Kwan Seum Bosal

Last night, Chris, several friends, and I did the night up Zen style. In our Zen tradition, midnight is seen as being a time of “special energy,” and New Year’s Eve is seen as being particularly auspicious. When we lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we used to do chanting practice at midnight to ring in (or more accurately BANG in) the New Year, with everyone pounding pots, pans, & drums as we walked around the meditation room chanting.

Now that we live in Keene, our Zen group meets in a shared rented space with upstairs neighbors, so midnight chanting & pot-banging is out of the question. We wanted to continue this tradition of starting the New Year with meditation practice, so we held a loud, raucous chanting service from 7 – 9 pm, early enough that we could get into the New Year’s Eve spirit without disturbing anyone else’s evening.

On New Year’s Eve, we chant two long hymns dedicated to Kwan Seum Bosal, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. The name “Kwan Seum Bosal” means “the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world. In traditional Buddhist iconography, she is either depicted as being a goddess floating on clouds or as a mythic creature with 10,000 hands and eyes. Although having 10,000 hands and eyes makes for one scary-looking lady, the symbolism of this depiction is suggestive: as soon as Kwan Seum Bosal sees or hears the signs of suffering, she has a ready hand to help out.

Last night we had over a dozen people come to chant with us, many of whom were new to our Zen practice. In introducing them to this strange chanting ritual, I explained that the purpose of chanting isn’t to invoke some mythic being floating up in heaven. Instead, chanting is a means of awakening the compassion that we already have within us: Kwan Seum Bosal’s 10,000 eyes and hands are actually our own, counted two by two.

The beauty of chanting with beginners is the utter simplicity they bring to the practice. With no expectations or preconceptions, they simply try, try, try to keep up with foreign words and strange melodies, following the beat one syllable at a time. As we circled the room repeating Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, our wood blocks, drums, shakers, castanets, and pot-lids found and flowed in their own individual rhythms, our voices united.

Halfway through, my voice started to crack & waver from the strain of chanting too much & too loudly. As I continued to chant with feeble voice, though, the sound of others swelled around me: who is this “I” who has a voice separate from the crowd, anyway? Even if my individual voice is weakened, the voices of those around me will continue, carrying us all on a groundswell of goodwill: my voice, your voice, our voice are one in the same.

If you chant & bang a wood-drum long enough, your mind sometimes plays tricks. At one point, the sound of someone’s chime, another person’s whistle, and several women’s voices blurred together to suggest another word weaving in & out of the bodhisattva’s repeated name: alleluia! alleluia! alleluia! Was this some Christian rebel chanting against the tide, or simply an auditory illusion? Or was there some ecumenical angel who came down from heaven to join our motley chorus?

In good Zen fashion, I don’t know. But maybe the energy of our chanting will reverberate into this needy world, finding those spots of sadness where another pair of hands and eyes is sorely needed. Happy New Year, world, and may 2004 bring an upswell of compassion in us all.