Do we need a new chanting style?


Does the Pāli substantiate the last line of the older translation?

Now at that time the Bhikkhus were afraid to make use of intoning. They told this matter to the Blessed One.

“I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to intone.”

That would dramatically change the entire rendering from suredly pointing in one direction to only-vaguely pointing in one direction vis-a-vis chanting and acceptable chant-styles, if this section was less-than-correct.

It seems one can interpret it either as a prohibition against “singing” the Dhamma, or a prohibition against singing the Dhamma “fancily”. Like how Poulenc would set it, for instance.


The pali there says if they should sing (gayeyya), it’s a dukkata offense.

I can’t figure out what DPR’s vinaya citation # 's equivalent under SC’s more modern citation system. Once we can do that, then we can see SC’s english translation for that whole section.
Vin 5, 5. khuddakavatthukkhandhakaṃ, para. 20 ⇒

someone help? I don’t want to call out the big guns (the Bhantes) unless we have to.


Supporting the reading for it being a prohibition against singing the Dharma in a “fancy” manner, vs singing the Dharma at all, is a passage I am half-remembering when two bhikṣavaḥ tried to chant the Dhamma “in the manner of Vedic hymns” or “in the manner of Brahmin hymns”, I cannot remember the exact phrasing. The Buddha says not to do this, as I recall.


Something that is not unique to Buddhism is the search for “pure” or “passionless” music and/or chant as a vehicle for appropriate religious expression.

This is how the (very) late Romans conceived of “passionless” music:

This is how the Confucians conceived of “passionless” music that did not stir the heart towards lower preoccupations:

This is how the Tibetans conceived of a “passionless” music appropriate for “Buddhist” usage:

This is a musical tradition based on how the traditional Thai idiom expresses the passionless:

And this is how the some Chinese traditions of Buddhism expresses “passionless” chant:

All of these musics are considered, by the cultures that produces them, to be “passionless”.


Is this supposed to be the source of the above quote? Because it doesn’t really sound like it. I too cannot read it properly, but it discusses the four jhanas and other matters that are not found above. If anyone’s interested, the text is here:

No, they are quite different texts. It seems that, although philosophically similar, the Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada were primarily differentiated on the basis of their Vinayas, with the Mulas-s being based in Mathura. The Mula-s Vinaya is very different from all the others, including a massive quantity of stories, Jatakas and the like. The Sarv Vinaya exists only in Chinese translation, and a few small Sanskrit portions, while the Mula-s exists in Tibetan, most of it in Chinese, and large portions in Sanskrit.

So to clear up the Pali situation here. In AN 5.209, as cited above, the Buddha prohibits reciting Dhamma in āyataka gītissara. Gīti means “song” and sara means “sound”. Āyataka means “drawn out, lengthy”.

We have a good idea what gītissara means because it is also found in DN 21, where the Buddha refers to the song that Pancasikha sings to the accompaniment of his arched harp, tantissara (“sounds of strings”). So gītissara simply means “singing”, and is associated with the worldly arts and entertainments, such as practiced by Pancasikha, the Justin Bieber of the heavens.

“Stretched out” or “extended” probably refers to melodic styles that stretch the natural rhythm to allow for embellishment, such as is found in some modern Sri Lankan chanting styles.

The above passage is also found in the Vinaya in the Khuddhakavatthukkhandhaka, i.e. “Chapter on Minor Matters”. There, the Buddha adds a second clause. The monks were practicing sarabhañña and were worried about falling into an offence, but the Buddha said, “No worries, she’ll be right”, or words to that effect.

Bhañña means to recite, and it is a standard word used when the Buddha delivers a teaching. Sarabhañña is used at Ud 5.6 and Kd 5 of Soṇa when reciting the verses of the Atthakavagga for the Buddha, and also at Kd 22 in the account of the Second Council in the context of a teacher training a student to recite the texts.

We don’t seem to have any context outside of this in the early texts to understand the difference between these chanting styles. But it seems reasonable to conclude that sarabhañña was the standard way texts were recited, and referred to a simple, plain form of recitation, where the words were clear and the diction was not too far from regular speech.

There are a few extra details supplied in the commentaries, especially the Vinaya commentary.

Na bhikkhave āyatakenāti ettha āyatako nāma taṃ taṃ vattaṃ bhinditvā akkharāni vināsetvā pavatto.
“Drawn out” means: Here “drawn out” specifies that one proceeds having ruined that particular duty.
Dhamme pana suttantavattaṃ nāma atthi, jātakavattaṃ nāma atthi, gāthāvattaṃ nāma atthi,
For in this Dhamma there is the duty of the Suttas, the duty of the Jatakas, and the duty of the verses (gāthā).
taṃ vināsetvā atidīghaṃ kātuṃ na vaṭṭati.
Having ruined that to make it over long is not proper.
Caturassena vattena parimaṇḍalāni padabyañjanāni dassetabbāni.
With square duty (? fourfold, perhaps “balanced”) rounded words and phrases should be seen. (Tika explains “square duty” as “fully raising the voice”)
Sarabhaññanti sarena bhaṇanaṃ. Sarabhaññe kira taraṅgavattadhotakavattagalitavattādīni dvattiṃsa vattāni atthi.
“Vocal recitation” means: reciting with the voice. It seems that in vocal recitation there are 32 duties, such as the wave duty (?), the washing duty, the flowing duty, etc.
Tesu yaṃ icchati, taṃ kātuṃ labhati.
One gets to do whichever of these one wishes.
Sabbesaṃ padabyañjanaṃ avināsetvā vikāraṃ akatvā samaṇasāruppena caturassena nayena pavattanaṃyeva lakkhaṇaṃ.
All of these do not ruin the words and phrases, undistorted, suitable for ascetics, with the characteristic of proceeding in a fourfold (= “balanced”?) manner.

This is a very rough translation, but the gist is clear enough. The problem with gītissara is that it ruins the sense of the words, distorting them to fit the melody, and hence undermining the whole point of the exercise, which is to remember and make clear the Buddha’s words.

Thus one should employ any one of the 32 styles of sarabhañña according to your pleasure. These preserve the sense of the words without distortion.

The names of the 32 styles are obscure, and I can’t find an explanation. Note that they all seem to refer to water or flowing in some way. Perhaps they are punning on the two meanings of sara as “stream” and “sound”? I do remember, though, that the Sri Lankan monks refer to their normal chanting style—not the drawn out embellished style—as sounding like the rise and fall of the ocean. Perhaps this passage is where that idea comes from.


No, it was something random that I found while trying to find the section Pi-yen Chen is talking about. An issue with my trying to find it is trying to figure out what “pātha” would be in Chinese. I found a document with the entirety of T1435 in one searchable chunk, which aids in searching considerably:

I have yet to find a candidate for the original passage referred to by Pi-yen Chen.


Okay, makes sense.


The power of crowdsourcing!

Over on DharmaWheel, the user Astus was able to pinpoint the section of T1435 (Sarvāstivāda vinaya) before me.

It seems pātha may be 聲唄. This would be a very obscure term as none of the dictionaries I use had it. If it is not pātha, then it simply means “song that is good” “sung well” or “singing well”.

From 269c15:

Obviously a professional translation is preferred to my own, but there it is.


Bhante @sujato, do you have any recorded workshops or classes that teach the different possible ways to chant (without violating vinaya), and explain how to chant differently for prose and verse, and verses of different meters?

I’m keenly interested in reviving the oral tradition way of learning EBT, not for nerdy reasons or out of respect for the Buddha, but because after adopting that way myself over the past few years, I’ve personally experienced the benefit of it. If you don’t have something clearly memorized, you won’t be able to understand it yourself clearly, you won’t be able to explain it clearly. Similarly, if your memory of the teachings is fuzzy and unreliable, your understanding is going to be fuzzy and unreliable.




We don’t have any information on the ancient chanting styles. And as for the modern styles, we usually just pick them up by joining in. I’ve never done any workshops on this, although I did write a short introduction to chanting for Bodhinyana many years ago.

Some places they do have workshops, though; I remember seeing them in Singapore.


If, Moggallāna, that drowsiness still would not go away, then, Moggallāna, you should recite in detail a teaching that you have learned. It is possible that when you do so, that drowsiness would go away. AN7.58

It would be difficult to know, but maybe it was quite lilting + stern, to wake someone up, I think.

with metta


Can that be down in English given we can chant via locality? Im not familar with different chants. I found this nice though.

Can you link youtube videos? Disregard ha.


I like that too.
But some think it is annoying.
This is the problem of music.


Yeah. Couldnt find one without it. Most of the youtube chants have music. I listen to vajrasattva mantra. Its a toss up. Sometimes I like it other times its distracting. This comes from Tibetan Buddhism but Im sure there are cross references to EBT. Its nice for insight meditation more so than theology and study.


The all-reaching much-maligned influence of 80s/90s New Age synth music. Trying to look up authentic ethnomusicological examples of world music is similarly marked by these new style recordings, where the sound engineer adds all sorts of drones and drum beats.

Full disclosure: I have not listened to the clips here, I am just guessing on what is being complained about :sweat_smile:!

This I’m-sure-well-meaning subjective atrocity is what I’m talking about:


The chant of Metta.
I think it is ok for lay people to make a song out of Sutta.
But not for the monks.


Following video Ven. Sugatavamsa explain with a very interesting example why you can’t recite pali in a singing voice. If we use the example of the rooster crowing in Pali rooster is not allowed to use the last phase of the crowing. Sugatavamsa video 31.37


This is a long shot, but…

Modern analysis of the ragas resulted in classification into 32 thaats. Although the analysis is modern, it was of Indian classical music. The Wikipedia article was highly technical and difficult for me to understand, but perhaps of more value to someone with a musical background.