"Chanting as a practice" by Ajahn Kevali

Adapted from a Dhamma talk given at Wat Pah Nanachat  after morning chanting on 18 October 2010

"Chanting is something that connects with the timeless quality of the Buddha's teachings".

We have just been chanting together the Buddhist teachings which we know as the parittas, (the protective verses). This spiritual exercise of chanting has many beneficial aspects to it: the cultivation of mindfulness, the building of concentration, the development of wisdom, the spreading of loving-kindness and also simply being present with a sense of timelessness. I have found that all these aspects of our training can arise from chanting; particularly when we are reciting these traditional, old, archaic verses in the ancient language of Pali. Most of us don't fully understand Pali, however an atmosphere is created from all the goodwill we generate. Putting our hearts into the chanting does have an effect, subconsciously or consciously.

Over the years in the monastery all of us have been exposed many times to these verses. These same verses that have been passed down to us from the Buddha. And despite our not being fluent in the language we do understand the meaning of many of the individual words. These words have certain dhammas captured or encoded in them. As we recite them the meaning can be a trigger - something we can wrap our consciousness around. Chanting the parittas is definitely a meditation. It creates a sense of peace and harmony and at the same time cultivates understanding. 

Applying mindfulness in two ways

Chanting as a practice comprises the two aspects of cultivating mindfulness in the way it is traditionally taught in Thailand: 

The first one is the awareness-aspect of mindfulness (in Thai: kwam roo dtua), which captures the quality of being in the present moment, letting the atmosphere and the all-round-experience of the practice that you are doing take over all your heart and feelings in a way that is fully aware, just like when you consciously immerse yourself in the flow and atmosphere of the words you are chanting (without paying much attention to their particular meaning).

And then there is the second aspect, the aspect of mindfulness as recollection (in Thai: kwam ralueg dai), which definitely means that you are applying your mind referring to some specific task, in which you do have a slight choice of attention where to focus on, such as when you are bringing the teachings to mind.

These aspects we know well from our meditation practice of reciting the meditation word 'Buddho'. When we recite 'Buddho' along with the rhythm of the breath, we put ourselves to a simple task, which as a technique doesn't imply much specific skill, as it is something repetitive, something that works by itself. So we can allow ourselves to be fully in the present moment, following what is happening. The simplicity of the task maintains itself. 

On the contrary, an example of having mindfulness with a more elaborate task is when you are applying your focused attention to solving a certain mathematical problem like adding some numbers in your head, or doing counting meditation techniques. This is more of a complicated task than repeating a single word such as 'Buddho'. Memorizing and recalling a whole train of words when reciting the parittas can go in the same direction.

Connecting with the Buddha

Usually when we recite the single meditation word 'Buddho' we combine this with the breath, letting the breath flow the way it is already flowing naturally by itself. We simply follow. Yet, when things get too easy and too monotonous, too repetitive, our thinking mind, our proliferating mind likes to go off, go astray and wander away from what we were actually doing. Then the second aspect of mindfulness - the recollection aspect - comes into play. We consciously give ourselves a little hint at the meaning of what we are actually repeating. What is it - 'Buddho'? What is the meaning of this word? Just this little application of thought about what we are actually doing, a little bit of wisdom applied at the right time, can take us out of the hindrances of just letting things slip away without awareness, and enables us to come back to what we are actually doing, seeing the preciousness of it and making it meaningful. 

Let us recall the meaning and the beauty encaptured in the word 'Buddho'. 'Buddho' means: the one who knows, who is aware, who is fully awakened, who is radiant, blissful and at peace. We can recollect some of the aspects of those great qualities of the Buddha, which resonate within the word Buddho, and start emulating those same qualities in our mind as we meditate, feeling connected to them. Then we are being true to what we're actually doing in our practice, or true to what we're actually saying with the words that we are repeating. 

So even the simple recitation of the meditation word 'Buddho' can capture both aspects of mindfulness - the first one, where you just completely let go and immerse yourself in the present moment experience and just let the awareness of the atmosphere take over your mind, feeling your mind expanding, widening and broadening, becoming radiant and all-encompassing towards anything that happens. And there is the second aspect of mindfulness, where you are putting everything down to a certain particular task and exercise, giving rise to a specific meaning, that then fully captures your mind. 

Doing this practice of sitting silently meditating on the two syllables 'Bud-dho' can bring up a lot of joyous, blissful feelings; an experience of elevation. By reciting and rightly focussing attention we fill our hearts with faith and devotion. In so doing we begin to sense a connection with something beyond 'I', 'me', 'mine'. Meditating on the name of the Buddha can lead us to a connection with an aspiration shared by many practitioners through the centuries; something very broad and universal. Previously we had studied about the Buddha and reached a good enough cognitive appreciation; now we are including feelings of devotion in our practice. 

Invoking a timeless energy

If we are to encounter hindrances of restlessness, worries, doubts or agitation in our meditation, just two syllables might not be enough. We might need more before we find a feeling of connection or relationship with the Buddha and the life he lived in the middle Ganges Valley 2550 years ago. This is when we can turn to chanting the parittas. It is like putting on our favourite album - the 'Greatest Hits' of the Buddha's timeless teachings. These verses have been popular from the time of the Buddha until now in the 26th century. They have been recited regularly throughout this time by many beings, both enlightened and unenlightened. They too were uplifting their hearts through recitation. While they were reciting these very same words they put all their mindfulness and wisdom, devotion and loving kindness into the chants, building up a sense of using them as a blessing; as something very wholesome that manifests an atmosphere of well-wishing, of peace, of kusala dhammas. When we move away from the cognitive aspect of making an effort to keep all those words in mind, we can quite literally feel this. 

Having the opportunity to chant together we can especially well be aware of the atmosphere or vibration present in the air while these meaningful words and sentences are being recited in unison by so many monks and individual people putting their heart into them. Letting go of hesitation one can allow the sound of the teachings to fill the room, fill the air, expand and fill the cosmos. It is a great power that we are creating together as a group and we can feel its presence: how literally the energy of the heart comes with the sound each chanter is putting into it. And I believe it isn't just something that we as a group are creating now, but it connects with the timeless quality of these teachings, and the long history of all the disciples of the Buddha chanting them throughout the ages in the same way as we are doing it now.

For example, when we recite the 'Itipiso'-chant: we are going through the qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha in exactly the manner as we find recorded in the ancient texts. In the original Pali or in the English translation you can read how these are the words used by the kings of the time and the devotees: bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunis (nuns), laymen and women. These very words of homage and praise were used to greet the Buddha and pay homage to him. We are expressing devotion by performing the same salutations as is found in the canonical records referring to King Pasenadi of Kosala for example and of many of the senior disciples like Venerable Sariputta and Venerable Moggalanna. 

The teachings: tags for mindfulness

We know how the profundity of the Buddha's teachings on an intellectual level can uplift our hearts and minds; seeing the meaning and the necessity of applying oneself to what the Buddha taught. Now we are chanting the actual unembellished original words that were used in delivering these teachings. We can easily see this in the karaniya-metta sutta (the discourse on Loving-Kindness). As I mentioned, even though we are not familiar with all the linguistic details of the traditional language, we do know a lot more than we might think. 

There are many individual words in these chants that we are totally familiar with; we do know the meaning of them; we do understand what they are pointing to. We can see these as hinges or tags for mindfulness. These words can bring up a particular feeling of knowing, here and now. In our hearts we can be applying those teachings at the same time as we recite the words. It becomes a skill worth making much of: staying with the words of the chant, attending to the meaning and at the same time being in touch with the blissful atmosphere. We can feel the energy that is generated while chanting the parittas at the same time as applying ourselves to the particulars of the teachings. We have awareness and a quality of recollection at the same time.

In the maha-mangala sutta (the discourse on Greatest Blessings), thirty-eight blessings are mentioned; each one is a tag for mindfulness. While we are reciting these words we can actually relate to them. We can be very quick in our mindfulness to absorb the meaning. We can generate the spirit of these teachings as a reality right here and now. For example in this sutta we find verses on gratitude mentioned. We have heard Dhamma talks on this virtue many times, often quoting from the maha-mangala sutta. So we have accumulated an understanding that easily unfolds when we consciously recall it. Or take the teachings around loving-kindness found in the karaniya-metta sutta: so many guided meditations that we have heard over the years have quoted exactly from this discourse. It isn't difficult while we chant these original words to actually follow the instruction that the Buddha was giving. 

Chanting the Buddhist texts is not a technical or mental exercise or something that is practised merely as a tradition or cultural ritual. Rather it is devotion and recollection with mindfulness and awareness that we are developing. It offers a tangible sense of uplift for those who are chanting and also for those listening. I am sure many of us have had such an experience when we first heard these chants. Sometimes at Wat Nanachat here in the morning and evening meetings the Ajahn decides not to do the usual chanting with translations, and the Sangha instead chants the parittas in Pali. A very inspiring feeling comes out of that. I can definitely recall many faith-inspiring occasions when I first arrived here and was getting to know the Theravada tradition; times of sensing intense happiness and bliss during the chanting, even though I didn't understand a single word of what was being recited. Just through the atmosphere transported through those chants. By all those individuals putting their conscious awareness into those ancient words there came a blessing in the air; all those people with a wholesome state of mind reciting those wholesome dhammas. 

Generating blessings

It is this tangible energy of blessing which comes from chanting the parittas that inspires our faithful supporters to invite us into their homes. Maybe they have anxieties or worries; or perhaps something 'inauspicious' has happened, so they ask us to come and chant. I remember once we were invited to chant in a house where a particular snake had appeared three times. The monks were invited to chant to create an auspicious energy. As a result, on a heart level, people didn't have to suffer fear but could feel the place had been blessed; there was a sense that obstructions had been cleared away. Dhamma was in the air because the monks had been reciting the Buddha's teachings.

This also applies for ourselves when we are perhaps overwhelmed by fear and worries. Maybe we even fear death. Many of our Thai friends struggle when going into a dark space where their imagination brings up fear of malevolent beings threatening them. Or if we take up residence in a new kuti (hut), or sleep without protection at the root of a tree we can skilfully turn to reciting these teachings to generate a wholesome feeling which drives away unwholesome mind states. This is how we can practice when ordinary mindfulness is not strong enough to let go of the hindrances that have arisen; when we can't simply dwell peacefully in the awareness of the present moment. At such times we need something more tangible to work with. 

We can use the teachings and the accumulated feeling of charged devotional energy to overcome unwholesome states and be at ease in troubled situations. I have many times found myself in uncomfortable situations where, without any conscious planning or even understanding exactly why, words or extracts of these old chants have spontaneously come into my mind; these same words that the Buddha used and recommended his disciples use. When faced with anxiety, doubts or when confronted with an accident for example, I have found accessing the accumulated blessing of these chants has been a great help. Their appearing in the mind at such times changed how I related to the situation. Without this tangibly present energy I could well have been overwhelmed and lost mindfulness and behaved foolishly or heedless.

All of us who have spent time in Dtao Dam Monastery, in the dense jungles on the Thai-Burmese border, know the value of spreading loving-kindness to all beings. There we occupy a place where we are not automatically entitled to protection. It is a dangerous situation - surrounded by various animals that could easily become irritated, seeing us as having intruded into their realm, their habitat. So we consciously choose to make known, and spread around, our good intention by way of reciting these chants. We invest wholesome energy in these words and use them as an anchor, as tags for wholesome dhammas. 

Building up concentration

So this traditional form of chanting that the Theravada tradition has maintained over the centuries can help us develop many different practices and it is good to be aware of this. These are not merely rites and rituals; this is not an empty procedure. 

I have already mentioned how we can be cultivating mindfulness, faith and devotion. Chanting can also be used to build concentration or samadhi. We have lots of views and opinions about how to develop one-pointedness of mind, the jhanas; we certainly have heard lots of talks on the subject. Well, we can also use this ancient practice of chanting the parittas. Learn to be really precise with your chanting; to do just one thing; to not doubt at all. Learn to recite the words that are correct for each stanza. Work with finding a feeling of being in the flow of the chant and at the same time being present with the details. Don't allow mindfulness to slip and drift into the past or the future. Be concentrated. 

It definitely takes skill to recite the teachings precisely. It requires maintaining a quality of mindfulness that knows what you are doing and why you are doing it, without wavering. We need enough concentration to sustain half an hour of attention without the mind wandering off; having enough presence to chant fully without losing energy; to remember the correct words and the correct pitch. And while we are aware of those pegs of mindfulness, at the same time we immerse ourselves in the atmosphere generated - maintaining this over an extended period of time, not just for a few syllables. Sustaining the applied energy of focus and application of mindfulness, and wisdom for thirty, forty, fifty or a hundred minutes; however long the chanting may take. 

I remember how fascinated I was the first time I heard the recitation of the monks rule (patimokkha). As novices we would quietly come into the back of the ordination hall towards the end of the chanting, to be part of the communal exhortation afterwards. I was so struck by the precision of the recitation. I thought at the time, 'This is the application of a concentrated mind. It is certainly a skill to be able to hold to one object, to keep to a certain mode of mind for fifty to sixty minutes without doubting or wavering'. It was a beautiful chant but also exquisitely precise; the rhythm, the pronunciation. It reminded me of a Japanese form of martial art where the power of a concentrated mind produces tremendous energy. It had me thinking how, 'in this old Theravada tradition they definitely knew what they are doing: to be able to chant from memory, with sustained attention for that period of time, without wavering; being totally present'. I don't know what the technical term for this kind of samadhi is - khanika, upacara - but it is definitely samadhi. It is mindfulness, concentration, wisdom; all in there together. Notice how in this practice we are also developing another factor from the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Effort (samma vayamo): we are increasing wholesome dhammas; making much of them so they fill the air, so they spread. 

We can see, there are many benefits of having the skill to recite the teachings like the parittas. When our mind won't settle on something as lofty and subtle as the breath we can use these ancient chants - tags for mindfulness, tags for concentration - and find a tangible link to the Buddha's teaching on both the devotional and wisdom level. This applies whatever shape or rhythm suits our mode of practice at any given time. In the same time, as we recite these traditional chants we are generating blessings within our own hearts and blessing that benefit all beings in all directions: human beings, non-human beings, those in happy states and those in abodes of suffering. 

May all beings benefit from our practice of reciting the Buddha's teaching.