Healing Sounds in a Chinese Temple

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By Malcolm Hunt

It is 4:30am in the morning. A blanket of fog has descended upon the monastery in the small valley. There are small flickers of light coming from some of the rooms as the monks prepare for the morning ritual. All is completely silent apart from the quaint tintinnabulation of a cricket residing somewhere beneath the bushes next to the meditation hall of this old Qing Dynasty Chinese Temple. It is as if the cricket is ringing his own tiny bell to awaken our senses.

Participants in the temple stay have wobbled out of bed and in a somnambulant state enter the temple to take their places. A monk lights the taper to the altar lamp, incense is lit and woody and amber tones of perfume fill the crisp air. Small sounds are being born. The shuffle of the monk’s feet, the striking of the match and now the gentle humming tone as the monk chants softly stopping in front of each statue to pay homage with the incense.

Sound has so often been related to healing. This is well documented. The famous French doctor Tomatis bases his entire healing work upon sound vibrations. Here in this Chinese Buddhist temple amidst the mountains, sound is about to play its healing role. The Abbott of the monastery takes his place in front of the huge temple bell and strikes it with a heavy blow of a large wooden post. The bell emits a booming vibration. Another strike. Yet another. Each time the bell vibrations gather momentum and there is a pulsating humming within the temple. Temple stay retreat participants feel their bodies vibrating with each hammer of the gigantic bell. The monk is now chanting in time with the bell producing an almost hypnotic effect. The bell is not just waking us up. It awakens inner healing and stimulates spiritual healing.

The monk ceases the bell ringing yet the resonance remains then gradually fades back into silence. Another monk strikes a large drum on the other side of the temple producing this time a deeper pulsation. Sarah Bell Dougherty in her article Music and the Healing Arts: Sunrise Magazine 1992 states: “Various types of sound, however, affect distinct areas of the brain and so produce dissimilar results. Tomatis, for example, distinguishes strongly between the action of higher frequencies, such as those found in Gregorian and Tibetan chants, which energize the person and awaken the higher consciousness, and the hypnotic effect of lower frequencies predominating in certain types of drumming.” As sojourners in our Chinese temple stay we all felt “something” happening within us and whatever that “something” was, it was certainly good.

Next the monks begins to strike a large wooden fish called a ‘muyu’ in time with the chanting of the sutras. The wooden striking sound seems to punctuate and implant the sutras deep within the mind; each sound plays its spiritual healing role. Indeed, we all felt that this was about inner spiritual healing. In Tibetan Buddhism as in Chinese Buddhism sound plays a central role in spiritual healing. As the sutra chanting gave way to mantra chanting the monks seemed to be in semi-hypnotic trance. The words and tones are ancient and the magic and mystery ignites the soul.

I have heard it said from many participants at a Chinese temple stay whether Buddhist or not, that “something special” happens in the temple and people return to their daily life changed or healed in some small way. The Chinese temple is a mix of sound which somehow provides inner and spiritual healing.

 

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