ON THE WAY OF EXPERIENCING SHUNYATA THROUGH MUSIC PRACTICE (2005): Reflections of a Western Mahayana Buddhist

Vortrag, asian buddhist music conference, Korea

1. Introduction

I would like to begin my reflections on the Buddhist way of music practice with a provocative question: is there such a thing as Buddhist music? As a practicing Buddhist from the west who also lived as a monk in Thailand, and as self-taught avant-garde musician who has performed internationally, my musical practice in the Buddhist context was greatly influenced by my studies of the shomyo chant and gagaku music in Japan.

Buddhist music can be defined as music which is performed during the practice of the Buddhist religion: purely instrumental and as accompanied or a cappella singing. Furthermore, there is music – and this is particularly important in the west – which tries to communicate Buddhist teachings without demonstrating an allegiance to a particular sangha. This includes performances with a certain entertainment value which introduce not only traditional Buddhist music in a kind of „meditative concert“, but also new creations from east and west which try to communicate Buddhist values.

Since time immemorial, and throughout its propagation, Buddhism has tended toward integration, and therefore Buddhist music has also been subjected to various cultural influences. In contrast to the example of the Christian mass, Buddhism has no compulsory musical practice in form or in content. What form could or should western Buddhist music practice have, which would do justice to the Dharma teachings? Or more to the point: how can westerners deepen their Buddhist practice with music or experience Buddhism through the path of music? It is not only important to find a balance between tradition and innovation, but more importantly that a Buddhist message is communicated, the most important of which is Shunyata´ or „emptiness“, the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.


2. Shunyata and Music
2.1 Shunyata – the heart of Mahayana


According to the “Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen” “emptiness” or “void” is the central notion of the dharma teaching, especially in Mahayana, where not only the person, but in fact all composite things are regarded as empty, impermanent, without essence. Out of this “shunyata” which permeates all phenomena there is no existence. Furthermore it is without duality and the only absolute, a Buddhist can think of. The Prajnaparamita sutras stress the non-distinctness of emptiness and form. Things are empty, meaning that they arise conditionally. The true nature of the world is shunyata, which is explained as the “pacification of the manifold”. In the Yogachara schools, things are empty because they arise from the mind, which is equated with shunyata. For the Madhyamika schools it has another important function: liberation from the sufferings of samsara. Nagarjuna established the thesis of the two truths. There is a relative or conventional truth taken for real by ordinary people, and finally the ultimate or absolute truth, which is due to the cognition – or more exactly – the experience of emptiness of all phenomena, which cannot be expressed in words. Though some schools try to comprehend “emptiness” by saying what it is not, and meditate on this imaginings, there are more direct ways of experiencing shunyata by aspiring to the goal of religious Buddhist practice, namely awakening or enlightenment. Vajrayana practices, for example in Tibetan Mahamudra and Dzogchen, are intended to experience shunyata as an “openness” or “clarity” which frees from samsara in this very world, by realizing the inseparability of these two worlds.


2.2 Expressing Shunyata with Music
The example of instrumental music as a means of realization of an “ultimate truth” is multifaceted if we think of the traditional Indian musical culture. But in the spiritual, restrained raga-music, for example on the time-honoured rudra-veena, the goal is unification with “atman”, the independent and imperishable human self or soul, which is thought as identical with “brahman”, the “bigger self”, the absolute non-dual reality. Though the anatman-teachings of primordial Buddhism denies such belief, calm raga-music may be very useful for Buddhist meditations. In spite of the philosophical and religious difference, music serves the same purpose here, expressing a transcendent state which cannot be captured by thinking or speech. It is hard to believe that early Buddhism in India was hostile to devotional musical performances, as it is often reported and is stated in scriptures of the Vinaya. Many later Buddhist sculptures displaying musical performances during rituals tell a different story, for example the stupas of Sanchi. According to a Jataka story the Buddha Shakyamuni was in a former life the pre-eminent veena player Guttila, who activated the people by hearing his music to gain merits.


We have to realize that we can use different musical forms as skillful means of Buddhist practice, even more so when certain rules are observed. If we choose music as the path to awakening to the truth of shunyata, we can summarize some of the above mentioned criteria for an aesthetic gospel of shunyata. It is advantageous when the character of the music aims to be non-personal, non-dual, open and clear, inter-dependent and variable / flexible. Impermanent too, of course, which is an inherent characteristic of musical performance. (How much more effective is live music as opposed to listening to a CD!) Surely, these are idealistic demands with the characteristics of a manifesto, and meant only as a guideline.


When one applies these principles to music it can mean:

–          Based upon a tradition or using traditional form and symbols is preferable to self-oriented creation.

–          Emotional balance and an aesthetic beyond beauty and ugliness is to be aspired to. In the music-theoretical sense „modal“ music without counterpoint constructions comes closer to this requirement for our modern ear.

–          An openness for hearing unusual sound experiences should be given, the mind must flow freely and clearly.

–          Because all things are connected to each other, the music should be relevant to the situation and variable in its boundaries.


In East Asia we find a compatible and universally valid set of principles in the arts which has been practiced for centuries and which has influenced modern western arts. The WA–KEI–SEI-JAKU System was developed in the Japanese art of the tea ceremony. It is mainly influenced by Confucian but also by Buddhist, Shintoist and Daoist ideas as well.

“Harmony”, or WA, as societal harmony is the centre of East Asian cultures and is shown in the group consciousness. In a musical performance the musicians and the audience should both strive to work for a joint harmonious spiritual experience.

“Respect”, or KEI, is a basic virtue in Confucian philosophy. It is demonstrated through following a certain ritual or etiquette. The musical performance shows respect mainly for the Buddhist Three Jewels and in general to personal and transpersonal aspects of being.

Purity”, or SEI, is the cardinal virtue in Shintoism. Heart and mind are purified by the musical ritual. Here a specific naturalness is also expressed in the sense of the Buddhist teaching: “all things are pure – and this means empty too – by nature”. They do have Buddha nature.

“Tranquillity”, or JAKU, does not simply mean peacefulness or ease. It refers to the sense of calm one finds in things which are natural and plain, rather than showy or ostentatious. Musically, it is most suitably expressed by small ensembles, minimalist melodies, a tranquil flow of sounds, and attentiveness to the quality of singular sounds and so on.


Of course, a Buddhist text can be the basis of a musical rendition, but it is more ideal when the above mentioned criteria for the accompaniment is observed. I would like to show what the Sutras themselves say about Buddhist music practice, and in what context it is described, through examples from selected Mahayana texts. But beforehand it is important to me to go into more depth on the fundamental meaning of „hearing“ in Buddhism.


3. (Eastern) Buddhism and Music
3.1 The Nature of Hearing in Buddhism


The Shurangama-Sutra explains the various methods of emptiness meditation through which anyone can attain the enlightenment of a bodhisattva.  In the Manjushri-Gatha at the end of chapter 4 on self-enlightenment, the outstanding importance of the nature of hearing is emphasized:


„Mind’s thoughts are confused and unconnected,
(But) voice whether near or far
At all times can be heard.
The five other organs are not perfect,
But hearing really is pervasive.
The presence or absence of sound and voice
Is registered by ear as ‚is‘ or ‚is not‘.
Absence of sound means nothing heard,
Not hearing devoid of nature.
Absence of sound is not the end of hearing,
And sound when present is not its beginning.
The faculty of hearing, beyond creation
And annihilation, truly is permanent …
Living beings who cognize not hearing’s nature,

Follow sound to continue transmigrating.” (Translation by Charles Luk)


In summary: Buddhism is a way of hearing, with non-dualistic, non-discriminating character. Appropriate music is, therefore, a perfect vessel for enlightenment. This means a music which promotes a particular type of hearing which does not discern, does not identify with that which is heard. Thus each tone can return to its original meaning.


3.2 Music and Musicians in Mahayana Sutras
I would now like to move on to the central question: in which context and under what circumstances does music appear in Mahayana Sutras.
In chapter 2 (section 9a) of the Lotus Sutra about „Skillful Means“, the employment of musicians to venerate Buddha is seen as a sign that one has already found the path to Buddhahood. Singing and instruments are also mentioned individually:
“And if persons, in the presence of such memorial towers (stupas),

such jewelled images and painted images,

should with reverent minds make offerings

of flowers, incense, banners or canopies,

or if they should employ persons to make music,

striking drums or blowing horns or conch shells,

playing pipes, flutes, zithers, harps,

balloon guitars, cymbals and gongs,

and if these many kinds of wonderful notes

are intended wholly as an offering;

or if one with a joyful mind sings a song in praise of the Buddhas´s virtue,

even if it is just one small note,

then all who do these things have attained the Buddha way” (Translation by Burton Watson)


In the introduction to the Parinirvana Sutra (section 606a – b) music accompanies the Buddha’s entrance into Nirvana:
“Also, there were wondrous voices that spoke of impermanence, affliction, emptiness, and selflessness. And these voices spoke of the root of practicing the bodhisattva path. There were, as well, a variety of singers and musicians who played bamboo lutes, harps, flutes, and drums. To this delightful music was a voice saying, „O, the suffering! The suffering that is in this vacant world!“ … A fine wind whistled and moved in the trees, producing a marvelous sound. The sound was harmonious and graceful like heavenly music.
Inside the cities, the people heard this music and, when they did, partook of a most wondrously resolute happiness.” (Translation by Charles Patton)


For simple people, the Lotus-Sutra equates veneration accompanied by a musical offering as being a sign of Bodhisattvahood. In chapter 10 (section 30c) – and similar passages previous to it in the same section (30c) it says:
”Because if good men and good women embrace, read, recite, expound and copy the Lotus Sutra, even one phrase of it, offer various kinds of alms to the sutra, flowers, incense … etc. … and music, and press their hands together in reverence, then these persons will be looked up to and honored by all the world. … You should understand that these persons are great bodhisattvas who have succeeded in attaining anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (complete enlightenment)” (Translation by Burton Watson)
The passage in chapter 28 of the Lotus-Sutra is remarkable in that its male followers will receive a special gratification:
„If they do no more than copy the sutra, when their lives come to an end they will be reborn in the Trayastrimsha heaven. At that time eighty-four thousand heavenly women, performing all kinds of music, will come to greet them.”
Further objects of veneration in the Lotus-Sutra are stupas, as symbol of „Thus Come One“ (Tathagatas) as we have already seen. These are expressed in words near the end of chapter 10 (section 31c):

“All kind of flowers, incense … etc. music and hymns should be offered as alms to these towers“.


We leave our own world and contemplate the meaning of music in higher worlds. First of all, we see that music is considered to be one of the highest offerings, and we learn about other types of offerings. In chapter 40 of the Avatamsaka Sutra the Third Vow on „Making abundant offerings“ to the Bodhisattva „Samantabhadra“:
”I deeply believe in those Buddhas and perceive them as if they were standing before me. To each one I make offerings of superb and wonderful gifts, including bouquets of flowers, bouquets of garlands, choruses of heavenly music, miles of divine tapestries, a myriad of celestial garments, every variety of heavenly incense, fragrant balms, burning incense, and an abundance of other gifts such as these, each collection as large as Sumeru, the King of Mountains.”(Translated by Mark Andrews and P.C.Lee)
Numerous are the references to “heavenly music” in the Lotus-Sutra, performed by heavenly musicians or which appears on its own. Often in reference to important events, such as the „Turning of the Dharma Wheel“ or the experience of the enlightenment of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which is, in turn, connected to further celestial apparitions. Here is a quote from chapter 3 (section 12a) as the Buddha Shakyamuni declared his student Shariputra to be enlightened:

”Heavenly beings made music, a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand varieties, all at the same time in the midst of the air, raining down quantities of heavenly flowers and speaking these words: „In the past at Varanasi the Buddha first turned the wheel of the Law. Now he turns the wheel again, the wheel of the unsurpassed, the greatest Law of all!“


In addition to music, the effect of a powerful Buddha or Bodhisattvas is accompanied by further apparitions. The effect of Samantabhadra (Universal Worthy) is described at the beginning of chapter 28:
“The lands that he passed through one and all quaked and trembled, jewelled lotus flowers rained down, and immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of different kinds of music played.”


The epilogue (section 48) of the “Larger Sutra of Immensurable Life” reflects on the incidents after their announcement:

At that time the entire universe of a thousand million worlds shook in six ways, and a great light illuminated all the lands in the ten quarters. A hundred thousand kinds of music played spontaneously, and innumerable marvelous flowers fell in profusion from the sky.”

In the description of the Pure Land Sukhavati (Utmost Bliss) in the Three Pure Land Sutras (Translation by Hisao Inagaki) music is an essential part of the veneration of Amida Buddhas, which is mentioned in several passages.

„The Sutra on Contemplation of Amitayus“ reports in section 6 “Contemplation of various objects”:

„In each region of this jewelled land, there are five hundred kotis of jewelled pavilions, in which
innumerable devas play heavenly music. There are also musical instruments suspended in the sky, which, like those on the heavenly jewelled banners, spontaneously produce tones even without a player. Each tone proclaims the virtue of mindfulness of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.”


We learn how these hanging instruments can be played from section 10 of the instruction for meditation „Contemplation of the Water“:

„Both sides of this platform are adorned with a hundred kotis of flowered banners and innumerable musical instruments. As eight pure breezes arise from the light and play the musical
instruments, they proclaim the truth of suffering, emptiness, impermanence and no-self. This is the visualizing of the water and is known as the second contemplation.”



In section 14 of the “Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life” we even learn something about the type of music:

„When a pure breeze wafts through them (i.e the jewelled trees), exquisite sounds of the pentatonic scales, such as kung and shang, spontaneously arise and make symphonic music.”


In summary:
The Mahayana Sutras treat music as a medium for enlightenment, or of the awakening, that means the realisation of Shunyata´. Musical Buddhist practice is an accompaniment of that awakening, as well as a means of achieving it. „Hearers“, who are at the beginning of the Buddhist path, will be placed at the same level as a consummate Buddha on the grounds of their immanent Buddha-nature. Veneration and thankfulness for the Dharma-teaching through instrumental music and song is at the same time an expression of ones own path to enlightenment. Because of the promotion of non-duality there is also no differentiation to be made between the hearer and the musician. Buddhist music which deserves to be called as such, is surely more than just an ingredient of rituals and deserves to be handled mindfully.

In the sutras, not only the character of the music is described, but also the instrumentation, which reflects not only the Indian influence, furthermore in the case of Pure Land sutras both of the Chinese five-tone scales are mentioned quite distinctly.
The descriptions of „heavenly music“ were expressed in many figurative accounts, particularly in mandalas, not least in the Japanese „raiko“. It depicts Amida’s arrival at the moment of an individual’s death and is often brought into connection today with acoustic phenomena in „near death experiences“.


3.3 Shomyo and Gagaku as Examples of Buddhist Music Style


For reasons which are self-evident concerning my musical education, I would like to present selected features of Japanese gagaku music and shomyo song as examples of Buddhist music, without going further into their multifaceted development processes and subtleties.
The Japanese Buddhist ritual chant shomyo is performed by the ordained as meditation practice and used as a transfer of merit, as in the sense of the Bodhisattva ideal. It is performed either as a solo or by a choir. An instrumental accompaniment with gagaku instruments is seldom possible, more often though with percussion instruments. The tones of the song are stretched to extreme lengths, so that their content is difficult to comprehend. Thus a „single-mindedness“ of the spirit and the dissolution of self-consciousness is made possible. The melodies are a collection of stereotypical motives, which are brought together like a mosaic. The tone system can change from the pentatonic five-tone scale to the seven-tone scale, also with the use of micro tones. The notation „hakase“ is based on a graphical notation, which is made up of straight and bent lines and is similar to the early „neumes“ notation of the Gregorian chant. Today the term shomyo means the proclamation of the Buddha’s teaching in the vastest meaning of the word. In the more narrow sense, however, the melismatic singing of hymns, the singing or reciting of Buddha or Bodhisattva names, or the recitation syllable by syllable of sutra extracts or dharanis.


Legend tells that already Cao Zhi (192-232 u.Z.), who lived reclusively at the Chinese Yu Shan (Fish Mountain), heard sounds ringing from his cave which he recognised as the music of the heavenly musician „Ghandharva Pancika“. Following this example he set the texts of sutras to music: the first fannbai song. In Japan this song was first named bombai and only later became known as shomyo. The art of ritual song must have been at the height of its development during the Tang dynasty (618-906), in the time when Kobo Daishi (Kukai) and Dengyo Daishi (Saicho), the founder of the great Japanese traditions Shingon and Tendai respectively, were studying in China and later established this form of chanting practice in Japan. Walter Giesen reconstructed in his work „On the History of the Buddhist Ritual Chant in Japan“, the story of creation and the most important compositional factors of the Japanese shomyo. According to this work

„the Buddhist recitations and Psalm modes that found their way to China, texts in Sanskrit. The melodies of these songs were musical developments of text recitation and originated in the accent and syllable positioning of the Sanskrit texts. In China the texts were transliterated into Chinese (that means: the Sanskrit words were phonetically reproduced by replacing them with similar sounding Chinese syllables) or translated into Chinese. In the process the melodies must have been drastically changed by the complete change in the accents of the text „.


Gagaku-Music also originated in its essential structure in China and serves even today as a metamorphosed relict from the Tang dynasty of Buddhist ritual in Japan. Gagaku is the Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese „yayue“, the earliest evidence of which can be found in Lunyu, the “Analects of Confucius”, from the beginning of the fifth century a.d. Yayue referred to traditional ritual or elegant, refined music. After its heyday in the Heian dynasty (794 – 1185) it lived on as chamber and orchestral music for the imperial court, and in music lover’s circles until today. The repertoire of the gagaku today includes approximately 90 compositions. In its most important, and in Buddhism most common variation, the chamber music Kangen („Flute and String “) of the Chinese influenced „togaku“, there are for each two or three shō (harmonica), hichiriki (oboe) and ryūteki (flute), for each two gakubiwa (lute) and gakusō (Koto-type zither) as well as for each kakko (hourglass drum), shōko (gong) and taiko (hanging drum). In various pieces of music you find influences of Korean, Manchurian, South-East Asian, probably also Indian, and most of all in the Shinto ritual music Kagura, genuine Japanese elements.

In the last decades it was possible to hear gagaku concerts all over the world, whether performed by musicians from the Japanese imperial court or college amateur ensembles. Ceremonies of the Shingon and Tendai schools were performed publicly in the concert hall, often with support from gagaku music. In recent years the western public has reacted particularly enthusiastically to the traditionally oriented works of the composer Toshio Hosokawa. As „sound wrapped in silence “ they were celebrated by the Yusei Ensemble. Toshi Ichiyanagi, Maki Ishii and Toru Takemitsu are also known for their use of gagaku instruments, such as hichiriki, sho and biwa in their Buddhist influenced music.

In the structural composition of the gagaku is to be noted that the melody is primarily performed by wind instruments. Thus the hichiriki and ryuteki are interwoven in a manner that the western language refers to as „heterophony“. Characteristic for the noisy ring of the oboe „hichiriki“ is, for example, the ornamentation of a musical phrase with „embai“: a sliding between the tones. The melody is played in the style of a canon with instrument specific variations and delays. All compositions are presented in a very reserved tempo. The organic flow of the compositions, which come about in shorter motifs, mosaic-like through sequence and variation, played in three speeds: slow (jo), medium (ha) and fast (kyuu), similar to classical Indian music. Even when the melody instruments are oriented to the rhythm it is still possible to remove itself from it, and occasionally to continue quasi asynchronously. Changes in tact are possible. The large drum and the small gong, similar to the large gong in the Gamelan music, mark the individual pieces of a “planned chaos”. These works are in no way improvised, even if they may appear that way to the uninitiated listener. The stringed instruments play standardised arpeggios in stereotypical sequence and single tones, often with long pauses. This instrument group plays with the possible least virtuosity and serves as connector between rhythmic and melodic instruments to bring together the total sound. Their tones are embedded in the increasing and decreasing dissonant tone cluster of the mouth organ “sho”. It is this ethereal ringing with which the gagaku work also begins, which makes this music particularly appealing.
Recognising the confusing, brittle beauty of the gagaku remains the terrain of the experienced and the patient. There are but few who can withdraw themselves from its ceremoniously unsentimental, timelessly floating meditative effect. Clinging to a melodious structure or sweet harmony which could hinder the free flow of thoughts is improbable: the theme is alertness.

Gagaku music is surely not specifically Buddhist, it is rather for more ceremonious and contemplative occasions. It was not created at one time by an individual person: it came about over centuries and under manifold influences, interpretations, and also losses, until a music developed which is exemplary today for a spiritual music which corresponds to Buddhism worldwide. As for endeavours to combine western material into orchestral music with the eastern forms of the gagaku and with Buddhist and / or spiritual content, two examples are mentioned: The „Nirvana-Symphony“(1958) by Toshiro Mayuzumi is an epic example of this musical combination which began in Japan toward the end of the 19th century. Two scales are employed in a game with special and overtone effects which were gained through the analysis of atypical overtones of Japanese temple bells. Shomyo choirs and western orchestra instruments, which replace the gagaku instruments, accompany texts from the Shurangama and Mahaprajnaparamita sutras. Another equally formidable orchestral work is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s „Der Jahreslauf“ (the Course of the Year). It was conceived in 1977 for the Japanese imperial court orchestra and later also performed with western instruments and audiotape collages under the direction of the creator. The composition is based on the formal elements of the gagaku and presses the tone material forward in the sense of an „avant-garde“ complete compositional work of the author, which he conceived as spiritual music.


4 Western Spiritual Music

4.1 Back to the Origins


If we look for traditional western music which is similar to the shomyo in its spiritual content, we are bound to come to the Gregorian Chant of the catholic church, which is still practiced today – an analogy to the gagaku is much more difficult to find. For example, around the world well known Zen Buddhist communities often use Gregorian chant, or their own songs which imitate this style, for the scoring of Buddhist texts. Because the essential here is the Buddha’s word, this solution seems fairly well acceptable, at least for Buddhists without a strong Christian background. These old Christian chants permeate a similar meditative spirit to the shomyo. In its history Buddhism has shown that it can take on the cultural goods of other religions and change them, which gives a perspective for a western Buddhist liturgy.

Like the shomyo the Gregorian chant is the external expression of a deeper internal religious movement, which always retains its control and evenness. It knows no ecstatic emotional outbreaks; instead it communicates in its unusual melodies with their archaic character an internal detachment and inner peace. Neither excessive volume nor stirring rhythms affect the development of a devotional mood of “immaterialness” in a communal prayer. The uniform, unaccompanied solo and choir chant gets its name from pope Gregory I. (about 600 a.d.) which, according to legend, he created. Certain parts of the celebratory mass, Latin bible texts, particularly Psalms and excerpts from other Christian publications are set to music. The melodies follow various modal „ecclesiastical tone scales“ which have their origins in the Greek antiquity and which are solely there to embellish the Latin text. The Gregorian chant has two style forms: the formula-like recitation style “Accentus“ and the musically rich melismatic singing style „concentus“, very similar to the shomyo. The meter and an absolute pitch are not defined. In the beginning the written notation with the so-called „neumes“ notation had no lines for the notes, that means there were no fixed, written interval sequences.


We can only guess how instrumental music in the heyday of the Gregorian music in the European middle ages might have sounded, as the images and sculptures from that time period may mainly be interpreted symbolically. The preeminent instrument of the Christian liturgy, the organ, has only been used for sacred music since the tenth century. Before that time it was considered as the epitome of worldly distraction, which can be surmised from its use in the western and east Roman antiquity. What a change! According to Arnold Schering („The Performance Practice of Old Music“) chamber music instruments beyond the portative organ, particularly the harp or the psaltery, fiddle, shawm, pipes, drum and chimes have remained, instruments which show a clear cut Arabian influence and surely point even further to the east. The images with „heavenly musicians“ or „angel’s music“, also a Muslim truism, show similarities in the instruments, surely not by coincidence, with the depiction of the Pure Land mandala. The tone and the playing style of the instruments shown indicates that the music making of such ensembles must have been quiet and discrete, far from all intrusiveness and stridency. Nevertheless, it is not lacking a certain vibrating appeal, since the harmony was not tuned to the melting into a single entity. The sounds of the instruments distinguish themselves from one another, defined and clear.


If you compare the traditional sacred and profane music of the „Ars Antiqua“ (approx. 1240-1320), with the, for our modern ears, unusual heterophony (separate melodies being played simultaneously), we find in the „organum“ form or also in the early „motet“ structural counterparts to the gagaku. It is to be noted that it is mostly works which were conceived for choir and then converted to instrumental works. Basis for the compositions is not the brilliant idea of a composer, but an extract out of a Gregorian chant which is called the „tenor“ or „cantus firmus“. In the early motet this base melody can be drawn out and repeated, whilst one or more descant voices can be furnished with various texts, as in the shomyo choir. The works get their rhythm from various fixed models. The compositional conversion from cosmic numerical proportions, as realised in the early church, demonstrated the integration into a whole which is far more than the personal. Early polyphonic works for multiple voices, with their harmonic independent voices, often result in dissonance.

The most well known modern composer whose newer works make use of the early Christian tone scales is Arvo Pärt. He named his musical style, which is played with conventional orchestra instruments, „tintinnabula“ (ringing of bells). Simple harmonies, often only single notes, make up his rhythmically simple compositions, which are closely tied to the spirituality of the Russian Orthodox church. Olivier Messiaen’s creations are also permeated with a high spiritual energy in the Christian sense. His own work was not only inspired by Gregorian, but also by asian music cultures, by numerology and by birdsong.


4.2 Examples for Further Approaches


The refined „classical“ western-academic music culture has distanced itself from natural sounds through its tempered tonal system, which makes performance easier, and music instrument technology which is tuned to melodiousness. This is the price of the standardisation of sounds to the exclusion of noise. Simply the integration of original instruments in western music brings about new listening experiences. The ringing of gongs in particular can serve to create a meditative mood.

If we return to the objective of experiencing Shunyata in music as a western Buddhist, we could look to other eastern music styles. Indispensable and of great influence on a meditative culture in the west is the shakuhachi music. We need only think of the beggar-priests komuso of the fuke sect, who played pieces like „kyo-rei“ (empty bell) as a Buddhist path to enlightenment. The shakuhachi in particular instructs one to pay attention to the quality of the individual tones and to the music of the silence between them. Productive living Buddhist music cultures outside of Japan can be found in other Mahayana countries. Mentioned here only as example are the Tibetan moralist opera „AChe-LhaMo“ or “Pomp´ae“, the Korean glorification music to Buddha with its long tones.


Surely there are other important asian composers beyond those mentioned here who have transported Buddhist content using the combination of western and eastern tone and form. Isang Yun first completed a very successful training in traditional Korean music, before he moved to Germany to study western music. One of the first results of this symbiosis was his musical setting of Buddhist texts in the oratory „Om mani padme hum“from 1964.

Among musicians with a reduced compositional style who have created practice oriented western Buddhist music one should mention: Phil Glass with „Songs of Milarepa“ for baritone and chamber orchestra (1997) and Lou Harrison with “White Ashes”(1992) for mixed choir and piano, which sets the Gatha from Rennyo Shonin to music.

Perhaps a more radical approach is necessary in order to experience through music the „engrossed observation“ (Guan), which has its roots in hearing, for which the Bodhisattva GuanYin (Kannon or Avalokiteshvara) stands.


4.3 About a Culture of Sound in the New Music

According to the mathematician and mystic Josef M. Hoene-Wronski  „music is the embodiment of the intelligence the sound applied to itself “. If a sound is freed from the music in which it is immanent, the way is clear to experience how it „really“ is, unveiled. Connected to it is an emancipation of the noisy from the harmonic. The effort to liberate sound was commented by John Cage already in1957:
„One may give up the desire to control sounds, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments”.
The arts and media theorist Peter Weibl continues:

“For Giacinto Scelsi the sound was the direct and only object of his attention and the tendency to quarter tones nothing more than a new method – next to glissandi, microtonal fluctuations and beats – which served only one goal, to form the sound in the complexity of its structure, to make it perceivable and present. You should promote a new form of listening, a listening to sound, its static and permanence and at the same time the experience of never ending change in its internal and its external… For György Ligeti it was also the interest in the sound material that inspired him to the character of the interval, the character of the harmony and the rhythm for the benefit of the complex to neutralise masses of sound, which vacillate between sound and noise and which are realised in clusters and are structured like a thick micro-polyphony … “

That there is a danger of the musical avant-garde being replaced by the day to day experience is addressed by Toru Takemitsu:
„If the new world of sound is not connected to the old, does not become deeper – although there is no old or new sound, but possibly unknown ones – these sounds will not be able to grow; the entirety will come to a standstill.“


5 My Own Music Practice and Future

My own music creation and that of „Ensemble Embai“, which has performed concerts as musical offerings at national Buddhist events in Austria and Germany since 1993, uses all three of the directions of a western Buddhist music in creation which are listed here:

1)      Adaptations of traditional Asian Buddhist music pieces

2)      Return to the beginning of one’s own music culture

3)      Techniques of the new music for the liberation of hearing and the cultivation of silence


The main focus of my solo music practice is particularly directed toward the last point. At the present time I use, in addition to recitations, shomyo and overtone song, as well as Buddhist percussion instruments, the instruments ajaeng, hishiriki, ryuteki, conch shell trumpet, fujara – a Slovak overtone flute – and bonang gongs from a Javanese gamelan.

The Ensemble Embai attempts, in order to do its name justice, not only to slide between notes, but also between eastern and western music cultures. In 2003 the program „Reflections” was performed, in which the gagaku work „Etenraku“ served as a framework for Buddhist ceremonies, shomyo and other Japanese musical works with koto and shakuhachi. In a second part a motet on the „Metta-Sutta“ based on a Gregorian chant was adapted for pipe organ and shakuhachi. At the conclusion, the antique Chinese Buddhist hymn „Wu Hsing Fo“ (Buddha in the state of change) was brought back to life.
Last but not least, on the basis of my (our) experience we must differentiate between concert music for a public which is interested in Buddhism and the music for daily practice in a sangha. Because the later must draw from tradition there will only be a slow musical development. It is not true that western sanghas automatically appreciate western music in their Buddhist practice. Among their members one today finds mostly individuals from intellectual and or artistic circles, who have chosen an alternative lifestyle for themselves. The attractiveness of foreign cultures, whether it be in Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Japan or Tibet, leads them often on journeys around the globe, to the spirituality of Buddhism.


According to the estimation of the composer and music scientist Hans Zender we can speak of three barriers which impede a spiritual life in the western culture:

–          adherence to reason, which is considered to be able to account for everything,

–          adherence to subjective emotional experiences, which is considered to be able to dissolve all discrepancies into harmony and

–          adherence to the compact and the institutionalised, which is supposed to guarantee predictableness.

The closing word is left to the taoist master Zhang San-Feng (ca. 1300 a.d.) with an excerpt from his „Song of Silent Sitting“:
“Sitting silently, practice meditation …
Heavenly music fills the sky with harmony.
In nebulous mixture everything is empty,
The infinite phenomena are all here.
Marvellous in its mystery, mysterious in its marvel …
When the ultimate reality reveals dualism disappears,
Now I realize all religions are the same! …”
(translated by Wong Kiew Kit 1996)

Mit Dank an Dr. Joachim Willfahrt.