Creating a Culture of Pure Chanting
By Arcana Siddhi Devi Dasi
Reflections after a five-day retreat dedicated to japa, the meditative chanting of Krishna's holy names.
In 1974 two of my college friends suddenly disappeared from my circle of friends. I no longer saw them at the cafeteria where we would often sit together and speculate about the meaning of our lives. A couple of months later, one of those friends showed up in my dorm room. He had dropped out of school and was thinking about moving into a Hare Krishna ashram. He brought me two gifts, neither of which I appreciated at the time. One was an unabridged softbound Macmillan edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and the other was a set of wooden chanting beads.
Despite my lack of interest, I wanted to be friendly, so I let him teach me how to chant one round—saying the Hare Krishna maha-mantra on each of the 108 beads. My friend didn't tell me the meaning or significance of the mantra, but he said it would help me feel inner peace.
Since my mind was wrought with constant anxiety, I decided to try chanting on the beads. Soon after he left, I sat down on the bare tiled floor of my dorm room. Closing my eyes with expectations of entering a state of quietude, I began to chant the mantra. About half way around the string of beads, I felt bored and my mind was distracted. The words felt foreign and sounded hollow and empty.
After dutifully finishing one round, I retired the beads and Bhagavad-gita to a trunk of miscellaneous personal belongings. They stayed there for the next two years until something stirred in my heart—I longed for answers to my existential questions. Unsatisfied by the answers I received from significant people in my life, I felt a spontaneous attraction to the beads and Bhagavad-gita in my trunk. This time the book and beads felt sacred. I approached them with the curiosity of a child and with the deep respect of a disciple for her guru.
Within weeks I was living in a Hare Krishna ashram and chanting sixteen rounds a day, as prescribed by Srila Prabhupada for his disciples. Now the mantra had meaning and life. Although I struggled to pay attention, Krishna gave me some sweet experiences—little drops of nectar to keep me going. I was suffering, and the chanting brought relief. I had faith in the potency of the holy name and was diligent about chanting my prescribed number of rounds.
My chanting has always sustained me, and I like to chant. Therefore, when I heard about a retreat dedicated to japa (chanting on beads), I didn’t feel the need to attend. I have been making slow, steady progress over the past thirty years and didn’t think that taking part in a five-day japa retreat would be helpful. But Krishna knows exactly what I need to make progress at each point in my life, and He's expert in making the arrangements. So despite my reservations, Krishna arranged things in such a way that I did go.
An Encouraging Sign
In April 2008 I attended a japa retreat sponsored by Bhagavat Life in Menla, New York. I flew up from North Carolina with two devotee friends. I was the last person to board the flight. My assigned seat was next to a young man. I could tell he was let down that he wouldn’t have the seats to himself. I broke the ice with a light-hearted joke acknowledging his disappointment. We talked about his travel plans, and I told him about the retreat I was going to. He seemed intrigued by the concept of japa, and by the end of the flight I was showing him how to chant on beads, and he ate a samosa my friend had made for the flight. He took down my email address along with the address for Krishna.com. Meeting this young man set the tone for my journey—a spiritual quest to deepen my relationship with Krishna through His holy names. I felt encouraged that something unexpected for my spiritual life lay ahead.
As soon as we arrived at the retreat center, I felt a significant shift in my energy. All the tension from worldly concerns dissipated from my mind and body. I realized that for the first time in many years I was free from any responsibilities outside of my inner quest. My heart and mind became open, receptive to receiving direction from our pilgrimage guides: Sacinandana Swami, Mahatma Dasa, and many other inspirational devotees.
The hundred participants created a powerful atmosphere by their common intention: to improve the quality of their chanting and make progress in their spiritual lives. The devotional mood of acceptance and support made me feel emotionally and spiritually protected. It seemed we'd left our emotional baggage outside the retreat center and had entered with expectancy and hope for spiritual renewal, clarity, and discovery.
Sacinandana Swami taught us about the importance of creating both an internal and external sacred space. He gave helpful instructions about the mechanics of chanting, including posture, volume, hearing, pronunciation, and fingering the beads. I found that applying his suggestions significantly helped my focus and concentration.
I discovered the internal sacred space by emptying my heart of worldly preoccupations and desires. I realized that so often my chanting, like the drone of a harmonium, becomes the background for my mind’s chatter. My mind felt peaceful and satisfied in this sacred environment and was willing to cooperate with my spiritual aspiration to connect more deeply with the holy name.
A Transformative Experience
On the second morning of the retreat, I had a transformative experience. During our japa period I sat with the devotees and the sacred Tulasi plant in front of our altar, on which stood deities of Gaura-Nitai and Radha-Krishna. I fixed my mind on the hanging banner behind Them, inscribed with the Hare Krishna mantra. The holy name entered the sacred space in my heart and stayed—mantra after mantra. It didn’t escape. My mind remained peaceful and calm; there was no fighting to keep the name present. For two hours I chanted effortlessly as my mind stayed focused and completely content in hearing and feeling the names.
I felt so much gratitude knowing I had entered a new dimension of chanting—something I had been striving to achieve for many years. Sometimes we become entrenched in our mental patterns and don’t believe we can do better. What comes to mind is how for many years no one could break the record for running a mile. Yet when someone finally broke the record, so many others did too. What happened? They changed their self-limiting beliefs about what was possible.
We might have limiting beliefs about what is possible for us in terms of advancing in our spiritual lives. But we can get faith from our association. If we see others progressing, we'll believe that progress is possible for us as well. That's why it's so crucial to associate with advanced Vaishnavas. Otherwise, we can become discouraged and stop expending the effort required to go forward. Of course effort is only part of the equation. By our effort we draw the sympathy of our guru and Krishna. By their mercy we are able to go forward. Without mercy, all our efforts will go in vain.
Thoughts on Humility
I hoped and prayed that I would be able to access that place in my chanting again. The next day was dedicated to observing a vow of silence and chanting sixty-four rounds. I was tired and not feeling very well, so that seemed to create an impediment. But thinking deeply about humility and chanting helped me. I remembered my experiences distributing Prabhupada’s books in the airport in the early years of my devotional life. That service was difficult for me, but I knew how pleasing it was to Srila Prabhupada and how purifying it was for my consciousness.
I often had the experience of feeling inept in my service. I would pray intently to the Lord to empower me, and sometimes that would happen. Like magic, people would stop in their tracks, and I could convince them to take a book and give a donation. Inevitably I would start to think that I, and not Krishna, was making it happen. As soon as that consciousness would prevail in my heart, Krishna would withdraw the potency or ability, along with any spiritual taste he had given me. Pride is a formidable enemy of our spiritual life. And humility is the gateway to entering the spiritual world.
In the second verse of His Sikshashtaka prayers, Lord Chaitanya tells us that Krishna has invested all His potencies in the holy name and there are not even hard and fast rules for chanting. But after this encouraging prelude, He finishes the verse saying, “I am so unfortunate that I have no taste for chanting these names.” This is our plight—no taste. Lord Chaitanya offers a solution in the next verse: By developing humility and tolerance, and by honoring others without expecting any honor in return, we will be able to chant the Lord’s holy names incessantly.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura defines the first installment of humility as the absence of the enjoying spirit. It means understanding that we're meant to serve and not exploit. In material consciousness, we think the world is meant for us to enjoy. And we think that we act independently of a supreme controller. In such consciousness, our activities and life take up the center stage of our heart while we relegate Krishna to the backstage. But when humility develops, we gladly allow Krishna in the form of His holy name to take center stage in our heart.
On the day we chanted sixty-four rounds, mercy arrived in the form of these reflections on humility. Krishna is attracted to a humble heart, not a heart filled with pride. To suspend thoughts of our daily dramas while chanting is a challenge, but it's required. The more we can simplify our lives and center our activities on Krishna, the easier it is to put aside plan-making and worry while chanting. Krishna will reveal Himself more and more, and we will see how He is our maintainer and protector.
A Culture of Serious Japa
Although not everyone at these retreats experiences an epiphany, my positive experience was not unique. Many attendees, irrespective of their spiritual attainment, felt propelled to the next level of their practice. Even those who didn’t have a significant shift in their japa practice felt hopeful that with the tools they'd received, in time they would experience a deeper relationship with the holy name.
It is encouraging to see devotees taking their japa very seriously. These retreats are creating a culture where chanting is emphasized and given a high priority. Not everyone has to attend a retreat to make progress in their chanting, but for many devotees the experience has been extremely valuable.
Devotees who find it impractical at this time in their lives to schedule in a retreat can do things to enhance their practices. First and foremost is to associate with devotees who have a taste for chanting. Prabhupada repeatedly emphasized the importance of association—if we want to become good at something, then we must find people who are already good at it.
Back to Godhead often runs an advertisement for a free Saturday-morning phone conference related to japa. After a talk by an experienced devotee, listeners can ask questions about improving japa.
There are also some very good books about the science of chanting japa. I have two that I would recommend: The Art of Chanting Hare Krishna: Japa Meditation Techniques, by Mahanidhi Swami, and The Nectarean Ocean of the Holy Name, by Sacinandana Swami. I am sure there are other books on the subject that would also be useful. It is also valuable to recite verses that glorify the holy name. This assists us in remembering the importance of chanting with our full focus and attention.
Lord Chaitanya appeared around five hundred years ago and brought with Him the matchless gift of the holy name. Over forty years ago, our beloved spiritual teacher Srila Prabhupada delivered this unparalleled gift to the Western world. And now devotees like Sacinandana Swami and the Bhagavat Life group have teamed up to help us access the treasures of the Lord’s holy names. Inspired by this model, other devotees, including Romapada Swami and some ISKCON youth groups, are offering similar experiences.
Since my first japa retreat, I've attended others and have become involved in conducting them. Krishna sometimes allows me to enter the new dimension in my chanting that I discovered at the first retreat. I've found that focused, attentive chanting benefits all my other activities. I can be more present and attuned to my environment and feel Krishna’s presence more acutely than before. This is the matchless gift I have received from attending my first and subsequent japa retreats.