This came timely. I was just questioning myself. And then this answer came.
‘Recent research in medicine, in experimental psychology and what is still called parapsychology has thrown some light on the nature of mind and its position in the world. During the last forty years the conviction has steadily grown among medical men that very many causes of diseases organic as well as functional, are directly caused by mental states. The body becomes ill because the mind controlling it either secretly wants to make it ill, or else because it is in such a state of agitation that it cannot prevent the body from sickening. Whatever it’s physical nature, resistance to disease is unquestionably correlated with the physiological condition of the patient. (1)
‘Mind not only makes sick, it also cures. An optimistic patient has more chance of getting well than a patient who is worried and unhappy. The recorded instances of faith healing include cases in which even organic diseases were cured almost instantaneously. (2)
In this connection it is interesting to observe the prevalence, in Buddhist lands, of listening to the recital of the dhamma or the doctrine of the Buddha in order to avert illness or danger, to ward off the influence of malignant beings, to obtain protection and deliverance from evil, and to promote health, prosperity, welfare and well-being. The selected discourses for recital are known as ‘paritta suttas’, discourses for protection. But they are not ‘rakshana mantras’ or protective incantations found in Brahmanic religion, nor are they magical rites. There is nothing mystical in them.
‘Paritta’ in Pali, ‘Paritrana’ in Sanskrit and ‘Pirit’ (pronounced pirith) in Sinhala (3) mean principally protection. Paritta suttas describe certain suttas or discourses delivered by the Buddha and regarded as affording protection. This protection is to be obtained by reciting or listening to the Paritta Suttas. The practice of reciting or listening to the paritta suttas began very early in the history of Buddhism. The word paritta, in this context, was used by the Buddha, for the first time, in a discourse known as ‘Khandha Paritta’ (4) in the Culla Vagga of the Vinaya Pitaka (vol. ii, p. 109), and also in the Anguttara Nikaya under the title ‘Ahi (Metta) Sutta’ (vol. ii, p. 82). This discourse was recommended by the Buddha as guard or protection for the use of the members of the Order. The Buddha in this discourse exhorts the monks to cultivate Metta or Loving-kindness towards all beings.
It is certain that Paritta recital produces mental well-being in those who listen to them with intelligence, and have confidence in the truth of the Buddha’s words. Such mental well being can help those who are ill to recover, and can also help not only to induce the mental attitude that brings happiness but also to overcome its opposite. Originally, in India, those who listened to Paritta sayings of the Buddha understood what was recited and the effect on them was correspondingly great. The Buddha himself had Paritta recited to him, and he also requested others to recite Paritta for his own disciples when they were ill.(5). This practice is still in vogue in Buddhist lands.
The Buddha and the Arahants (the Consummate Ones) can concentrate on the paritta suttas without the aid of another. However, when they are ill, it is easier for them to listen to what others recite, and thus focus their minds on the Dhamma that the Suttas contain, rather than think of the Dhamma by themselves. There are occasions, as in the case of illness, which weaken the mind (in the case of worldlings), when hetero-suggestion has been found to be more effective than auto-suggestion.
According to the teachings of the Buddha the mind is so closely linked with the body that mental states affect the body’s health and well being. Some doctors even say there is no such thing as purely physical disease. ‘That even so grossly “physical” a complaint as dental caries may be due to mental causes was maintained in a paper read before the American Dental Congress in 1937. The author pointed out that children living on a perfectly satisfactory diet may still suffer dental decay. In such cases, investigation generally shows that the child’s life at home or at school is in some way unsatisfactory. The teeth decay because their owner is under mental strain.(6) Unless, according to the Buddhist doctrine of Kamma (Sanskrit Karma), (7) these bad mental states are caused as a result of one’s own acts (Akusala Kamma-Vipaka), and are therefore unalterable, it is possible so to change these mental states as to cause mental health and physical well-being to follow thereafter.
I. The Power of Truth
Several factors combine to contribute towards the efficacy of paritta recitals. Paritta recital is a form of Saccakiriya, i.e. an asseveration of truth. Protection results by the power of such asseveration. This means establishing oneself in the power of truth to gain one’s end. At the end of the recital of each Sutta, the reciters bless the listeners with the words, ‘etena sacca vajjena sotti te hotu sabbada’ which means ‘by the power of the truth of these words may you ever be well.’ The saying, ‘the power of the Dhamma or Truth protects the follower of the Shamma’ (dhammo have rakkhati dhammcarin) indicates the principle behind these Sutta recitals.
‘The belief in the effective power to heal, or protect, of the Saccakiriya, or asseveration of something quite true, is but another aspect of the work ascribed to the Paritta.(8)
2. The Power of Virtue
Several discourses of the Book of Protection describe the virtuous life. The starting point in Buddhism is Sila (virtue). Standing on the firm ground of Sila one should endeavour to achieve a collected mind. If it is true that virtue protects the virtuous, then a person who listens to the recital of Paritta Suttas intelligently, in a reflective mood, with complete confidence in the Buddha’s words, uttered by one who has gained complete Enlightenment, will acquire so virtuous a state of mind as would enable him to dominate any evil influence, and to be protected from all harm.
3. The Power of Love
The utterances of the compassionate Buddha are never void of love. He walked the high-ways and by-ways of India enfolding all within the aura of his love and compassion, instructing, enlightening and gladdening the many by his teaching. The reciters of the Paritta are therefore expected to do so with a heart of love and compassion wishing the listeners and others weal and happiness and protection from all harm.
Love (Metta) is an active force. Every act of one who truly loves is done with the pure mind to help , to cheer and to make the paths of others easier, smoother and more adapted to the conquest of sorrow, the winning of the Highest Bliss.
C. A. F. Rhys Davids commenting on amity (Metta) writes: ‘The profession of amity, according to Buddhist doctrine, was no mere matter of pretty speech. It was to accompany and express a psychic suffusion of the hostile man or beast or spirit with benign, fraternal emotion – with Metta. For strong was the conviction, from Sutta and Vinaya, to Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhi Magga, (9) that ‘thoughts are things’, that psychical action, emotional or intellectual, is capable of working like a force among forces. Europe may yet come round further to this Indian attitude. (10)
4. The Power of Sound
It is believed that the vibratory sounds produced by the sonorous and mellifluous recital of the paritta suttas in their Pali verses are soothing to the nerves and induce peace and calm of mind; they also bring about harmony to the physical system.
How can bad influences springing from evil beings be counteracted by recital of Paritta Suttas? Bad influences are the results of evil thinking. They can, therefore, be counteracted by wholesome states of mind. One sure way of inducing a wholesome state of mind is by listening and reflecting on Paritta recitals with intelligence and confidence. So great is the power of concentration that by adverting whole-heartedly to the truth contained in the Paritta recitals one is able to develop a wholesome state of mind.
The recital of Paritta Suttas can also bring material blessings in its wake through the wholesome states of mind induced by concentration and confidence in listening intelligently to the recital. According to the Buddha, right effort is a necessary factor in overcoming suffering. (11) Listening to these recitals in the proper way can also generate energy for the purpose of securing worldly progress while it also secures spiritual progress.
There is no better medicine than truth (Dhamma) for the mental and physical ills which are the causes of all suffering and misfortune. So the recital of Paritta Suttas in as much as they contain the Dhamma, may, when they are listened to in the proper attitude, bring into being wholesome states of mind which conduce to health, material progress and spiritual progress. The effect of Pirit can also transcend distance however great.
It is true that the Buddhists consider the Parittas as a never-failing, potent and purifying force, a super-solvent. However, a question may arise whether recitals from the Book of Protection will, in every case, result in the protection and blessing sought for. In this connection the same reply given by the Venerable Nagasena to King Milinda’s question why the recital of Paritta does not in all cases protect one from death, is worth remembering: ‘Due to three causes recital of paritta may have no effect: Kamma hindrances (Kammavarana); hindrances from defilements (Kilesavarana); lack of faith (asaddhanataya). (12)
Kamma means action and not the result of action; therefore action can be counteracted by other action. Kamma is not something static, but is always changing, i.e. always in the making; that being so, action can be counteracted by other action. Hence bad actions on the part of the hearers of the recital may negative the beneficial effects of the recital.
If the mind of the hearer is contaminated with impure thoughts then also the intended beneficial effects of the recital may not materialize. But however impure the mind of the hearer may be if there is great confidence in the efficacy of the recital then this important factor may help to secure for him the beneficial effects of the recital.
1.For the physical basis of resistance, see The Nature of Disease by J. E. R.
Mc Donagh, F. R. C. S.
2. Aldous Huxley. Ends and Means (London, 1946), p. 259.
3. The state language of Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
4. See below, discourse no. 5.
5. See below Bojjhanga and Girimananda suttas, numbers 12, 13, 14 and 15.
6. Aldoux Huxley, Ends and Means, London 1946, p. 259.
7. Karma in Buddhism means action brought about by volition.
8. C. A. F. Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha, part 3, p. 186.
9. Chapter ix. p. 313. According to the Sasamalankara quoted in Gray’s Buddhaghosuppatti, p.15, Buddhaghosa was about to write a Commentary on the Paritta, when he was sent to greater work in Ceylon.
10. Dialogues of the Buddha, part 3, p. 185.
11. S., I. 214.
12. Milinda Panha, vol. I., p. 216