Theravada Protection Chants
Undoubtedly the best known collection of Buddhist texts in Śrī Lanka is the Catubhāṇavārapāḷi, the Text of the Four Recitals. On any given day of the year one would not have to go very far to find a complete recital of these texts being made, usually by monks, in an all-night sitting, as the Buddhist community regards such a recital as being particularly auspicious, and believes it brings safety, peace, and well-being in its wake.
Following the Autumnal Rains Retreat (Vassa) every monastery and temple in the land has such a recital to ensure the prosperity of the temple and the community during the coming year; and throughout the year in the monasteries and temples up and down the land a selection of texts from this collection is recited to promote the safety and happiness of all those who attend such gatherings, and others to whom the chanting is dedicated to.
At auspicious times such as the inauguration of a new temple or home, or on merit-making occasions; and on inauspicious occasions such as an anniversary of the death of a loved one, there may also be a recitation of these discourses. Also in times of adversity, when ill-health or disease are close at hand, certain discourses from the collection will be recited which are thought to be particularly effective in restoring confidence and good health. Other discourses are employed when invisible forces or spirits are behaving antagonistically towards people; and at times certain of these discourses are recited as a blessing upon those who hear them.
In terms of the media it would be hard to find any other book in Śrī Lanka that has so many editions available, and most homes in the Buddhist community will possess and prize a copy. The Great Safeguard, or Mahāparitta, which opens the recital has been recorded many times and can be heard morning and evening played over loudspeakers from homes and temples alike.
Here are 3 groups of recitals used often in Theravada Buddhism for Protection, Development of Compassion and Good Qualities and Blessing. They can be chanted each one separately or one after another, preferably in given order, but if you have less time - they can be chanted also separately. All texts are given in canonical Pali language and English translation.
Enough then should have been said to give an idea of the central role these texts play in the life of Śrī Lankan Buddhism, but many of these recitals are also popular in other Theravāda countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia, and there is every reason to believe that their popularity is growing in those countries where the Buddhist community forms a small but significant minority like Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in those Western countries where Buddhism has now taken root.
As it stands the Catubhāṇavārapāḷi is something of a misnomer, as there is an additional section added, not at the end of the four recitals, but right in the middle. This is the Atireka-Suttasattāni (the Seven Supplementary Discourses) beginning with the first discourse of the Buddha, the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta, Mahāsamayasutta from Dīghanikāya; followed by four discourses from Suttanipāta mainly in verse; and ending with the Analysis of the Truths (Saccavibhaṅgasutta). Exactly when these discourses have been added to the original text is not clear, as all the evidence we have today includes this material, and it extends the text by an additional bhāṇavāra.
The recitation has been further elaborated by the addition of the Mahāparitta (Great Protection) at the beginning of the recital, which is an elaborate recitation of some of the main discourses found in the Catubhāṇavārapāḷi (the Mahāmaṅgala-, Ratana- and Karaṇīyametta-suttas), and some blessing verses.
There are many other texts used as Safeguard Recitals, which were written at some time in the Medieval period, like the Jayamaṅgalagāthā, Mahājayamaṅgalagāthā, Jinapañjara, Aṭṭhavīsatiparitta, the most common of which I have included in the Supplementary Texts (Upaganthā) at the end of the book.
This book has been prepared in order to provide a reliable and complete text of the recitals for those who would normally read or recite Pāḷi through Roman script. The discourses and other material gathered in this book are not, and should not be regarded as, magical incantations. Verbally undertaking the Training Rules, without making an effort to maintain them unbroken is likely to be ineffective. Simply listening to a discourse about friendliness (mettā), without generating and radiating mettā, will similarly have little or no effect. Therefore in preparing this book every effort has been made to promote an intelligent participation in these recitals on the part of those who recite these texts, and those who listen to them. For that reason a line by line translation of the text has been adopted which should make it possible to follow the recital and the translation at the same time.
Those who are unable to attend a recital of these texts may still find much of interest in this collection, which includes the first discourse of the Buddha (Dhammacakkappavatanasutta), one of the most important discourses in the canon, together with an Analysis of the Truths (Saccavibhaṅgasuttaṁ), which was made by Venerable Sāriputta, one of the Buddha’s leading disciples. There are many discourses here that deal with various aspects of popular ethics, including the discourses on the Great Blessings (Mahāmaṅgalasutta), the Advantages of Friendship (Mittānisaṁsā), and the causes of Ruin (Parābhavasutta) among others. We may also mention here other pieces like the Reflections (Paccavekkhaṇā), which encourages frugality and contentment; and the recollection of the Thirty-Two Parts of the body (Dvattiṁsākāra), which is intended to counteract the lust, hatred, and delusion that arise in consequence of being overly attached to the body.
The two long discourses, Mahāsamayasutta & Āṭānāṭiyasutta, together with a number of shorter discourses in the first recital (see nos 13-16), should give the reader a fairly good outline of Buddhist cosmology. There are a number of discourses on mettā meditation, including the justly famous Karaṇīyamettasutta; and the Girimānandasutta outlines ten perceptions, or contemplations, that can be undertaken by those who are intent on training the mind.
At the end of the book there is an appendix on the correct Pronunciation of Pāḷi; and a short essay on the Prosody, which includes an outline of the metres that are used in the verse sections of the book, and which hopefully will help towards an appreciation of the aesthetic aspect of these texts.
Whenever these texts are recited let it be for the safety, peace, and happiness of all living beings. Having secured their lives on a firm foundation, may all beings then take steps to develop themselves further, until such time as they arrive at the complete cessation of suffering!
Dukkhappattā ca niddukkhā, bhayappattā ca nibbhayā,
May those who suffer be without suffering, may those who fear be without fear,
sokappattā ca nissokā, hontu sabbe pi pāṇino!
may those who grieve be without grief, may all living creatures be so!