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 chant­i­ng 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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