The true spiritual taboo
is to embrace the three poisons,
to let them grow unchecked.
We often hear some Buddhists gravely discouraging the practice of chanting in toilets (restrooms) and bedrooms, deeming this to be most seriously ‘disrespectful’. Is this always so? Well, if one already has disrespect on the mind, even if in the middle of an authentic Buddhist temple or centre, and in the midst of a formal chanting ceremony, one should not chant even a single word then, lest it creates negative karma for oneself while disturbing others’ peace of mind. Conversely, as long as one is respectful, it is actually alright to chant anywhere. Yet, social conventions require us to consider much more…
How did the idea that chanting should not be practised in toilets and bedrooms arise? What makes these places especially ‘forbidden’? The whole of Buddhist practice is to eradicate our three poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion, which are the roots of all suffering. Toilets are where a sense of revulsion (aversion to physical impurities excreted) habitually arise when we clear our waste, and bedrooms are where lust (intense attachment to sensual pleasures) habitually arise. As such, where these spiritual impediments arise, which counter the spirit of the Dharma, it is natural to feel inappropriate practising there.
However, it is not true that the three poisons always arise there, while they can also arise elsewhere. The best place to practise is really where we should overcome the poisons, and whenever we need mindfulness of the Dharma most. Still, out of courtesy, Buddhists tend to avoid chanting where others might misunderstand them to be disrespecting or ‘sullying’ the pure Dharma, though it can never be polluted by anything. Those hanging on to the three poisons by being truly disrespectful, or by feeling offended defile themselves. The ‘Middle Path’ for ‘tricky’ places and cases is to chant silently, but just as mindfully!
While there are many Buddhist chants that sound beautiful and pleasing (e.g. many musical renditions of the Heart Sutra), it is best not to chant (or sing) them merely for entertainment. If one does so for amusement, it would be somewhat disrespectful, missing the actual purpose of that chanted, as a spiritual guide towards enlightenment. Will Buddhas and Bodhisattvas be displeased if they know (which they do) their teachings are being used frivolously? No, actually. If they can take offence so easily, or at all, they would not be the enlightened ones they are! Even so, they would prefer that we respectfully practise the Dharma.
Those who might take offence are humans, ghosts (hungry ghosts and wandering spirits) and gods (terrestrial devas and visiting celestial devas). Yes, the last two could be around or passing by, even during our assumed ‘private’ moments. The average human would not have the ability to read the chanter’s mind, to know if he or she is chanting sincerely or not, which is why humans easily take offence. Ghosts and gods however, have the ability to perceive our intentions directly. For those who are keen about the Dharma, they might take offence with those who chant in jest. With them aside, if humans in the vicinity of the toilets and bedrooms we use already understand our good intentions, it is alright to chant there.
That said, these places are usually still avoided for chanting as it can be challenging trying to muster the sincere mind there. Imagine the mind alternating between mindfulness of defecating and that chanted in a toilet, or between wanting to be cosy and serious in a bedroom at the same time. It is still possible to have focus with practice, though the ideal place for beginners to practise is where there are less distractions, with better conditions for progress – e.g. seated upright before one’s home shrine or in the study. The busy can also use recordings in phones, computers and cars as guides for chanting verbally or silently.
We must be mindful not to repeat the admonition against chanting in toilets and bedrooms without sharing the considerations here, as the only places where some can practise chanting, due to their karmic constraints, are these very places. A dying patient, for instance, could be bedridden, or a very sick patient might need to visit the toilet very often, or even while staying in bed. We must not hamper their sincerity to practise by insisting they would be disrespectful – when it is probably the last thing they are. In haunted hotel bedrooms and their attached toilets too, chanting is needed for self-protection against potentially harmful spirits! Fearful as we might be, we should be as sincere as we can in chanting to offer merits and guidance for better rebirth out of good will.
As the 13th Patriarch of the Pure Land Tradition Great Master Yin Guang (净宗十三祖印光大师) taught, ‘From now on, as any time and as energy allows, with utmost sincerity, wholeheartedly uphold mindfulness [single-mindedly recite] of Amitabha Buddha’s sacred name [Amituofo]. Regardless of when speaking or silent, moving or still, walking, standing, sitting, reclining, meeting or sending off guests, wearing clothes or eating, you must ensure that the Buddha never leaves your mind, and that your mind never leaves the Buddha.’ (‘从此随分随力，至心持念阿弥陀佛圣号。无论语默动静，行住坐卧，迎宾送客，穿衣吃饭，务令佛不离心，心不离佛。’)
Note that the Master mentioned ‘putting on clothes’ and ‘reclining’, which are are activities usually done in toilets and bedrooms! What he suggests is to practise chanting as much as possible, even at the back of our minds if possible, when busy with something else. However, for practice with greater focus and benefits, we must also dedicate some time aside daily for solely chanting. We should also further hone our skills in retreats, while systematically learning more on that chanted in classes. Not doing would be lacking in utmost diligence and sincerity. Why not go beyond humming chants in a ‘forbidden’ zone once in a while?
The true spiritual taboo
is to embrace false taboos,
to let them spread unclarified.
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