Art Of Ancient Buddhist Chant (Paritta)

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

Courtesy: Vesak Lipi

Buddhist Therapeutic Healing

The aim of this article is to shed light on the essence of ancient Buddhist chant and its relevance to those who seek inner peace and relaxation through the beauty of melodious Buddhist chant. Despite being a customary cultural and spiritual exercise for Buddhist practitioners in various countries, ancient Buddhist chant has not been widely recognized or familiarized in the Western world. Nevertheless, in recent times, Westerners have shown a growing interest in this sacred practice.

Many Westerners wonder how Buddhists manage to stay calm and composed despite the chaos and unrest in the world around them. By the conclusion of this article, those who are curious will gain insight into the reasons and methods behind their ability to lead a stress-free and fear-free life. Typically, as a customary practice, Buddhists commence their daily household and work routines by listening to the soothing chant (Pirith) recited by Buddhist monks. This practice seems to enable listeners to revive their lives through a connection with the spiritual essence inherent in the chanting.

In today’s secular and materialistic society, those who are solely engrossed in sensual pleasures may not have an inclination towards seeking spiritual values, as they may believe that such values hold no sway over their lives. This perspective appears to stem from two predominant materialistic factors: either a lack of awareness regarding the significance of spiritual values or general apathy towards religious and cultural values. Despite the imperative need for inner peace in the face of modern secularism, materialists often pursue ephemeral sensory gratification to satisfy their insatiable thirst for material possessions.

In response to the materialistic mindset, ancient spiritual leaders, through the practice of spiritual chanting (known as “Pirith” in Sinhala), offered various paths to spiritual healing. This art of spiritual chanting has been an integral part of the Buddhist tradition and other religious practices since the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, the great healer of the world. The primary purpose of this technique was to provide therapeutic and spiritual benefits to both the monastic and lay communities, in their pursuit of the spiritual goal. Buddhist philosophy can be practised not only through strict training but also by reciting and listening to the sutras delivered by Sakyamuni Buddha. Throughout the history of Buddhism, while the monastic community has retreated to forest habitats to practice Buddhist doctrine, the lay community has remained in society, practising by reciting and listening to the Buddha’s discourses.

It is undeniable that Buddhism has played a crucial role in benefiting humanity since its inception, by offering a universal solution to eradicate the daunting human and social problems that threaten joy and serenity, while also providing spiritual healing. One may question the nature of these human and social problems. It is evident in every aspect of society, manifesting as suffering, insecurity, and fear of losing beloved possessions and people.

Sakyamuni, the wise sage of Sakyas, was a young and energetic seeker of truth who discovered the root cause of the fundamental social problem. His realization of reality prompted him to follow the example of other religious mendicants, who also retired to the forest to seek remedies to the social problems they had experienced. After six years of rigorous search for freedom from this social problem in deep forest habitation, Sakyamuni Buddha discovered a way to remedy it through persistent meditation. He thus alleviated social and human problems, contributing immensely to humanity by revealing universal remedies for social beings. Sakyamuni Buddha’s discovery is a significant contribution to humankind.

The solution to this problem, according to Buddhism, can only be found in the teachings of the Buddha. Throughout his life, Sakyamuni Buddha delivered discourses to people from different social backgrounds who were seeking a way to alleviate their suffering. As a psychotherapist of all time, he identified the fundamental problem of humanity as “discomfort or stress,” which is the root cause of misery, insecurity, and fear. Although people strive for security and serenity through material possessions, they are constantly reminded that these things cannot provide lasting satisfaction. The pursuit of sensual pleasures is also unstable and temporary, causing anxiety and fear of loss.

Due to the advancements in science and technology, modern society has become more hectic and chaotic. This has exacerbated existing human problems and people’s pursuit of success has made their lives more complicated and unpleasant. Nowadays, life heavily relies on technology, resulting in the creation of a man-made world called the technosphere, which has caused a significant disconnection from the ecosphere – the natural world that can bring happiness through simplicity.

The technocentric world has led individuals to become more self-centred, resulting in stress, tension, fear, and insecurity, which have become inherent features of the society in the 21st century. To alleviate fear and eradicate self-centeredness, Buddhist practitioners utilize an ancient therapeutic chant as a daily practice. The Buddhist chant is a specific art that has been systematized within the Buddhist religious tradition to slow down mental activities and develop mental purity, a state of mind free from impurities.

This technique can be traced back to the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, who advised monks to congregate in an assembly hall twice a month and chant monastic rules together to cultivate mental purity as a necessary spiritual value for a peaceful monastic life. During that time, ancient Indian society had developed various calming techniques, and religious hymns was chanted to evoke spiritual feelings. Sakyamuni Buddha adapted these ancient Indian religious chants, which were believed to have therapeutic value in alleviating stress.

The Power of Truth

The Ancient Buddhist Chant mainly consisted of the Buddha’s own teachings, also known as Dharma, including his discourses to his disciples and benedictions invoking the power of the Truth or the Enlightened One. According to Buddhist literature, people from various religious traditions sought blessings from Sakyamuni Buddha when they encountered misfortunes or feared invisible evil forces. For instance, during a menacing epidemic that struck the royal family and the people of the kingdom, they sought protection and blessings from Sakyamuni Buddha. In response, he instructed his attendant Ananda to chant the Discourse on Jewels while sprinkling water around the city of Visala to help alleviate the situation.

The Ancient Buddhist Chant is meant to evoke dispassion and detachment, as well as concentration, without relying on any sensory stimulation. Typically, it is recited in unison by a group of Buddhist monks in a monotonous tone, creating a peaceful and majestic ambience. Although it lacks the mystical unity of Gregorian chant, its earthly appeal inspires intense contemplation.

Since the time of Buddha, the Ancient Buddhist Chant has been used for therapeutic purposes. In fact, the early Buddhist missionaries sent by the Indian Emperor Asoka the Great to the Greco-Roman world were known as healers. Derived from the teachings of Sakyamuni Buddha, the chant draws from three fundamental discourses, preserved in the ancient Pali language. These include the Discourse on Blessings, the Discourse on Jewels, and the Discourse on Universal Goodwill, which are recited daily by both monks and laypeople for an uplifting experience.

The Discourse on Blessings, found in the Sutta Nipata, contains thirty-six noble and auspicious blessings identified by Buddha himself. When recited with focused attention, these blessings promote inner peace and serene joy. The Discourse on Jewels, also from the Sutta Nipata, provides a remedial technique for contemplation on spiritual riches bestowed by the Holy Triple Gem – Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Legend has it that this discourse saved an ancient city from three menacing epidemics – evil spirits, diseases, and famine.

The Discourse on Universal Goodwill, also chosen from the Sutta Nipata, centres on the theme of universal love and compassion. During Sakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime, this discourse aided a group of monks in continuing to live in their forest habitats unhindered by fear of evil spirits. The primary objective of this popular discourse is to build self-confidence and strength.

After chanting each discourse, the main monk chanters perform a truthfulness act. They use their spiritual power to invoke blessings by saying, “by the power of the Holy Triple Gem, may all blessings always be upon you (the audience), may you enjoy good health, and may you live long.” Modern psychologists have confirmed that human language and mind can either bring evil or blessings to another person. If language is used wrongly, it can hurt listeners, but if it is compassionately and correctly used, it can bring blessings and healing.

Sakyamuni Buddha knew the power of wholesome language and instructed the monks to chant with a compassionate mind and pure awareness. Even today, Buddhist monks perform chanting with great love, compassion, and undivided attention. Sakyamuni Buddha taught that a human mind filled with love, compassion, altruistic joy, and equilibrium (four divine virtues of Buddhist doctrine) can bring healing to others. Conversely, a mind filled with greed, anger, hatred, jealousy, pride, and self-centeredness will bring misery to oneself and others. This teaching is still followed by Buddhist monks today.

One may question why Buddhists still listen to discourses that were taught 2500 years ago by the Buddha and how such words can bring healing to others. However, as a Fully Enlightened One, Sakyamuni Buddha would never speak words devoid of meaning or benefit. His infinite compassion and wisdom, cultivated by eradicating all evils and developing spiritual virtues, were always focused on the suffering and happiness of all beings. As an embodiment of universal love and compassion, he spoke with absolute purity of mind, which brought inner transformation to those who listened attentively. It is this inner transformation that generates spiritual healing in the listeners, making the use of spiritually profitable words an art of healing technique.

To experience the healing benefits of ancient Buddhist therapeutic chants, the audience should follow certain steps. They should assume a comfortable sitting posture with a straight back to balance the mind and body. To avoid distractions, they should disconnect from the external world and maintain their focus on the present moment. Conscious breathing is essential to let the body relax, inhaling and exhaling mindfully to release unwholesome thoughts and energies while developing wholesome ones. Finally, they should pay absolute attention to the melodious chant, feeling its wholesome vibrations while continuing to inhale and exhale mindfully.

By following these steps, the audience can reap numerous benefits, such as a stress-free, tension-free life filled with confidence and devoid of fear. They can also enjoy all-embracing protection assurance and be protected from unforeseen harm and danger, as well as experience good health, longevity, physical and mental relaxation, calmness, inner peace, serenity, and improved physical and psychological well-being.

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