Art Of Ancient Buddhist Chant (Paritta)

Bhikkhu Saranapala – University of Toronto / Westend Buddhist Monastery Toronto, Canada.

Courtesy : Vesak Lipi

Buddhist Therapeutic Healing

This article is intended to clarify the nature of ancient Buddhist chant, and its significance to the admirers who are truly interested in inner peace and relaxation through melodious Buddhist chant. The ancient Buddhist chant has not been prevalent, even unknown and unheard, in the Western world although it has been a popularly daily cultural and spiritual exercise among the practitioners of Buddhism in Buddhist countries. However, later in this century, the westerners are slowly beginning to draw their attention to this ritual and spiritual practice.
It has been a curiosity in the minds of the Westerners as to how Buddhists perpetually maintain to be serene and peaceful amid the turmoil of the world. At the end of this article it may be clear to the curious as to why and how they are able to maintain such a life without stress and fear. Generally, Buddhists begin the daily household and office activities, as a ritual practice, by listening to the therapeutic chant (Pirith) by the Buddhist monks. It appears that this practice paves the way to the listeners to invigorate their life through the inter-connection with spiritual values in chanting.

In a secular, material society as if today, the materialists, who have totally immersed and devoted to sensual pleasures, may not be interested in seeking the spiritual values deeming such values have no influences over their lives. It seems that they tend to hold onto this view due to two materially obvious reasons: either because they are ignorant about the art of spiritual values or because they are indifferent to any religious and cultural values. Even though it is an urgent need for a peaceful life in their lives being exposed to the modern secular society, the materialists seek fleeting sensual pleasures by gratifying senses on account of their instantaneous need of fulfilling unfading thirst through materialism.

As a response to the materialists, the ancient spiritual leaders seem to (*In Sinhala “Pirith”) have taught various venues to spiritual healing. To provide therapeutic values and spiritual healings to the Buddhist practitioners, the art of spiritual chant therefore has not recently been created by the Buddhists themselves as a remedy for a peaceful life, but an ancient art that has been long practiced within the Buddhist traditions and other religious traditions alike since the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, the healer of the world.
This technique is originally said to have designed for the monastic and the lay community alike as a religious practice to lay the foundation for the spiritual goal. Aiming at the spiritual goal, Buddhist philosophy can be practiced not only by employing the doctrine into practice as a strict training but also by reciting, hearing the sutras delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha. It is clear from the history of Buddhism, while the monastic have been practicing Buddhist doctrine by completely retiring to the forest habitation, the lay community have been practicing by remaining in the society by reciting and listening to discourses of the Buddha.
Therefore, it must be said that from its inception Buddhism has doubtless made a yeoman service to humankind by teaching a universal remedy to uproot the menacing human/social problem, which destroys joy and serenity and by providing spiritual healings. One may wonder as to what would this social/human problem be. As it is obviously seen in every corner of the society, it is nothing else but the suffering, insecurity and fear of losing things and people dear to all.

Sakyamuni, the sage of Sakyas, as a youthful and vigorous searcher of truth, realized the underlying cause of this fundamental social problem and his understanding of the reality finally led him to retire to the forest as if mendicants in other religious traditions who also retired to the forest for the search of a remedy to the social problems they might also have experienced. After six years of his vigorous search for freedom from social problem in a deep forest habitation, Sakyamuni Buddha discovered a way out to it through his own persisting perseverance in meditation and finally, he assured the remedy and eased up social/human problems. Thus, Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, made a great contribution to humankind by revealing his discovery of universal remedy to social beings.

The remedy is found only in the discourses of the Buddha delivered at different places to people of various social backgrounds who were hungry for the remedy. In these sutras, Sakyamuni Buddha, as an all time psychotherapist, proclaimed that the fundamental problem of the
humankind is “discomfort or stress.” That is to say that the social beings were/are not happy with anything and it leads them to the state of misery, insecurity and fear. Even though the individuals are constantly struggling to get to the state of security and serenity through material things, something is constantly triggering the individuals that they are not psychologically assured to be secured through materialism. Despite the fact that the social beings would constantly attempt to experience an instantaneous happiness by any means i. e., through gratification of the five basic sense organs. While there cannot be guaranteed to have stability of sensual pleasures, which are under constant change, the social beings are threatened of losing such pleasures and people dear to them.

Likewise, the life of the modern social being has become so hectic along with advancement of knowledge in science and technology causing the already existing human problem to snowball, because of rushing for something the life has become more complicated and miserable than it has been ever before. Today, along with advancement of scientific knowledge, the life has become so techno-centric in the man-made-world of technosphere and there can be seen thorough disconnection from the ecosphere, a natural world which has the nature of generating happiness in social beings through the principles of simplicity.

The technocentric world seems to have led the individual to more self-centred state and it has therefore resulted in stress, tension, fear, insecurity which have become parts and parcels of social beings shattering life in the twenty first century.

To ease up the fear and to uproot self-centredness, the practitioners of Buddhism employ the ancient therapeutic chant as a daily practice. Buddhist Chant, an ancient particular art among many others, is a systematized technique developed within the Buddhist religious tradition so as to slow down mental activities and to develop mental purity, a state of mind free of mental corruptions. This may be, in fact, traced back to the time period of Sakyamuni Buddha himself who admonished monks, as a collective social group, to congregate in an assembly hall twice a month in order to chant monastic rules together to develop mental purity as a necessary spiritual value to maintain a peaceful life of a monk. By this time, there had been developed multifarious soothing techniques by the ancient Indian society and there had been gatherings to chant religious hymns for spiritual feelings. Sakyamuni Buddha certainly employed and adapted the ancient Indian religious chant of times which according to popular belief helped sooth stress and hence, was held to be of therapeutic value.

The content of the Ancient Buddhist Chant was invariably Buddha’s own Teaching (Dharma), usually his own discourses to his disciples along with sepetatone benedictions through the intercession of the power of the Truth or the Enlightened One. It is mentioned in the Buddhist literature that people from various religious traditions sought benedictions from Sakyamuni Buddha, who became known as a healer, at different times when people encountered misfortunes and when they were scared of invisible evil forces. For example, the royal family and the people of the Kingdom, when stricken by menacing epidemics, sought protection and blessings from Sakyamuni Buddha who later asked his personal attendant, Ananda, upon the request from the royal family, to chant the Discourse on Jewels by sprinkling water around the city of Visala.

The Chant itself, devoid of any sensual stimuli, is intended to inspire in both the chanter and the audience total dispassion and detachment (anatta) and concentration. Usually chanted in unison by an entire congregation of Buddhist monks in “recto tone”, ancient Buddhist Chant creates an impressive atmosphere of serenity and even grandeur. While no such mystical union as in the care of the Gregorian chant forms intended, its gear, earthly appeal renders one to be intensely contemplative.

The Ancient Buddhist Chant has been used for therapeutic purposes since the time of Buddha. It’s no small significance that early Buddhist missionary monks sent to West by Indian Emperor, Asoka the Great came to be known as therapeutics in the Greco-Roman world.
Among the many discourses, Buddhist chant derives from three fundamental discourses, normally chosen by ancient Buddhist teachers, of Sakyamuni Buddha, the Fully Awakened One. These discourses, which contain the word of Sakyamuni Buddha, were preserved in Pali, the ancient language the Buddha spoke. The Discourse on Blessings, the Discourse on Jewels and the Discourse on Universal Goodwill are the three key discourses. These are daily recited by Buddhist monks and lay people alike for inspirational experience.

The Discourse on Blessings (Mangala Sutta from the Sutta Nipata) contains thirty-six characteristic benedictions identified by Buddha himself as being most noble and propitious. These benedictions, when recited with focused attention, advance inner peace and serene joy. The Discourse on Jewels (Ratana Sutta, another discourse from the Sutta Nipata) offers a remedial technique through contemplation on spiritual riches bestowed by the Holy Triple Gem – Buddha (Fully Awakened One), Dhamma (Doctrine) and Sangha (the community of monks and nuns). It is said that an ancient city stricken by three menacing epidemics, evil spirits, diseases and famine was saved and continued to be protected by the healing power of this discourse.

The Discourse on Universal Goodwill (Karaniya Metta Sutta, another discourse chosen from the Sutta Nipata) contains a meditative theme on universal love and compassion which during Sakyamuni Buddha’s own life time came to the aid of a group of monks to continue to live in their forest habitations unhindered by fear of evil spirits. Building self-confidence and strength seem to be the primary objective of this popular Discourse on Universal Goodwill.

At the end of chanting of each discourse, the chanters, mainly the monks, perform an act of truthfulness. That is to say that the chanters use their spiritual powers to invoke blessings by saying, ‘by the power of the Holy Triple Gem may all blessings be always upon you (the audience), may you enjoy good health and may you live long.” According to the modern psychologists, human language and mind can bring either evils or blessings to another human being. If the language is wrongly used, this act could hurt the listeners where as if the language is compassionately and rightly used, this act will definitely bring blessings and healings to the listeners.

This is a scientifically experimented fact. Knowing the power of wholesome language, Sakyamuni Buddha admonished the monks to do the chanting with a compassionate mind and with pure awareness. Following Sakyamuni Buddha’s advice, even today the Buddhist monks perform the cheating out of great love and compassion with an undivided attention. It is the teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha that a human mind, replete of love, compassion, altruistic joy and equilibrium (four divine virtues of Buddhist doctrine), can absolutely bring healings to others. And also, a mind, replete of greed, anger, hatred, jealousy, pride and self-centredness, would certainly bring miseries to oneself and others alike.

Now, one may wonder as to why do Buddhists still listen to the discourses that have been taught about two thousand five hundred years ago by the Buddha. How could such words bring healings to others? Sakyamuni Buddha, as a Fully Enlightened One, would never speak words empty of meanings and benefits. The Enlightened One is always concerned about sufferings of other beings and happiness of all living beings. This is because of his infinitely great compassion and wisdom which have been cultivated by eradicating all evils and cultivating spiritual virtues.

Sakyamuni Buddha, attaining the ultimate evolution of human consciousness, became an embodiment of universal love and compassion. He spoke with absolute purity of mind and hence, he brings inner-transformation in the audience who is paying utter attention to the words. It’s the inner-transformation that generates the spiritual healing in the listeners. It is the belief that spiritual teachers invariably use powerful and spiritually profitable words which became an art of healing technique.

In order to reap the healing from the ancient Buddhist therapeutic chant, the audience have to observe few steps. One must take a comfortable sitting posture having the back straight so as to have a balance between the mind and physicality. In order to avoid all unnecessary distractions, the disconnection of mind from the external world is recommended. It is imperative that the listeners maintain the mind in the present moment to have an undivided attention. Take a deep breath consciously so as to let the entire body relax. Conscious inhalation and exhalation are indispensable to become natural within by following the breath all the way in and out. All unwholesome thoughts and energies must be released along witl\exhalation and all wholesome thoughts and energies must be developed along with inhalation. Finally, Pay absolute attention to the melodious chant and keep on inhaling and exhaling mindfully by feeling wholesome vibrations of the chanting.

The following are benefits the audience may reap. Stress-tension-Problem-free life, life of confidence free from fear, all embracing Protection assurance, protection from unforeseen harm and danger to one’s own self, good health, longevity, physical and mental relaxati< and calm, inner peace, serenity, healing physical & psychological ai well-being are the immediate results that the audience experience.

Bhikkhu Saranapala, born in Chittagon Bangaladesh and brought up as a samane monk at the Vajiraramaya in Kandy, Sri Lanka is a resident at the Westend Buddhist Centre Toronto, Canada. He has a Pundit degree fro Sri Lanka, M. A. from McMaster Universi Hamilton and PhD from University of Toronl Canada.