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Does any canonical sutta say you can attain enlightenment *while* chanting?

I’ve heard a couple of mentions (but seen no direct reference) that there is a (presumably canonical) formal list of certain activities that you can attain enlightenment during. I’m guessing it’s the “sudden” the kind of enlightenment which is being implied in this list (not “gradual”).

This list includes formal sitting meditation, and chanting. Yes, you can apparently attain enlightenment right in the middle of a chant you are doing.

Can anyone point at a particular canonical Sutta that says this? Also, I do not recall even one Canonical reference to any arahant claiming they attained their full enlightenment during chanting. And this includes the Theragata, and Therigata. Can anyone else remember a person in the Canon who said they were enlightened during chanting?

While I don’t normally defer people to other sites, Bhante, this is a question our friends over at http://buddhism.stackexchange.com/ might be able to answer.

Done:

https://buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/11908/does-any-canonical-sutta-say-you-can-attain-enlightenment-while-chanting

Bhante Saddhasara (of Sunshine Meditation Center, Florida) came through with the answer: in the Aṅguttara Nikāya The Book of the Fives, Sutta 26, “Liberation”, the “five bases of liberation” are listed.

Number three is “Reciting the Dhamma”. The pali term for “Reciting” is “sajjhāyaṃ karoti”, which can also be translated as “chanting”, however the chanting referred to here must be deeply understood by the one chanting. That is to say, the type of chanting here is not as in incanting a mystical, magical spell in an arcane language, where you don’t know what the words mean, where the power is inherent to the sound of the words. It’s not like “Abra Cadabra.”

This means you can only possibly attain enlightenment if you are chanting in your mother tongue, or in a language you are fluent-enough in, such that you can reflect deeply on the meaning, as you say the words. It’s the meaning of the words being felt and understood deeply which trigger the joy, etc.

…he recites the Dhamma in detail as he has heard it and learned it. In
whatever way the bhikkhu recites the Dhamma in detail as he has heard it
and learned it, in just that way, in relation to that Dhamma, he
experiences inspiration in the meaning and inspiration in the Dhamma. As
he does so, joy arises in him. When he is joyful, rapture arises. For
one with a rapturous mind, the body becomes tranquil. One tranquil in
body feels pleasure. For one feeling pleasure, the mind becomes
concentrated. This is the third basis of liberation, by means of which,
if a bhikkhu dwells heedful, ardent, and resolute, his unliberated mind
is liberated, his undestroyed taints are utterly destroyed, and he
reaches the as-yet-unreached unsurpassed security from bondage.

The Sutta in full is here:
https://suttacentral.net/en/an5.26

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I feel it’s also very relevant to tack on a couple of points:

  • In MN 139.12, we can conclude that the language used in the Pali
    Canon (called “Magadhi” or “Avanti”) is not a “magical” language,
    other than the fact that it’s the oldest source we have available to
    translate from. It was the vernacular in the time and place the Buddha lived in:

’He should not insist on [some] local language. He should not override normal usage.” So it was said. And with reference to what was this said?

And how does there come to be insistence on local language and overriding of normal usage?

Here, bhikkhus, in different localities they call the same thing a “dish” (pāti) or they call it a “bowl” (patta) or they call it a “vessel” (vittha) or they call it a “saucer (sarava) or they call it a “pan” (dhāropa) or they call it a “pot” (poṇa) or they call it a “mug” (hana) or they call it a “basin” (pisīla).
So whatever they call it in such and such a locality, he speaks
accordingly, firmly adhering to and insisting on that, “Only this is
true, anything else is wrong.” This is how there comes to be insistence
on local language and overriding of normal usage.

And how does there come to be non-insistence on local language and non-overriding of normal usage?

Here, bhikkhus, in different localities … they call it a “basin” (pisīla).
So whatever they call it in such and such a locality, he speaks
accordingly without adhering, (thus): “These Venerable Ones, it seems,
are speaking with reference to this.” This is how there comes to be
non-insistence on local language and non-overriding of normal usage.

So it was with reference to this that it was said, “He should not
insist on [some] local language. He should not override normal usage.”

Quoted from “The Exposition of Non-Conflict” (Araṇavibhaṅga sutta).

if i get your drift you’re trying to insist that chanting must be done in the native language of the chanters

if this is your point stated in somewhat inexplicit manner, i personally fully agree with it

is it because in your monastery this is not the case and you’d like it changed, that you feel the need to assert that ?

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I highly doubt any monasteries will be changing their centuries-old traditions and views about chanting, based upon what I might post here. What I am interested in discerning is what the Buddha actually taught with respect to chanting and reciting. That is to say, I wanted to know what the scriptures say about just how “magical” it is, to chant in Avanti/Maghadi (instead of English)? And is it true you can attain enlightenment while chanting (thus legitimizing any quantity of Avanti/Maghadi memorizing and chanting, even if you don’t know the meaning of many of the words)?

The ethnic Asian traditions I’ve come into contact with seem to staunchly hold the views that:

  1. the chants must be memorized and recited in Avanti/Maghadi (dozens and dozens of them). Knowing what the words mean is recommended, but optional. English translations are not even provided in many cases.
  2. you can attain enlightment while chanting, despite there being no cases (that I can find) of this seen in the scriptures.

I can’t force anybody to change their views, but I can try to keep things straight in my own mind, by referring back to the scriptures, taking them as the highest authority, now that the Buddha has “pari-nibbana’ed” (which the Buddha instructed monks to do, without getting into contentions with other monks who’s views differ).

Having said this, I’ll still participate in the Avanti/Maghadi chanting when required, in order to fit into the community I’m living with. Communal harmony is very important when you’re a monk. There are examples in the Scriptures where the Buddha goes along with the status quo of the spiritual milieu of his day, not rocking the boat.

And for those who might say “well learn and translate all the Pali then, so that you know what all the words mean”, I’ll leave this up to the fine Pali scholars in my tradition, because the Buddha explicitly allowed monks to learn the Dhamma in their own native tongues (thereby not insisting that they learn any other language than the one they already knew).

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I think I can explain why there will always be lots of traditional Magadhi/Avanti chanting in monasteries. It’s because there are a lot of laypeople (especially ethnic Asian Buddhists) who really enjoy hearing it, and feel deeply moved in their hearts to open their purses and wallets to support a monastery where the monks and nuns are good at Magadhi/Avanti chanting.

So in that sense, yes, Magadhi/Avanti is a magical language, in that it tugs the heartstrings of laypeople (many of whom have been hearing these chants ever since they were very young children), and therefore can effectively evoke the magic of “Open Sesame” on the lay people’s purses and wallets. And generosity is, of course, a key teaching in Buddhism.

By way of analogy, Westerners may perhaps feel a similar “magic”, when they hear, for example, the Boney M. Christmas album (which was a key ingredient to Christmas feeling all sparkling and magical back when I was about five years old, and didn’t know Santa Claus wasn’t real, long before I discovered Buddhism).

After all, monks, nuns and monasteries do need ongoing financial support, and the pattern that tends to hold true in most monasteries is that ethnic Asians tend to offer more financial support than Westerners (at least at this point in History).

the Western Sangha is relatively new and thus must be much more receptive to novelties

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Personally, I think that the use of Pali is a huge advantage for those of us who frequent ethnic monasteries. With some minor accent and pronunciation adjustments, I have no problem (armed with my Pali/English book) chanting at my local Thai Wat (or any Wat in Thailand), with Sri Lankans, in Hong Kong with Cantonese speakers, and so on.

If all of those places used their own language I would be shut out. For most of the common chants we do here I have the Pali and English largely memorised, so it’s definitely not a case of chanting something I don’t understand.

There are some other advantages with Pali:

  1. The verses sound good.
  2. It doesn’t sound like a knock-off of medieval Christian chants (much as I admire the Ajahn Chah group’s attempts…).
  3. There is no distraction from internally arguing with the choices of the translator (“Why did they use that word? — that’s just not right!”).
  4. It helps with picking up some Pali.

I do agree that one shouldn’t think of Pali as something magical, but it sounds good, and it works across ethnic boundaries.

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In my nine years of living in monasteries, I’ve lived in three types of Theravada monastery/hermitage so far:

  1. Ajahn Chah Branch Thai forest monasteries/hermitages
  2. Ajahn Chah-affiliated Thai forest monasteries/hermitages
  3. Mahamevnawa Sri Lankan monasteries

There was about a 10% overlap in chants commonly done, when comparing 1. and 2.
There was about a 2% overlap in chants commonly done, when comparing 3. with both 1. and 2.

Why such a low correlation? Because many (I’d say over half) of all the chants, which we would call “Pali Chants”, might be more accurately described as “Commentarial Avanti/Magadhi Chants”, meaning they are in the same ancient colloquial language (that the original Pali Canon were memorized in), but you do not find them anywhere in the Canonical texts. They are much, much later works, which have sort of snuck in to common usage, and have gained a seemingly centuries-old aura of authenticity, because they sound quite indistinguishable from Canonical Avanti/Magadhi chants.

For example, when you look in my tradition’s “A Bhikkhu Manual - Essential Chants”, any chant which says “[THAI]” or “[TRAD.]” at the bottom is one of these “Commentarial Avanti/Magadhi Chants.” You can see a chart of these square-bracketed abbreviations on page 4 of my tradition’s “Bhikkhu Manual -Vinaya Notes”, (which helps to decode which of these chants came from where).

You’ll probably also be surprised to learn that “[TRAD.]” is effectively equivalent to “authored by King Mongkut, former King of Thailand.” Yes indeed, he personally composed several of the chants we commonly do in our tradition, such as the “Yo cakkhumā” and “Bāhuṃ sahassam”. Interestingly, the “Bāhuṃ sahassam” has spread to Sri Lanka, now being a rather popular chant, although they would very rarely know its origin.

Having said all this, there are some very common chants done across all traditions, and I agree memorizing those is a great idea (such as the Mangala Sutta, Ratana Sutta, and Dhajagga Paritta).

Also interesting is that there are several chants in several Canonical suttas, where the Buddha explicitly instructed the monks to memorize and chant them, but these Canonical chants have since totally slipped out of common currency, and even the chanting books (having been effectively replaced with “Commentarial Chants”).

For example, from the “Pāsādika Sutta: The Delightful Discourse” in the Digha Nikaya:

'Therefore, Cunda, all you to whom I have taught these truths that I have realised by super-knowledge, should come together and recite them, setting meaning beside meaning and expression beside expression, without dissension, in order that this holy life may continue and be established for a long time for the profit and happiness of the many out of compassion for the world and for the benefit, profit and happiness of devas and humans. And what are the things that you should recite together?

They are:

the four foundations of mindfulness,
the four right efforts,
the four roads to power,
the five spiritual faculties,
the five mental powers,
the seven factors of enlightenment,
the Noble Eightfold Path.

These are the things you should recite together.

See it in full here: http://redzambala.com/digha-nikaya/pasadika-sutta-the-delightful-discourse.html

Note how the subject matter quoted above contains “lists of Dhamma”, which contain Buddhist wisdom in and of themselves. You’ll notice that today’s “Commentarial Chants” just tend to heap lofty praise on the Triple Gem, but are relatively scant on containing actual Buddhist wisdom.

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Hi Bhante,

My observations are as a lay person, and occasional resident at my local Wat for meditation. Many of the basic chants that a lay person interacts with in different areas of SE Asia are common, particularly refuges and precepts, which are based on the suttas. The morning and evening chants are, as you say, composed quite recently (I thought that was common knowledge…), but they seem to me to be largely sutta material, such as praise for the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, use of the requisites, and so on, strung together into a package. The morning chant summarises the teachings on aggregates, anicca, dukkha, anatta, etc, and I find that section quite inspiring when on retreat.

Of course, there are many modern(ish) chants such as the Jayamagala Gath,
http://www.maithri.com/Buddhist_Paritta_Chanting/Stanzas_of_Victory_and_Blessing.htm,
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=22379#p320028
but most of those verses are summaries of suttas:
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=11333

At my Wat the evening chanting usually includes recitation of a sutta, often either the Dhammacakkappavattana, Anatta-lakkhana, or Adittapariyaya suttas.

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:pray:

Dear Bhante,

Añjali! From my observation there is a bit of disappointment/unhappiness in your post here. Please be happy that you’re being supported by lay folks who want to continue keeping Pali being chanted so that it will not be lost by the monastics and more importantly as you say, are deeply moved when they hear the chants. Without their devotion, you would not be able to live your life with all your requisites. The Thais and Laos have so much confidence in the Lord Buddha, something that we can all try to emulate. (Additionally, there are lots of Pali loan words in Thai, which I assume you already have observed with your dealings with supporters?) When I go to my local Wat, it is so inspiring to see old people come and support the monastics. At the same time, I see anicca, as only the old people come fervently and the younger generations are losing this awesome tradition of caga - which is one of the foundations of bhavana practice.

We also need to remember that this path is mostly emotional not intellectual. Hence a lot of people feel inspired when they hear chants. Wasn’t it that you were inspired by the teachings hence you left the householder life and donned the three garments?

The main reason why the teachings where orally passed down was because chanting kept the connection with the original words the Buddha used. We all must remember that without Pali, we would not have the teachings today. These were the actual words that came from the Lord Buddha! How amazing is that after twenty-five hundred years, we are still hearing the Lord Buddha? That’s awesome to me. We can compare it to say learning a new language, you can read a translation but you wouldn’t really know how to say it properly until you hear a native speaker say the word and understood it yourself with your own experience.

And we must always need to remember, that the Pali words we here today weren’t something people didn’t understand back then. Pali was an actual language used by people in their daily life. Just like the word nibbana - it just means extinguishing. But a lot of people make it more difficult than that. It’s only because they are not ready to let go of “themselves” yet. One of the reasons why the Lord Buddha didn’t like his teachings taught in sanskrit was because sanskrit was used for rituals as it is still used today by Hindus all over the world.

May I suggest perhaps you should join in with the scholar monks and do a better translation of Pali to contribute to the prosperity and longevity of the teachings? You have enough time in your hands. In due time, then the western monastics can do chants in their own language. Most successful monks combine practice and scholarly research together. If we as followers of the Buddha don’t learn Pali, it’ll be like the old issues in the past, the Tipitaka will just be a novelty stuck away in shelf in the monastery. Monastics and lay folk have that responsibility. This is just my opinion but monastics should really study Pali because they can compare their bhavana practice to what is recorded in the suttas. Without Pali as the source, how can monastics gauge their practice? This very website we are using now, is very useful because it has afforded one central site for all possible translations of the teachings. Would you like to contribute to that effort?

And much like Mike, I go to a local Lao Wat here and it’s just a difference in intonations during the chants. Ocassionally, we get visiting monks from Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. And I can detect the different “accents” when they chant but it’s all the same Pali.

Honeslty, I actually like seeing so many different monastics be it “eastern” or “western” when they chant Pali. To me, that’s a way of paying respects to the Lord Buddha.

As far as the question, can someone get “awakened” during chanting. Depends who is chanting and how far that person has let go of the illusion of “this is me, mine, and myself.” The Lord Buddha used to help “push” his listeners to awakening, so what stops someone from being awakened when chanting if s/he is ripe (with the support of their practice) for it to happen? May not be recorded in the Tipitaka, but why not?

May you enjoy your vassa.

with respect and reverence,
russ

:pray:

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Russ,

I appreciate your comments. I think it bears observing that, over time, chants seem to multiply like rabbits (just like books about Buddhism).

Take for example the Chanting books that Amaravati just published. It’s a gorgeous-looking 2-volume set now, with about 200 pages:

http://www.amaravati.org/dhamma-books/

Compare this to Abhayagiri’s older chanting book (which is a “mere” 70 pages) :

http://www.abhayagiri.org/books/abhayagiri-chanting-book

Will you acknowledge that the natural direction of things, given general human nature, over time, is to move in the direction of increased devotionalism, which will slowly but surely “choke out” the actual meditation practice, unless people make serious efforts to defend their meditation practices?

What I’m not saying is “let’s do away with devotionalism”. What I am saying is “let’s remember what the Buddha actually said, so things don’t get out of hand.”

It’s not hard to see many Buddhist traditions out there which seem to be dedicated almost entirely to activities other than formal meditation, especially drawn-out, ceremonious, devotional ones. There are lots of monks out there who meditate little, or not at all.

I almost always meditate five hours a day, and I have to defend that like my life depended on it, especially from people who think I have a lot of time on my hands. You have no idea.

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although there may not be any explicit statement that Dhamma eye may open during chanting and as a result thereof, or accounts of such occurrences, i think that’s not impossible

as if Chan tradition stories are anything to go by, awakening may occur during any activity, but especially during that which has to do with the Dhamma

Please see this related thread.

Basically, Ajahn Sujato pointed out that just because chanting is generally supportive of enlightenment, doesn’t mean that it can cause sudden enlightenment. Let’s also remember that in Theravada, enlightenment is explained as “gradual”, not “sudden”.

:pray:

Dear Bhante,

I agree with you that some people rely too much on chanting and they think that just by doing that alone will lead them to final release :blush: . I also observed that some people go to temples to do merit so they can have a better next life :sweat_smile: . But we can give appreciation that at least they are going to the temple and offering support. Just as you mentioned, the practice is a gradual thing. Not a lot of people are ready to let go too much. It’s all in peoples temperament.

I understand that monastic life can get busy with your assigned responsibilities but it isn’t as cluttered as lay life. I know of a senior monk who in his younger days used to just read one sutta a day for study and now he’s a great teacher of Pali and suttas. Just something to consider.

May you enjoy the rest of your vassa. May you be well.

with respect and reverence,
russ

:pray:

thank you, bhante, i not only read it, i even posted therein having described my understanding of graduality and suddenness, where there’s no contradiction :wink:

I added an answer to your question: Does any canonical sutta say you can attain enlightenment while chanting?. Hope this is helpful.