Pirith is the Sinhala word for paritta (in Pali), which means protection. "It protects one from all directions", is the traditional
definition. This is the recitation or chanting of the word of the Buddha. As an asseveration, it can be done individually or as a
group. Originally this recitation was initiated as a simple avowal of truth or the invoking of blessings through the power of the
internal virtues of a person; then, as the extolling of the infallible virtues of the Triple Gem.
Now, it has become a prophylactic and ritualistic function of Buddhists to ward off all sorrows, (sabba dukkha) ailments, (sabba roga), and all fears ( sabba bhaya). This is a kind of chanting ceremony. It is a Buddhist tradition that different chanting ceremonies are held in different countries specifically in order to ward off illness, fear, and danger from evil spirits, and to invoke the blessings of the Triple Gem for protection. Thus, Pirith is now regarded as a safeguard against fear and malady.
Even though it has now been transformed into a large ceremony or a kind of ritual, one should not cling to these rites and rituals as the real teachings of the Buddha. It is dangerous. The Buddha himself said that it becomes a hindrance that leads to weakening one's mind (wisdom) and renewal of existence in the sensual sphere, material sphere, and immaterial sphere. In other words, it becomes a sort of fuel for the continuation of the samsaric journey. If one would cling to things like this it certainly becomes one of the four modes of clinging. These four are namely:
Clinging to sensual things
Clinging to isms or views
Clinging to rites and rituals
Clinging to believe in a self or soul
The Buddha's constant admonition is not to cling to any of them. "There is nothing to cling to in the world", the Buddha said. "Friends, abandon all what is not yours" he exalted.
However, first one should understand clearly that this type of Buddhist chanting is not a kind of incantation or invocation but an asseveration of truth. When the monks, nuns, laymen or laywomen recite paritta. They all recite the discourses delivered by the Buddha as stark statements of truth. According to the discourses, the first instance that we come to where the Buddha has delivered a discourse, as a 'discourse of protection', is the Khanda Sutta (discourse on aggregates) of Cullavagga in the code of discipline. The Buddha has delivered this, according to the story behind the discourse, that once when a snake bit a certain monk, he died. The Buddha admonished the monks to extend loving thoughts to all the four royal clans of snakes. He further said, "If O monks, indeed, that monk would have permeated the four royal clans of snakes with a loving mind, that monk would not have died being bitten by a snake".
The Buddha has delivered many different discourses in such a manner to promote protection from illnesses, fear, and danger. We can understand that they are very powerful discourses; such as, the discourse of the Banner Protection (Dhajagga sutta), The Jewel discourse (Ratana Sutta), the discourses of the Factors of Enlightenment (Bojjhanga Suttas), the discourse on the Protection of the Peacock (Moraparitta Sutta), and the Atanatiya Sutta. The erudite monks of Sri Lanka, circa 1235 AD, compiled some of these discourses delivered by the Buddha and such Enlightened Ones as: The Venerable Sariputta and Moggallana, besides others. This compilation is called, "The Book of Protection" (Piruvana pothvahanse).
In this book of protection, there are 24 great and powerful discourses, which have been respectfully recited or chanted by monks, nuns, and laypersons, for hundreds of years. Amongst the 24 discourses in this "Book of Protection" from the beginning, there are the triple discourses, namely; The Discourse of Blessings, The Jewel Discourse, and the Discourse of Loving-Kindness. These triple discourses are well known among the Buddhists in Theravada countries. Each and every discourse has a simple story telling the reason for delivering the discourse. These stories also are very interesting.
The "Discourse of Blessings" was delivered when a certain deity asked the Buddha what the blessings are; whereupon, the Buddha replied pointing out 38 types of blessings for the people to lead a righteous life. Of them all, the first blessing, as the Buddha said, is disassociation from evil doers. The second blessing, the Buddha said, is the association with wise ones. Buddha went on saying, "supporting parents is a blessing, treating your wife or husband and children are a blessing".
The Jewel Discourse was delivered during a time when there was a drought and famine, the result of which was a fear of evil spirits that arose in a place called Vishala in India.
The Discourse of Loving-Kindness was delivered to a certain group of monks when they were stricken with fear and dread caused by deities as the monks practiced meditation in a forest.
The discourse of the Banner Protection was delivered to show that defiled beings have fear and dread but that Enlightened Beings are entirely without as they never have fear or dread. Once, according to this discourse, Sakka, the head of the devas, addressed his group saying, "If, O happy ones, a fear or stupefaction making the hairs of the body stand on end would arise in you, the one who has gone to war; at that time you should look for the top of my standard. To those who look for the banner on the top of my palace, whatever fear or stupefaction or hairs of the body standing on end there will be, that will vanish".
But the Buddha said, "Indeed O monks, to those who look for the banner at the top of the palace of Sakka, the chief of the devas or for those who look to the banner tops of others, whatever fear or stupefaction or hairs of the body that are standing on end, whatever there be, will these vanish or not vanish? What is the reason for that? Monks, Sakka the chief of the devas, is not free from passion, is not free from anger, is not free from delusion, is afraid, tremulous, full of fear and runs away. Indeed, I say to you, O monks, thus: If O monks, you who have gone to live in the forest or at the foot of a tree or an empty abode, whatever fear or stupefaction or hairs of the body standing on end would arise at such a time, you should remember me, the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha. Then, whatever fear, stupefaction or hairs of the body standing on end there be, that will vanish. Why? Because, the Buddha is worthy, completely and fully enlightened, free from passion, free from anger, free from delusion, not afraid, not tremulous, free from fear and does not run away".
Then there are three discourses on the factors of Enlightenment. The Buddha himself delivered the first one when the Venerable Maha Kassapa was afflicted with an ailment. The Buddha, while living in the Bamboo Monastery in Rajagaha came to know that Ven. Maha Kassapa was not well during the time he was dwelling in a cave. Then the Buddha approached him and delivered this sermon. At its end, being of a happy mind, the Venerable Maha Kassapa got up from his illness. Thus, the illness of the Maha Kassapa was eliminated.
The second discourse was delivered to the Venerable Maha Moggallana while he was suffering from illness at the peak of Gijjhakuta. The Buddha having approached him delivered a sermon and again, at the end of the sermon, this Venerable also got up from his illness. Then the Venerable Maha Cunda delivered the third discourse of the Factors of Enlightenment while the Buddha himself was ill, grievously ill. Venerable Maha Cunda recited the discourse and at the end of the recitation, the Buddha rose up from his illness.
Thereafter, we come across another great discourse. That is the Girimananda Sutta, the discourse to the Venerable Girimananda. This is one of the most significant discourses for the practitioners of meditation, in which The Ten Perceptions are vividly explained. In this discourse, the Buddha elaborated various kinds of diseases. He said, "In this body various afflictions arise, i.e.: illness of the eyes, illness of the ear, illness of the nose, illness of the tongue, illness of the body, illness of the head, illness of the mouth, illness of the teeth, cough, asthma, catarrh, heat, fever, illness of the abdomen, fainting, dysentery, acute pain, cholera, leprosy, abscesses, cutaneous diseases, consumption, epilepsy, itch, scabs, nail scratch, scabies, affliction through blood, diabetes, paralysis, cancer, ulcers, afflictions arising from bile, from phlegm, wind, from the union of the humors of the body, from changes of seasons, from discrepant attention, from spasmodic afflictions and afflictions arising from the result of kamma, cold, heat, hunger, thirst, excretion and urination".
The next discourse is Isigili Sutta in which the names of different Silent Buddhas (Pacceka Buddha) and their characteristics are mentioned. Then we can recite the maiden discourse of the Buddha, "The Discourse of Setting into Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma" (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta).
After this discourse is the Maha Samaya Sutta, "the Discourse on Great Assembly", followed by the Alawaka Sutta, a discourse to Alawaka, the demon. This is also an interesting story. Once, having perceived his fortune in the realization of the Dhamma, the Buddha visited his place, but at the time Alawaka was not in. The Buddha seated himself on a seat that was made ready. As Alawaka came in and seeing the Buddha seated, he became furious and cried, "Get out monk ! " The Buddha humbly and silently went out. Then he said, "Get in monk!" The Buddha again humbly and silently went in. Then for the second time, Alawaka said, "Get out monk!" The Buddha went out, and then he said, " Get in monk! ", and the Buddha did the so for the second time. For a third time, Alawaka said the same thing and the Buddha did what he said without any hesitation. Then for the fourth time he said, "Get out monk! " The Buddha then said, "No, I shall not go out, if you can do anything you may do it". Thereupon, Alawaka said, "I will ask a question, if you do not answer it, I will either upset your mind or break your heart asunder or take you by the feet and throw you onto the other side of the river". Then the Buddha declared, "I do not see, indeed friend, any in the world together with devas, maras, brahmas among beings, along with the recluses, brahmanas, devas, and human beings anyone who could upset my mind or break my heart asunder or take me by the feet and throw me to the other side of the river. Moreover, friend, question me however you desire".
Thereafter, he asked not only one question, but many. The Buddha answered all his questions and eventually Alawaka became one of the Buddha's disciples.
The next discourse was delivered to a farmer who was plowing his field along with some hundreds of people and five-hundred pairs of buffalo. By the time that the Buddha approached them, they were getting ready to have a meal and on seeing the Buddha the Chief Brahmin said, " O recluse, I plow and sow and having plowed and sown, I eat. You O recluse also plow and sow and having plowed and sown, eat". Then the Buddha said, "O Brahmin, I indeed, also plow and sow; having plowed and sown I eat". Thereupon, the Brahmin said, "We indeed, do not see either a yoke or a plow or a plow-share or bulls belonging to you, but you Sir, say, "I also indeed, plow and sow and now having plowed and sown I eat." Then the Buddha explained plowing bulls and seeds and so forth. The Buddha said, "Brahmin, faith is the seed, mental devotion is the rain, wisdom is my yoke and plow. Shame for the unwholesome thing is my plow-pole. Mind is the yoke-tie. Mindfulness is the plow-share and goad. My physical body is guarded and my words are guarded. I am controlled in food according to the capacity of my stomach. I make truth my mower. Restraint is my emancipation". Finally this farmer also became a disciple of the Buddha and it was not long before he attained Enlightenment.
Then there are some other discourses like the "Discourse on Downfall" or Ruin (Parabhava Sutta ) which was delivered on the following day, right after the deliverance of the discourse of Blessing , the discourse on the outcastes ( Vasala Sutta), the discourse on the classification of the Four Noble Truths (Saccavibhanga Sutta) and finally the Atanatiya sutta, a discourse introduced by Sakka, the head of the Devas.
Monks of Sri Lanka recite all these 24 discourses when there is a whole-night chanting ceremony. There are nine variants of chanting ceremonies from the simplest to the most elaborate socio-religious ceremonies in the country today. They are as follows:
1) Occasional blessings: Well wishes or regular chanting, short time beneficiary blessings.
2) Sessional chanting: Chanting for three, five or seven sessions consecutively in the mornings and evenings.
3) All night chanting: Chanting ceremony during the whole night.
4) Three-sessions Chanting ceremony: Chanting ceremony held in three twelve-hour sessions, such as: first day night, second day-day and night, for thirty-six hours continuously.
5) Five- session chanting Ceremony: This kind of ceremony goes on for five twelve-hour sessions. Thus, first day night, second day - day and night, third day, day and night. Chanting prevails for sixty hours continuously.
6) Seven-day Chanting ceremony: This is the most elaborate and traditional chanting ceremony in Sri Lanka. The Chanting goes on for seven days and seven nights continuously.
7) Chanting Ceremonies conducted by Nuns or Bhikkhunis: These chanting ceremonies are conducted by Nuns who have, themselves, received higher Ordination as fully fledged female disciples of the Buddha.
8) Chanting Ceremony done by laymen: All night chanting ceremonies are conducted by lay Buddhist males replacing the Buddhist monks.
9) Three month or one-year chanting ceremony: These kind of chanting ceremonies are performed at which benedictory charms and some selected discourses are chanted a thousand times, ten thousand, eighty four thousand, one hundred thousand or one million times, to promote the magical and therapeutic power of the medicines and talismans.
All of these are various kinds of chanting and ceremonies, which is of little value in comparison with the Sublime Teachings of the Buddha based on Wisdom and Insight. The Buddha always emphasized the need of practicing the Dhamma rather than reciting like parrots. Once he said, " One who abides in the Dhamma, delights in the Dhamma, meditates on the Dhamma and bears the Dhamma well in mind, does never fall away from the Sublime Dhamma". Let us all understand these teachings of the Buddha and strive to put the Dhamma into practice in our daily life so that we let it bring peace, happiness, and the final emancipation of Nibbana.