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?