Buddhist Chanting in Greater Philadelphia

By Pierce Salguero and Jivaka Project
Audio recordings and photography by Jivaka Project
Jivaka Project Philadelphia represents the first survey of Buddhist healers and healing in any major American city. The project has recorded a wide range of information about Buddhist temples, meditation centers, and community centers around the Greater Philadelphia area between 2015 and 2020. This multimedia and ethnographic material represents a wide range of institutions associated with a number of different Buddhist denominations and cultural/linguistic/ethnic communities, focusing on connections between Buddhism and health.

Click on the icons above to learn about different Buddhist communities in the greater Philadelphia region.

The most predominant form of Buddhism in the greater Philadelphia region is Mahayana, a variety of the religion that is most widely practiced today in East Asia. This form of Buddhism is most prevalent in Philly’s Chinese and Vietnamese communities, although there are a handful of Korean and Japanese-American temples in the area as well. Philadelphians of Southeast Asian descent — particularly Thai, Cambodian, and Lao — most commonly practice Theravada Buddhism. Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism is in Philadelphia associated with Taiwanese, Tibetan, and Kalmyk communities, although there is also a meditation center in the area that teaches Vajrayana meditations to a primarily non-Asian membership. In addition to the traditional three major sectarian divisions of Buddhism (Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana), greater Philadelphia is home to a number of modern or non-traditional Buddhist denominations.

Sound is a particularly valuable means of learning about these diverse Buddhist traditions and communities. Chanting scripture, mantras, names of deities, and other sacred texts is the most common form of devotional practice among the majority of Buddhists worldwide. Typically, the majority of the weekly service in any Buddhist temple is devoted to chanting—either by monastics or by the whole community. Participants often understand these ceremonies to impart good karma, divine protection, or, in some cases, even concrete benefits such as health. Chanting styles vary by denomination, culture, and language, and are part of what makes local traditions of Buddhism distinctive.

Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple

Excerpted audio clip.

The Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple is located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Kwan Chao is affiliated with the True Buddha School, a modern form of Esoteric Buddhism originating in Taiwan. The community predominantly speaks Chinese. In the audio clip above, monastics and laypeople chant in a typically melodic Chinese style accompanied by the rhythmic striking of a “woodenfish.” Chanting of scripture, mantras, and deity names are a central feature of Chinese Buddhist practice, considered efficacious for health, luck, and protection against many types of misfortunes. Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple was established in 1992 and is affiliated with the True Buddha Temple in Seattle.

The entrance of the Kwan Chao True Buddhist Temple in Cherry Hill, NJ.

Phat Bao Temple

Excerpted audio clip.

Phat Bao is a Mahayana Buddhist temple that serves the sizable local Vietnamese community in the surrounding neighborhood. It is family-focused, catering to attendees of all ages, and during services, holds Vietnamese language classes and Dharma talks for children in a separate area. A vegetarian meal is served to the community following the service, which is an important opportunity for social connections and for the sharing of information about health and healing among members. In the audio clip above, monastics and laypeople chant in a Vietnamese style with typically wide variation in tone, accompanied by the rhythmic striking of a “woodenfish” and occasional bells. Phat Bao Temple is located inside a repurposed synagogue.

Buddha and the main altar inside of the Phat Bao temple in Philadelphia, PA.

Pure Land Association Temple

Excerpted audio clip.

Pure Land Association is a Chinese Mahayana temple that serves a community with roots in China and Taiwan. In the audio clip above, monastics and laypeople chant in Mandarin Chinese to the Buddha Amitabha in a slow and melodic style, accompanied by bells, gongs, and drums. Amitabha, the principal deity in Pure Land Buddhism, is thought of as a beneficent and all-powerful Buddha who presides over a paradise or “Pure Land” far to the west of the ordinary human world. Pure Land Buddhists believe praying to him and chanting his name can result in being reborn into his paradise, where he delivers the consummate teachings that liberate all beings.

An altar inside the Pure Land Association Temple in Mt. Laurel, NJ.

Soryarangsey Khmer Buddhist Temple

Excerpted audio clip.

This temple is a Cambodian Theravada Buddhist organization located in a predominantly Asian neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia. In the audio clip above, a monk leads the laity in chanting scriptures in the Pali language. Some background noise is audible as members of the community prepare for the feast following the chanting. Children can be heard playing, reminding us that weekly ceremonies at Buddhist temples typically cater to multigenerational families and are social events. 

The entrance of the Soryarangsey Khmer Buddhist Temple in Philadelphia, PA.

Seabrook Buddhist Temple

Excerpted audio clip.

Although founded by Japanese Americans, Seabrook temple now serves a predominantly Caucasian congregation. It is a Jodo Shinshu temple affiliated with Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). In the audio clip above, the priest and the community chant in Pāli, Japanese, and English. The use of Pāli would be highly unusual in a Japanese temple, as this is the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. However, the appearance of both Pāli and English here reflects the eclecticism of BCA liturgies, which have been adapted to the needs and expectations of American Buddhists.
A Japanese-style garden outside of the Seabrook Buddhist Temple in Bridgeton, NJ.

Wat Dhamma Bodhivong Temple

Excerpted audio clip.

This is a Cambodian Theravada Buddhist temple with four resident monks. In the audio clip above, the monks chant scriptures in the Pali language, using the traditional monotonous style of Theravada Buddhism. Unlike in Mahayana services, where the laity chants along with clergy, the majority of Theravada ceremonies involve monks chanting alone. The sound of the Pali words is often said to have a purifying effect on the environment and all listeners, and certain chants are intended to have a role in protecting listeners from illness and misfortune. Some background noise is audible as members of the community prepare for the feast following the chanting.

An altar inside the Wat Dhamma Bodhivong Temple in Philadelphia, PA.

Won Buddhism of Philadelphia Temple

The Won Buddhist Temple of Philadelphia serves a mixed congregation of Koreans and non-Koreans. Won Buddhism is a modern reformed type of Buddhism originating in the early 20th century that retains many features of traditional Mahayana while also incorporating Western — particularly Protestant Christian — influences. These divergences are heard in the audio featured here. In the clip below, the congregation chants in a typical Korean style, accompanied by the rhythmic striking of a “woodenfish.” 

Contrast this with a second audio clip, in which the congregation sings a Western-style hymn, although accompanied by a traditional Korean drum. It is not only the sound of the hymn that draws from Western Protestantism, but the configuration of the choir, the church pews, and other aspects of Won Buddhist material culture.

Yet another style of recitation is audible in a third clip, which captures a plaintive Korean memorial prayer in honor of Won Buddhism’s founder, Master Sotaesan.

A choir sings western-style hymns during a service at the Won Buddhism of Philadelphia Temple in Glenside, PA.

These audio clips capture some of Philadelphia’s diverse Buddhist soundscape. American Buddhist communities include many different cultural, linguistic, and sectarian groups, and have connections and resonances with other traditions around the globe. Buddhism is thus a vital and thriving aspect of the metropolitan area’s religious pluralism as well as a microcosm of global Buddhism. For more information about the temples listed above, and about connections between Buddhism and healing, visit the Jivaka Project Philadelphia.

Design and production by Lauren Pond

Map by Alison Furlong

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