Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1999
Question Time; Tuhn Ajahn Sumedho
Arrive at Where You Are; Kittisaro Bhikkhu
Desire to end Desire; Tuhn Ajahn Maha Boowa
Filling in the Dots; Sister Abahassara
Zeal and New Land; Subbato Bhikkhu
Kwan Yin & the Noble Elephant; Sucitto Bhikkhu
Thoughts From a Forest; Vipassi Bhikkhu
A First View of Buddhism; Arnold Handley

Returning Homeless:
Working With Nature:

Filling in the Dots
Sister Abhassara has been working on providing a way of chanting the Pujas in English for the past year or so. Here she comments on the process so far.

As Buddhism gradually takes root in Western soil we see the traditional forms developing and changing as they adapt to the culture. One such change that has been introduced recently in our Sangha is the rendering of our morning chanting - into English. When chanted in one's own language the devotional quality of the words and the meaning of the Buddha's teaching become much clearer.

I was asked to work out a way of chanting the English translation of the morning and evening puja over a year ago. At first I felt very uncertain as to how to go about this, and I spent some time listening to various other religious chanting styles and talking to cis many "experts" as I could find. But in the end I had to drop all attempts to contrive something or to rely on external help; all that was needed was to merely let the heart speak. The first recording was mostly spontaneous and improvised, and, although a little rough, it met with approval from the people.that heard d it. So then the lengthy process of cystallising the pure spark of inspiration into a solid form began. This process could also be called "filling in the dots"! - as I had devised a system of recording the tonal changes by placing a dot above or below the chosen syllable, to indicate the rising and failing of pitch.

These notes have a cooling effect on the mind and also serve to open the heart.

Sound and vibration have a deep effect on mind and body. My intention was to create a feeling of depth and devotion, without making an overelaborate sound or wandering into the realms of singing or sentimentality. The beauty of chanting lies in its simplicity of tone and its ability to set up a strength of resonance or vibration that has a calming and peaceful effect on mind and body. Bearing this in mind I chose the limitation of just three notes: the home note in the middle. the higher note being a whole tone above that, and the lower note a whole tone below. These notes have a cooling effect on the mind and also serve to open the heart. They are used in Gregorian plainsong, the ancient Christian style of chanting, and also in the Thai tradition, where these notes are still used in some of the chanting today.
Having first settled on the notes, the hardest part was finding some sort of rhythm to use -the English language having a rather jerky rhythm to it. In the and I decided not to define it so closely in terms of long and short beats, as the Pali is structured; but rather to use the natural rhythm and flow of conversational English, with a few syllables lengthened at the ends of lines to provide emphasis and to give the sense of coming to a close. For example, in "you still had compassion for later generations" -the lengthening is on the last word, third syllable, the rest of the line being chanted with the natural spoken rhythm.

Finally, after a six-month gestation period, the English chanting was born, and a tape was played to the Amaravati community during the winter retreat.

Later in the year I began to revise the Pali chanting in a similar fashion, giving it the same three notes as the English chanting and borrowing heavily from the old Thai style of chanting, which had been used in the early years at Chithurst monastery. The main difference between our Pali and that of the Thai style is the more clearly defined Pali rhythm and pronunciation that was introduced over four years ago. Hopefully the new Pali chanting strikes a balance between accuracy of rhythm and pronunciation, and devotional expression.

After completing the revision of the Pali chanting, I was encouraged to merge the English and Pali together. This was done in a manner similar to the Pali and Thai chanting used in Ajahn Chah's monasteries - one line in Pali and then its translation. This intermixing worked suprisingly smoothly, as I had not intended to put the English and Pali together when working on them separately.

So, with the help of Sister Siripanna, we made a recording of the Pali and English chanting in a gruelling three-hour recording session. From then on, it was played every morning to the community, and people gradually started to learn it. Hopefully there will be a tape made generally available towards the end of the year.

The process of creation and transformation can be very inspiring, but there needs to be a lot of patience and letting-go of expectations and ownership, in order for something to manifest fully at the right time and in the right way.

My original intention was to give the daily recollection and devotion to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha a form that would most easily lend itself to devotional feeling and a sense of gladness and uplift. Also the idea was to make the Buddhas teaching more accessible to those not familiar with the meaning of the Pali language.

I hope this will help your hearts to open in faith and trust in the Buddha-Dhamma, and to breathe fresh life into the traditional forms handed down through many generations since the time of the Buddha.

I dedicate the blessings and good fortune generated through this work to Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho and all sentient beings.