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Saturday, February 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Chanting crosses all the lines of faith'

Seattle Times religion reporter

The chants have come down the ages, by way of Sufi mystics, Jewish kabbalists, Buddhist spiritualists, Gregorian Christian monks.

The sound is hard to describe but easy to pick up on, heirs to the four faiths say. To the rabbi, chanting is poetry of the heart. Harmony in an unbalanced world, the Buddhist offers. A desert breeze on the back of the neck - or the breath of God - the Sufi Muslims say.

But to the Christian in this group, Dent Davidson, chanting is the answer to a mundane prayer. There's only one song everyone in America knows the tune and words to, he laments. Happy Birthday.

Davidson is liturgist for St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral and one of four organizers of an ambitious experiment in interfaith understanding - a day of audience-participation chanting in the tradition of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity.

St. Mark's will host the event - "The Mystical Chant: Interfaith Gateway to the Divine" - next Saturday in celebration of World Day of Prayer.

"Chanting crosses all the lines of faith," Davidson said. "Many cultures have chanting, but as a society, we just don't gather in song very much. Our society doesn't have a common song other than `Happy Birthday' or maybe the national anthem. But we can chant together. It's something that's traditional, that helps us center and discover our inner selves."

The event is a departure from the usual World Day of Prayer services. Church Women United, an ecumenical Christian organization, sets aside the first Friday in March as a day for Protestants, Catholics and other Christians to pray together.

The Seattle service, the following day so it doesn't conflict with the Jewish sabbath, is the result of a phone conversation between Davidson and Joy Carey, a counseling psychologist whose spiritual search led her a few years ago to Sufism, the mystical expression of Islam.

"Everyone is seeking the same reality in different ways," Carey says. "I've tried interfaith dialogue and it always gets bogged down in people trying to convince everyone else of their beliefs. For me, music is one of the languages of the soul. It gets through all that verbiage."

Davidson and Carey enlisted Rabbi Ted Falcon of Bet Alef Meditational Synagogue and Greg Eisen of the Dharma Sound Zen Center to help plan the event. Each will bring a choir that will teach audience members traditional chants.

In the case of each faith, the sound comes from the distant past.

"The earliest music in the Jewish service had to do with the chanting of the Torah," Falcon said. Over time, the written Hebrew alphabet gained other symbols, directions for chanting ancient melodies.

The first directions for chanting were found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia in the 13th century, a time of expansion of the mystical teachings of the kabbalah.

Abulafia combined the sounds of the many Hebrew names for God with choreographed movements of the head and hands, Falcon said, and a new way of connecting with the spiritual self was discovered.

Bet Alef's choir has 28 members, directed by Stephen Merritt. Its name, Tiferet, comes from the space on the kabbalistic Tree of Life that stands for beauty.

Members of the Dharma Sound Zen Center group chant as part of daily meditations and retreats at meeting halls in Seattle, Redmond, Tacoma and Orcas Island, said Eisen, an optometrist and Buddhist teacher-in-training.

The group is part of the Kwan Um school established in the U.S. in 1972 by a Korean zen master, Seung Sahn.

"Chanting is a form of meditation used to calm the mind and deepen one's insight," Eisen said. "It helps us get in touch with our most wise, most compassionate self."

Taneen, the Sufi music ensemble, comes from San Rafael, Calif. The name means "divine breath," and the group uses ancient and modern instruments - the Persian tar and zarb along with the guitar and keyboard - as backing for its chants.

"The outer form of what they do is different from the other groups," Carey said. "But the intention and the goal is the same for all of us. If you listen to people who are sincere in honoring the divine mystery, it can have a powerful effect. It can open hearts to others and help them understand their own mystical tradition, too."

Eisen's hope "is that this will broaden people's minds to groups other than their own and to help them recognize other paths than their own. Hopefully it will become an inspiration to create a little more harmony in the world. The world needs as much harmony as it can get to relieve some of the suffering on the planet."

The planners hope the day of chanting becomes an annual World Day of Prayer event.

"We've never seen this before, never tried this before," said Davidson. "Who knows how it will work. But the idea is heart-opening, sharing the universal together without talking about all the things we disagree on.

"I think chanting together will elevate the discussions between us to a more holy level."

Sally Macdonald's message number is 206-464-2248. Her e-mail address is smacdonald@seattletimes.com

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Join the chanting

"The Mystical Chant - Interfaith Gateway to the Divine," featuring audience-participation chanting from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian traditions, will be from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. next Saturday at St. Mark's Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle.

Tiferet, a choir from Bet Alef Meditation Synagogue, leads chanting from 10:45-11:15 a.m. and 3:30-4 p.m.

Taneen, a Sufi ensemble, from 11:15-11:45 a.m. and from 3- to 3:30 p.m.

St. Mark's choir, 11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 2:30-3 p.m.

Dharma Sound Zen Center's group from 12:15-12:45 p.m. and 2-2:30 p.m.

Esther "Little Dove" John, a flutist, will perform a "chakra clearing" to enhance the spiritual effects of the chanting from 1:30-2 p.m.

In a related event, Shah Nazar Seyed Ali Kianfar, co-founder of the International Association of Sufism, will speak at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday at Stillpoint Center for Spirituality, 1111 Harvard Ave.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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