Sylly Sillable Song

Bodhi Day, or Rohatusu in Japanese, is the Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma (Shakyamuni) experienced enlightenment. In the Zen Buddhist lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, and probably in other groups as well, the holiday marks the apex of a longer retreat. This retreat has become a regular part of my holiday season. I sit silently with the Red Cedar Zen Community for a few days each December, including an all-night meditation on Rohatsu eve (or the nearest Saturday, as is our tradition). After sitting all night, we hope to catch a glimpse of the same morning star that stimulated Buddha’s enlightenment. Then, we celebrate the dawn with a special service that includes a very slow and deliberate chanting of the Heart Sutra, chanted… one… beat… per… syl… la.. ble.

I can’t speak for others, but meditating all night makes me giddy. I’m always tickled silly during the Heart Sutra by the problems folks are having counting syllables in certain words. The group is chanting in perfect unison until it reaches a word like “suffering”. Then, half the people express this word in two syllables, while the other half express it in three. This of course results in a massive collision, with everyone chanting one beat off from their neighbor. There’s humor in this pile-up (surely others will agree?!) but there’s also beauty, as the group somehow manages to recover quickly, so everyone’s chanting in unison again, at least until we get to another challenging word, like “hindrance”.

Yuzan Nancy Welch and Kan-I Lee Nelson helped with the backing vocals on this song. They were co-teaching an Introduction to Zen class at the Dharma Hall one Sunday afternoon, and I showed up afterwards, microphone in hand. Nancy, by the way, is author of the book Medicine and Meditation, definitely worth a look for anyone who has, or knows someone with, a chronic illness. Sadly, Nancy passed away in March 2019, but her joy, laughter, and wisdom will always be with us; and I will forever treasure our sylly recording session!

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