same masters (the complaint of all others) — and that is certainly what matters.

  17. Nitram

    I said you appear completely devoid of any knowledge or intuition of the Divine Nature, not “are devoid” from my point of view it’s like saying, “there is no light”- in bright sunshine.

    No chance of being devoid of “It’ at all

    Also be careful I put my own spin on things from my own point of view, not necessarily the same meaning exactly as Adi Da.

    Just to clarify that was not a put down, just an observation and I do like to stir it up a little 🙂

  18. Florito

    The problem with self deceptive behaviour is, as with many other human actions, that you can evaluate it on yourself, but can’t hardly evaluate it on others because you will never be able to feel what they feel, empathic as you may be. So my comment is about me and about me only.
    I’ve come to realize that on me self defective behaviour works at two levels. One is at a rational level, the other is at an emotional level. From the rational point of view I can always find a rational justification for any behaviour I have. If I’m attempting to deceive myself I will find a rational way to justify what I do. At an emotional level I will feel well… on the surface. Unfortunately my core being will not be deceived, and will be sending me messages in form of emotions. These messages will be attempted to be suppressed, but eventually they will burst out and probably not be understood by me or by any others. Moreover, they will probably be misunderstood and will get me into trouble. Fortunately along my life I’ve been able to understand this, and I have tried and in some cases succeeded in recognizing this situations.
    I find facing life and the universe bare naked to the truth of what I am, regardless how puny, feeble or devoid of any understanding of the overall picture if any, much more self supporting than believing in something that my inner core knows is just a way to escape from my existencial and sometimes more mundane fears. Applied to me, any form of religion is a way to escape facing myself, my worries and my fears. I’ve given that up completely and have found that I can be happy being just my mortal ephimeral and imperfect self, and be very proud about it. I can just but guess about my fellow humans…

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