The Book of Protection


This collection of paritta discourses, in Sinhala, 'The Pirit Potha' is the most widely known Pali book in Sri Lanka. It is called 'The Buddhist Bible'; it is given an important place in the Buddhist home, and is even treated with veneration. In most houses where there is a small shrine, this book is kept there so that the inmates may refer to it during their devotional hour. Some have committed to memory the three well known discourses - Mangala, Ratana and Karaniya-metta suttas. (1) Even children are familiar with these discourses; for they learn them from their parents and elders or from the 'dhamma school'.

The habit of listening to the recital of paritta suttas among the Westerners is growing slowly but steadily. The present writer, while on his missions in the European and American countries, has, at request of several residents there, tape-recorded the recital of paritta suttas for their benefit, and has air-mailed cassettes containing the sutta recitals to those who sent him such cassettes.

Now what does this book contain? It is a collection of twenty four suttas or discourses almost all delivered by the Buddha, and found scattered in the five original collections (nikayas) in Pali, which form the Sutta Pitaka, the 'Canonical Discourses'. These discourses are preceded by an enunciation of the Three Refuges; the Ten Precepts and the questions asked of a novice.

This collection of discourses, popularly known as 'Pirit Potha' or The Book of Protection, has a less known title, 'Catubhanavara' (in Sinhala Satara Banavara). A 13th century Commentary to this, written in Pali, by a pupil of the Venerable Rajaguru Vanaratana of Sri Lanka, is available under the title Catubhanavara Atthakatha or Sarattha Samuccaya.

What is a bhanavara? It is a collection of sermons or discourses. Four such collections are called 'Catubhanavara'. As the teachers of old have said, a three-word line (pada) is made up of eight syllables (attha akkhara), four such padas make a stanza or a gatha. Thus stanzas consists of thirty-two syllables. 250 such stanzas is called a bhanavara which consists of 8,000 syllables. The Catunabhanavara was compiled by the Maha Theras, the teachers of yore (paranakacariya), of Sri Lanka, and today it is known among the Buddhists of Sri Lanka as the 'Pirit Potha' The Book of Protection.

It is customary for Buddhist monks, when they are invited to the homes of the laity on occasions of domestic importance, such as birth days, house-warming, illness and similar events, to recite the three popular discourses mentioned above. In the domestic and social life of the people of Sri Lanka pirit ceremony is of great significance. No festival or function, religious or social, is complete without the recital of the paritta. On special occasions monks are invited to recite the paritta suttas not for short periods but right through the night or for three or seven days, and at times, for weeks. On such occasions a pavilion (pirit mandapaya) is constructed for the purpose of accommodating the monks at the recital. Before the commencement of the recital the laity present at the ceremony makes a formal invitation to the monks by reciting in Pali three stanzas which explain the purpose of the recital.(2) Then the monks, generally about twelve or fourteen, who have been invited, will recite the three popular suttas. Thereafter a pair of monks will commence reciting the remaining suttas for two hours. They will then retire and will be followed by another pair for another two hours. Two monks must be constantly officiating. In this manner the recital will last till dawn.

While the recital continues there will be found a pot of water placed on a table before the monks. On this table there is also a sacred thread (pirit nula). For an all night pirit ceremony the casket containing a relic of the Buddha, and the 'Pirit Potha' or The Book of Protection written on ola leaves, are also brought into the pavilion. The relic represents the Buddha, the 'Pirit Potha' represents the Dhamma or the teachings of the Buddha, and the reciting Bhikkhu-Sangha represent the Ariya-Sangha, the Arahant disciples of the Buddha.

The thread is drawn round the interior of the pavilion, and its end twisted round the casket, the neck of the pot of water, and tied to the cord of the ola-leaf book. While the special discourses are being recited the monks hold the thread. The purpose is to maintain an unbroken communication from the water to the relic, to the 'Pirit Potha' and to the officiating monks, (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, the Ti-ratana, the three jewels.) A ball of thread connected to 'The Three Jewels' and the water, is unloosened and passed on to the listeners (seated on the ground on mats), who hold the thread while the recital goes on.

When the recital in Pali of the entire book is over at dawn, the thread sanctified by the recital is divided into pieces and distributed among the devotees to be tied round their wrists or necks. At the same time the sanctified water is sprinkled on all, who even drink a little of it and sprinkle it on their heads. These are to be regarded as symbols of the protective power of the paritta that was recited. It is a service of inducing blessings. It has its psychological effects.

Dr. Bernard Grad of McGill University in Montreal painstakingly proved that if a psychic healer held water in a flask and this water was later poured on barley seeds, the plants significantly outgrew untreated seeds. But - and this is the intriguing part - if depressed psychiatric patients held the flasks of water, the growth of seeds was retarded.

'Dr. Grad suggests, that there appeared to be some "x factor" or energy that flows from the human body to affect growth of plants and animals. A person's mood affected this energy. This previously unacknowledged 'energy' has the widest implications for medical science, from healing to lab tests, Grad says'.(3)

As experimentally discovered by Dr. Grad mind can influence matter. If that be so, not much thinking is necessary to draw the logical inference that mind can influence mind. Further if the human mind can influence lower animals, then by a parity of reasoning the human mind can influence the minds of beings higher than animals.

1. See below nos. 2, 3, 4.
2. See Invitation (Aradhana)
3. Psychic Dicoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, Sheila Ostrander & Lynn Schroeder, Bantam Books, U.S.A., p. 224; also read chapter on 'Healing with Thought', p. 293.