Maha Pirith chanting

On Saturday night I fulfilled a long-cherished dream. No, not getting enlightened – that will have to be another night!

Many years ago, in Thailand, I heard of the Sri Lankan custom of reciting the parittas all night. In Thailand we would usually do parittas for 20 minutes of so. For someone who loves Pali and chanting like myself, this sounded amazing, and I determined that I would do it one day.

The chance came with the opening of the new Dhamma hall at the Sydney Sri Lankan temple Lankarama at Schofields. They kindly invited us to the opening, and while I usually avoid this kind of big ceremony, I was intrigued by the fact that they were to have an all-night chant. So a few of us went down for the evening. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any accommodation for nuns, so our nuns had to stay behind – just another little reminder of the inequality that still pervades our religion, even when there is no active opposition to equality, just inertia.

Another little milestone – our novice, Ven Nandiya, made a vow when he ordained not to go to Sydney for a year. (he’d spent much of the previous year driving me up and down…) This was his first visit to the Big Smoke after the year was over!

So there’s a few hundred people and around 20 monks gathered in the big, shiny, new Dhamma hall. It really is a great facility, and congratulations to all who made it happen!

There was a beautiful mandapa decorated in the Sri Lankan style for the monks to sit in. The opening chants were done by all the monks, in that very slow decorative Sri Lankan style (and for those into Vinaya, yes it probably does break the rule aboutr ot intoning Dhamma in a ‘long drawn-out singing voice’ – but to glass-half-full it, we don’t know much about what any of the chanting styles that were used in the time of the Buddha, so it would seem wise to not get too worked up about it…). It was done as a call-and-response, which worked very powerfully for the slow opening texts. One monk would recite a phrase, then the whole group would rejoin with the next.

When the opening section was finished, most of the monks retired, and the chanting was done by either two monks or two pairs in call-and-response for the rest of the night. The abbot, Bhante Dhammagavesi, kindly invited us to join in whenever we wanted, so I took full advantage of that and just stayed for the whole night. Curiously enough, it was all pretty comfortable, and I didn’t even need a toilet break, despite the endless cups of strong black tea.

The Maha Pirith ceremony is based around a collection of auspicious chants that is used commonly in Sri Lanka for house blessings and other auspicious ceremonies. While all the texts are found in other Theravadin countries, the collection as a whole is a specifically Sri Lankan thing. (Incidentally, several of the texts are also found in the Tibetan canonical collection called the Maha Sutras, where they played a similar role as protection chants.)

The texts are all pretty much canonical, although many of them come from what is usually considered to be the later portions of the canon. You can find the list of texts and brief discussion of paritta on Wikipedia. With a few exceptions, they are not among my favorite Pali texts. But even dubious pseudo-magical invocations like the Atanatiya Sutta take on a new life when expressed in a dramatic form. When we got to the bits that say: “This yakkha is hassling me! This yakkha is attacking me!” the monks brought a sense of urgency and danger that lies inert on a printed page.

We varied the tempo a lot, from extremely slow to, like, fast. The fastest was the coda, where we recited one of the few non-canonical texts, the Theravadin tantra Jinapanjara. This has a lot of unusual vocabulary, long compounds, in a variety of late, complex metres, and recited at speed it was a serious challenge! The changes in tempo obviously added to the drama and interest of the chanting, but I must say that for myself I preferred the moderately fast ones – they are at a normal speaking speed. I found it hard to connect with the slow ones.

The Sri Lankan chanting is of course wonderful, by far the best pronunciation of Pali. Aside from the details, the Sinhalese use of Pali is just so much more natural as compared to the Thai. When chanted by Thais, Pali always sounds like an artificial language – there’s something unnatural in the tones and the rigidity of rhythm. On a Sinhalese tongue, it flows like a river. No doubt this is because Sinhala as a spoken language is closely related to Pali. This was one of the reasons for taking part, so that I could somehow imbibe some more of that flow into my own Pali.

Like many of the slightly extreme things that we Buddhists do, this was a strangely uplifting ceremony. The whole is bigger than the parts. There was no one moment when I felt, ahh, yes, this is it! But at the end of the night I felt vibrant and clear – wired more than tired. So, when’s the next one?

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What’s in a name?

It’s so great to be a Buddhist student these days. We have accurate texts, well organized, and comprehensively linked to excellent translations in modern languages. The canons of Pali, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Chinese material have all been translated into English. The traditional commentaries are also available in translation, and in addition, there is an excellent layer of modern commentary, which gives the historical and doctrinal context of any passage you care to look up. This material is all found in easily accessible forms, widely available in print, online, and various ebook and mobile apps.

As a result, one find that Buddhist generally have a good awareness of their own scriptures. They understand the historical context that they arose in, are widely read in the Suttas, and familiar with the forms that the ideas of the Suttas developed in over time. This puts their practice into context, and helps to distinguish between those aspects of Buddhism that are truly useful and those that are unnecessary.

And then I woke up. IT WAS ALL A DREAM!

The reality is a little different. Actually, the world I was describing is not so far away from what is available for Bible studies. But for Buddhists, well…

The Pali texts are available in several crappy websites, and a couple of fairly good ones. The tipitakastudies.net site is well designed, but only has canonical materials. The VRI Tipitaka site has a wide range of materials, but has a weird indexing system so you can’t link to any individual texts. Neither of these sites is connected to any translation. The translated material is available on Access to Insight and various other places. It is of vastly variable quality. Several sites offer translations that appear to be of dubious legality as regards copyringht. Understandable, as the owners of the good copyright translations – mainly Wisdom and Pali Text Society – have not made their material available on the web. The PTS, god bless ’em, continue to operate as if the internet was nothing more than a place to advertise their books.

But the Pali situation is positively excellent compared to the other languages. There is an excellent edition, CBETA, of the Chinese canon, but no translations of any major early collections of Vinaya or Suttas into English – although the Madhyama Agama is underway. The Tibetan situation is worse. Sanskrit texts are mostly available at GRETIL, but there are few translations.

With some friends we set up suttacentral.net a few years ago, which links text and translation of Pali and other languages for the four Agamas/Nikayas. This is something, but far from perfect.

So what is the problem? There are many, but let me point out a few subtle details that betray the real issue.

Take the http://studies.worldtipitaka.org/ site. It’s an excellent text, although it uses the less authentic Burmese spellings. But it’s well presented and uses innovative features, like a print on demand capability. The back end is extremely well constructed: each word is marked up and there is a very thourough indexing and organizational system.

Yet look at the title: World Tipitaka. It is no such thing. True, the editors referred to various printed editions from Theravadin countries in forming the text. But the readings are Burmese. And it takes no account of the world outside Pali. Also note that it is available in Roman script only. This limits its use as compared to the VRI site, which enables several scripts. To implement such a capability is no difficult matter. The reason for the Roman-only text is ideology. The creators think that Pali pronunciation in Thailand (their home country) is corrupt, and making people read Pali in Roman script will make them get the text right. The reality, of course, is that Pali can be read right or wrong in any script, and the the real effect will be to isolate the text even further from the uneducated. It is an artifact of Buddhist modernism, where the essentialist (notice how I avoid using the word ‘fundamentalist’?) search for true, original Buddhism, creates an artificial construct divorced from the realia of people’s lives. This ideological agenda is giving people the Tipitaka that the creators want, rather than that which the people want. And the background of this whole thing is steeped in Thai royalist politics.

None of this is to deprecate the excellent scholarly work that the group has done, or to diminish the usefulness of the site. I use it all the time, and we link to it from suttacentral.net. It is simply to understand that this text does not come in a vacuum. It arises from a particular set of ideologically-determined circumstance, and the manner in which the Tipitaka takes shape is determined by those circumstances.

The VRI Tipitaka gives another example. This one comes from the Goenka movement, and so there is a bulit-in need to authorize the late commentarial theories on which the Goenka technique, like all modern Burmese meditation techniques, is based. It does this in a none to subtle way. We all know that the Pali literature is divided into the canon, which is the Tipitaka of Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma, and the later commentarial material.

But this is not the world according to VRI. Their material is structrured like this:

Tipitaka (roman [or other script])
Tipitaka (mula) – Atthakatha [commentary]- Tika [subcommentary] – Anya [other]

So everything, including the medieval grammars and so on, is a subset of the Tipitaka. Tipitaka no longer means ‘canon’, but ‘all Pali texts’.

This tendency continues in the lower levels of organization, too. Under ‘tika’ for example, we have ‘Vinayapitaka’, ‘Suttapitaka’, ‘Abhidhammapitaka’. That is, the subcommentarial literature is now ‘pitaka’. Perhaps one could say that what is meant is ‘subcommentary to the pitaka’. Fair enough, except that we have already established that everything is categorized under Tipitaka. While one could argue the merits of one system of categorizing over another, the overall tendency of the categories as established by the VRI is to treat all the literature as subsets of the canon, rather than being a separate strata of literature.

What does this do? It means that we treat the entire corpus of Pali literature as being essentially canonical. This is no accident, as it is the way that Buddhist texts are normally used in Burmese, and to a lesser extent, Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhism.

Once more, I need to emphasize that my intent here isn’t to criticize the good work of the VRI team, who have made many previously obscure Pali texts widely available. I use their site often, it has been a reliable and useful resource.

But we can see that there is a definite ideological purpose behind their work, and that purpose affects the form of the product. In some ways that is good – they have made their text freely available, in accordance with the Goenka tradition of dana. In other ways, it influences the manner in which texts are read, biasing them towards one particular (anti-historical) perspective.

These examples are meant to illustrate a wider point, which is that large scale projects to publish the Buddhist texts are often, even inevitably, driven by concerns other than disinterested scholarship. This is true in the present, and without doubt it was true in the past as well.

The groups that have, up to the present, brought forth the major works of Buddhist literature have done a very incomplete job, and part of the reason for that is their ideological needs. They are not interested in making connections between Buddhist texts in different languages, but in isolating and canonizing their chosen texts. They have a very limited concern with making the texts available to a wide range of people who will actually learn from them. For example, Access to Insight, which is essentially a project of one Buddhist enthusiast, probably serves far more people who are interested in reading and practicing the Suttas as compared with all the high level prestige projects sponsored by kings and conducted by national universities.

How are we to proceed? IOne thing is promising: the disruptive power of open source. Something like Wikipitaka – yes, it’s a thing – is a start, but as you can see it is far from complete. Get the texts out of the hands of institutions and ideologues, and out of copyright shackles – who can copyright the Buddha’s words, anyway? Get them available in open, flexible forms, and let the magic of open source develop multiple platforms and applications.