“I beat upon the Dharma drum, announcing my search for Dharma in the four directions”
— Lotus Sutra, Chapter 12
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.
“The first sound everyone on Earth heard was the sound of our mother’s heartbeat,” writes Jennifer Tarnacki in her feature Your Brain on Drumming. “Our relationship with rhythm began in the womb.” 
Psychology and science have identified both drumming and mindfulness meditation as helpful therapy for everything from stress to memory loss to supportive cancer care. The first person to explicitly identify drumming and music as a healing practice was likely Pythagoreas, around the time of the Buddha. 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.
Drumming for Mindfulness: Near-Instantaneous Results?
Lately, I’ve been personally using the drum as an assist for “mindfulness” — to help still my overworked monkey mind. The driving beat of a drum provides a sharp focus that brings instant mindful clarity. For me, personally, the practice of traditional mindfulness, while simply focusing on breath hasn’t been very successful, due to my over-active mind and stress levels. Alternate meditations, such as active body scanning, or logic meditation invariably doesn’t work well for my busy mind either. Vajrayana visualization practices, under the guidance of my teacher, helped considerably, giving me a sacred focal point — but my mind still constantly wanders off on its own.
Last year, I attended a teaching meditation weekend, focused on Mahamudra, taught by the most Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. The weekend was spiritually inspiration in more ways than one. I reported in Buddha Weekly, at that time:
“In a nice surprise for the many attendees of a much-anticipated Mahamudra retreat, Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche—an internationally respected Buddhist teacher—was joyously “drummed in” by people from the local native community. Kathy Hopson, who helped organize, explained: “it is customary to Drum in an Elder or Healer out of Respect.”
I found the drumming-in tradition, and the magnificent chanting mesmerizing — which put me in a great frame of mind for a full weekend of meditation with Rinpoche. Since then, the drum has found its way into my daily meditations. I found “drumming for mindfulness” transformed my practice overnight.
With the powerful, monotonous, punctuated sound of a regularly beating fish drum, chod drum, damaru drum — or even an upside-down pot — I can achieve a mindful state almost instantly. With other methods, for me, it can take half an hour just to get “in the mindful zone.” I was first introduced to the drum through chod practice, but I later found that if I used the drum also in my mindfulness sessions — or even as a precursor to visualization and sadhana — my sessions become much more intense and fulfilling.
Of course, it’s widely accepted that mindfulness meditation in any form is beneficial to mind and body. Before I suggest a couple ways to easily use the drum for mindfulness, it’s worth summarizing what science says about drums. Many independent studies demonstrate drums may be a viable therapy for everything from stress and depression, to assistance with memory loss in Parkinsons, to actually encouraging the growth of cancer-fighting killer t-cells. And, as an aside, I find drumming beneficial in my personal situation: for pain reduction of arthritis.
[For tips on using drums in mindfulness meditation, please refer to last section of this feature article.]
Science and Psychology: Drumming as Therapy for Both Mind and Body
In Psychology Today, therapist Gary Diggins is quoted as saying: “We moderns are the last people on the planet to uncover what older cultures have known for thousands of years: The act of drumming contains a therapeutic potential to relax the tense, energize the tired, and soothe the emotionally wounded.” 
Michael Drake, an advocate of daily drumming, also highlighted the health benefits of drumming: “Furthermore, recent studies demonstrate that the innate modules of rhythm, like percussion or dance, provide a secular approach to … applying spiritual perspectives. The American Journal of Public Health reviewed drum therapy in its April 2003 edition concluding … drumming directly supports the introduction of spiritual factors found significant in the healing process.” 
Korean Percussion: Monks play the Big Drum:
Evidence-Based Benefits of Drumming for Health
An interesting article on the 16 benefits of playing an instrument, which include: reducing stress, strengthing the immune system, using every part of the brain, and increasing memory capability. Worth a read>>According to a well-cited article on Green Med, there are six evidence-based benefits to drumming (beyond the enhanced mindfulness aspect):
- Reduces blood pressure, anxiety and stress: 2014 study published in Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine.
- Improves cognitive function: 2014 study in Journal of Huntington’s Disease.
- Pain Reduction: 2012 study published in Evolutionary Psychology
- Improve Immunity: 2011 study published in Alternative Therapies and Health Medicine
- Induces Theta; enhanced meditation: 2004 study published in the Journal Multiple Sclerosis
- Depression and Emotional Disorders: 2001 study published in the Journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 
Psychology: Drumming for Depression
Since depression is one of the fastest growing problem areas in psychological treatment, drumming may be a particularly easy and helpful treatment option for mild cases of depression, possibly even reducing reliance on drugs.
In a story in the Telegraph, drumming was described as viable therapy for depression: “Researchers found that adults who were given music therapy sessions, in which they played drums or instruments such as xylophones, showed fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety than those who just had standard counselling.
They suggest that it helped patients express their emotions as well as well as being a pleasurable activity in its own right.” 
Drum Body Response: Production of Cancer Killing T-Cells
Rober Muller, Ph.D, writes: “Neurologist Barry Bittman, who co-developed a program for REMO called Health Rhythms with music therapist Christine Stevens, found that group drumming and recreational music making increases the body’s production of cancer-killing t-cells, decreases stress, and can change the genomic stress marker. Bittman says drumming “tunes our biology, orchestrates our immunity and enables healing to begin.”
Even a bucket or garbage can works fine, as demonstrated by stickStoff:
Professor Muller also emphasizes the benefits in treating depression and trauma: “For individuals coping with depression, anxiety, or trauma, there is something more intuitive and liberating about communicating through music. Some find the combination of group therapy and drumming effective as it brings more contemporary approaches to mental health together with creative and non-judgmental expression of emotions.”
The long list of health benefits also includes: “… eating disorders, children with autism, cancer patients, war veterans living with PTSD, individuals with anger management issues, people with addictions, and even Alzheimer’s patients, drumming offers physical and emotional benefits.”  Drumming therapy is now available in major hospitals and clinics.
The Professor ended with some good advice: “For many seeking the benefits of therapy, an hour spent creating music and an hour spent in therapeutic drumming is an hour well spent.”
Drumming for Memory: American Psychological Association
In addition to concrete health, stress reduction, and pain-relief benefits, the American Psychological Association has identified drumming and sound as promising therapy for memory loss, especially Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s: “Since the rhythmic pulses of music can drive and stabilize this disorientation, we believe that low-frequency sound might help with these conditions,” Bartel says. He is leading a study using vibroacoustic therapy with patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease. The hope is that using the therapy to restore normal communication among brain regions may allow for greater memory retrieval…”
The article identified a specific case: “We’ve already seen glimmers of hope in a case study with a patient who had just been diagnosed with the disorder,” Bartel says. “After stimulating her with 40-hertz sound for 30 minutes three times a week for four weeks, she could recall the names of her grandchildren more easily, and her husband reported good improvement in her condition.” 
Drumming for Theta: The Relaxed Mind Through Rhythm
Drumming repetitively at about four beats per second, has been proven to relax the mind, inducing either Alpha or Theta in nearly all participants in studies on the effect of drumming. 
An abstract from the US Library of Medicine by Professor Winkelman, concluded, from a study: “Research reviews indicate that drumming enhances recovery through inducing relaxation and enhancing theta-wave production and brain-wave synchronization. Drumming produces pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self. Drumming alleviates self-centeredness, isolation, and alienation, creating a sense of connectedness with self and others. Drumming provides a secular approach to accessing a higher power and applying spiritual perspectives.” 
Our normal awake mind is in Beta. Alpha is a more relaxed state, 9-13 Hz, characterized by “relaxed, calm, lucid, not thinking.” Not thinking sounds distinctly useful in mindfulness practice. Theta is one level of relaxation lower, at 4-8 Hz, which is characteristic of very deep meditation and mental imagery. The Theta state, is normally only achieved by very experienced meditators. However, with a drum, even novice meditators can obtain the state of total relaxation and lucid not-thinking.
Buddha’s Drum: Sutra of the Great Dharma Drum
To put drums in context, I thought it might be important to emphasize how important drums were in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Of course, 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.” From the Lotus Sutra, chapter 12: “I beat upon the Dharma drum, announcing my search for Dharma in the four directions” 
In another example, Buddha described a time when his cycle of teachings would fade. Not surprisingly — and indicative of the cultural prevalence of drums in Buddha’s time — he used a drum metaphor in the teaching:
“Imagine a gigantic drum where if someone drums it, it can be heard for miles around, it is so awesome. But suppose this drum, over time develops little cracks in the drum skin (the drum head) from being hit all the time. So the cracks get repaired but the head of the drum is never the same – it’s like it’s got a scar where the skin has been cracked. And over time from all the relentless drumming, more and more cracks appear. As the skin gets repaired, more and more scars appear in it. It finally reaches the point where when you bang on the skin of the gigantic drum, rather than a huge reverberation that can be heard miles around, only a dull thud that can barely be heard a few meters away. This is an analogy of how the Buddha said that his teaching will start disappearing. We are starting to see this happening right now.” 
For a metaphor to be powerful and resonant, it must be a universally accepted image. Clearly, drums were very important in Buddha’s time.
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.
Through the centuries, the drum was also central to many other spiritualities and religions, from ancient shamanism — documented use of more than 25,0000 years ago — to Medieval Catholic ritual, to ceremonies in numerous religions. The earliest known spirituality — broadly defined as shamanism — relied on the drum to journey into the mind and spiritual insights. Cave drawings dating to 25,000 years ago show the central role of drumming.
Recently, I added drumming to my meditation practice, greatly enhancing my ability to still my “monkey mind.” The trance-like effect of drumming also improved my visualizations in more formal sadhana practices. It doesn’t matter whether I use the fish drum, a chod drum, damaru, or the single-sided shaman drum, drumming prior to the formal practice, stills my mind and makes visualization meditation almost “easy.” The trance-like effect of the drum, intensifies the mind’s focus, allowing truly vivid and profound visualizations. Mindfulness of “beat” and “sound” rather than breath. I decided to research the role the drum plays in different Buddhist traditions, and what the teachers say about drums and drumming.
Mahayana Buddhism: The Great Offering
In Mahayana traditions, we daily take refuge in the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We also speak of the Body of the Buddha, Speech of the Buddha and Mind of the Buddha. As symbols, we often represent the Buddha with a statue, image or symbol, the Speech with a Sutra or sometimes a bell/drum (for the sound of speech), and the Mind often a Stupa.
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.
Zen/Chan Buddhists and Drumming
Zen Buddhism and the discipline of martial arts are often thought of as complimentary. The practice of drumming, as a means to focus the mind — and to inspire discipline — is well established in both Kung Fu and Zen/ChanBuddhism. The International sensation, Tao, from Japan, takes this to the ultimate art in terms of discipline (see video below), but even the most humble Zen temple has a fish drum for both the call to meditation, and as a mindfulness aid.
“The mokugyo, or fish drum, is used in Zen monasteries to keep the beat during the chanting of the liturgy,” according to the Zen Mountain Monastery. “Its deep, rich tone makes it clear why the image of the fish—symbolic of wakefulness—is used.”
In Zen, there are many methods to still the mind, from creating gardens to sweeping the floor, to the recitation of Sutra, to martial arts training, to meditations on the breath and shunyata. It may seem counter-intuitive, that the energizing sound of the drum can still the mind, but a half-hour of chanting with a fish drum will quickly change any meditator’s mind. And watching the performance of super-disciplined and coordinated martial arts drummers has a similar impact:
International drumming sensation, Tao:
Korean Buddhism: Drum for the Fish, Cloud Gong for the Birds
In Korea, Buddhist monks play the drums, gongs and bells daily. Public drumming performances in Korea by Buddhist monks have become an art form, as it has in Japan.
Public Performance with Buddhist Drums:
At one level, the drum, cloud gong and bell are intended as blessings: the fish drum blesses all creatures of the water, the cloud gong, the birds and flying creatures and the bell, everything in and under heaven. At another, it is an intense form of meditation. Watching a monk play the giant drum, shows near trance-like intensity, a form of mindfulness focus that is vivid and deep.
Chan Buddhism: Dharma Drum Talks
“The wooden fish is used by monks to alert themselves to have a spiritual sense of shame, practice diligently, and not to be lazy,” said Master Sheng Yen, a Chinese Buddhist monk, a religious scholar, and one of the mainstream teachers of Chan Buddhism, who passed away in 2009. Master Sheng Yen was the founder of the Dharma Drum Centre. “The wooden-fish clapper serves to remind Buddhist practitioners to have the path of the bodhisattva in … ” 
In a teaching, Master Sheng Yen said, “There’s a story behind that fish.” He explained the legendary story of the eight dragons and of the Fish Makala — the significance of the fish Makala in the context of “always open eyes.” Fish do not close their eyes, symbolic of constant alertness and mindfulness desired in Chan Buddhist practice.
“The Buddha told his disciples, to be diligent and work hard at the cultivation, to emulate the spirit of the fish.” See video below:
Master Sheng Yen on the significance of the fish drum:
Vajrayana Buddhism: the Blissful Drum
It is often said that the bell, vajra (dorje) and drum are the penultimate symbols of Vajrayana practice. The profundity of these symbols has been previously discussed in our feature: “Bell and Dorje, Wisdom and Compassion.” At its simplest, or most profound distillation, the bell can be said to represent “the wisdom of emptiness,” the vajra embodies “compassion,” while the drum — such as damaru or chod drums — express “bliss.” Ultimately, together they express “the compassionate wisdom of blissful emptiness.”
The drum and other instruments are extensively used in public pujas — both to summon people and to propel liturgy or ritual — but also in deep meditation practices such as recitation, mantra practice, sadhana, mindfulness, and offerings. They are also used to “celebrate” festivals, to make special offerings.
Sound also symbolically reaches beyond the mundane, calling out to (or blessing) all sentient beings of all realms. The Chod drum’s sound, often with small bells attached to the drum, are said to be the “voice of the Dakinis” and carry blessings, but also help propel the intense meditation visualization of Chod practice.
How to Play the Chod Drum with Lama Jinpa:
Chod Drum: The Voice of Emptiness
The iconic symbol of Chod is the Chod Drum. In a description of a teaching to be given by the Venerable Zasep Rinpoche at Gaden Choling Toronto, Chod was described this way: ” “Chod practice was developed by Mahig Labdron, a highly realized Dakini from the 12th century,” explains the Gaden Choling poster for the event. “The purpose of the practice is to develop wisdom and compassion; to heal the sick, remove obstacles, and to purify an environment of negative forces using peaceful means.”
In a feature covering the event, we wrote: “Chod means “to cut”, as in to “cut the ego”. Chod practice is, arguably, the most misunderstood practice among non-practitioners, due to the intense visualizations some people describe as haunting and almost overwhelming moving. Chod is among the most profound of the purification practices in Vajrayana. There is no faster way to “cut the ego.”” 
Perhaps the most beautiful performer of meditative Buddhist Drumming is from the internationally popular Buddhist Nun and singer Ani Choying Drolma. Listening to her steady, drumming and gorgeous chanting is itself an uplifting meditation:
In a similar event posting, this one from Tara Mandala, Chod was described as semi-shamanic, and the importance of the drum was emphasized: “Chöd is a unique blend of the Tibetan Shamanic traditions and the Buddhist tradition of compassion and emptiness. This centuries-old practice is sung and is accompanied by the use of a traditional Chöd drum and bell. Healing comes when fear, fixation, and self-clinging are cut through, based on nurturing not fighting what assails us, giving rise to the awareness of the empty nature of afflictive emotions… The chöd practice requires a chöd drum and bell.” 
Due to it’s profundity, Chod practice generally requires a teacher and instruction to perform. Playing the drum, in any of its forms, does not, and is of immense help to meditators around the world.
Monk on the drum:
Mindfulness with Drumming: A How-To
Using the drum for mindfulness practice does not require a teacher or extensive learning, and in fact could be considered easier to practice (by some, such as myself) than meditation on the breath.
This mini-how-to is strictly based on my own practice, and clearly there are no rules. The goal of drumming for mindfulness is identical to any other mindfulness meditation. It has the same benefits, but in some cases a faster result. Outside of any spiritual context, drumming for mindfulness is also recommended as a stress-reduction therapy by various therapists.
Drumming, or any form of percussion, provides a very hard to ignore focus for mindfulness. It’s as simple as taking your favorite meditation technique, and adding the drum as the focal point, rather than the breath. You can either drum for yourself (which has extra benefits: the live sound of a drum is very moving), or use a drumming MP3 or recording.
The steps are literally 1,2,3:
Sit and get comfortable. Alternately, some people prefer to stand or even dance while drumming.
Using any drum, drum a regular, monotonous beat. You can beat quickly, which tends to induce a Theta response (helpful for visualization practices in Vajrayana, for example), or slowly. A heart beat, ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump has also been identified as therapeutic.
Drum for at least 15 minutes. I find 30 better. Simply focus on the beat (rather than your breath). Become the sound. As always, with mindfulness, if the mind drifts, just refocus gently back on the beat. If images appear, just observe. Be the listener (observer).
Useful Variants: Don’t be Afraid to Try…
There are so many ways to appreciate the benefits of drumming for mindfulness. Drum circles, and drumming dance are two provocative and powerful methods. They enhance mindfulness and stress-reduction benefits at a group level. Here are some other useful variants:
- Drum while visualizing, if this is part of your practice. Visualization meditation has extra health benefits. (See our story on Visualization vs. Mindfulness>>)
- Drum while chanting mantras, if this is part of your practice. Even if you don’t have a teacher, non-permission based mantras such as Om Mani Padme Hum can be beneficial. See our story on mantras: Part 1: Mantras: Setting the Mind Free>> or Part 2 Mantras: Good Vibrations>> or Part 3: Mantras: There’s a Mantra for That>>)
- Drum while walking: similar benefits to walking meditation.
- Drumming outside in nature: very relaxing, if you don’t disturb the neighbors.
- Play a drumming tape and meditate to the sound.
- Use drumming before formal practices such as sadhanas, as it can put your mind in a better state (more relaxed, easier to visualize) for practice.
- Try different drums. For instance, due to my arthritis, I now prefer an open hoop drum. Chod drums have a very powerful sound. Damarus are very striking. Garbage cans turned over can be magnificent, as demonstrated in many drumming street performances.
- If there are drumming circles in your neighborhood, try them out, they’re a blast.
- If your neighbors complain, try a pillow. (Not kidding, see the drumming the pillow video below:
Drumming on a pillow is handy if your neighbors complain:
Types of Drums: They All Work, Even a Bucket
All types of drums work for mindfulness and therapeutic use. Find one that is comfortable for you and is all about sound. Drums with beaters or sticks are probably better for mindfulness practice than hand drums because the striking sensation on the hand can be distracting.
Find what works for you. Even though I practice formally in Chod and with the Dhamaru, I had a very light weight hoop drum made up with a well padded beater (stick.) To make it part of my formal practice, however, I decorated a non-traditional hoop drum. I use it in place of more traditional Tibetan drums, except when I’m with a group in a formal session. My reason is practical. I have arthritis, and the turning wrist action of Chod drum is difficult for me, and distracting. It’s easy for anyone to play a hoop drum mindlessly (without too much thoughtful control), which is beneficial for mindfulness practice.
There are subtle differences, highlighted below, but all can help in mindfulness focus:
- Hoop drum and beater. The open drum has a beautiful, intense sound that genuinely makes a difference. This is sometimes casually called the shamanic drum.
- Chod Drum: very sacred and rapid sound, although they are expensive.
- Dhamarus: In Tibetan pratice indespensible for some offerings/sadhanas, but the sound is great for meditation too, albeit it’s much more intense.
- Hand drums: various popular hand drums make great meditation tools, although I personally find the impact on the hand detracts from the mindfulness practice somewhat. With a stick, the impact is negligible. With a Chod or Dharmaru, there are no sticks. Hand drums are great, however, if they are recorded and played back.
- Rattles (Gourd rattles and shamanic rattles, not the children’s kind) can make an interesting mindfulness session, a different sort of percussive sound.
- Pots, pans, buckets: whatever you have handy. If you strike it and it makes a sound, use it.
- Tupperware, Lockn’Lock and other plastic household containers make great-sounding drums in a pinch. Just turn upside down, without lid, and beat with a spoon.
- Nature drumming: try just taking your stick out for your nature walk and hike, and try drumming respectfully on fallen trees, rocks, anything that makes a percussive sound.
Drum circles and dancing enhance the power and versatility of drumming:
No Disclaimer Needed: Drumming for Mindfulness is Simple and Effective.
That’s it. Try a little mindfulness practice with the drum or your household Tupper Wear. Within minutes, even a few seconds, you start to unkink and relax. Before the first five minutes have passed, without getting sleepy, you find every muscle in the body unclenches, even the hands holding drum and stick. With practice, the health benefits are profound. Visualization skills seem to improve steadily, since the drum puts the mind in Theta mode — or at least Alpha — receptive and relaxed.
There’s no down side. No need for disclaimers. There are no risks in drumming unless you have a physical condition that makes beating difficult — in which case try recordings of drumming. The benefits to your mindfulness, if you have a busy mind, should be near instant and — in many cases — quite profound.
 “Entry into the Profound”
 ” Why do monasteries suspend a wooden fish outside the dining hall?” GDD 474 Master Sheng Yen
 Mokugyo Fish Drum, Zen Mountain Monastery
 “How Buddha’s Teaching Will Disappear” The Essence of Buddhism.
 Lotus Sutra, Chapter 12 https://www.buddhistdoor.com/OldWeb/resources/sutras/lotus/sources/lotus12.htm
 “Chöd With Karla Jackson-Brewer and Dorje Lopön Chandra Easton” Tara Mandala website.
 Shamanic Drumming, Michael Drake Talking Drum Publications (April 12, 2012) Language: English, ISBN-10: 0962900230, ISBN-13: 978-0962900235
 Psycology Today: “The Heart is a Drum Machine: Drumming as Therapy”, Robert T. Muller, Ph.D https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201501/the-heart-is-drum-machine-drumming-therapy
 “Music as Medicine” article American Psychological Association.
 “Making Music Can Overcome Depression” The Telegraph
 Theta Healing
 “Abstract: Complementary Therapy for Addiction: “Drumming Out Drugs””; Michael Winkelman, PhD, MPH
 “Six Ways Drumming Heals the Body, Mind and Soul” Green Med Info.