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Chanting

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In Theravada Buddhist countries, the traditional verses and passages, as well as the Discourses of the Buddha, whether used in services or for other occasions, are usually recited in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha. In each country there are somewhat different traditions of chanting and pronunciation of Pali.[1] (In other Buddhist lands also, traditions exist for the chanting of Buddhist scriptures, usually in a special and now archaic form of the vernaculars). Besides the established traditions of Pali chanting, there are also, in countries like Thailand, ways of chanting in the language of the people. Few lay people understand the grammar of Pali though many may know a number of important phrases and terms in that language, so we find that lay people (and sometimes bhikkhus as well) chant in Pali following each phrase with a translation in the vernacular. This can often be heard in Thailand where school children also chant verses composed in Thai on the respect that should be given to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, parents and teachers (the Five Treasures).

In countries where Buddhism is either newly introduced or again flourishing after a period of neglect, there may be very few who understand Pali, while, on the other hand, many may wish for some devotional and reflective practice for their daily lives. Hence the short number of texts suggested here are all in English. Then comes the question of how to chant in this language. Lay Buddhists can be guided by the Buddha's words when some bhikkhus began to sing the Dhamma:

Bhikkhus, there are these five dangers when Dhamma is chanted with a long, singing sound:
-- Vinaya Pitaka, ii. 108
From these five disadvantages we understand that it is disrespectful for a bhikkhu to sing or intone the Dhamma in such a way that its meaning is lost.[2] This rule, of course, does not apply to lay people but in Buddhist lands the latter, perhaps guided by the conduct of bhikkhus, have made little or no use of music for religious purposes. After all what are we trying to achieve by chanting the words relating to the Buddha and his teaching? Is it not to gain calm through a mind concentrated on Dhamma? Then music has rather an exciting effect on many people and so is opposed to our aim. Again, compared with western religion, Buddhism has a different aim. There, the object of chanting and singing is to make sounds pleasing to the Creator's ear, out of love or fear of him. But Buddhists are not burdened with such an idea, for our aim and goal lies within, to be attained by our own efforts, not by propitiation of an external power. Lord Buddha was one who spoke in praise of silence and restraint, so in preparing ourselves to be silent, restraint should be used in our chanting.

The various passages which have been recommended here for this purpose are embedded in much explanatory matter and people who wish to use them and any other reflections which they have found stirring, could copy them all out to form a chanting book.[3] Then only one thing remains to be done and that will come about through daily use: learn these texts by heart. Even if one is far from home one can then quietly repeat them to oneself and so not break one's regular practice.

In the various Buddhist countries there is a great variety of chants and recollections and even neighboring monasteries may have their own traditions and not use all the same items. Those given here in English translation are among the most popular and common to most traditions. Others can be added according to individual preference and knowledge. There is no such thing as a standard morning and evening service in the Buddhist world and even between these two there may be differences of items used. So much for daily practice in the shrine room.


Notes

1. An LP record of Pali chanting in Sinhalese style may be had from the Buddhist Missionary Society, Brickfields Buddhist Temple, Jalan Berhala, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tapes of chanting (morning and evening services, paritta, etc.) can be had of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, 33 Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok 11, Thailand. These are in Thai styles of chanting. [Go back]

2. In "The Entrance to the Vinaya II" (Mahamakut Press, Bangkok, BE 2516) we read: "It is prohibited for a bhikkhu to preach Dhamma with a long-drawn intonation. To preach Dhamma or recite Dhamma in an artificial long-drawn way of chanting until it brings about mispronunciation, should not be done." [Go back]

3. See the author's "Buddhist Texts for Recitation" (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy; Vesak 1974. [Go back]


Revised: Sun 3 October 1999
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/bps/wheels/wheel206/chanting.html