Clear Voice

shomyo2It’s said that when the Buddha preached the Dharma, he did it in a voice that was somewhere between speech and song; the Japanese expression of this teaching is called shōmyō (聲明 or 声明, “clear voice”) . This half-singing eased the burden on the listener; it made the Buddha’s words easier to absorb.

We have no way of knowing how this sounded, or even if there is an ounce of truth to it. But in an oral tradition, it would not be surprising to learn that formal styles of presentation (beyond repetitive phrasing, a basic element of any oral tradition) were developed along the way, or that they existed in the culture during Buddha’s time.  This question—How to express Dharma?—and its underlying assumption that expressing the Dharma is hard are at the foundation of much of the evolution of Buddhism over the centuries.

Those of us who trace our lineages to Japanese schools inherit this question of voice in two ways. The first is in how we chant sutras. I’m so used to it now that I think of it as normal, but in fact, this deep, powerful, level chanting is highly stylized. It is not intuitive that we would chant in this way. The simple consistency of it facilitates group chanting, but why this thunderous quality? When people chant, what is the feeling?

Tradition tells us that our chanting voices should express five qualities:

  1. Honesty—an unaffected voice, with no attempt at deception. This is listed first for a good reason: to short-circuit our idea of what is or is not a good voice. One’s voice need not be classically beautiful. But it must be sincere. There is something stirringly powerful in the unapologetic voice of someone who is chanting from a place of deep commitment — it goes far beyond having a good voice or a bad one.
  2. Harmony—a gentle, warm, elegant voice.
  3. Clarity—a voice that is clear, transparent.
  4. Fullness—a deep and resonant voice.
  5. Reach—a voice that delivers to every corner of the room.

What interests me about this kind of teaching is how it relates to nyohō, to the question of how we express Dharma. This is not about having a beautiful voice, nor is this kind of half-singing about self-expression. Not at all. It’s about putting what one is expressing before oneself, expressing just that thing. We cannot all have harmonious, clear, full voices, but we can be honest. And in this teaching, honesty means sincerely trying to manifest those other qualities, even when they are out of our reach.

I know that I can never say what I really want to say. In this blog, in a talk, or face to face, what I want most to share with others is precisely the thing to which I cannot really give voice. I don’t mean that as an excuse for when I fail, though I have probably comforted myself a time or two with the magnitude and impossibility of it all.

Perhaps receiving a teaching is a bit like hearing someone humming a tune that feels familiar. It catches—it reminds us of something we already knew, or it just gets into our heads, and when we’re alone, we find ourselves elaborating on it, giving it dimension. Maybe that’s the most we can ask for.

I don’t believe that there is any one correct way to talk about Dharma—we each have our own voice, and that voice will carry to some ears and be just noise to others. But I also believe that some modes of expression have a universal quality. This is true not just of teachers but of all of us. What we show and what we share when we are not speaking is probably the closest thing we have to shōmyō. In the space between words, in that pause, how do we carry this moment? What do we offer with this posture, these eyes, these hands? This breath?

What are we saying right now?

An example of shōmyō in the Shingon tradition. If you have access to a similar video from a Soto Zen temple, please let me know.

For those interested, I’ve established a practice schedule here in Halifax. You can keep connected (and listen to recent talks) by visiting or by joining the Zen Nova Scotia page on Facebook. I’m feeling very fortunate to be practicing with such kind people in such a beautiful part of the world.