Question: I heard some saying that chanting certain mantras or sutras attracts spirits (ghosts) as they also want to listen to the Dharma. Is there any truth in this? If so, does it really matter, especially if I sometimes chant at night?
Answer: Some forms of chanting are directly for spirits. However, generally, just as chanting can catch the attention of seen human beings, can also catch the attention of unseen spirit beings. Whether it sustains attention is another matter. Just as not all humans are interested in chanting, not all unseen beings are. Most people, unless they are very sensitive, are unlikely to feel their presence.
The truth is, unseen beings are already kind of around us, passing by day or night without us knowing, just as undetected insects cross our paths day and night too. When there is sincere reciting, there is natural connection to the Triple Gem’s blessings and protection (of the Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha). As such, there is no need to be worried about this – especially if you have never had any strange encounters, which is the case for most. Unfounded fear of relatively rare ghostly encounters should not be an excuse for not practising chanting as it is a powerful means for reminding us of the Buddha’s teachings and deepening our understanding of them.
Some unseen beings might want to come and learn by listening to chanting, or even to practise along, while some beings might want to partake of the merits shared at the end of the chanting for their well-being. This is a reason why chanting should always be practised sincerely and mindfully – because both unseen gods and ghosts might be listening to the Dharma intoned; not just ourselves and humans we are chanting with. It is in effect, when chanting sutras, delivering sermons on the behalf of the Buddha, as spokespersons. This is a reason why chanting is so meritorious, as it shares the greatest gift possible – the Dharma, that guides all to True Happiness. Unseen beings can read our minds’ understanding of the sutras and our intentions too, which is why chanting with right knowledge and motivation can be very beneficial in ‘translating’ or simplifying the sutras for them.
Especially if there is ‘detection’ of the presence of unseen beings, it is good to chant more of, for example, Amitabha Sutra and the name of Amituofo (Amitabha Buddha) to swiftly introduce them to Amituofo and his Pure Land, and to guide them to likewise be mindful of Amituofo with the right Faith, Aspiration and Practice to be reborn in Pure Land. This is important because merely having some or even much self-cultivated or shared merits does not definitely lead to lessening of wandering spirits’ attachment to Samsara (and their lives that transpired), and it does not mean they will automatically have a skilful sense of direction, as to where to aspire to be born for further spiritual development. Without a clear direction, they might linger on, merely for merits. Even gods with wisdom appreciate redirection to Pure Land, as enlightenment is guaranteed there. Incidentally, Sakyamuni Buddha taught in the Amitabha Sutra, that anyone who is sincerely mindful of Amituofo and/or the sutra will be mindfully protected by all Buddhas. This is why we should practise sincerely.
Question: Can unseen beings sense silent chanting within our minds?
Answer: Since spirits can read minds, chanting in the mind can be heard too, but only if they happen to be reading the chanter’s mind. Chanting aloud naturally catches more attention, creating more opportunities for sharing understanding when the mind is also read. If there is ‘fear’ of chanting, it can be practised in groups at Buddhist temples and centres, before being confident to do it personally elsewhere.
Remember – most never have ghostly encounters while chanting, and it is always better to practise chanting than not to, as it benefits oneself and others. Thinking that not practising chanting is ‘safer’ as it ‘prevents’ the possibility of attracting spirits is untrue as due to two reasons. First, spirits are already naturally around many places. Second, not being well practised (and thus not well protected) is more dangerous, especially if these otherwise unseen beings tend to become seen during life’s final moments, if the mind weakens and more attuned to them.
Chanting should always be done with utmost sincerity for the best effects of personally connecting to the chanted, and for connecting others to the chanted too. This is much better than habitually entertaining useless or even harmful stray thoughts, which results in mindless mental and vocal chatter, which is witnessed by unseen beings anyway! With the diligent practice of sincere and mindful chanting, there is the experience of calmness and clarity of mind, while being spiritually recharged with blessings. Fear should not arise at all. This is why chanting is always popular among its sincere practitioners!
Question: Does chanting played from recordings attract unseen beings too?
Answer: Any sound naturally attracts seen (humans and animals) and unseen listeners (gods and ghosts, who can be around in day and night) once it it is ‘sounded’. For example, merely a radio or television turned on anywhere makes nearby humans pay attention. Whether these beings come to pay continual attention due to interest or leave due to disinterest is another matter. There are many other sights and sounds that might be of their greater interest too.
Recorded chanting lacks the ability to transmit the motivation and understanding of the chanted by the ‘live ‘chanter to benefit listeners directly. However, spirits who are wiser might be able to understand the chanted directly, without reading our ‘mental commentary’. Recorded chanting also lacks the power of blessing and protection, as it does not emit the living energy of sincerity. However, it might urge listeners to give rise to sincere practice and thus creation of blessings on their own part. In this sense, playing of chanting is better than not doing so at all, while ‘live’ chanting is always the best.
Question: Some say only chanting by monastics or those with religious backgrounds have the power to cleanse a haunted place. Is this true?
Answer: The truth is, depending on how much compassion and wisdom we have, as aligned to the Buddha’s teachings, our chanting will be correspondingly powerful in fruitful ways. However, conscientious practice of chanting itself helps to cultivate greater compassion and deeper wisdom. Generally, Buddhists have more confidence in monastics’ chanting simply because they are ideally more proficient in spiritual cultivation. However, laypeople can be proficient as well, if they are good practitioners. When we speak of ‘cleansing’ haunted places by chanting, we have to remember that it is not so much to chase away spirits out of fear or hatred, but to counsel and encourage them with compassion, to be wise by taking a better rebirth (in Pure Land), as mentioned above.