The Significance of Paritta Chanting (Extract from “What Buddhist Believe” by Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera)
Paritta chanting is the recital of some of the Sutras uttered by the Buddha in the Pali language for the blessing and protection of the devotees.
Paritta Chanting or Sutra Chanting is a well-known Buddhist practice conducted all over the world, especially in Theravada Buddhist countries where the Pali language is used for recitals. Many of these are important sutras from the basic teachings of the Buddha which were selected by His disciples. Originally, these sutras were recorded on ola leaves about two thousand years ago. Later, they were compiled into a book known as the 'Paritta Chanting Book'. The names of the original books from which these sutras were selected are the Anguttara Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Digha Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya and Kuddaka Nikaya in the Sutra Pitaka.
The sutras that Buddhists recite for protection are known as Paritta Chanting. Here 'protection' means shielding ourselves from various forms of evil spirits, misfortune, sickness and influence of the planetary systems as well as instilling confidence in the mind. The vibrant sound of the chanting creates a very pleasing atmosphere in the vicinity. The rhythm of the chanting is also important. One might have noticed that when monks recite these sutras, different intonations are adopted to harmonize with different sutras intended for different quarters. It was found very early during man's spiritual development that certain rhythms of the human voice could produce significant psychological states of peacefulness and serenity in the minds of ardent listeners. Furthermore, intonation at certain levels would appeal to devas, whilst certain rhythms would created a good influence over lower beings like animals, snakes, or even spirits or ghosts. Therefore, a soothing and correct rhythm is an important aspect of Paritta Chanting.
The use of these rhythms is not confined to Buddhism alone. In every religion, when the followers recite their prayers by using the holy books, they follow certain rhythms. We can observe this when we listen to Quran reading by Muslims and the Veda Mantra Chanting by Hindu priests in the Sanskrit language. Some lovely chanting is also carried out by certain Christian groups, especially the Roman Catholic and Greek orthodox sects.
When the sutras are chanted, three great and powerful forces are activated. These are the forces of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha. Buddhism is the combination of these 'Three Jewels' and when invoked together they can bring great blessing to mankind:
The Buddha He had cultivated all the great virtues, wisdom and enlightenment, developed His spiritual power and gave us His noble Teachings. Even though the physical presence of the Teacher is no more with us, His Teachings have remained for the benefit of mankind. Similarly, the man who discovered electricity is no more with us, yet by using his knowledge, the effect of his wisdom still remains. The illumination that we enjoy today is the result of his wisdom. The scientists who discovered atomic energy are no longer living, but the knowledge to use it remains with us. Likewise the Noble Teachings given us through the Buddha's wisdom and enlightenment are a most effective power for people to draw inspiration from. When you remember Him and respect Him, you develop confidence in Him. When you recite or listen to the words uttered by Him, you invoke the power of His blessings.
The Dhamma It is the power of truth, justice and peace discovered by the Buddha which provides spiritual solace for devotees to maintain peace and happiness. When you develop your compassion, devotion and understanding, this power of the Dhamma protects you and helps you to develop more confidence and strength in your mind. Then your mind itself becomes a very powerful force for your own protection. When it is known that you uphold the Dhamma, people and other beings will respect you. The power of the Dhamma protects you from various kinds of bad influence and evil forces. Those who cannot understand the power of the Dhamma and how to live in accordance with the Dhamma, invariably surrender themselves to all forms of superstitious beliefs and subject themselves to the influence of many kinds of gods, spirits and mystical powers which require them to perform odd rites and rituals. By so doing, they only develop more fear and suspicion born out of ignorance. Large sums of money are spent on such practices and this could be easily avoided if people were to develop their confidence in the Dhamma. Dhamma is also described as 'nature' or 'natural phenomena' and 'cosmic law'. Those who have learnt the nature of these forces can protect themselves through the Dhamma. When the mind is calmed through perfect knowledge disturbances cannot create fear in the mind.
The Sangha It refers to the holy order of monks who have renounced their worldly life for their spiritual development. They are considered as disciples of the Buddha, who have cultivated great virtues to attain sainthood or Arahantahood. We pay respect to the Sangha community as the custodians of the Buddha Sasana or those who had protected and introduced the Dhamma to the world over the last 2,500 years. The services rendered by the Sangha community have guided mankind to lead a righteous and noble life. They are the living link with the Enlightened One who brings His message to us through the recital of the words uttered by Him.
The chanting of sutras for blessing was started during the Buddha's time. Later, in certain Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, this practice was developed further by organizing prolonged chanting for one whole night or for several days. With great devotion, devotees participated in the chanting sessions by listening attentively and intelligently. There were some occasions when the Buddha and His disciples chanted sutras to bring spiritual solace to people suffering from epidemics, famines, sickness and other natural disasters. On one occasion, when a child was reported to be affected by some evil influence, the Buddha instructed His monks to recite sutras to give protection to the child from the evil forces. The blessing service, by way of chanting, was effective. Of course, there were instances when the sutra chanting could not be effective if the victims had committed some strong bad kamma. Nevertheless, certain minor bad kammic effects can be overcome by the vibrant power combined with the great virtues and compassion of those holy people who chant these sutras. Here, the overcoming of a bad kammic effect does not mean the complete eradication of the effect, but only a temporary suspension of such an effect. Devotees who were tired fatigued have experienced relief and calmness after listening to the chanting of sutras. Such an experience is different from that provided by music because music can create excitement in our mind and pander to our emotions but does not create spiritual devotion and confidence.
For the last 2,500 years, Buddhist devotees have experienced the good effects of sutra chanting. We should try to understand how and why the words uttered by the Buddha for blessing purposes could be so effective even after His passing away. It is mentioned in the Buddha's teaching that ever since he had the aspiration to become a Buddha during His previous births, He had strongly upheld one particular principle, namely, to abstain from 'telling lies'. Without abusing or misusing His words, He spoke gently without hurting the feelings of others. The power of Truth has become a source of strength in the words uttered by the Buddha with great compassion. However, the power of the Buddha's word alone is not enough to secure blessing without the devotion and understanding of the devotees.
The miraculous effect experienced by many people in ridding themselves of their sickness and many other mental disturbances through the medium of the Buddhist sutras, enabled them to develop their faith and confidence in this form of religious service.