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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