Brahma means pure. Chants are praises used to laud the virtue of the Buddha, which serve to quell afflictions and bring one's mind
to total concentration. In China, pure chants have been passed down since the Wei dynasty. Once when Prince Chengsi, Caozhi traveled to Yu (Fish) Mountain (also known as Fishing Mountain in Ah County in Shandong Province),
he heard a series of pure, resonant and pleasant tones. He stopped and listened for a long time. He gained a profound insight and copied its syllables. These were the earliest documented pure chants. He also composed
the lyrics and tones that have been used as a source of reference by later generations. The pure chants composed by Caozhi were in six stanzas. The Yu (Fish) Mountain pure chants transmitted to later generations adopted his
regulated meters. [Dharma Writings Pearl Collections, Roll 36].
In addition, Dharma Master Zhiqian (3rd. cent. c.e.)
composed a Series of Bodhisattva Praises and Pure Chants of Three Stanzas
based on the Limitless Life Sutra and the Medium Uprising Sutra (also known
as the Uprising Sutra of Auspicious Response).
The contents of his Series of Bodhisattva Praises were
an adaptation of the praises in the biographical sutra texts of Shakyamuni
Buddha. They were matched with tunes for singing. On the other hand, his
pure chants were based on verses from Buddhist scriptures. Both are rhymed.
When sung, they may be accompanied by wind, string, and percussion
instruments. It was an innovative way of propagating the Buddha's teachings
widely that had a lot of popular appeal at the time.
Pure chants are not entirely identical to praises in
Sanskrit. Since Sanskrit sounds and the Chinese language differ in
grammatical construction, whether singing in Chinese with a Sanskrit accent,
or in Sanskrit with Chinese sounds, there was bound to be some difficulty.
Hence, when Buddhism was first transmitted to China, though translation work
developed gradually, the forms of singing praises in Sanskrit did not
prevail in China.
Pure chants are a type of tune for praising the Triple
Jewel in the scriptures. Chanting of prayers is also known as bo-zhi or
bei-ni, the transliterations by sound of the Sanskrit word bhasha.
Originally, in India, chanting of prayers is known collectively as patha,
which are one of the twelve divisions of text, whether in set lines or
verses. After they had been transmitted to China, praises in set lines were
known as recitations, whereas patha refers specifically to singing of
praises and the like.
Pure chants are primarily employed in three ways:
1. Ceremonies for sutra lectures.
2. Daily practice (morning and evening recitations).
3. Group cultivation in a bodhimanda.
These are known as the three tyes of compilations of
These three classes of ceremonies, defined during the
Qing dynasty by Dharma Master Dao’an (312-385 c.e.), have a history of over
1,600 years. Dharma Master Dao’an formulated three kinds of standards: 1.
Circumambulating around a fixed high seat as part of the ceremony for
lecturing sutras. 2. Daily practice. (i.e. morning and evening recitations,
and meal offering). 3. Uposatha, repentance, etc. (i.e. ceremony for group
cultivation in bodhimandas). These were established for monks and nuns in
In Buddhism, pure chants are used in ceremonies for
sutra lectures, transmission of precepts, sutra recitation, and so on. These
pure sounds serve to stop any clamor and facilitate the ceremonies. Hence,
they can be called that which stops [the clamor]. In the context of a sutra
lecture ceremony, the phrase fan bai (literally “pure chants”) may also be
interpreted as the monk or nun who specifically presides over the work of
After pure chants were handed down, the tune varied
according to the locale. Essentially there is a distinction between the
tones of the south and north. The northern (Guanzhong, Xi’an locality) tones
were inherited from Dharma Master Dharmaraksa, whereas the southern (Jiang,
represented south of the Yangtze River) tones were taught by Dharma Master
Senghui. The different sources of transmission have resulted in the
distinction of southern and northern systems.
There are six kinds of benefits in studying pure
chants: 1) One learns that the virtue of the Buddha is far reaching. 2) The
tongue becomes pure. 3) One's chest opens up. 4) One will not feel afraid in
the assembly. 5) One will have a long life and seldom become sick. 6) One is
protected by dragons and gods.
There are six-line and eight-line praises. Six-line
praises were disseminated in both the south and the north. Normally, these
praises were comprised of six lines, with twenty-nine characters, hence
Six-line praises include: Incense Praise, Weituo
Praise, Sangharama Praise, Precepts and Samadhi True Fragrance Praise, and
Jeweled Censer Praise. Eight-line praises are normally chanted after sutra
recitations or during ceremonies. Eight-lines praises, also known as great
praises, include: Triple Jewel Great Praise, Amitabha Great Praise, and
Medicine Master Great Praise. Dharma instruments used for these include: the
hand bell, wooden fish, small gong, creak bell, ground bell, bell and drum,
and the large bell.
Benefits of the Five Assemblies Buddha Recitation
(Quoted from the ceremonial procedures established by
Great Master Fazhao, the Fourth Patriarch of Pure Land School)
The benefits that accrue from the Five Assemblies
Buddha Recitation are: In this very life, one can leave the afflictions of
the five turbidities, be rid of the five sufferings, sever the five
coverings, cut off the five paths, purify the five eyes, perfect the five
faculties, develop the five powers, realize Bodhi, perfect the five
liberations, and quickly accomplish the five shares of the Dharma body. This
merit and virtue is supreme beyond compare.
Begin the first assembly with a level tone. Proclaim
clear notes in the second assembly. Let the third assembly surround one like
orchestral music. Hum with force in the fourth assembly. Recite out loud
swiftly in the fifth assembly. One enlightens to nonproduction upon hearing
these five assemblies. The first assembly rids one of recklessness. The high
octave of the second assembly pervades all those with affinities. The
soaring sounds of the third assembly can be mournful yet elegant. The chorus
of the fourth assembly is truly magnanimous. The vibrations of the fifth
assembly dispel the heavenly demons. It causes those who recite to enter
into profound dhyana.
As for present day Five Assemblies Buddha Recitation,
Dharma Master Guanben, a disciple of the Venerable Xuyun, discovered the
remnant scrolls of Five Assemblies Buddha Recitation in the Japanese
Tripitaka. He set them to music and vowed to propagate them. The older
version became extinct with the calamity of Huichang during the reign of
Emperor Wu of the Tang Dynasty.
The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra says:
If one employs some men to play fine music,
Beating drums and blowing horns,
Or conches, flutes, or saxophones,
Or strumming banjos and guitars,
Making melodies with these
In offering, or joyfully,
Do sing of Buddhas’qualities
With odes and praises, even if
They only use the slightest voice,
Such people have already gained
The utmost Way to Buddhahood.