Awakening the Drum
“I beat upon the Dharma drum, announcing my search for Dharma in the four directions”
— Lotus Sutra,
Psychology and science have identified both drumming and mindfulness meditation as helpful therapy for everything from stress to memory loss to supportive cancer care. This is not new science. Since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, we have known about the stress-reducing benefits of both mindfulness and drumming.
Bringing the two together — mindfulness and drumming — can be life-changing. Even one session of meditation, focused on a drum’s beat, demonstrates how powerful this ancient meditation method can be in our stressful modern lives. The powerful and compelling rhythm of drums can still and focus the mind — the quick path to mindfulness.
More than 2500 years ago, the drum was an important component of various Buddhist traditions. “In Buddha’s time, the gong and drum were used to gather everyone to announce the precepts, meal times, Dharma talks.” Today, most Buddhist temples and monasteries of most traditions use drums in practice, and increasingly and significantly, in meditation practice.
Buddha’s Drum: Sutra of the Great Dharma Drum
It is very important to emphasize how meaningful drums were in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. The “Dharma Drum” is the name of a sutra, “Sutra of the Great Dharma Drum.” A Zen organization that adopted the name Dharma Drum for their meditation centres, described why they chose the name: “The term “dharma drum” comes from the Lotus Sutra.”
The Many Roles of Drums in Buddhism
The drum has a long history in Buddhist traditions: from the mindfulness support of the big drum in Mahayana Buddhism, to the “wakefulness” support of the fish drum in Zen, to the hauntingly beautiful use of various drums in Tibetan ritual.
Drums play an important role in Buddhist Chod, Tantra and other esoteric practices. Sound is
also considered one of the eight sensory
offerings to the Enlightened Beings, and
playing the drum or the bell are considered
to be very profound offerings.
Sound is as one of the eight sensory offerings traditionally offered in Mahayana Buddhist tradition.
When we burn incense, we symbolically present the scent or smell offering. Flowers please the sight sense. Food the taste sense. The drum or the chanting of a mantra represents the hearing sensory offering. Many serious practitioners make daily or weekly or monthly sensory offerings.
In regular practice, such as during sutra or sadhana recitation, the drums are often used with bells, gongs and other sounds for a number of purposes: to draw attention, to give thanks (offering) and sometimes to purify. Drums and bells are used by most Mahayana practitioners use drums regularly, in liturgy, to call the daily meditation or to make offerings.
What is Shamanic Drumming?
Shamanic drumming is drumming for the purpose of inducing a range of ecstatic trance states in order to connect with the spiritual dimension of reality.
Practiced in diverse cultures around the planet, this drum method is strikingly similar the world over.
In almost all ancient tribal and traditional societies drums were and still are used in rituals, ceremonies, celebration, and as a form of communication.
Many cultures use elemental beats or rhythums in their drumming that may vary in sound depending on the culture. Some utilize three of the elements while others use as many as five. The Native American cultures believe "the rhythm of the drum facilitates healing and alignment of the four realms of human existance: mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical." In West Africa, these traditional beats consisted of earth, fire, mineral, nature, and water.
Shamanic drumming uses a repetitive rhythm that begins slowly and then gradually builds in intensity to a tempo of three to seven beats per second. The ascending tempo will induce light to deep trance states, and facilitate the shamanic techniques of journeying, shapeshifting, and divination.
Practitioners may progress through a series of trance states until they reach the level that is necessary for healing to occur. When ready to exit the trance state, the practitioner simply slows the tempo of drumming, drawing consciousness back to normal. Shamanic drumming continues to offer today what it has offered for thousands of years: namely, a simple and effective technique of ecstasy.
Sacred Awakening of the Drum
In the shaman's world, everything is alive. A drum is regarded as a living organism; not as an object. The drum has a spirit. It is said that when you are ready, the drum will choose you and that you must awaken the drum to begin your spiritual journey together.
Each drum has its own unique voice and vibration. According to Shannon Thunderbird, "the animal and tree from which it was made have their own unique medicine and their spirits are part of the drum."
This is why the drummer, especially those involved in Native American Healing, take great pride and has a closely connected involvement in the making or selection of their drum.
During this ceremony of awakening, there are also prayers and the giving of thanks to the animal and tree that gave their lives for the creation of the drum, prayers and ritual smudging of the drum and drummer before it is played, and prayers to the people who hear the teaching of the drum.