Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 17

Novices Chanting

One of the activities that members of the Saffron Forest must constantly engage in is memorization. In Pali memorization is called sajjhāya—constant, voiced recitation for the purpose of committing a text to memory. Memorizing Pali is extremely difficult. If one is intelligent it is tolerable, but if one is a bungling dimwit like Ven. Dtaw, by the time one trundles through a single verse there is great toil and drudgery.

There are numerous things to memorize in the Saffron Forest, including the words of confession, morning and evening chanting, words for pouring water, the yathā/sabbī chants, protective chants, and funeral chants. This last item in particular is crucial; it can be called a source of livelihood for many monks. There is a Thai idiom: ‘The monks live off the ghosts; the lay officials live off the monks.’ For this reason, newly ordained monks are urged to learn the funeral chants as quickly as possible. Otherwise, someone may suddenly kick the bucket; when the relatives come to invite you to chant at the funeral you don’t want to die of embarrassment.

There are two kinds of funeral chanting:

  • Saṅgaha
  • Mātikā-paṁsukūla

The Saṅgaha funeral chanting is done when the body of the deceased is kept at the family’s home or at the monastery, before the cremation. On these occasions only four monks are invited to chant—no more, no less. For the most part, the chants include verses related to the Abhidhamma, derived from the book ‘Abhidhammattha-Saṅgaha,’ composed by the Sri Lankan elder Ven. Anuruddha. (The name of this chanting is an abbreviation from this title.) This chanting resembles a form of melodious singing, including fluctuations in pitch. Some of the monks produce a falsetto that rivals the folk singers Pon Pirom or Chinagon Krailat. Occasionally, Thai poetic chants are included in this performance, in particular as a reminder to reflect on the impermanence of conditioned phenomena.

For instance:

“Aniccā saṅkhārā, all formations are fleeting,

Arising and passing away—expended, consumed.

Adults and children alike pass away, swept clear.

Even doctors and healers must die, their lives coming to an end.”

Or they may be maxims on the law of kamma, e.g.:

“Doing rightful deeds by body, speech, and mind;

Goodness reciprocates and rewards the doer;

Happiness follows in every moment;

Goodness supports and sustains the doer of good.

The deluded, wicked fool who performs brutal and heartless deeds,

Surely comes to ruin and disgrace;

He garners only woe, his hardship multiplied;

Thus evil is reaped by the evildoer.”

Corpse With Flowers

Regardless of whether Thai or Pali is used, no-one seems to be able to understand what is being said, because the monks tend to draw out the chanting, rendering the words incomprehensible. Eventually it appears like the monks are only chanting for the ghosts.

This is no match for the chanting in India. One of my friends used to live in India. He recounted how in the Land of the Indus when someone dies the relatives carry the body in procession to the banks of the River Ganges. While travelling to the river they chant in harmony: ‘Rām Rām maraṇā satyā haa’ which loosely translates as: ‘Even Rāma must die; how could we escape the clutches of Death?’ Such a simple and concise chant has distinct advantages over the chants in Thailand.

As I can gather, the Saṅgaha chanting is only performed in the central regions of Thailand. It is not the custom to invite the monks for Saṅgaha chanting in the backwoods of the Northeast. When I was ordained we were never invited to sing. This is because the people in the Northeast generally do not keep the deceased at home. Immediately after someone dies, a relative rushes off to the monastery to invite the monks to chant the Mātikā-paṁsukūla. After the chanted is completed the body is carried to the charnel ground for cremation. There is therefore no Saṅgaha chanting—only the Mātikā-paṁsukūla.

Mātikā-paṁsukūla is comprised of two separate words: Mātikā and Paṁsukūla. Mātikā refers to chanting the main topics or the abbreviated headings of the Abhidhamma. Another name for this chanting is Kusala. Chanting the Mātikā and chanting Kusala is one and the same. It has this alternative name because it begins with the word ‘kusala’: Kusala dhammā, akusala dhammā…. The Mātikā is not chanted in a melodious fashion as is the case with the Saṅgaha. It is chanted in an even and regular intonation. When the Mātikā chanting is finished, the senior monk passes a skein of holy thread down the line to the last monk in the row. The monks then chant the Paṁsukūla—also known as the Aniccā chant, because it begins: Anicca vata…. In Central Thailand the thread is usually placed down taut in front of the monks. The laypeople then place an under-robe (sabong) or upper-robe on the thread. The monks hold on to the robe while chanting, and when the chanting is complete they draw the robe out. This procedure is thus commonly known in the sphere of the Saffron Forest as ‘drawing Paṁsukūla’ or very simply chak (‘draw,’ ‘yank’).

Outsiders may hear the monks using such technical terms, for instance:

‘Hey Kammai, how many times did you yank yesterday?’

‘Only once. I can’t beat Tahn Vinai—he yanked three times.’

‘Don’t yank too much—you’ll get knackered.’

If you hear such a conversation, don’t think too much, or you will create bad karma unnecessarily. The monks are simply asking one another how many times they went to chant the Paṁsukūla. The first monk here is discouraging the second monk from accepting too many funeral invitations, and encouraging him to take some rest.

Chanting the Mātikā-paṁsukūla is a special activity; it is not performed regularly. Only once in a while is one invited to chant at a funeral. For this reason, most of the monks cannot remember these chants as accurately as they can the morning and evening chanting. The monks and novices at Wat Huay trembled at the thought of having to be the senior monk on these occasions and to lead the chanting. Taking part by sitting at the end of the line, however, was generally not a problem.

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Bliss

The commentaries define five kinds of bliss (pīti): 1) minor bliss (khuddakā-pīti): enough to make one’s hair stand on end and for one to shed tears; 2) momentary bliss (khaṇikā-pīti): one experiences momentary flashes of rapture, like flashes of lightning; 3) periodic or surging bliss (okkantikā-pīti): one feels pulses of rapture in the body, like waves washing against the shore; 4) transportive bliss (ubbeṅgā-pīti): one feels a strong sense of exhilaration, causing one to behave in spontaneous ways, say by uttering verses, or to feel as if one is floating; 5) all-pervasive bliss (pharaṇā-pīti): to experience rapture and exhilaration throughout one’s whole body.

(Vism. 143-4)

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Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 16

Wat Molee Lokayaram

Some examiners are extremely strict; if one makes even the slightest mistake, one is not let off the hook. There is a story that one examinee translated the earlier passage as ‘a bird goes through the air.’ The examiner replied: ‘Wrong. Try again.’ The examinee looked right and left, and saw his friend outside waving a red handkerchief, mouthing the words: ‘A bird must fly! Just saying “go” will not suffice!’ Lacking smarts, the examinee answered: ‘The red bird goes through the air.’ The examiner laughed loudly: ‘What kind of red bird? A communist bird?’ The examinee duly failed. Continue reading

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Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 15

Wall Painting on a Door from a Monastery in Chiang Mai

The Monks and Novices Go to the Royal Park

Every group develops its own special language and technical terms for communication. One needs to be a member of a specific battalion or platoon in order to understand these terms; outsiders are left in the dark. Members of the Saffron Forest also have a large number of technical terms specific to their community. New members must persevere before they gain any level of proficiency in such terminology. Continue reading

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Nature & Society

Monastery Bell

A complete spiritual development involves an interaction with and an understanding of both nature and society, because people are shaped and influenced both by natural and social forces. Such development is nourished by society and by nature, bringing about prosperity and happiness. Continue reading

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Wholesome Desire

Sunlit oak on the Blackdown Hills, DevonWhile travelling in the countryside and seeing an enormous tree with overarching branches and abundant green leaves, someone whose mind is expansive and appreciates the beauty of nature will delight in the splendour and magnificence of that tree and wish for it to prosper and be free from danger. Continue reading

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The Four Paths to Success

Statue of a reclining monk drinking tea

Having recently discussed the individual factors comprising the ‘four paths to success’ (iddhipāda), the following passage from Buddhadhamma illustrates how these four factors apply in a practical setting: Continue reading

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Focused Attention & Investigation as Paths to Success

In previous blogs I have included explanations of the first two ‘paths to success’ (iddhipāda), namely, wholesome enthusiasm (chanda) and effort (viriya). One of the readers of this website recently requested that I include explanations of the remaining two factors. As before, these descriptions are contained in Ven. Phra Payutto’s chapter in Buddhadhamma on concentration. Continue reading

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A Buddhist Perspective on Guilt

Prisoners at BIA

I have frequently heard that there is no equivalent Thai word for ‘guilt’ in the Western psychological sense of an ‘inhibition to express one’s true emotions for fear of committing an unacceptable act’ or an ‘emotion of feeling responsible for others’ misfortune, whether or not this is the case.’ Continue reading

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Scratching the Itch

This is an excerpt from chapter 6 of ‘Buddhadhamma,’ on awakened beings.

Another important descriptive term for an arahant’s mind, which covers many of the characteristics already mentioned, is ārogya, translated as ‘without sickness’ or ‘freedom from illness.’ It can also be rendered as ‘health’ or ‘healthy.’ Ārogya is an epithet for Nibbāna.1 Continue reading

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