I'm particularly interested in

Are these read in modern times by and to an audience that understands the language? I obviously believe some one knows medieval Chinese and Pali or there wouldn't be translations. But is a lengthy period of language study part of becoming a monk, and if it isn't, doesn't that mean that the monks and more so the laity have no idea what is being said?

I have the luxury of reading all the sutras in English translation. It is only dawning on me that possibly for some or most of the time, sutras are akin to a very long dhāraṇī.

This question was prompted by this quote from a Nichiren/SGI book

Even though you may not understand what you are saying, your voice definitely reaches the Gohonzon, all Buddhists dieties, and all Buddhas and bodhisattvas over three existences and in the ten directions. In response, the entire universe bathes you in the light of good fortune.

The Heart of the Lotus Sutra, Ikeda.

To clarify, the question is not "Is mantrayana efficacious?", but if that is the question you want to answer, I already asked that a while back. The question is, as practiced, an in doctrine, do the various Buddhist institutions expect their monks and laity to understand what they chant?

9 Answers 9


Chanting is an interesting practice and I think each school might have a different take on this. In my own tradition (Rinzai Zen), the meaning of what's chanted is absolutely irrelevant. In fact, the liturgy that we use is a Japanese phonetic rendition of a Chinese phonetic rendition of Sanskrit. Needless to say, no one understands a word of it. And that includes the folks in our group that speak any one of those three languages. ;-)


In the Triratna Buddhist Community we chant in Pali and English. When we chant in Pali we often do it without a translation for example

Buddham saranam gacchami

Dhamman saranam gacchami

Sangham saranam gacchami

translation would be

(To the Buddha for refuge I go)

(To the Dharma for refuge I go)

(To the Sangha for refuge I go)

I chanted the refuges and precepts in Pali for years without the vaguest idea what they meant. That is probably a reflection on some worrying lack of curiosity on my part than anything else.

However it was recently explained to me that the reason we do it is that these chants are chanted throughout the Buddhist world and have been for a long time. Therefore by chanting it connects us to Buddhists past and present and Buddhists throughout the world. We could go to Thailand or Japan and hear the exact same chant and have that connection. To me that feels like a good reason to chant Pali even without knowing what it means.

As another general point, Peter Harvey in an Introduction to Buddhism states that chanting sutras is a form of meditation and as such the language and meaning of the sutras is not relevant in that context. It is more the physicality of the chant and the community of participants, both active and passive. He asserts that this is particularly potent when the monastic community chants in the presence of the laity. It has the effect of bring both parts of the Buddhist community together.


The Soto Zen temples and sanghas I've visited in Brazil all supported understanding what they were chanting (usually handing out translations, but chanting in japanese). Some of them made their own translations and chant in portuguese. Another center of tibetan lineage I visited also had a group of language study. Finally, when I was on a Ch'an temple, we chanted in chinese (though translations of the texts were available), and we also had mandarin classes.


Try an experiment. Sit and, without expectation, recite a phrase in a foreign language that you do not understand 6 times a day, to people that also do not understand that language. Do this every day for a week.

Any perceivable effect?

Now, get yourself a phrase in a language that you DO understand, some phrase that has meaning to you such as, "I take refuge in the Buddha (as an example and a teacher), in the Dharma (as the teachings), and in the Sangha," or replace that with something like, "As long as space remains, and there are sentient beings to be found, may I remain to dispel the misery of the world," or something of that kind, and repeat that 6 times a day for a week. Repeat this to people that understand the language that you are using, and the terms that you are using.

Any perceivable effect?

What good are empty rituals? They become like a chain around your neck, and are a tool for control of superstitious minds. There is the warning that is a part of the Kalama Sutta, "...do not go by traditions." For something to have potency, true, real potency, there must be meaning for you in it. Relying on empty ritual or tradition simply makes you a puppet.

  • 2
    I'm not SGI myself, but people do report chanting works for them. A sceptic would attribute this to confirmation bias (good things were bound to eventually happen, you attribute them to what ever you want to be the cause). So a single person experiment doesn't necessarily convince anyone. There is an offhand chance that this is true for less controversial practices (at least on this board), like meditation. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 13:06

One of the characteristics of those who have attained stream entry is that they have abandoned the fetter of clinging to rites and rituals. To me, chanting without understanding the meaning of verses is a ritual and therefore counter productive to the goal of escaping suffering.


Tibetan sadhana practice definitely involves understanding in the sense of doing the visualizations and contemplating the significance of each element. Done properly, with stability, clarity and appropriate prerequisites such as receiving the initiation, hearing a commentary, and studying the text and commentaries, sadhana practice is a profound and effective form of insight meditation. It can also be used to develop shamatha.

There is also a concept of oral transmission (Tib. lung) in Tibetan Buddhadharma. The teacher recites a text in the presence of students and this transmits the blessing of the teacher's lineage for the particular text, thus preparing the hearers to study and practice it on their own. During oral transmission, the student will typically not be practicing even if they know Tibetan, since the recitation is usually rapid and not fully enunciated, in a kind of chant, and it may be the first time they have heard the text. So, oral transmission actually works even if the hearer does not understand Tibetan. Of course, after receiving an oral transmission, a student who does not know Tibetan will need to study and practice the text in translation.


Buddha's advice in the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65) is contemplation, observation, meditation:

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them".

(Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

The Buddha asks his followers that they examine the outcome of practice to see if the teachings are true. Buddhism isn't about beliefs. Buddhism is about firsthand knowledge.

  • firsthand experience
    – lprsd
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 18:45

The question is, as practiced, an in doctrine, do the various Buddhist institutions expect their monks and laity to understand what they chant?

Interesting question: in the time that the mantra was introduced to the people, yes.

To gain a benefit from a mantra though it is not technically necessary because the effect is the vibrations themselves which resonate your body and mind with a certain frequency and allow the bodhisattva/Buddha to help you.


You have asked about the Theravada view so i am going to answer that part.

Mahayana has had the influence of eastern asian countries and therefore talk about things like Curses,Fortune etc. The issue here is that Theravada Buddhism does not believe in such things.

Theravada view depends more on actions and their effect and does not give such significance to great ones like "Bodhisattvas" because it focus its respect on the triple gems.Great ones like "Bodhisattvas" are only mentioned and not much is being talked about them in daily Buddhist life.

So what is admired the most....

In Theravada actual understanding is strongly advised to the public and to monks.but some people recite without knowing the meaning in hopes of using "suttas" For protection.But as i have heard many times even though it might create less powerful good karma when reciting without knowing the meaning it is still effective.

I would like to tell you the story of "Manduka deva putta"

One day a man heard lord Buddha advising some people and he went to join them.This man was a Shepard and he had a stick with him.So he went there and found a vacant place and started listening.He did not sit down,he was standing up.

He was exited about what he was learning and payed no attention to anything else.what he did not noticed was that there was a frog right next to his stick.As he was standing he used his stick to support his weight and the frog was caught among the stick and the ground.

The frog was listing to the voice of lord Buddha and it was paying no attention to anything either.So when the frog was caught it had no chance to escape and it died on the spot.

It died and opened eyes again what it saw was the "Deva realm" and it was not a frog anymore he was a "Deva".Quickly he memorized what happened and came to see lord Buddha and said what happened.

This is a good example about not knowing the meaning and still having good results from dharma.


So it is clear not knowing does not make it powerless put it would be better if you know the meaning because it would help you understand and remember Dhamma better and it would gain you some good and powerful karma.

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