Taoist Chant, Mantra, and Invocations

Taoist philosophy is now well documented in English through the many translations of primary works such as the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, Wen Tzu, and so on. Certain types of meditative practices, chiefly inner alchemy practices involving the circulation of energy through various channels in the body, have also been popularized in the West by teachers such as Mantak Chia. And the use of Qigong (Chi Kung) energy exercises for health and longevity is now available in videos and books by teachers like Kenneth Cohen.

However, the religious side of Taoism, including ritual practices and chanting, is still almost completely unknown in the West. You can get some feel for what it involves, and how it relates to philosophical Taoism, in works like Taoist Master Chuang by Michael Saso and The Taoist Body by Kristofer Shipper. However, neither of these works is a how-to or instructional book.

A number of difficult issues arise for the Westerner interested in Taoist chant, including

  • Taoist chant seems to be mostly done in Chinese, and Chinese is a language of everyday use rather than a specialized liturgical language like Sanskrit (or Latin). Is there any significance for a Westerner to chant in Chinese, or would it be better to perform Taoist devotions in English? I doubt that there is a single answer, but it would seem that English is better for conveying the meaning of a text, but Chinese is better for communicating the feeling or intuition that goes beyond the literal meaning, especially when recited to a traditional melody.
      
  • The written form of Chinese represents the meaning rather than the sound of a word, so seeing the text written in Chinese gives you no clue how to pronounce it. On the other hand, when Chinese is transliterated into the Western alphabet, the usual Pinyin system assigns far different values to many of the letters than you would guess from English phonentics.
      
  • Most transliterations of Chinese into the Western alphabet do not capture the tones or pitch changes which completely alter the meaning of the word. So, a Westerner reading aloud from transliterated Chinese text would probably still sound nonsensical to a Chinese listener.
      
  • Another paradox relating to tones is that Chinese chanting is often done to a fixed melody or a flat monotone unlike normal speech. It seems like this should make it very difficult for Chinese people to understand a chant or a song by listening to it. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if the choice of melody is constrained in some way so as to avoid changing the meaning of the words. Another curious question is how a tone-deaf person fares in Chinese society(!).

It should be clear by this point that I am not a Chinese speaker nor an expert of any kind on Taoist ritual or chant. But the subject has been so difficult to research that I thought it might be worthwhile to share my small gleanings, in the hope of stimulating others to publish more complete information. Following are links to pages with the information that I have been able to find:

 



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Border at left adapted from Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey, trans. Stephen Mitchell.

Copyright 2003 by Joseph F. Morales