Friday, January 5, 2018

The Starting of a Journey to Rediscover the Roots of Mahāyanā Sūtras: The first ever Mahāyāna Chanting Ceremony held in Rājgir

Chinese Master of the Boshan Zhengjue Monastery leading the prayers at Griddhakūṭa 

In ancient times, chanting of sūtras delivered by the Buddha constituted the core activity of the daily life of Buddhist monks and nuns. Chanting was not only a means of recording and remembering the sacred words of the Buddha, it was also a way of fostering unity and brotherhood among the community of monks and nuns. While the tradition of chanting is not completely lost in modern times, it is for the most part restricted to monastic life. Chanting of sūtras by monks and nuns in the open air and in the presence of lay persons is exceptionally rare today. International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) and the Light of the Buddha Dhamma Foundation International (LBDFI) is trying to revive the ancient Mahāyāna tradition of chanting. In this light, both the organisations organised the 1st Mahāyāna Chanting Ceremony from 14-17th December 2017 at Rājgir - the site where Buddha delivered several important sūtras.

The 1st Mahāyāna Chanting Ceremony brought together monks, nuns, eminent masters, and scholars from six countries namely China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, and India. The four-day event opened with a chanting session at Griddhakūṭa hill (Vulture’s Peak). Griddhakūṭa hill is a very sacred place for Buddhists for several reasons. It was one of the favourite places of Buddha and during his stay at Rājagriha, Buddha often came here to preach Dhamma to his Saṅgha. According to Pali literature Buddha also delivered many important Sutta-s at Griddhakūṭa such as Atanatiya Sutta, Bhikkhu-aparihaniya Sutta, Daruka-khandha Sutta, and Dighanaka Sutta. However, the most important event associated with Griddhakūṭa hill is when Buddha after his Enlightenment set forth the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma to an assembly of monks, nuns, laity and innumerable bodhisattvas. The Prajñāpāramitā-Sūtra-s (Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra-s) (Beal 1914: 114), the Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra), Sūrāngamasamādhi Sūtra (Beal 2005: 116), Lalitavistra Sūtra and the Bhadrakalpikā Sūtra all are considered second turning teachings delivered here. The merits that the Saddharma-Puṇḍarika Sūtra hold for the Mahāyāna followers is evident from the fact that a big stūpa was erected at the site where Buddha delivered the sūtra at Griddhakūṭa Peak (Beal 1969). The recitation of sūtras at Griddhakūṭa on the first day of the Chanting Ceremony was not only a surreal spectacle but also a deeply spiritual experience for both who were reciting and who were listening to the sūtras. 
Ariel view of monks and nuns seated for chanting at Griddhakūṭa
Chanting by Japanese Monks

           Chanting by Vietnamese- American monks

The second and the third days of the Chanting Ceremony were held in the open air auditorium of the Rājgir Convention Centre, set amidst rocky hills and serene gardens. From morning until late afternoon, monks and nuns from the different participating countries chanted the sutras in their respective languages often accompanied with beats from their traditional instruments. Such multilingual chanting not only represents cultural interaction and mutual respect but, more importantly, unity of peoples and nations.

Chanting by Chinese group at the Rajgir Convention Centre.

Chanting at the open air auditorium of the Rajgir Convention Centre.
The evening time of the second and third days of the Chanting Ceremony were dedicated to cultural performances by groups from China and India. These performances were a display of the cultural diversity between China and India in terms of dance and music. At the same time, by bringing talents from both counties on a common space to celebrate the transcendental beauty and appeal of dance and music, the cultural performances also reflected the friendship between India and China.

Chan Tea Culture Team performs the Chinese traditional tea ceremony performance with the accompaniment of music, poetry, and ornamental props.

Ms. Wagmo Dixey (head of LBDFI) giving closing remarks while Chan Tea Culture Team, Master of Boshan Zhengjue Monastery and Chinese scholars pose for photographs. 

Chan Tea Culture Team form China performing the traditional Chinese tea ceremony 
with the accompaniment of music, poetry and ornamental props.

The Chanting Ceremony was brought to a close on the fourth day through a valedictory session held at the remains of the ancient Nālandā University. The ancient university at Nālandā was one of the most prominent Mahāyāna monasteries in the first millennium where monks from China, Japan and Korea visited to collect and practice the true teachings of Buddha. In this way, Nālandā was one of the greatest seats of Buddhist learning and practice in ancient times. With this in mind, the remains of the ancient Nālandā University was aptly chosen as the venue for the closing session of the beautiful journey of returning to the roots of the Mahāyāna sūtras. The valedictory session constituted of remarks by one representative of each of the participating countries. At the end of the valedictory session, all the monks and nuns made special offerings at Temple no. 3 which according to Chinese and Korean literature is Mūlagandhakuṭī — the place where the Buddha spent one of his rainy season retreat. As documented in Pali literature, the Buddha visited Nālandā many times and delivered some of the very important sermons.
Valedictory session being held at the remains of the ancient Nālandā University on the fourth day.
The four-day Mahāyāna chanting ceremony is an unprecedented event. By reciting the sūtras collectively, participants from different countries showed their resolve to strengthen Buddha Dhamma (Dharma) in the land of its origin and promote the cultural oneness of these countries symbolised by the Buddhist faith. The event attracted the participants to the sacred heritage sites of Rāgjir and its surroundings, namely Silāo, Pārwati, Nālandā, Jeṭhian, and Buddhavana, thereby highlighting further the sacredness of these sites. The ceremony also showed the eagerness of participants to bring about cultural exchange and revive friendship between their respective countries. Finally, this event paved the way for further cooperation between India and China for cultural exchange and mutual learning. IBC and LBDFI hope that they are able to organise more chanting ceremonies in the coming year and elicit greater participation to continue the cultural interaction and friendship between India and the Buddhist countries of East Asia. 

LBDFI and IBC together plan to revive these traditions and make these heritage sites into living heritage. LBDFI and IBC plan to extend the chanting programme to a few more sites in the neighbourhood of Rājgir such as Silāo — the place where Buddha exchanged robes with Mahākassapa. The ‘Exchange of Robes’ is an important event in Buddhist traditions, and yet Silāo is a very neglected site. Chanting of sūtras at Silāo would help not only in making the site as living heritage and bring it on the Buddhist pilgrimage map. The monks who participated in the Mahāyāna chanting ceremony at Rājgir resolved to also organise a special prayer ceremony for Xuanzang next year onwards.

Some newspaper clippings from the Event


Beal, S. (2005) Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India, Low Price Publications, Delhi (Originally published London: Trubner and Co.: 1869). 

Beal, S. (1914), The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd, London. (New Edition 1911). 

Beal, S. (1969), Si-yu-ki: Buddhist records of the Western World, Translated from the Chinese Of Hiuen Tsiang, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation,Delhi, (1st Pub. 1884. London: Trubner & Co.).

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