Characteristics Of The Buddhist Music

Thich Nguyen Hiep
Translated by Vien Minh – Giang Kiet Tuong

Music was not mentioned much in Buddhism, let alone being appreciated or encouraged, at least in the early time of Buddhist progression. This wasn’t surprisingly odd, because according to the traditional Buddha’s teachings, music was one area where Buddha has taught his disciples not to be greatly engaged in, because music can entice and lure the listeners, causing instability of mind and interference to the peacefulness needed in reaching meditative absorption state. The Brahma Net (Skt: Brahmajara) Sutra literally encouraged the Bhikkhus to forgo the listening to music or watching musical performance, and recognized this relinquishment as one of the highly regarded behaviors worthy of praise and commendation. One of the ten precepts of a Novice (Skt: Sramanara) banned all forms of singing or musical functions, including attendance, listening to, watching, or performing any musical activity. And not just music, but all other attractions arisen or resulted from the six faculties - form, sound, smell, taste, and touch - that can hinder the spiritual achievements, were to be avoided and abstained from if necessary. Buddha often advocated a peaceful ascetic life, away from the mundane world of glamour, gluttony, greed and competition.

But to understand the Buddha’s teaching of non-indulgence, including abstaining from listening to music, we have to place ourselves in the medieval India of that era. During Buddha’s time, music was a widely applied art, not just as an appreciative entertainment used in high royalty and formal celebrations, but it was also used in mortuary and burial rites, worship services, and praying assemblies at temples and churches. To date, there is still no evidence of the origins of Indian music; but theory has it that the holistic angels (gandharvas) brought about and propagated music to the world. The believers of Shiva, on the other hand, thought that music came directly from their gods Shiva and Sakti, while the followers of Vishnu supposed their goddess Lakshmi and Narayana (another name of god Vishnu) introduced music to them. But truly, from the Veda time, Indian people were already chanting their mantras according to specific rhyming tones (raga) and pre-determined rhythms (swaras), to construct soft-sounded melodies, which later became a separate field of studies on its own. It could well be that this was how ancient Indian music began their popularity. Their inclination leaned more toward prayers, with plenty of favorite string instruments like the sarod, the veena, or the sarang, and the small drum-like instrument called the tabe, or the flute-like bansi, etc… The main purpose was to please the gods, or more specifically to harmonize Atman and Brahman in a more philosophical perspective.

With the non-self doctrine, music that sported this philosophical approach certainly would not have a good standing with Buddhism. Besides, the singing, dancing, and strumming musical instruments that were very popular with the Brahmins in their religious services were deemed inappropriate for Bikkhus – who required solitude and quiet environment for meditation practice. So in the very beginning, monastic members recited the sutras to purposefully reviewing and memorizing their Master’s teachings, because all canonical doctrines were distributed via oral transmittance. Chanting was not strictly meant for offerings to Buddhas and certainly had no philosophical intention. Chanting carried neither rituals, nor any accompanying musical instruments; and it was not a praying ceremony to earn good merits; the chanting tone did not try to assume any musical sounding. This type of recital chanting is still very popular in the countries where Theravadan Buddhism is mainstreaming.

Despite Buddha prohibiting his disciples from listening and enjoying music or singing and dancing, He didn’t condemn music or musicians. In reality, in the book of Jakata, the 243rd story telling of a previous life of the Buddha when He was a gifted musician with an exceptional talent surpassing heavenly music, and it was with this wondrous musical gift that He can soften other people’s heart and convert them. On the other hand, Buddhism developed in a country where music has been a folklore art tightly bound with many scopes of customary activities of the people. Consequently Buddhism was influenced more or less by music, and was in some instances, greatly inspired by it and could not do without it at all. Even during the time of Buddha, music somewhat had an impact on Buddhist activities in general. For example, when Buddha passed away at Kushinagar, the Malla natives of the region conducted cremation service with embalming scents and flowers; provided traditional music in the manner of a respectful offering to the Buddha. So, even though the codes of conduct taught monastic Monks (skt: Bhikkhus) to abstain from listening to and/or performing musical events, music on its own cannot be completely separated and prohibited from the Buddhist congregation.

Over time, the chanting service changed shape; and the outlook on music also altered when the Mahayana Buddhism came onto the scene. With a different timing, and a different cultural background, Buddhism also diversified to become more appropriate with the diverse cultures; and although Mahayana Buddhism did not encourage the use of music in its sutral teachings, the hymnal chanting and singing praise was appropriately considered as “ceremonial offerings” to the Buddhas. The Skillful Means Chapter and many other chapters in the Lotus Sutra (Skt: Saddharma-Pundarika S.) considered offering music to the Buddhas not only to bring about merits to oneself, but also as a method transcending to Buddhism. Other sutras, such as the 40th chapter of the Flower Adornment Sutra (Skt: Avatamsaka S.), and the 1st section of the Nirbana Sutra (Skt: Mahaparinirvana S.), also regarded music offering as one of the most sublime forms of offering. While the Infinite Life Sutra (Skt: Amitayus S.) went further as to denote music not just merely for offering, but music can also represent the holy sound of the Land of Buddhas. Music in this Sutra was raised to the level of “dharma”, which can produce amazing peacefulness and enlightenment to the listeners. Most of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures mentioned music not just purely as singing melodies; they also referenced the various musical instruments. This greatly impacted the traditional music of India, and even projected the influence of music from China, as indicated in numerous texts of the Pure Land Sect.

Buddhism was primarily introduced to China in the middle of the first century A.D. In a country where music was elevated to a “ritual” level, it was not surprised that music was appropriately considered by religious leaders as a suitable means to propagate the dharma as well as to convert the people. But in the very beginning, most of the great Buddhist masters strongly emphasized on works to translate scriptures rather than to establish rites and rituals for the newly-initiated Chinese Buddhism. A royal prince named Cao Zhi (V. Tao Thuc), who was also renowned for his poems and music compositions, was credited for instituting chanting with intonation, and singing hymns and praises.

According to legends, Cao Zhi (192-232 A.D.) was an ascetic inhabiting a mountainous cave. He heard peaceful music emanating from the cave walls. Thinking that this heavenly music came directly from Ghandhara, and greatly impressed by its magnificent sounds, he had composed the first glorified hymn written in Chinese style entitled Yushan Fanbei. This melody served as the foundation for the proliferation of all Chinese harmonious ceremonial chanting that are now being widely employed.

The Chinese-transformed musical chanting and praise singing carried the traditional music insinuation that came from the time of Buddha in India, as well as the influence of the chanting in the Veda time. During the reign of the Liang dynasty, especially under Emperor Liang Wu (V: Luong Vo De) (502-549 AD), Buddhist music broadened significantly. This king was a true and very devout Buddhist, who also loved music and poem. He wrote several aesthetic hymns and songs praising the virtues of Buddhas with the intention to widely propagate the dharma and educate the people.Then during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), the Chinese Buddhist musical stronghold became much more recognized and utilized. Also during this same period of time, several masters in the Pure Land sect composed and introduced numerous metrical hymns (Skt: gatha). To this point, the ceremonious song-like chanting used in Buddhist services finally reached a fairly stable level of development. At the same time, the collective Dharma instruments used in the chanting services expanded to a much richer and more distinctive extent.

Also during this period, the popular hymnal chanting while incorporating the use of drums and bells of China was introduced to Japan via the early founders of Pure Land and T’ien T’ai sects, who were distinguished Buddhist scholars seeking more in-depth studies in China and were greatly influenced by the ceremonial musical chanting of this country. Thus the melodious chanting of the Japanese Buddhism was entirely predisposed by the Chinese Buddhism hymns and songs of praise, at least in the earliest time. During the next phase, a few Japanese Yen masters philosophically explained the use of music in rites and rituals, and elevated it to a Dharmic Zen meditation technique, and not considered it just mere singing chants applicable in regular temple services. In Japan, besides the usual inverted drums and copper bells, there was also an exotic reed-pipe instrument made entirely of bamboo called the Shakuhachi (V: xich bat). The introduction of this special and unique musical instrument to the Japanese Buddhism can be traced back to about the 10th century AD. The Zen masters of the Fuku sect that was initiated in the 13th century, and became extinct in the 19th century, employed this popular bamboo windpipe to promulgate the spread of Buddhism throughout the Japanese countryside. They used this Sakhuhachi in their ceremony, presenting music in the more philosophical fashion which stated: “a song is a string of musical notes; in actuality these notes are provisional and impermanent; or in another word, they do not have physical forms”. To contemplate while listening to the music would definitely be another way of practicing meditation.

But in all Buddhist countries, we have to accredit Tibetan Buddhism as having one of the most exotic and distinguished musical instrumentation and intonation used in their chants. The Tibetan Buddhist chanting incorporated the traditional music of India and China, as well as that of Mongolia. The ceremonial Dharma instruments employed in grand celebrations are sophisticated and unique. The most popular ones included the small drum called Damaru, large metal gong called Mkar rgna, a spiral conch horn called Dung-dka, small bells called Drilbu, and cymbals called Ting-ting. In Tibet, music carried an essential role, both in the common every day’s life of the people as well as in activities which conveyed more religious indication. Few Tibetan High Lamas regarded religion as sounds; so the gentle melodies would not only be resourceful means to spread the teachings, but music itself was religion. Chanting the words of the Sutras and employing musical instruments to guide this chanting and hymn singing became essential in the daily practice of monastic members. One can find the ultimate truth within the chanting itself, and not just through the technique of reciting the sutras. By incorporating the tonal sound of a mantra, or by synchronizing the chanting voices of many people in an egolessness manner, one can create an absolute harmony in the sacred chants, and enlightenment can be attained right there in that non-dualist spirit. Besides the use of musical instruments and intoned singing, grand celebrations and solemn ceremonies in Tibet also included serious ritual dancing. The Tibetan people don’t think of singing and dancing as entertainment or amusement; but actually the singing and dancing acts were depictions of the karmic body, language, and mind, and were considered firm practice techniques.

In Korea, on the other hand, Buddhist music developed the earliest. The use of music encompassed two reasons: the first one was to promulgate and broaden the Buddhist teachings, and secondly, it was to bring the mystifying sacredness and blessed solemnity to the religious ceremonies. From the beginning of Buddhism arriving to this country, the Korean Masters have integrated music in their service and teaching. Just as Master WonHyo (617-686 AD) - one of the most prominent monks, whose responsibility in bringing and spreading Buddhism to the people was unsurpassed – had skillfully composed many stories in the Sutras into songs in order to receptively share the teaching of the Buddha with the common folks. To promote musical chanting in temples, these early masters have used many regularly seen instruments like striking gongs, wooden tocsins in the shape of fish, and small drums…They were not too different than those used in China. But in grand celebrations, Korean dances were also integrated into the service, and were usually demonstrated outdoor, almost similar to the ritual ceremonies in Tibet. But unlike Tibetan ceremonial services where the dances were performed by monks, the Korean dancing was usually done by the Buddhist professionals instead. Nowadays, sacramental ceremonies with lots of traditional dance performance became more of a rarity in temples throughout this country.

In Vietnam, as far as we knew, there were no historical indications of when musical Buddhist sacrament was introduced. But we can safely say that it presented fairly early in history, because by the reign of the Ly-Tran dynasty, musical chanting and hymn singing were already well blossomed, even influencing the formal procedures in Imperial Court. The chanting of the sutra originated from the time of Buddha, but when arriving to individual territory, it assumed its own distinctiveness and diversification. The chanting and reciting of the sutra in Vietnam of course derived from its Indian original source, but it was also hard to deny the tremendous impact of Chinese Buddhist music. But unlike the other countries, Vietnamese Buddhist music varied greatly according to different regions in the country, resulting from the more integral influence of traditional folklore music background of that particular region. This specifically distinct variation was termed “diversified and abundant” or even “vividly interactive, lively and colorful” by some of the leading researchers in Buddhist music.

In other countries where Theravada Buddhism dominated like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, the intonation in chants was less “musical” in characteristic, and carried less emphasis on making chanting sound more pleasantly harmonious. Because reciting the sutras was simply regarded as making an effort to repeat again and again the same teachings in order to review and remember; it was not meant for demonstrating an artistic performance. Therefore the chanting was rather just regular normal reading with little focus on the intonation or melody side of it.

Within the first few decades of the 20th century, Buddhist music extrapolated a little more through the advance and penetration of Western orchestral music, which integrated eagerly into the traditional music of the Eastern Buddhist countries. In the newly acquired environment, Buddhist music had taken a giant step outside of traditional chanting and singing hymns of praise within the traditional services or ceremonial celebrations. It leaped easily into the western population via “new wave” songs and tunes. With influence from the seven-note diatonic scale (called Solfège: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si) and the use of symphonic and orchestral European instruments, the new-tune Buddhist music was hardly differentiated from worldly secular music, dissimilar only in the wording and spiritual contents. (In reality, there was an existing equivalent 7-note scale in the Indian traditional music called Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha and Ni).

Ironically, while Buddhist music of Asian countries took a revolutionized change influenced by this new-tune, the Solfège scale, and European philharmonic instruments; few Western composers and musicians found the soothing of Bud\dhist philosophical effect very applicable to their creations. They integrated the Buddhist influence in their productions and utilized some Dharma instruments in their performance. Hence the middle and later years of the 20th century brought on massive involvement of Buddhism to the Western hemisphere, leading it all was the influence of Japanese Zen. The tremendous post-war economic expansion of Japan put this country on the international map, making it easy for Japan to introduce its own culture to the outside world. Japanese Zen was one of its most unique characteristics that were relentlessly disseminated, because Zen influenced many cultural folklore arts including painting, music, tea serving and drinking, flower arrangement, tree growing (bonsai), and garden setting, etc…

Westerners knew about Zen Buddhism of Japan through the multitude of best-seller books by the great Ph.D. Zen master Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. His books attracted many artists and media-related professionals, inspired a brand new category of mellow songs and calming tunes called Meditation music. Mr. John Cage was one leading musician in this genre. Mr. Cage started out researching the Indian philosophy and arts under the tutelage of Ananda Coomaraswami, a well known Indian music and arts expert. Because of this approach, his early musical compositions during the 40s assumed a lot of Indian theatrical songs and dances. In later years, after he took up familiarity with Buddhism, his works mellowed out and changed directions. This sparked a lot of debate and controversy.

He explained music in terms of philosophical immateriality (aka. emptiness – the nature void), saying that ‘a song was just a string of musical notes and sounds, so that when the song was played, the musical sounds were not real. When you listen to a song, it isn’t the song that you hear, but a string of continuous tunes. When you listen to a song this way, you don’t recognize hearing a song, but actually you just want to express the like or dislike of what you are hearing’. It wasn’t any thing new that Mr. Cage expressed because these explanations were well documented by numerous Buddhist masters already. He also avoided composing music to self-promote. To him, music and his own songs were therapeutics to alleviate sufferings and distresses. If you can feel peace and happiness listening to a song, then the song has cured you of agonizing defilement. But not necessary true! Because you have to listen like you were practicing Zen; only then you could realize what was happening internally in your own intuitions when the song was played.

Meditation music in Japan has developed into a sophisticated art genre, with guitar, piano, or other instruments being promoted. One can see flashing titles like “Zen Guitar” or “Zen for Piano” on CD labels sold everywhere. But whether just classical music, or music with lyrics, or music being played by a particular instrument, the main theme for meditation music firmly based on the philosophy of emptiness where the listeners hopefully can “live in the present moment”, and realize the immateriality of all noumenal and phenomenal existences; where they can appreciate the harmony of all beings - man, animal, and objects; and finally where their mind-sufferings can be effectively alleviated and healed. Simply stated, Meditation music can be considered a method of achieving meditative absorption through the use of melodious tune. Or more extravagantly put as commented by the great master Philli Toshio Sudo: “meditation music is life itself”. Master Sudo created an exclusive Zen guitar center called the Zen Guitar Jodo, and produced a quite-detailed thick book introducing and teaching the arts of playing meditation guitar music and its appreciation.

Another successful approach in modernizing the Buddhist music was to balance between the new Western philharmonic concert with that of traditional mainstream folk arts of the region to generate an entirely different genre of music; by converting the well-known and familiar sutras (teachings), gathas (hymns), and mantras (incantations) into songs in order to receptively capture people’s attention, touch them deeply and tug at their heartstring. This approach was very much popularized in Taiwan, under the unprecedented guiding vanguard of Venerable Master Hsing Yun (V. Tinh Van). Master Hsing Yun initiated the revitalization of the Taiwanese Mahayana Buddhism, and dedicated his life to teaching Humanistic Buddhism to the general public. He acknowledged music as an instrumental means to spread the Buddhist doctrines; therefore he advocated a strategy to maximally utilize this art in fulfilling his own vow to promote the Dharma. Besides the encouragement to compose and create musical hymns and songs bearing the Buddhist theme, he also progressed to integrating music in the short popular mantras and gathas, such as the Great Compassion Heart Dharani Mantra (V. Chu Dai Bi) or the six-syllable Mantra Om Ma Ni Pad Me hum, or the Heart Sutra (Skt: Prajnaparamita Mantra). This modernization raised red flags among many Buddhist practitioners, who feared that secularized music can diminish the value of sacred recital and ceremonial chanting. Tibetan also popularized several of its mantras into songs. In 2003, an orchestra ensemble of Tibetan monks won the notorious traditional music Grammy awards for their sing-song mantra chanting and their “exotic band” of flutes, guitars, windpipes, cymbals, bells, drums, gongs, horns, harps, and tambourines.

In Vietnam, the new Buddhist music scene started in the 40s with the delivery of the first song A Di Da Phat (dedicated to Amitabha Buddha) by the legendary musician Tham Oanh. Afterwards, we saw hundreds of other hymnal creations by well-known as well as less famous artists and musicians such as Le Mong Nguyen, Le Cao Phan, Giac An, Uy Thi Ca, Nguyen Hiep, and Chuc Linh. Many other songs and melodies were randomly produced by non-religious musicians, or by the so-called “movement” artists. Most of these songs were relevant only in Buddhist ceremonies, and were popular among coordinated activities of the Buddhist Youth Association. With the simple lyrics and uncomplicated tune of slow, rumba, bolero, occasionally waltz or pop variety, the new-music of Vietnamese Buddhism did not carry much of an aesthetically important value.

The lyrics often were more straightforward and ordinary, simply to praise the virtues of the Buddha, to depict the Compassion-Wisdom-Courage spirit (motto of the Buddhist Youth Association), to explain few philosophical teaching such as impermanence and karma, or to pay tribute to certain master, temple, or event… Some of these songs were outright negative with their sorrowful and distressed lyrics and tunes.

The new type of music in Vietnamese Buddhism carried no particular excellence, and did not cross over the threshold boundaries of temples and pagodas. These songs were mainly employed during the usual religious ceremonies, in few musical fund raising events, or in occasional activities and assemblies of the sangha. Rarely were they listened to and enjoyed by the individual Buddhist followers as an appreciative art form.

At the very end of the 20th century, the new wave of Vietnamese Buddhist music finally became more alive with the introduction of several meditation songs from the legendary song-writer Pham Duy. These transformed meditation music of Pham Duy initiated a new direction in the musician’s own career, as well as put a rejuvenated touch to the Vietnamese Buddhist music arena. His songs, like those of other world-wide composers of meditation music, were able to produce a peaceful, calm, and relaxed affect for the listeners, alleviating their agony; or rather just like with Mr. Cage’s conception, they helped people to realize the “sunyata – immateriality” while listening.

Besides Pham Duy, another composer of notable success in recent years would be Vo Ta Han. He had produced many varieties of Buddhist music that was widely enjoyed and appreciated by people in Vietnam as well as abroad. Vo Ta Han is a talented composer, who started out his career with rewriting Trinh Cong Son’s music for guitar playing. The traditional guitarists of old knew him well. Later he converted to composing music adapting from famous poems, and from short sutra chanting. His contribution to the Vietnamese Buddhist music was quite phenomenal. His songs carried both the relaxing meditative tune, and the nostalgic flavor; their wording soft and relfective; overall, they were able to bring about a serene tranquility to the listeners, and more or less communicate some of the dharma teaching to a lot of people.

Recently, the Vietnamese Buddhist music scene also witnessed another movement with the introduction of Khai Giac – a multiform orchestra-like production of the famed musician Nguyen Thien Dao. With its meticulous preparation, and extraordinary coordination of musicians and performers, at least Khai Giac was able to create a sounding repercussion among the Buddhist societies worldwide, due mainly to its unusual lyrics, remarkable concerto, and highly philosophical nuance. But then, because of its scholarly extravagance, one wondered whether it would be of any other use or whether there would be repeated presentations in the future, besides its one and only extremely successful performance during the IOC Vesak 2008 in Hanoi.

Therefore, with the presence of ceremonial music for more than a thousand years, and that of new-wave Buddhist music for seventy years, what has the Vietnamese Buddhism brought to society at large? According to Professor Tran Van Khe, the ceremonial music has contributed a valuable artistic significance, and greatly influenced the traditional music of the people. It also carried a respectful impact on royal music in Imperial court of old, and substantial weight on theatrical performance of the present time. The reason for having chanting music was to generate seriousness to the religious services, and to convert people’s thinking so that they can have serenity and peace in their lives, and that they would understand more thoroughly the essence of life itself. This was absolutely correct. But, in truth, would the contemporary composers of ceremonial music, and their listening audience recognize the artistic significance and appreciate the vital purpose of this kind of music? Would they agree that the addition of this musical chanting further enhance the solemnity of any ceremony, making it more sacrosanct, and that it was a means to present offerings to the Buddhas, and a way to soften people’s heart and convert them? Unfortunately, often the creation and use of melodious chanting was invariably done more so for the means of livelihood and making a living rather than for the true intended salvation. Many people learned the technique and instrumentation of this ceremonial music, not because they valued its importance or wanted to preserve its exquisite legacy, but mainly for the sole purpose of conducting burial and funeral services, turning it into a complicated, mysterious, and rather superstitious hocus pocus.

The newer genre of Buddhist music on the other hand did not impact much on society. Besides a few ballads mostly filial in nature - such as showing a dedication to a mother’s love - that have some Buddhist flavor and show impact on people’s lives, in general these new-wave songs were only useful in various Buddhist celebrations and in limited spatial boundaries of temples. It would be rather difficult to expect this genre of new music to extend beyond the set limits because even within the Buddhist community itself, music was hardly an easy appeal. This brought on the difficult tasks for those individuals responsible for the cultural aspect of Buddhism as well as for composers and musicians. If regarding music as a meaningful method to propagate the dharma in modern days, then the composers of music should investigate and research more into the psychologically artistic sense, in order to produce better qualified and more appropriate melodies.

The situation of all performing arts in Vietnam at the present time is sadly complicated. Only a handful of creative works are of any artistic and educational values; the rest of them are too superficial, frivolous, un-imaginative, easily imitated, borrowed, and reproduced… with unattractive, insincere and hollow lyrics. Regrettably, it would be this type of senseless music that progress rapidly and attract listeners of all kinds. In a societal world where greed and competition are the norms of busy lives, this variety of raucous music can never bring serene tranquillity and truly relaxing entertainment to the listeners.

The need to contribute a gentle and pleasant type of music that is also of educational importance is one responsibility that Buddhism can strongly exert its strength. We would not expect Buddhist music, both traditional and new style, to become an instant success and earn a widespread influence in society - such as the case of Western Christmas holiday music. But at least we have to acknowledge that there is a great need for serious changes and for better and more affluent compositions in order to impress upon the individuals who practice and learn Buddhism./.