The Practice of Singing Along

by Yutang Lin

In order to perform fire sacrifices to Buddhas and Protectors of Dharma on the sacred mountain in Cazadero, California, or to offer precious vases to the Dragon King at his palace located in Timber Cove, Jenner, California, I often drove five hours to make the round trip. On my way I played song tapes to keep myself awake. At first I played only the chanting of Amitabha Buddha or that of the mantra of Avalokitesvara. Gradually, based upon my understanding of the teachings of Buddha, I formulated the idea of using the same setup to do a more difficult practice. Instead of passively listening to the repetitive chanting and singing along out of memory, I would listen to songs that were not monotonous and actively sing along simultaneously and instinctively. For its difficulty, this would be a more advanced practice; but for its directness to using our sense of hearing, this might be regarded as a basic practice.

The first tape I used is "ET L'AMOUR CREA LA FEMME," sung by Julio Iglesias. I chose a French tape, because I don't know French, thereby my hearing of the sounds would not be interfered with by my natural attempt to associate the meanings of the words. Another advantage of not knowing the language is that I could not pronounce the words according to habit, as is often the case when one sings along in languages that one knows. Not until I had practiced with this tape for over a year did I begin to try other song tapes in other languages.

So far I have practiced with songs in French, Spanish, Japanese, Cantonese and Mandarin. Among these five languages, Mandarin is the only one that I know, and it is also the most recent one that I have tried. I have made a tape recording of my singing along that contains songs in these five languages. Originally it was made to amuse my parents and folks at home in Taiwan, but later I have also presented some copies of this tape to Buddhist friends so that the idea of doing this practice would get across and people's interest in this practice would be aroused.

In doing this practice, what one is trying to achieve is not the memorization of songs, but rather to hear each sound clearly and pronounce it concurrently. Using Buddhist terminology this may be described as "attaining immediate realization of pure perception." In order to achieve this seemingly simple task, one's mind should be free from the preoccupation of thoughts; furthermore, one should neither anticipate nor memorize any sound. This practice involves changing situations (the variations of sounds in songs) and a calm and stable mind, thereby it trains one to act in concentration and this amounts to making use of one's meditative concentration in one's actions. Usually the natural order of things is to learn to concentrate first, and then, after one has already obtained some capability in concentration, one learns to make use of concentration in actions. Thus this is a more advanced practice. After I had been doing this practice for months, when I began to sing along, I naturally entered into a meditative state, just as if I were sitting in meditation.

There were many times, when I was singing along with songs in foreign languages, that tears began to drip down from my eyes. The reason being that deep down I felt that the basic natures of people, who speak different languages, are exactly the same. We have lived in delusions that are based on superficial differences for far too long!

Now, when I am singing along, sometimes I don't sense that there is an "I" in between---the song played and the one sung along are directly related as one; there is no trace of the discriminating sense that the song sung along has gone through the process of my listening and that of my imitating.

Having practiced singing along for the past few years I feel that my sphere of hearing has often remained open and clear; it has become less likely that my hearing of the sounds outside is obstructed by my preoccupation with my thoughts.

If you are interested in doing this practice, my suggestion is that you had better begin with a song tape in a language that you don't know. Thus it would be easier for you to hear the sounds as they are. You should sing along immediately, sound by sound, instead of singing along section by section from memory. Don't worry about making mistakes. The key to success, in this practice, is simply not to worry. At first it would be easier to use the same tape for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, don't ever try to memorize any part of the tape. After you feel a bit comfortable in this practice, then you may gradually switch to other tapes and other languages. Eventually one may try to do this practice in a familiar language, but then one has to learn to undo the emotional and meaningful effects of that language.

The practice of singing along is obviously different from the practice of chanting holy names or mantras. However, one may apply the method of this practice to the practice of chanting: simply play a tape of chanting and then sing along. Thus the practice of chanting becomes more profound, because one is no longer chanting from memory, which is still within the scope of our thinking mind, but by intuition, which is beyond the scope of our thinking mind.

First draft: 01/24/88
Second draft: 02/03/88;
thanks to the proofreadings and suggestions by Ms. Kathleen Gorman and Dr. Juan Bulnes.

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