Socio-religious significance of Buddhist chanting

by Ven. Dr. Pategama Gnanarama Thera, Lanka Daily News, Jan 12, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- When we view Buddhism from the functionalist perspective of sociology, the role that Buddhism plays in society in bringing social cohesion by means of psychological support to its adherents is more real than apparent in the practice of Buddhist Chanting.

Emile Durkheim, one of the earliest functionalist theorists has shown religion's function in sustaining social solidarity in any social system. The Buddhist stance on chanting, therefore, can be analysed from a sociological angle to see how far Buddhism is socially oriented to bring about togetherness and integrity in society.

Chanting performed in connection with the significant events of day-to-day life has enabled Buddhists to maintain social cohesion and the Buddhist identity even in modern society that is changing rapidly. Buddhism, provides the adherents with psychological support in their uncertainties, pains and sorrows.

The support it has extended both morally and emotionally, which is called psychological support in sociological terminology, can be seen in Buddhist chanting performed not only on the occasions of birth, marriage and death, but also for tribulations and for every auspicious event in life as well. Chanting has been integrated into Buddhist lifestyle so strongly that it has become one of the most popular Buddhist practices among Buddhists all over the world.

In Buddhist households, chanting is performed on every occasion of domestic importance in order to ward off evil influences and invoke blessing on the person or the party concerned. It is performed at childbirth, anticipating the safe delivery of the child and then follows every event of personal and social importance to a Buddhist.

In this way, most ceremonial occasions are marked with the monks' chanting of paritta. Whether it is laying the foundation of a building or a housewarming or a wedding, it is customary for Buddhists to beseech blessing form paritta chanted by a varying number of participating mons.

The emotional boost it provides obvious from the very enthusiasm they display at the performance. Annual ceremonial events of personal, social and religious significance are often celebrated with the co-operation and the participation of family members, well wishers and sympathisers.

Besides, it is significant to note, in addition to medical consultation at the time of illness, paritta is chanted for those who are indisposed,wishing their speedy recovery by the blessing supplicated on the power of the truth of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Hence it is quite legitimate to assert that the Buddhist system of chanting has introduced a religious dimension of popular recognition by the laity in a way that they can participate actively in the practice and there by contribute to the maintenance of social solidarity because of the psychological support that is extended by the performance.

What is Buddhist chanting?

In Theravada Buddhism, chanting is known as paritta'. Etymologically it means 'Protection' (derived from pari+tra to protect). Hence it is defined in the sense of providing protection in every way by the blessing invoked on the truths of the Triple Gem in general and on the truth of dhamma in particular.

In providing protection emphasis has been laid on several aspects of the dhamma in order to invoke blessing on those who are in need. It is to be stressed that these protective chants are not mystical compositions (mantras) with mysterious combinations of words and sounds; nor are they magical formulas or talismans or exorcisms.

They are original discourses delivered by the Buddha and preserved in the Pali canon. The work popularly known as 'The Great Book of Protection' is supposed to have been composed in Sri Lanka at an early period it consists of discourses culled from the canonical texts and compiled mainly for the purpose of chanting.

These discourses have been recited as parittas or chants even during the time of the Buddha. Gradually when Buddhism evolved as a religion of the masses, Buddhist chanting became more and more popular among them due to its efficacy of providing protection by warding off (dukkha), (bhaya), (roga).

Invoking Blessing by permeating loving kindness

On the whole, benediction is besought for a person or persons in consideration of several aspects of dhamma. In addition to the diffusion of loving kindness to all beings, thoughtful reflection on dhamma, invoking power and genuine qualities of dhamma are recounted in these chants. Hence in the evolution of chanting as a specific Buddhist tradition, several aspects of invoking blessing have been taken into account in consideration of the particular situations that the monks and the laity had to face during the time of the Buddha.

Perhaps the earliest phase of chanting is seen with reference to the preaching of the discourse on Loving kindness (Metta Sutta). The discourse is found in both the Suttanipata and the khuddakapatha and prescribes to radiate unreserved loving kindness (metta) to all sentient beings.

The Buddha taught the discourse to some forest-dwelling monks to be practised as a protective chant as well as a subject of meditation. The monks had been interrupted in their meditation by arboreal deities who tried to frighten the monks away from their forest abode.

These monks had taken their abode in the forest during a rainy season. Realising that the presence of these monks in the forest could be an unexpected bother for them, the deities who had made the trees their habitat took various demonic guises and frequently tried to frighten them away.

The monks being terrified and disturbed in their concentration returned to savatthi and reported the matter to the Buddha. Thereupon the Buddha taught them the Metta sutta to be recited and its theme reflected upon as a subject of meditation.

On returning to the same forest they chanted the discourse while focusing their attention on its theme. It has been recorded that the deities who listened to the recital were appeased in their unfounded displeasure and thereafter provided guard and protection for the monks as long as they lived there.

The Khanda Paritta found in the Vinaya Cullavagga, Anguttara Nikaya as in the Kbandauatta Jataka of the Jataka collection instructs the forest-dwelling monks to pervade loving kindness to the four kinds of royal serpent families lest should they be bitten by them. In the Anguttara Nikaya, it is named Ahinda sutta.

The sutta has been taught in connection with the death of a forest-dwelling monk bitten by a snake. although these four royal families have not been identified so far, they are also found in a Sanskrit manuscript. Although the sutta in question speaks about loving kindness and the powers of the seven Buddhas. It is named Khanda paritta in the Cullavagga.

This seems to have puzzled Lionel Lokuiliyana, who compiled the English version of 'The Great Book of protection'. For, while saying that it is difficult to say why it is called by that name, he surmises that perhaps it has been named after a demon-serpent found in the Mahabharata. But it is plausible to think that as the compilation of the Mahabharata is few centuries later than the period of the Vinaya Cullavagga as well as the Nikaya works, it has nothing to do with the demon-serpent in the Mahabharata.

The sutta might have been so named because it is protection for the five aggregates (pancakkhandha) which an individual consists of. However, as the sutta speaks of seven Buddhas in invoking blessing, it might have been reacted some decades after the rise of Buddhism.