Buddhist Chanting in Greater Philadelphia
Sound is a particularly valuable means of learning about these diverse Buddhist traditions and communities. Chanting scripture, mantras, names of deities, and other sacred texts is the most common form of devotional practice among the majority of Buddhists worldwide. Typically, the majority of the weekly service in any Buddhist temple is devoted to chanting—either by monastics or by the whole community. Participants often understand these ceremonies to impart good karma, divine protection, or, in some cases, even concrete benefits such as health. Chanting styles vary by denomination, culture, and language, and are part of what makes local traditions of Buddhism distinctive.
Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple
The Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple is located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Kwan Chao is affiliated with the True Buddha School, a modern form of Esoteric Buddhism originating in Taiwan. The community predominantly speaks Chinese. In the audio clip above, monastics and laypeople chant in a typically melodic Chinese style accompanied by the rhythmic striking of a “woodenfish.” Chanting of scripture, mantras, and deity names are a central feature of Chinese Buddhist practice, considered efficacious for health, luck, and protection against many types of misfortunes. Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple was established in 1992 and is affiliated with the True Buddha Temple in Seattle.
The entrance of the Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple in Cherry Hill, NJ.
Phat Bao Temple
Phat Bao is a Mahayana Buddhist temple that serves the sizable local Vietnamese community in the surrounding neighborhood. It is family-focused, catering to attendees of all ages, and during services, holds Vietnamese language classes and Dharma talks for children in a separate area. A vegetarian meal is served to the community following the service, which is an important opportunity for social connections and for the sharing of information about health and healing among members. In the audio clip above, monastics and laypeople chant in a Vietnamese style with typically wide variation in tone, accompanied by the rhythmic striking of a “woodenfish” and occasional bells. Phat Bao Temple is located inside a repurposed synagogue.
Pure Land Association Temple
Pure Land Association is a Chinese Mahayana temple that serves a community with roots in China and Taiwan. In the audio clip above, monastics and laypeople chant in Mandarin Chinese to the Buddha Amitabha in a slow and melodic style, accompanied by bells, gongs, and drums. Amitabha, the principal deity in Pure Land Buddhism, is thought of as a beneficent and all-powerful Buddha who presides over a paradise or “Pure Land” far to the west of the ordinary human world. Pure Land Buddhists believe praying to him and chanting his name can result in being reborn into his paradise, where he delivers the consummate teachings that liberate all beings.
Soryarangsey Khmer Buddhist Temple
This temple is a Cambodian Theravada Buddhist organization located in a predominantly Asian neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia. In the audio clip above, a monk leads the laity in chanting scriptures in the Pali language. Some background noise is audible as members of the community prepare for the feast following the chanting. Children can be heard playing, reminding us that weekly ceremonies at Buddhist temples typically cater to multigenerational families and are social events.
Seabrook Buddhist Temple
Wat Dhamma Bodhivong Temple
This is a Cambodian Theravada Buddhist temple with four resident monks. In the audio clip above, the monks chant scriptures in the Pali language, using the traditional monotonous style of Theravada Buddhism. Unlike in Mahayana services, where the laity chants along with clergy, the majority of Theravada ceremonies involve monks chanting alone. The sound of the Pali words is often said to have a purifying effect on the environment and all listeners, and certain chants are intended to have a role in protecting listeners from illness and misfortune. Some background noise is audible as members of the community prepare for the feast following the chanting.
Won Buddhism of Philadelphia Temple
The Won Buddhist Temple of Philadelphia serves a mixed congregation of Koreans and non-Koreans. Won Buddhism is a modern reformed type of Buddhism originating in the early 20th century that retains many features of traditional Mahayana while also incorporating Western — particularly Protestant Christian — influences. These divergences are heard in the audio featured here. In the clip below, the congregation chants in a typical Korean style, accompanied by the rhythmic striking of a “woodenfish.”
Contrast this with a second audio clip, in which the congregation sings a Western-style hymn, although accompanied by a traditional Korean drum. It is not only the sound of the hymn that draws from Western Protestantism, but the configuration of the choir, the church pews, and other aspects of Won Buddhist material culture.
Yet another style of recitation is audible in a third clip, which captures a plaintive Korean memorial prayer in honor of Won Buddhism’s founder, Master Sotaesan.
These audio clips capture some of Philadelphia’s diverse Buddhist soundscape. American Buddhist communities include many different cultural, linguistic, and sectarian groups, and have connections and resonances with other traditions around the globe. Buddhism is thus a vital and thriving aspect of the metropolitan area’s religious pluralism as well as a microcosm of global Buddhism. For more information about the temples listed above, and about connections between Buddhism and healing, visit the Jivaka Project Philadelphia.
Audio recording and photography by Jivaka Project
Exhibit design and production by Lauren Pond