Music for The Path to Spiritual Enlightenment
Compilation and liner notes by Paul Fisher
Religion and music have always had an integrally close relationship with each other. As the world's fourth largest religion, Buddhism is no exception, except the way it has intertwined with music is somewhat different to the relationship music has with Christianity, Islam or Hinduism.
Buddhist music is inextricably linked to Buddhist practice. It's chants and instrumental music is performed as a ritual. Its function is the same as the goal of Buddhism itself, the attainment of Enlightenment or Buddhahood. Buddhism began as an oral tradition and adding a musical vocalization to the text helped with memorization. Music has also provided the vehicle to bring the laity and Buddhism together, used as a means to attract people to Buddhism. This is particularly true in Mahayana Buddhism (or Northern Buddhism) found in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia, where music was used to stimulate people to practice Buddhism. Furthermore music has the ability to induce the Buddhist practitioner away from their daily lives into a serene space. Buddhist music has the power to effect emotions altering the listener's state of mind. In ritual ceremonies music it is used to enhance the absorbing of abstract concepts. This is especially true if the listener is able to visualize images accompanied by rituals such as offering incense.
Used in a ritual, the music has certain marking sections. At the commencement of each section in a Chinese Buddhist sutra a gong is struck. This gong striking can be heard on this CD, even though the music itself is a modern version of Chinese Buddhist music.
Another important function of music in Buddhism is its place as an offering. In a similar way that incense can please the Buddha, so music is offered, a practice that can be traced back to the 1st century BC.
Applying Western ideas to Eastern concepts is not always easy. The musical notation doesn't measure time, rhythm, or correspond to other basic western musical rules. Taking pride of place is the text, Buddha's teachings. The instrumentation is secondary to the exulted position of the vocals, which is used to enhance the overall effect of the voice. Practitioners ideally concentrate on the philosophy of the words. The electronic keyboard accompaniment augmented by Chinese traditional instruments contained on this album, is designed to add accessibility and atmosphere to the overall effect. Maintaining the holiness of Buddhism, it is a mixture of traditional and contemporary music.
The boundary between what is chanting and singing is not always clear. Singing, that is vocalization of the text accompanied by instrumentation, is traditionally not a part of Buddhist music. This CD's modern version of Buddhist music does contain what can be described as singing, but with an essence of chanting. Chanting is very much the heart of Buddhist music, the reciting of the religious scriptures in melodic and rhythmic patterns.
There are two types of chanting, sutras and gathas. Sutras are dialogues given by the Buddha, which are sung in unison. The chants are variable in tempo, but often of one syllable per beat. A gatha is more melodious and poetic, usually sung in unison but occasionally polyphonic.
In contrast to Christian hymns written by commissioned composers, traditional Buddhist music relies on works which have been handed down through the monastic tradition. Monks learn simply by listening to the elder monks. This type of music performed by the monks is 'ritual', with the monks leading the chanting. Only very devoted lay persons will memorize the Buddhist scripture or learn to play instruments. Instead the laity play 'ceremonial' music as an offering, which is often secular music.
The language used in Buddhist chants varies according to the sect. Mahayan Buddhist chants are often in Sanskrit, although the texts have been translated into the local language or transliterated. On this CD some chants are sung in Mandarin Chinese.
So what of Buddha himself, what would he have made of Buddhist music? Siddhartha Gautama was born around 580 BC in Lumbini, modern day Nepal. Buddhism is his spiritual journey to Enlightenment. We don't know his exact words, just orally transmitted or written scripts of his teachings. According to the Sanskrit text Lalitavistara, after Buddha died he went to a land filled with music called Tusita where the gods sang and played instruments. When the Buddha tried to leave, the gods implored him to stay and play the instruments. The Buddha blew a conch and replied;
"Even among all sounds of instruments of music,
The best flavour, the conch's sound, overcomes all.
Likewise, overcoming all demons and heretics,
I will be a guide to all beings"