SF = sound file
The Buddha's teaching was preserved
orally in various chant forms until about 80 BC when it
was written down. The tradition of chanting is still maintained in
monasteries today, despite the many books available, and chanting
is a significant part of most Buddhist rituals. Monks and nuns are
expected to memorise quite a lot of this chanting as part of their
monastic training. This doesn't necessarily involve learning the Pali
language - although many commonly repeated 'key' terms would take
on a much deeper meaning
over time. A great many interactions between laity and monastics involves
some form of chanting, and initially a junior can make use of a book
but there comes a time when one is asked to 'put the book away in
public'. There is a noticeable difference in the energy of a ceremony
when it is all done 'live' - as opposed to just being read from a
the effort to learn chanting has a healthy strengthening
effect on the mind; it develops concentration, patience and determination.
Some people have a photographic memory but most monastics I know find
the chanting quite difficult to learn.
To begin with it seems impossible - nothing will stick in the mind
- just this jumble of meaningless words with no grammatical clues
as to the next word. Even when it has been memorised, chanting with
a group takes practice. The words are in the mind somewhere but, because
they are in a foreign language, recitation can't be intellectual and
it takes a particular type of internal process to be able to recite
long passages from memory - a mixture of concentration, confidence
is something about the collective mind that develops as a result of
chanting from memory as a group that is very special and quite palpable.
Because the chants have been handed down for
over 2500 years there is a direct 'connection' to a historical lineage
of monks and nuns. This sense of extended family is something that
develops generally in monastic life - both in relation to the current
sangha and to one's 'ancestors' - but the chanting is such a familiar,
repeated, historically consistent and impersonal part of monastic
life that it most easily creates this sense.
Theravadin chants are not
particularly musical - using only about three tones. There are two
aspects to this: it means that pretty much any member of sangha can
join the chanting so it is not an exclusive affair, and, even if the
chants are completely unfamiliar, the steady pitch can have a very
calming and peaceful effect on the mind - of both the chanter and
the listener. This is enhanced when there is a group chanting as there
is no set 'stopping place' - outside the beginning and the end - and
breathing (for the chanters) is 'as required'. So, the whole thing
has a gentle flow, like a rolling tide of sound with a simple range
of sound patterns.
there are almost endless chants there are certain groups that have
come to be associated with various rituals and ceremonies. For many
lay Buddhists these chants are quite familiar - in fact many people
memorise sections - and this familiarity reinforces the sense of community
- 'communion' - that can take place while verses are being recited.
Because the chants are about superior human qualities, purity, natural
laws - and the development of these - this adds a very meditative,
reflective facet to the process.
Below are details of some of the regular occasions
when chanting occurs. The list is by no means complete as almost every
organised monastic gathering - large or small - involves some chanting,
either verses from the suttas or various formulae for a specific function.
It gets a bit messy but I have included several links - both to sound
files (marked SF) and various
pages of text.
||This is the twice daily meeting of the sangha
- in the morning at 5:00 and evening at 7:30 - when a range
of verses are chanted. In the morning, reflections are commonly
on aspects of the Buddha's teaching while they are more devotional
in the evening. (SF - Morning Chanting)
[view: intro to puja; ten reflections;
loving kindness chant]
Another frequent chanting situation is the
response to the offering of requisites - particularly the
daily meal [see DANA].
The basic reflection is that good deeds have good as their
result, and the chants are an expression of the gratitude
of the sangha for those things offered with the wish that
the donor benefit from that goodnes and that their life be
free of difficulty.
"May there be for you all blessings and may all the
devas guard you well. By the power of all the Buddhas, ever
in safety may you be"
"Just as the rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does that which is given here benefit all beings"
"May all distress be averted, may all diseases be avoided,
may there be no dangers, may you be happy and live long."
- (SF - Sabitiyo)
Also common is the chanting of blessings.
Any number of things can be the focus for blessing - a baby,
a wedding, a house, a car, etc. - and the format is pretty
much the same for all. The request and responses for taking
the refuges and precepts are usually chanted first and then
the devas (the 'forces'
of goodness) are invited:
"May the devas come here, from all round the world
systems, from the mountains and the sky, from town and country,
wherever they may be let them be present here." [view
full text] (SF - Pharitvana)
There is then a series of auspicious chants - extolling
the virtues of the Buddha, outlining aspects of his teaching
and encouraging the listener to make endevours on the spiritual
"Victorious underneath the Bodhi tree, He increased
the joy of the Sakyas. May this same victory be yours;"
[view full text]
(SF - Jayanto)
This is a special form of blessing ceremony
peculiar to Sri Lanka. It involves a group of monks chanting
verses of blessing right through the night, finishing just
after dawn of the next day. A pavilion is specially built
for the monks to sit in while they are chanting - the one
shown in the photos is made of finely cut paper glued on a
light wooden frame. It is burnt on the last day.
The idea with blessings is that good begets good. Often at
the end of the maha parit chanting, or after a retreat, or
alms giving, or any meritorious deeds, the blessings thus
accrued are shared with all beings.
"May those who are friendly, indifferent or hostile;
may all beings receive the blessings of my life."
(SF - Imina)
[view full text]
||This forms a standard preliminary to the chanting
of the patimokkha every fortnight on the moon day. [view]
The patimokkha is recited by one monk from memory and usually
takes about 45 minutes of fast chanting. Juniors are encouraged
to make an effort to learn the patimokkha
but only a few would complete the task. View a sample page
(one of 50) and imagine how long it would take to memorise!
||Each Buddhist culture has a range of different
funereal rites but the reference point of the chanting is always
the naturalness of death. It is the unavoidable result of having
been born and a full appreciation of the compounded nature of
the body is what the chanting reflects.
"All conditions are truly transient.
They have the nature to arise and cease. Having arisen, then
they pass away. With their cessation there is peace." (SF
The chanting is usually quite solemn and monks would often
be invited to chant in the deceased's home - ideally every day
for seven days. Water is often poured over the body [see]
- a little by each person - before the coffin is closed for
the last time. Families will often make offerings at the monastery
to mark the anniversary of the death. This would be after one
month, three months and then annually.
||In the spirit of mind training monastics will
offer an invitation to their peers.
"Venerable Sirs, I invite reflections and admonishment
from the Sangha. According to what has been seen, heard or suspected,
may the venerable ones instruct me out of compassion. Seeing
it, I shall make amends."
||"Forgive me, venerable sir, for all
or any wrong doings done carelessly to the venerable one by
way of body, speech or mind."
"I for give you. You should also forgive me."
Both 'invitation' and 'forgiveness' are chanted in Pali but
the spirit of these occasions is well studied and creates an
open atmosphere of care and trust. Try them at home some time.
||The Buddha's teaching was an oral one. He gave
regular talks to his disciples and we now read these as suttas
and hear them as chants. The tradition of oral teaching is still
maintained with talks regularly given by senior monastics. When
the Buddha was first enlightened he was reluctant to teach and
the Brahma god, Sahampati, came down and appealed to the Buddha
to teach. This same entreaty is still used to encourage teachers
to speak as teaching is generally only offered when requested.
"Just as the Brahma god Sahampati requested a boon with
his palms joined in reverence, so too are there those here with
but a little dust in their eyes. Pray teach Dhamma out of compassion
One form of chanting not often practiced in the
forest monasteries of Asia but which seems to be popular in the West
is mantra. These can be thought of as having some inherent esoteric
value but my own feeling is that it is better to approach them as
just another meditation object. As such they are best relatively simple,
and any implicit meaning able to be contemplated. So, almost any word
group - or even sounds - can be used although the emphasis should
be on goodness. Try repeating the word 'love' a thousand time over.
What is the result?
Each tradition will have a variety of phrases set to a variety of
'melodies' and it is difficult to convey the usefulness of this technique
in words. Have a listen to these:
Namo Tass Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa
(SF - Namo Tassa)
Namo Sakyamuni Buddha (SF - Namo Sakyamuni)
||The winds of change are gonna blow you away,
Seek the centre of the storm each day. The winds of change are
gonna tear you apart, Find the silence of the peaceful heart.
(SF - The Winds)