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The Chanting Practice of Theravada Buddhists

The Chanting Practice of Theravada Buddhists

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Published by Ashin Acara
The Chanting Practice of Theravada Buddhists
The Chanting Practice of Theravada Buddhists

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Published by: Ashin Acara on Dec 20, 2010
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The Chanting Practice of 
 Dr Ashin AcaraThe practice of chanting of religious scriptsexists in every religion. It is usually led by priests or religious leaders, but increasingly lay people have learnt to chant some scripts asmany believe that chanting is beneficial to one’swell-being. However, one must be familiar withthe particular script as there are many differentkinds of chants, each for a different purpose.Some are meant to pass on merits to thedeceased, while other chants are for mentalenergy, victory, health, and other positive outcomes.
Origin of the Theravada Buddhist Practice
The practice of Theravada Buddhism chanting is said to be rooted in the recitation of the dhamma by early Buddhist monks for whom recitation was the only way to learnthe dhamma. They had to learn the dhamma by heart, because writing had not yet been well established. Hence the many repetitions in many Buddhist suttas, making iteasy for memorisation.
Content in Chanting
Today some Theravada Buddhists, monks, nuns and lay devotees, chant Pali textsfrom the tipitaka. They chant words of the Lord Buddha such as suttas and attributesof the Three Gems. Some chants are compositions made by Buddhist scholars whichusually deal with attributes of the Three Gems and life of the Buddha, while some aresummaries of suttas. Before the chanting, Buddhists usually take refuge in the ThreeGems—the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha - they also take refuge in the Five Precepts(pancasila) after making offerings of light (candles and joss sticks), flowers, almsfood, water, fruit, to the Buddha image.
Purposes or Benefits of Chanting
Most of today’s Theravada Buddhists chant to acquire devotional faith in the ThreeGems as the attributes of the Three Gems are included in all of today’s formal chants.Thus while chanting we remember the attributes, and that is how our faith in theThree Gems is developed and established. Moreover, recollections of the attributesare part of meditation (Buddhanussatibhavana, Dhammanussati-bhavana and
Samghanussati-bhavana). Many people find it difficult to sit in meditation, but it iseasier for them to recollect the attributes of the Three Gems while they are chanting.Some Buddhists chant to concentrate on the essence of suttas. They establishconcentration by chanting. Chanting is a very powerful way to keep the mind focused,so that the words chanted, as well as the meaning of their recitation, purifies their mind. Chanting is also a reminder to practice the dhamma in accordance with thesuttas chanted. When they chant a certain sutta, they remember the advice imbibed init.Some Buddhists chant for the people’s welfare, like health and protection. With a purpose of living a healthy life they usually chant one or all of the three Gilana-suttas(Pathamagilana-sutta, Dutiyagilana-sutta and Tatiyagilanasutta) of Samyutta-nikayaalso known as Bojjhanga-suttas. In these suttas seven factors of wisdom (satta- bojjhangas) included are mindfulness (sati), investigation of dhamma(dhammavicaya), effort (viriya), joy (piti), calmness (passaddhi), concentration(samadhi), and equanimity (upekkha).In the Pathamagilana-sutta and Dutiyagilana-sutta, the venerables Maha Kassapa andMaha Moggalana were ill respectively. Having found great delight in the suttaexpounded by the Buddha, they recovered from their illnesses. While in theTatiyagilana-sutta the Buddha himself was ill. After Cunda Thera had recited the suttafor the Buddha’s benefit, He recovered from his illness too. According toBuddhaghosa Thera, commentator of the suttas, it should be understood that the sevenfactors had already been fully established in the Buddha and his two disciples whenthey contemplated on the seven factors. As a result, their blood was cleansed and their materiality (rupa), purified. Thus, they regained health. Evidently one’s health cannot be improved significantly by the mere chanting of the suttas or by just listening tothem. Actually one’s faith in the suttas, concentration and other kinds of merit gained by chanting the suttas or by listening to the suttas can provide a support to one’shealth. Next, our chant can protect us from problems and dangers. Indeed we are protected byour own merits, like faith and concentration acquired by chanting the suttas or bylistening to them. Moreover, chanters may be protected by Buddhist gods listening toour chants. According to Sajjhayasutta of Sagathavagga-samyutta, in the Buddha’stime, a monk was dwelling in a forest in the Kosala Division and was in a habit of chanting the suttas daily. However, after attaining arahantship, he neglected his dailychanting and enjoyed the bliss of meditation instead. A guardian god of the forestcame to him and complained, “Venerable Sir, why don’t you chant now? When youchant suttas we can listen to the dhamma. Chanting is being faithful and praiseworthy.”From this it is understood that devoted gods come to listen to the recitation of thedhamma. Thus, today we usually invite gods to our chanting venues so they maylisten to our chants. Chanting a certain sutta or listening to a certain chant is simply ameritorious deed. This merit, like any other kind of merit, should be shared with or transferred to other beings including the gods. Hence those gods gained merits bylistening to the chanting of the suttas and rejoicing thereby. The chanters also gainedmerits . In return, the gods will protect the chanters.
 Understanding the meaning of the words chanted is essential for a chant to beeffective. However, it is not fruitless for devoted sutta chanters and sutta listenerseven if they cannot understand the meaning of chanted words fully or partially. Atleast their devotional faith will be established by chanting, and some merits willresult, depending on the level of their faith and concentration.While chanting, chanters usually pay homage to the Three Gems. They also payrespect to elderly chanters who are worthy of respect. Benefits of paying homage andrespect to the worthy ones, influence of chanting and power of the Three Gems arefound in Dhammapada and its commentary: “If a man has the habit of reverence, if healways respects the aged, Four things increase for him: age, beauty, happiness, power.”Buddhaghosa Thera in his Dhammapada-atthakatha explained this verse: At the timeof the Buddha there was a boy named Lad-whose-years-increased (Ayuvaddhana).His father, a Brahman and an old member of a heretical order, had performedreligious austerities for forty-eight years. One day, the parents brought the son to amonk, a former companion of the father. On meeting, they saluted him.He said to the parents, “Live long!” but remained silent when the son saluted him. On beingquestioned, the monk explained, “Some disaster awaits this boy, Brahman.” Thoughhe foresaw the disaster, he could not prevent it. However, he advised his friend to goto the Buddha to ask for protection.When they met the Buddha, the parents saluted Him and the Buddha said “Livelong!” When the boy saluted the Buddha, He was silent because He also saw thedisaster that awaited this boy, so the Buddha instructed the father on how to avert it.As instructed, the father erected a pavilion before the door of his house, and preparedseats for the Buddha and his disciples who recited the protective texts (parittas) tosecure protection. For seven days and seven nights continuously, the monks recited parittas, and on the seventh day the Buddha came. The powerful deities gatheredthemselves together near the Buddha, and the weak deities were forced to draw back,stepping back to make room for them. Then an ogre named Avaruddhaka stepped back too. Prior to this, Avaruddaka, having served Vassavana for twelve years had been given a boon by Vassavanna saying, “Seven days hence you shall receive this boy.” He approached the boy and stood waiting. However, the Buddha recited parittasall night long. The seven days lapsed and Avaruddhaka failed to get the boy.At dawn the eighth day, they brought the boy and made him pay obeisance to theBuddha who said: “Live long!” Then the father asked, “Sir Gotama, how long will the boy live?” The Buddha replied, “For one hundred and twenty years, Brahman.” Sothey gave him the name of Lad-whose-years-increased (Ayuvaddhana). When theyouth grew up, he went about surrounded by five hundred lay disciples.In this story, the life span of the boy was extended from seven day to one hundred andtwenty years by the grace of the Three Gems and by the power of protective chants bythe Buddha and His disciples and as a merit to his paying reverence to the Buddha.

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