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Buddhist Music of Indonesia*



The arrival of Buddhism in the Indonesian archipelago around the second century AD was started with the trading activity that began in the early of first century on the maritime Silk Road between Indonesia and India.  The oldest Buddhist archaeological site in Indonesia is arguably the Batujaya stupas complex in Karawang, West Java. The oldest relic in Batujaya was estimated to originate from 2nd century, while the latest dated from 12th century. Subsequently, numbers of Buddhist sites was found in Jambi, Palembang, and Riau provinces in Sumatra, and also in Central and East Java. The Indonesian archipelago has witnessed the rise and fall of powerful Buddhist empires such as the Sailendra dynasty, the Mataram and Srivijaya empires.

A number of Buddhist historical heritage sites can be found in Indonesia, including the 8th century Borobudur mandala monument (left). During the era of Kediri, Singhasari and Majapahit empire, Buddhism — identified as Dharma ri Kasogatan — was acknowledged as one of kingdom's official religions alongside with Hinduism. Although some of kings might favor Hinduism over another, nevertheless the harmony, toleration, and even syncretism were promoted as manifested in Bhinneka Tunggal Ika's national motto, coined from Kakawin Sutasoma, written by Mpu Tantular to promotes tolerance between Hindus (Shivaites) and Buddhists. The classical era of ancient Java also had produces some of the exquisite examples of Buddhist arts, such as the statue of Prajnaparamita and the statue of Buddha Vairochana and Boddhisttva Padmapani and Vajrapani in Mendut temple.

In the 13th century Islam entered the archipelago, and began gaining foothold in coastal port towns. The fall of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire in late 15th century marked the end of Dharmic civilization dominance in Indonesia. By the end of the 16th century, Islam had supplanted Hinduism and Buddhism as the dominant religion of Java and Sumatra. After that for 450 years, there is no significant Buddhist adherence and practice in Indonesia. Many of Buddhist sites, stupas, temples, and manuscripts are lost or forgotten, as the region has become more predominantly Muslim. During this era of decline, there was only small numbers of people practicing Buddhism, most of them are Chinese immigrants that settled in Indonesia with migration wave accelerated in 17th century. Many of klenteng (Chinese temples) in Indonesia are in fact a tridharma temple that houses three faiths, namely Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

There are few vestiges of the pre-Islamic, Buddhist music of Java and Sumatra.  However, a fascinating article entitled "Hindu-Buddhist Time in Javanese Gamelan Music" by Judith Becker (from The Study of Time IV: Papers from the Fourth Conference of the International Society for the Study of Time, Springer-Verlag/New York, 1981; pp. 161-172) examines the temporal and melodic characteristics of gamelan pieces predating Islam, and her conclusion is that certain gamelan works represent "a specific kind of meditation aid, a manifestation of a Hindu-Buddhist view of the nature of time, an aural mandala." 

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What follows is my shortening, re-ordering, and slight recomposition of Dr. Becker's  article.  I have eliminated some detail that I found extraneous, and have suppressed technical analysis specifically related to the gamelan piece Langen Bronto:

Hindu-Buddhist Time in Javanese Gamelan Music

Listening to a musical events from another culture is the same kind of act as reading a poem from another culture. One may comprehend all the words (notes) and yet somehow miss the meaning. Because cross-cultural understanding is ultimately impossible does not mean that one should not try.  First, let us consider a few of the many underlying assumptions which provide the cognitive context, the source of richness of meaning for a performance of Javanese gamelian music.


The gamelan ensemble consists of anywhere from five to thirty bronze gongs and xylophones, with a drum or drums to regulate tempos. Since the 14th century when Islam became the predominant faith in Java, up until the present-day, there has been an uneasiness, a wariness by Javanese Islamic leaders concerning the attachment of the Javanese to their ancient musical traditions which by extension means their ancient Hindu-Buddhist religious beliefs. Part of the problem for the ulamas (Islamic religious leaders) of Java is that the gamelan ensemble often accompanies dramas of Hindu origin and philosophy, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Beyond this, there is a suspicion, not clearly articulated, that the music itself runs counter to Islamic doctrine.  This may well be the case, as the music of the gamelan is deeply imbued with Hindu-Buddhist conceptions of reality, and foremost among these is the concept of time.  Before analyzing the time organization of a particular gamelan composition, we should first consider the question of time organization within musical events. 

Western music tends to be strongly linear, with a dynantic thrust forward that compels movement from the beginning to the end (the First Movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony). Other music may be basically cyclical, like the American blues form, with linear elements primarily in textual changes.  Yet If philosophers are not of one mind concening the nature of time, musicians are not either. 

Our mundane experience of time is highly dependent upon whatone is doing or what is being done around one. We such expressions as ''time passed quickly," or "the hours dragged by" to convey a sense of time as passage, as movement. Paradoxically, if many events or changes happen between one week and the next, we perceive time as having passed while feeling that the preceding week was "a long time ago."  There is nothing homogeneous or consistent about our experience of time.  No moment is the same as any other moment. Each has a unique feel to it, a special meaning.  Another paradox in our experience of time as change lies in our relationship to what we see changing. We witness the change of seasons, of friends growing older, people being born and people dying; yet generally we do not feel ourselves changing (or feel it only mildly).

These various experiences of time in everyday life as described above are common in music. A musical passage can metaphorically represent time passing quickly; slow time; rich, dense time; or sparse time.  Music can also present teleological versus non-teleological time. Tonality is a perfect metaphor for teleological time with its inherent insistence on a return to the tonic key (i.e., the "home" key). Non-teleological time can also he expressed tonally--as the use of the electronic fade-out demonstrates.  Cyclic time and linear time are represented musically and elements of both can found in all music systems. Repetition of one element while another element changes is a fairly universal way of structning musical events.

Western musical traditions prefer a cyclic rnetric structure (i.e., a regular duple or triple meter) with a superimposed linear melodic structure.  A ballad has a strophic, cyclic metric, harmonic and melodic structure with a linear text structure. Tempo, rhythm, texture, tonal quality, dynamics, harmony, melody, etc.--any one or all of which may be manipulated as a metaphorical statement of man's time-experience as change.

There is another sense of time, also experienced, which is not dependent upon the perception of change, but rather its opposite, no change, the intimation of eternity, of Nirvana, the sense of being outside of any time framework at all. This is the time invoked by the music of many religious rituals, the "time out of time" one may experience in prayer, in meditation, or in trance. The experience always seems to be accompanied by great joy and peacefulness, a feeling of satisfaction and blessedness.  For the Buddhist, timelessness is possible at any moment and comes with the attainment of enlightenment and the release from the timebound cycles of birth and death.  Much ritual music, such as the long single lines of Gregorian chant, the long, slow, periodic phrases of the voices of women who induce trance in Bali; the displays of overtone structure of an intoned syllable of Tibetan Buddhist chants (for an example, see the home page), contain elements which apparently project one into a timeless consciousness, allowing one to be open to an understanding of the holy, the sacred, the timeless.

The central Javanese gamelan piece analyzed here is a kind of timeless music, a relic from the pre-Islamic, Hindu-Buddhist era of Javanese history. The piece is called Langen Bronto, a Sanskrit title which means something like "passionately attached to Beauty." It is representative of a fairly sizeable genre of old-fashioned gamelan compositions, which display the same kinds of temporal and melodic characteristics. These kinds of pieces, while considered somewhat archaic, are still popular today as ritual pieces, as processional pieces, and as accompaniment for warrior dances.  Langen Bronto is generally repeated many times over with no pause between beginning and ending, and with a constant speed and dynamic level.

The endless cyclic repetitions, the unvarying tempos, the steady dynamics and textures are not, as some might suppose, a consequence of enfeebled imagination. Staticness is precisely the intent of this piece. I believe it represents a specific kind of meditation aid, a manifestation of a Hindu-Buddhist view of the nature of time, an aural mandala. Pieces such as Langen Bronto are anachronistic in one sense--many modern Javanese no longer subscribe to the epistemology in which this piece, and others like it, was conceived. Like Westerners, some modern Javanese, including some musicians, find these pieces "boring."  More modern styles with incessant change and much melodic elaboration are preferred. Yet the fact that old pieces like Langen Bronto continue to be played, not as historical artifacts but as part of a viable tradition, demonstrates that the older ideas of time (and ultimately, older religious beliefs) may still evoke a response in modern Javanese listeners and musicians.

In spite of the present widespread conversion to Islam and Christianity, Hindu-Buddhist beliefs can still he found in Java, particularly in artistic forms such as the shadow-puppet theater; in music; in dance, and in the doctrines of mystical meditation groups.

While the instruments and the music of the gamelan ensembles are indigenous, the development and elaboration of this indigenous music appears to be heavily influenced by Hindu-Buddhist concepts. Sanskrit words are common in the titles of pieces, in certain of the technical terminology and Hindu-Buddhist concepts are frequently encountered in the verbalized meanings and ethos of the gamelan. More than this, the musical structures themselves appear to be affected by Indian philosophical concepts. The Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of time as infinitely recurring, immensely large cycles is a centerpin, an axis to which many other related doctrines, such as the idea of selfhood are linked. It is the intellectual edifice which underlies, supports. and sustains ideas about the nature of reality, the nature of man, and his relationship to all the universe.

Time is believed to be an illusion of the phenomenal world, a deception of our senses which we must overcome if we are to clearly understand our world. Because mankind continues to be seduced by the illusory phenomenal world, the illusion of time is perpetuated endlessly.  The following vivid metaphor is employed in Indian mythology to illustrate both the immensity of time cycles and their ultimate dissolution:

The god Brahma sits on a lotus, which emerges from the body of the sleeping god Vishnu. At Vishnu's feet, sits his wife Laksmi.  Brahma, Vishnu, and Laksmi are all floating on a raft-like couch which is actually the body of a mythical snake, suspended in the middle of an endless cosmic ocean.  As Laksmi strokes her husband's leg, he dreams; and from his dreaming emerges the lotus from which the god Brahma appears.
Every day (and night) of a Brahma lifetime (100 Brahma years), the god slowly opens and closes his eyes 1000 times. Each time they open, a universe appears, which dies away again as Brahma lowers his eyelids. The opening of Brahma's eyes creates a universe of four declining stages, after which the universe fades again into nothingness.

At the close of each Brahma lifetime (approximately 311,040,000,000,000 human years) Brahma and the lotus and the sequence of universes dissolve again into the body of the dreamer.

Compared to most of the music we hear, gamelan pieces are characterized by minimal tempo changes, rhythmic changes, texture changes, and dynamic changes. The example, Langen Bronto, is an extreme representative of these characteristics.  Each instrument plays at a constant rate of speed and dynamic level, continuing round and round the melodic/temporal cycle until the signal is given to end.  Time does not go backwards nor forwards, no perceivable beginning again or feeling that the piece is finished.  It is finished when it stops, only then.  The musical cycle is not a background for something else which changes like the repetition of a strophic verse form.  The unvarying cycle is all there is.  By obliterating change and contrast, these pieces obliterate human time.


N.B. this gamelan piece is not Langen Bronto...but
it exhibits many of the same musical qualities

Within the all-encompassing cycles of gamelan music, other smaller aspects of time emerge which are also related to Hindu-Buddhist beliefs.  In all gamelan music, one finds an overwhelming "four-ness".  Musical periods, marked at their endings by a stroke of the largest gong (gong ageng), consist of units of beats which number, 4, or 8, or 16, or 32...continuing on to 64, 128, 256, 512, and 1024 beats, all divisable by four.  Most gong units are themselves divided into fours by a stroke on a smaller gong (kenong).

Mahayana Buddhism exhibits this same preference for four as the perfect number.  On a temple ceiling in the Tibetan holy city of Llasa one finds a mandala, or yantra diagram, which could from the description serve as well as a spatial diagram of Langen Bronto (click on right image to enlarge it).  The personification in the center is the primal, eternal Adi-Buddha, or Vairochana.  Radiating from him to the four quarters and the four points between are eight doubles, or manifestations, of his essence, differing in their special colors, gestures, and attributes.  These denote the specific constituents going out from the immovable Absolute into the world.  Illuminaing and holding the universe, they are represented as contained within the heart of the cosmic flower.  This, in turn, is set within the square sanctuary, and to each of the four quarters stands a meticulously pictured door. . . .Finally, the outermost rim of the lotus of the created universe is represented as a gigantic corolla of sixty-four varicolored petals.

Mandalas, or yantra diagrams, in Buddhism are meditation aids, symbols of wholeness, unity, completeness.  Mandalas are perfectly symmetrical and balanced, circular spatial forms combined with square forms.  Langen Bronto acts as an aural mandala, and in the enlargement of the above image is the gong-pattern superimposed on the temple-ceiling mandala (Capital letters indicate strokes of gongs [G = large, hanging gong; N = large horizontal gong; P = large hanging gong]; small letters indicate melodic pitches played by the other colotomic instruments).  The perfect balance of the melodic units and the large, cyclic repetitions tend to focus concentration, to subdue distraction in the minds of players, dancers, and listeners.  By inhibiting the mind's tendency to follow and seek change, these pieces are inducive of meditative states.  Ideally, at least, one leaves the realm of humanly experienced time and momentarily enters eternity.  Many pieces displaying the mandala-type symmetry found in Langen Bronto are still associated with the central Javanese kingdom of Malaram, or present-day Yogyakarta.  Another mandala, the 9th-century Buddhist stupa Borobudur (left), stands within the hegemony of the former kingdom of Mataram.

The Hindu-Buddhist concept of time, as expressed in the ethos and music of the Javanese gamelan, is also a concept of self.  The perfectly symmetrical, recurrent cycles of the music, the absence of dynamic changes, timbral changes, tempo changes--all frustrate efforts to "express oneself."  There is no place or space for personal display, creativity, originality.  When playing or listening to gamelan pieces like Langen Bronto, a Westerner's reaction of the first few minutes is likely to be a feeling of impatience, a desire for some change.  If one can relax the charged activity of the brain and settle into or listening to the piece, one gradually loses one's strong sense of personal uniqueness and comes to feel that the piece is playing itself. The particular identity of any particular musician, and especially, one's own identity, becomes irrelevant.  One becomes a vehicle through which the music is played. It may be claimed that this is true of all good performances and that the musician taps resources of his and our minds which take us beyond personal ambitions.  Of course that is true. But what does not apply to all performances is the fact that it is only by getting beyond the wish to be entertained that gamelan pieces like Langen Bronto can be appreciated at all. They demand a certain mental state from the performer and listener or they are intolerable. Since they also induce the necessary mental state, a kind of relaxed attentiveness, a surrender of the desire for stimulation, pieces like Langen Bronto can themselves create the context in which they may be appreciated.

Buddhists reject the idea of the personal self as being nothing more than an ephemeral collection of tendencies and inclinations which harden into habits.  Stamped with ego's identifying insignias, these habits of thought, or feeling, of behavior, become the real, solidified "me."  The kind of time of the dreaming Vishnu or the declining cycle of yugas unambiguously belittles the role of the individual. No human being affects, either for good or bad, the ultimate destiny of the universe. Universes rise and subside, are born, live and die without affect from anyone. Causation is far beyond the human realm. This stem view of the nature of the world and man's role in it is scarcely inspiring for one who sees the world as a stage on which to act out one's fantasies, fears, hopes and aspirations.

As the endlessly dreamed universes deny the significance of personality by their relentless cyclic recurrence, so does Langen Bronto discourage self-centeredness by the same devices. The emphasis on personal humility, on oneself as a vehicle for the continuance of the tradition, is a strong, verbalized element in the teaching of gamelan music. The aim of the ensemble is for no single musical line to stand out.  Ideally, the members of the group beeome anonymous and essentially interchangeable.  It is this aspect of gamelan music and music-making which often turns modern youth to other forms of music-making. What Javanese young people perceive as the quiescence of colorless old men docs not, today, always inspire emulation. Within the epistemology of progressive, linear time sequences, gamelan-time and gamelan people may seem monotonous, nondynamic, noncreative and dull.  On the other hand, to the old traditional musician, who is still within the mind-set of gamelan music, young people and their changing, linear, goal-oriented music seem restless, harassed, aggressive and unfocusscd.

It may be that our ideas of what we are, as well as our ideas of time, are more or less constantly being nourished as we listen to music or perform it. Musical expression is a repository of culturally specific ideas which come to us subliminally, thus unselected, unfiltered and uncensored. Herein lies its power.


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Further reading (compiled from 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).
  • Becker, Judith 0.  "Time and Tune in Java." In A. Yengoyan and A. L. Becker, eds., The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems. Norwood, N.J.: Albex, 1979, 197-210.
  • Becker, Judith 0.  "Hindu-Buddhist Time in Javanese Gamelan Music." In Judith Becker, J. T. Frazer et a!., eds., The Study of Time IV: Fourth Conference of the International Society for the Study of Time. New York: Springer, 1971, 161-72.
  • Becker, Judith 0.  "Tantrism, Rasa, and Javanese Gamelan Music." In Lawrence Sullivan, ed., Enchanting Powers: Music in the World's Religions. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1997, 15-59.
  • Claus-Bachmann, Martina.  Mahayana-Buddhistische Liturgie im Heutigen lndonesien: Musikkulturelle Oberlieferung Chinesischer Migranten [Mahayana Buddhist liturgy in contemporary Indonesia: the musical-cultural legacy of Chinese immigrants]. Hamburg: Lit. (1998).
  • Claus-Bachmann, Martina.  "Jataka Narrations as Multimedia! Reconstructive Embodiments of the Mental System Shakyamuni Buddha." the world of music 44(2; 2002).
  • Harnish, David.  "The Future Meets the Past in the Present: Music and Buddhism in Lombok."  Asian Music 25 (1-2; 1993-94):29-50.
  • Kartomi, Margaret.  "Meaning, Style and Change in Game/an and Wayang Kulit Banjar Since Their Transplantation from Hindu-Buddhist Java to South Kalimantan." The world of music 44(2002).