Buddhism and Music
An introduction to the musical practices of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand,
Cambodia
, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan*

N.B.  If you hear several music clips playing simultaneously, try opening this website in Firefox.


What is Buddhism? 
The term "Buddhism" describes a set of religious traditions that have developed across Asia and parts of the rest of the world over the past 2,500 years, originating with Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563 to 483 BC), who was revered as the Buddha--the enlightened or awakened one--by his disciples. Buddhism has spread through many Asian cultures and has been altered and adapted according to local custom; as a result, its diversity is one of its hallmarks. This diversity makes it difficult sometimes to recognize similarities from one extreme of Buddhist practice to another, but all practices and practitioners share some points in common.

Who was the Buddha?

In spite of Buddhism's regional diversity, the primary figure of all Buddhist practice is the Buddha himself.  Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince who, in his twenties, chose to renounce his aristocratic life of luxury and seek enlightenment.  After a period of severe self-denial, he developed a more moderate approach, realizing that neither indulgence nor denial could be effective in realizing his goals: this philosophy of moderation is sometimes referred to as the Middle Path. He journeyed to a place called Bodh Gaya in northeast India, and meditated under a large tree that came to be known as the Bodhi Tree or the "tree of awakening." In spite of temptations and assaults by personifications of worldliness and desire, Siddhartha became aware of the Dharma (Truth or Law) of human existence:  it was the beginning of his enlightenment.

The Buddha's teachings (Dharma).
The Buddha meditated for several more weeks before beginning to pass on his newly acquired knowledge to others. The lessons and sermons that he delivered throughout his long missionary life are called sutra (in Pali, sutta), and his early companions and disciples became the basis for the early community known as the Sangha, which eventually included hundreds of separate Buddhist groups. The sermons of the Buddha, along with monastic codes, wisdom narratives, and philosophical discourses, were collected after his death into the Pali Canon, otherwise known as the Tripitaka (Three Baskets). This voluminous work, written in Pali, is the primary source for understanding the role of chant and music in early Buddhism.

The Four Noble Truths.
Among the Buddha's teachings in the Pali Canon were the Four Noble Truths. Not every later text refers to them, but they are generally held up as central to the set of Buddhist beliefs. The Four Noble Truths are:

1. The truth of suffering or dukkha [that all life is filled with suffering].
2. The truth of the origin of suffering [that desire, or tanha, causes suffering].
3· The truth of the cessation of suffering [that it is necessity to let go of desire].
4· The truth of the Path [that there is a way to achieve enlightenment or nirvana].


The Noble Eightfold Path.
The fourth of the Noble Truths, the Path, has eight ways called the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight ways a Buddhist tries to follow to achieve enlightenment are the:
  1. complete views,
  2. complete intent,
  3. complete speech,
  4. complete action,
  5. complete livelihood,
  6. complete effort,
  7. complete mindfulness, and
  8. complete concentration.

Each of these ways is context specific, and examples of them abound from the Buddha's life and teachings. However, Buddhists within different cultures behave appropriately according to their own cultural norms.

Enlightenment, Nirvana, and Karma:  Impermanence, Suffering, and Non-Identity.
All of these ways to achieve enlightenment, or nirvana, are related to the laws of karma, in which complete action will result in a quicker path to nirvana, but harmful action will lead to future suffering.  Nirvana itself is the result of the extinction of desire and the "letting go" of the self.  Everything in the natural order are characterized by the
Three Marks of Existence, namely:
                  1. impermanence (anicca)
                  2. suffering (dukkha)
                  3. absence of permanent identity or a soul (anatta)
The importance of impermanence in Buddhism makes the performance of music an effective metaphor for Buddhist practices. The practice of Buddhism has a very strong emphasis on discipline, ritual, and meditation, whether monastic or among the laity.  Life-cycle rituals, including funerals, are also celebrated in Buddhist traditions.

The followers of Buddha.
Shortly after the Buddha's death at the age of eighty, the first Buddhist council was formed to try to consolidate the essential canon of the Buddha's teaching. Some of the earliest Buddhist communities used chant (i.e., a kind of song) to remember the teachings of the Buddha, and for hundreds of years after his death all of his teachings were recalled solely through the use of chant--one can reasonably claim, then, that the use of musical chant is one of the earliest forms of information technology.  Specialists in all the early Buddhist cultures were relied on to remember and recite the Pali Canon, and many of these specialists were drawn from Nichiren the ranks of another cultural specialist: the bard.  In many areas of the world, the bards have been the ones who have borne the cultural memory of a place, kept account records, and remembered the genealogies and the epic tales, and Buddhist tradition is no exception. Within Buddhism, those people who functioned as bards were the monks.  It is important to recognize that, while musical chant was (and still remains) one of the most significant and effective ways to keep track of Buddhist teachings, it also plays a major role in Buddhist worship today.

Three early schools of Buddhism.
A number of factions developed in the early years after the Buddha's death, but all falling loosely within the boundaries of what is now called the Hinayana (Small Vehicle) school.   Hinayana splintered within a hundred years, and one of its major subsets, Theravada, has since become virtually synonymous with Hinayana to many Westerners.  By approximately 100 AD, a second "school" called Mahayana (Great Vehicle), developed. Theravada Buddhism is most closely linked with the areas of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (including, especially, Burma and Thailand), while Mahayana Buddhism is associated with Central and East Asia. The two traditions are markedly different, not only in terms of the cultural areas to which they belong but also in their fundamental beliefs and practices.

Theravada Buddhism vs. Mahayana Buddhism. 
One of the biggest differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is that Theravada Buddhism relies heavily on the earliest scriptural sources only, meaning that new compositions or new additions to the early sutras are not allowed.  Mahayana Buddhism uses new texts, revelations, and teachings, rather than relying exclusively on the oldest sutras or scriptures. For example, new sutras based on the teachings of the Buddha's own disciples were developed by later writers, and were viewed within the Mahayana tradition as having come through the living memory of the Buddha.  But Theravada Buddhism differs from Mahayana Buddhism in more than its exclusive focus on original source materials. Individual effort is seen as more important than the support of the divine; wisdom is seen as a key virtue rather than compassion; monks and nuns are seen as better positioned for committing themselves to regular practice than lay people; the Buddha is considered a supreme teacher rather than a savior; metaphysics and ritual are minimized rather than emphasized; and meditation is considered more important than petitionary prayer. 

The Three Jewels of Buddhism:  Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.
The literature of early Buddhism includes frequent references to the "Three Jewels" of Buddhism: the Buddha himself, the Dhamma (Sanskrit, Dhammadharma), or the Teachings, and the Sangha, or community of practitioners. The "Three Jewels" as a formula (Trisaranam, or Three Refuges) became the most important concise statement of Buddhist belief, and is chanted frequently as part of the early ritual services. Its recitation is also required among new candidates for admission into the Sangha. Theravada chanting, including the chanting of the Three Refuges, is generally conservative and limited to a few basic notes that resemble in principle the cantillation from which it was primarily derived. The principal chanter is followed line by line in response by the other monks. Chanting of the Vedic Three Refuges is normally preceded by a short drum sequence and an invocation (Mangalacharanam), or an auspicious formula for revering the Buddha (example: )


Early negative attitudes toward music.
Theravada Buddhists regard music as a type of sensual luxury, and their tradition notes that music should be approached only with great caution. Among the Ten Precepts accepted upon entering monastic life, the seventh requires the monk to avoid dancing, singing, music, and entertainments, and to abstain from wearing garlands, perfume, or cosmetics. The risk regarding music and singing is that one might focus on the musical quality of the voice rather than on the teachings enunciated in the song or chantThe Buddha himself is said to have avoided attending musical performances, and cautions his disciples about musical chant: "0 monks, there are five disadvantages for one singing the teaching in an extended sung intonation.

(1) He is attached to himself regarding that sound;
(2) and others are attached to that sound;
(3) and even householders are irritated.
(4) There is dissolution of concentration on the part of one straining to lock in on the sound; and
(5) people who follow after [this procedure] undergo an adherence to opinions."



The musical reality of Buddhist practice.
The voice, however, is revered as essential for the performance of Buddhist ritual not only in Mahayana traditions, which emphasize mystical practices, but also in Theravada traditions.  The literature of early Buddhism includes frequent references to the "Three Jewels" of Buddhism:" the Buddha himself, the Dhamma (Sanskrit, dharma), or the Teachings, and the Sangha, or community of practitioners. The "Three Jewels" as a formula (Trisaranam, or Three Refuges) became the most important concise statement of Buddhist belief, and is chanted frequently as part of the early ritual services. Its recitation is also required among new candidates for admission into the Sangha, along with the Five or Ten Precepts. Theravada chanting, including the chanting of the Three Refuges, is generally conservative and limited to a few basic notes that resemble in principle the Vedic cantillation from which it was primarily derived. The principal chanter is followed line by line in response by the other monks. Chanting of the Three Refuges is normally preceded by a short drum sequence and an invocation (Mangalacharanam), or an auspicious formula for revering the Buddha.  The following example includes the drumming, the invocation, and the complete three-part Trisaranam.

To the Buddha for refuge I go
To the Dharma for refuge I go
To the Sangha for refuge I go
For the second time to the Buddha for refuge I go
For the second time to the Dharma for refuge I go
For the second time to the Sangha for refuge I go
For the third time to the Buddha for refuge I go
For the third time to the Dharma for refuge I go
For the third time to the Sangha for refuge I go.

In addition to the Three Refuges, all Buddhists are required to recite the Five Precepts, which enumerate the basic vows that Buddhists must honor. However, Buddhists who have accepted monastic vows recite the Ten Precepts, one of which abjures association with music and entertainment. The belo
w example provides the text and translation for the Five Precepts.

 I undertake to abstain from taking life
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given
I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct
I undertake to abstain from false speech
I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants


Buddhist chant.
In Theravada Buddhism, music is appropriate only when it is subordinated to the message. Music has little actual liturgical function, yet chanting continues to be central to the preservation of the Pali Canon. The Buddha's First Sermon, including the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, is regularly chanted in the form of the Dhamma Chakka Sutta (The Wheel of Dhamma/Truth). The below
example includes the Pali text and translation of verse 9 describing the Second Noble Truth of craving as the cause of suffering (dukkha). This is a unison chant without call and response.

This craving, which should be eliminated, is the Noble Truth of the origin
of suffering, which monks should know. Concerning things unheard of
before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, understanding; there arose in
me wisdom; there arose in me penetrative insight and light.

The ritualistic use of chant.
Rather than functioning as epiclesis (invoking the presence of deity), Theravada chant is either didactic (teaching), as in the above, or apotropeic (warding off evil spirits and influences). Special protective chants known as paritta in Pali (Singhalese, piritha) form a surprisingly significant dimension of Theravada practice in Southeast Asia. The Maha Piritha (Great Book of Protection), which is comprised of different parts from the Pali Canon, is frequently chanted in Sri Lanka on many occasions. The followin
g example provides three verses of blessings from a widely popular protective chant used at many festivals and other auspicious occasions. The chanting style is similar to the above examples. The complete chant in nineteen verses is known as the Maha Jayamangala Catha.

May all blessings be yours;
May all gods protect you.
By the power of all Buddhas
May all happiness be yours.
May all blessings be yours;
May all gods protect you.
By the power of all Dharmas
May all happiness be yours.
May all blessings be yours;
May all gods protect you.
By the power of all the Sangha
May all happiness be yours.

Music whether in liturgical or non-liturgical settings has a place in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Although it has no formal place in long established ritual procedures, except for drums and horana to inaugurate auspicious moments, its presence appears to have been long assured insofar as its legitimization derives from the religious themes on which it focuses. Music is accepted in this tradition as an authentic form of religious expression insofar as it points beyond itself as an artform.

The Role of chant in monasteries.
Chant is, of course, the best-known aspect of Buddhist music in the Western world. The perusal of any music store will reveal at least a dozen different CDs of chant, and particularly Tibetan Buddhist chant.  In Tibetan monastic communities, learning to chant is so important and universal that it is the one thing that almost all the communities have in common; it is written explicitly into the constitution of nearly every monastery. Young monks have to take specific examinations on chant, and if they do not memorize or perform the chants correctly, they may be dismissed from the monastery.

Different musical approaches to Buddhist chant.
All Buddhists do not rely on a single text, like the Bible or the Qur'an.  Instead, new revelations were added for centuries after the death of the Buddha, and many Buddhists disagree about the canonical relevance of scripture from different cultures. There are variations in the sutras (literally, "thread") or teachings of the Buddha between Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism relies primarily on the non-musical chanting of scriptures in the Pali language, which few lay people understand, and Theravada Buddhist chanting does not follow a melody. Instead, because the words are considered of paramount importance, this type of chant is sung in a monotone. Placing a liturgical text over a complex melodic figure would cloud the articulation of the text, and potentially alter the meaning and the message of the words. In many areas of the world, the melodic content decreases when the textual content is more important, as in, for example, rap or opera. When it is less important to hear and understand the words, musicians are often freer to expand musical--especially melodic--material.

Chant in the vernacular.
With the rise of populist Mahayana Buddhism, sutras come to treat music in a more positive light.  
Mahayana Buddhist scriptures were originally developed in Sanskrit, but they have since appeared in every vernacular language in which Buddhism is practised. Buddhist services are essentially readings of doctrine, not occasions for worship in the Western sense. Their chant texts include words attributed to the Buddha himself, commentaries, statements of vows and of faith, dedications, mantras (recitation formulas), and hymns of praise. One of the most important texts in the Mahayana tradition is the Lotus sutra. Based on the sermons of the Buddha, it forms the basis for all the major Japanese sects of Buddhism, including the Pure Land and Nichireri sects. Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, and non-Asian Buddhists use other texts specific to their cultures or translations of texts. Most importantly, the recitation of these texts is itself an act of worship.

Instrumental music.
Instrumental music most often serves to demarcate aspects of Buddhist ritual. While Theravada Buddhism relies more on non-musical chant, Mahayana Buddhism uses a wide variety of wind as well as percussion instruments. These wind instruments include horns, double-reed oboe-type instruments, end-blown flutes, and conches
Circular breathing--the act of inhaling through the nose while expelling air through the lips--can  in itself be a meditative practice that leads to tremendous focus and breath control.  Drums are very common in Mahayana Buddhist ritual performance practice, and are associated metaphorically with the earliest days of the Buddha's teaching. "The act of proclaiming the Buddhist teaching is traditionally known as 'sounding the drum of the Dharma,"' and the drum appears frequently in reference to Buddhist iconography.

Music and movement.
 Another important aspect of instrumental music in worship is its use in clockwise circumambulation around a stupa, or funerary or reliquary building.  In walking around a stupa--particularly if musicians are playing oboe-type instruments that employ circular breathing--the worshippers not only honor the Buddha and his teachings, but physically enact the movement of the sun around the cosmic mountain, as it is represented by the stupa. Musical performance is only one aspect that parallels circumambulation, however, as the latter is deeply associated with Buddhist devotional practice.

The chanting of sacred sound-formulas (mantras).
Mahayana Buddhist
tradition includes a major offshoot, Mantrayana Buddhism. This branch gives primacy to ritual and the transformation of consciousness through mantra, or sacred sound formulas.  Mahayana Buddhism predominates in Central and East Asia and, since it is better known in the West, most studies of Buddhism and music are centred on those areas. From an intellectual and spiritual point of view, Mantrayana Buddhism is represented by an epistemologically oriented approach to the human situation, codified in the Sutras, and an experiential approach, codified in the Tantras. The Indian word tantra means, literally, "loom." In its expanded sense, the term may also refer to "living one's possibilities."

Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle), Tantric Buddhism, or Esoteric Buddhism.  Its essential approach is that one can accomplish enlightenment much more quickly than by expending effort stretched over the course of many lifetimes; one may even become enlightened in a single lifetime. Mantrayana Buddhists pay special attention to ritual practices and intellectual discipline, and the emphasis on symbolic gesture, practice, and movement is crucial to proper performance of the rituals.


The musical world of Buddhism.

Despite the early proscriptions regarding music, both vocal and instrumental music retain a position of importance within Buddhist traditions.  According to the Lotus Sutra, music adorns the places where the Buddha preaches to myriad beings. 

Each stupa and temple is adorned with a thousand curtains and banners circling around and wrought with gems, and jeweled bells which harmoniously chime. All the gods, dragons, and spirits, humans and non-humans, with incense, flowers, and instrumental music, constantly make offerings

In Pure Land Buddhism, Buddhist paradise is depicted as profoundly musical place in which Buddhist law takes the form of gorgeous melodies. The Bodhisattva Ksitigharba Vow Sutra describes singing praise of the bodhisattva as a valuable practice for lay Buddhists.

At that time, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva said to Sakyamuni Buddha, “Honored of the World, let me now declare how human beings in the future will acquire great benefit and happiness, during their lifetime and at the moment of their death. I anticipate you to be congenial enough to listen to me.”

Sakyamuni Buddha then disclosed to Ksitigarbha
Bodhisattva, “It is because of your compassionate Infinite Loving Kindness that you long to assert about a possible tendency of relieving all the erring beings from the six States of reincarnation. Of course, it is the proper time now. Please speak promptly as I am about to enter Nibbana. I wish to bless you with success in discharging the strong vow so that I shall have no worry about human beings in the future.”

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva told the Exalted Buddha, “Honored of the World, I name below a list of Buddhas for your hearing .
. . . . . . . . . .
Honored of the World, all beings whether from the Heaven or from the human realms, either male or female, of the present or the future, who can chant the name of one of the above Buddhas, will gain immeasurable merit.  He or she will receive more merit if he or she chants the names of more Buddhas. Such beings will attain great benefit during their lifetime or even after death. They will never be cast into the evil State of sufferings. If the relatives of the dying person chant the name of only one Buddha, the dying person will be relieved from the punishment of his sins (except the punishment in the Avici Hells). The punishment in the Avici Hells is so great that the sinners who commit great sins will find it difficult to escape from such punishment through millions of kalpas.

If others can chant the names of Buddhas for the dying person, his or her punishment will gradually be lightened.  It is better if the dying person can also chant the names of Buddhas for he or she will receive immeasurable happiness and avoid countless punishment for misdeeds committed while alive.”

The spread of Buddhism across Asia.
From its birthplace in Northern India, Buddhism began to spread through South Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Far East, and, eventually, the rest of the world.  During the time of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who was a public supporter of the religion, and his descendants, stupas (Buddhist religious memorials) were built and efforts made to spread Buddhism throughout the enlarged Maurya empire and even into neighboring lands—particularly to the Iranian-speaking regions of Afghanistan and Central Asia, beyond the Mauryas' northwest border, and to the island of Sri Lanka south of India. These two missions, in opposite directions, would ultimately lead, in the first case to the spread of Buddhism into China, and in the second case, to the emergence of Theravada Buddhism and its spread from Sri Lanka to the coastal lands of Southeast Asia.

This period marks the first known spread of Buddhism beyond India. According to the edicts of Ashoka, emissaries were sent to various countries west of India to spread Buddhism (Dharma), particularly in eastern provinces of the neighboring Seleucid Empire, and even farther to Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean. It is a matter of disagreement among scholars whether or not these emissaries were accompanied by Buddhist missionaries.

The gradual spread of Buddhism into adjacent areas meant that it came into contact with new ethnical groups. During this period Buddhism was exposed to a variety of influences, from Persian and Greek civilization, to changing trends in non-Buddhist Indian religions—themselves influenced by Buddhism. Striking examples of this syncretistic development can be seen in the emergence of Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and in the development of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. A Greek king, Menander, has even been immortalized in the Buddhist canon.

The Theravada school spread south from India in the 3rd century BC, to Sri Lanka and Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and later also Indonesia. The Dharmagupta school spread (also in 3rd century BC) north to Kashmir, Gandhara and Afghanistan.

The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to China is most commonly thought to have started in the late 2nd or the 1st century AD, though the literary sources are all open to question.  The first documented translation efforts by foreign Buddhist monks in China were in the 2nd century AD, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin.  In the 2nd century AD, Mahayana Sutras spread to China, and then to Korea and Japan, and were translated into Chinese. During the Indian period of Esoteric Buddhism (from the 8th century onwards), Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and Mongolia.


Regional musical practices.
To find out more about musical practices of Buddhism in
Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan:  you can either (1) click on the above links, or, which is infinitely more cool, (2) click on the below thumbnail map of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia.  This will bring up a bitmap with "hot spots," in which you may
  1. mouse over the countries...when the cursor turns into a pointing finger, click to navigate to a new webpage of that country
  2. if in the new webpage there is no image/video where clearly there should be an image/video, refresh your browser (^R)
  3. to go back to the image map, use your "back" button on your computer
(click on thumbnail map)




*This introduction to Buddhism is taken from Sean Williams, “Buddhism and Music” in Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions, Guy Beck, ed. Wilfred Laurier University Press (2006), pp.169-189.  Much of the information on the following webpages is taken from The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Volume 4: Southeast Asia - ed. Terry E. Miller (Professor Emeritus of Ethnomusicology. Kent State University) and Sean Williams (Evergreen State College) 1998; Volume 5: South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent - ed. Alison Arnold (North Carolina State University) 1999;  Volume 7: East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea - ed. Robert Provine, (Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of Maryland) 2001.   A more extensive bibliography is Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002; available on JSTOR).