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Buddhist Music of Japan*

Buddhism came to Japan from Korea in the sixth century AD, and was essentially a part of the Mahayana tradition. Japanese Buddhists were in repeated contact with Chinese scholars over the next several hundred years, and Japan's location meant that it also came into contact with aspects of Theravada Buddhism. All of the most important schools of Japanese Buddhism (including Zen, Nichiren, and Pure Land) arose during the Kamakura period (1185-1333 CE) and continue today.  The essential tenet of Buddhism--suffering and its elimination through cessation of desire--gave the Japanese a means of dealing with death and suffering, something that Shintoism had not provided.  It affected the Japanese deeply, but their innate delight in the simple joy of life also modified Buddhism by infusing it with am appreciation for life and nature.  The most important text in the Japanese Buddhist tradition is the Lotus Sutra, based on sermons preached by the Buddha. Its central thesis is that all life contains "buddha nature," or the capacity for compassion and the renunciation of desire. Acting on one's buddha nature through prayer, chant, and meditation brings one closer to nirvana and the goal of being released from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Japanese Buddhism is highly sectarian, but its initial form as a purveyor of Chinese culture and ideas included the theory and practice of chanting known as shomyo. Shomyo is believed to have originated with Vedic chanting in India, but the actual theory of notes, scales, melodies, and rhythms is believed to be more Chinese than Indian.  Shomyo is sung in multiple languages, reflecting its origins in India (using the name bonsan for songs in Sanskrit) and its move through China (kansan) to Japan (wasan). The spread of Buddhist chant in Japan led to the adaptation of local musical styles, the use of local scales, and the evolution of local and sectarian performance of the tradition.

During the Nara (553-794) and Heian (194-1185) periods, when Japan's capitals were in Nara and Kyoto respectively, the great aristocratic clans adopted the Mahayana form of Buddhism.  Great monastic systems were established and integrated into the court and its civil administrative system.  The theology of Mahayana Buddism asserted that salvation from suffering and death was open to all, and it attracted a huge following among the populace.  The government decreed the building of many great monasteries, and demanded religious services praying for peace and prosperity for the state.  Scriptural verses (sutras) were chanted in these ceremonies to secure good harvests and the welfare of the state.

As in many other religious traditions, shomyo performance occurs in a sacred space-in this case, a temple-and is preceded by a soloist performing the opening phrase. The soloist normally establishes a pitch for the other chanting monks to match, although. they do not always choose to enter at the same pitch. Once the chanting has begun, it does not require a leader to sustain its momentum.  Buddhist chant (syomyo) is performed by monks in responsorial style, singing texts that are in several languages.  The earliest reference to syomyo is in a decree of 720 that commanded monks to model their chanting on the chanting of the Tang monk Dao Rong.  At the ceremonies for the "eye opening" of the Great Buddha of the Todaizi Temple in 752, more than a thousand monks chanted nyoraibai, sange, bonnon, and syakuzyo.

The music consists of a series of stock patterns belonging to two different Chinese-derived scales: the ryo and the ritsu--each of which has five basic notes and two auxiliary notes.  Syomo chants may be syllabic or melismatic, and their rhythm may be more or less regular or free.  A chant usually begins slowly and gets faster.  During the Nara and Heian periods, the aesthetic aspect of Buddhism predominated, not only because of native Japanese sensitivity, but also because the aristocrats admired beauty and elegance above all things.

Syomo chant typically takes place in a temple, is initiated by a “soloist” who sets the pitch, which then is taken up by the monks.  In such group chanting, the individual voice blends into the chorus of voices—much as the individual self disappears into the community.  One characteristic feature of syomyo, chant is the “earthquake rhythm”—a series of accelerating beats in the voice.  Different Buddhist sects in Japan, such as Shingon, Zen, and Nichiren, use varying amounts and types of percussion, including bells and chimes made of wood and/ or metal. Percussion appears here as a means not only to establish the opening and closing of each section of the service, but also to rn:ark out the sections of each day in the monastery. Two particular instruments appear frequently in Japanese Buddhist services: the mokugyo and the uchiwa-daiko. The mokugyo is a wooden slit gong with a handle. The uchiwa-daiko, or fan drum, used especially in the Nichiren sect, is a single- headed drum on a wooden handle, beaten with a stick. However, diversity in Japanese Buddhism means significant diversity in its use of percussion.  Percussion instruments (bells and chimes) establish the opening and closing of each section of the service.  Whereas Tibetan Buddhist rituals included the sound of double-reeds, brass, and cymbals, the two musical instruments most closely associated with Japanese Shingon Buddhism are the wooden slit gong (mokugyo), and the fan drum (uchiwa-daiko).

Aesthetic cultivation (the playing of music being one of the requirements), together with physical training and physchological disciplines (all aspects of one personality) were involved in the attainment of Buddhahood--which was the goal of the Esoteric Buddhism practiced in the Nara and Heian periods.  Consequently, ritual, art, and music were as important as scriptures and meditation.  It was not just a matter of enlightening the mind, but of affecting and transforming the whole world.  This view of the world and of man gave great impetus to Buddhist art (including images of Buddha and mandala paintings), as well as Buddhist music.

Three syomyo schools are typical in Japan today: Nara syomyo, introduced before the Nara period; and Tendai syomyo and Singon syomyo, both introduced in the Heian period.  Besides these, there are the syomyo schools of Zyodo Buddhism (such as Zyodo syu, Zyodo sin syu, and Zi syu), Hokke Buddhism (such as Nitiren syu), and Zen Buddhism (Soto syu, Rinzai syu, and Obaku syu), which were formed after the Kamakura period.  The esoteric branch of Japanese Buddhism is called Shingon, brought from China by Kukai in the early ninth century AD.  The word "Shingon" comes from the Chinese word for mantra (chen-yen), meaning "the word embodying a mysterious power that can bring about unusual effects, both spiritual and material."  This form of Buddhism stems from Indian Tantrism, which is also encountered in Tibet. Many syomyo chant performances use a technique called "earthquake rhythm," a series of accelerating beats in the voice. These "beats" are one of the most characteristic rhythmic figures in Mantrayana Buddhist musical practice.

The collapse of the Heian court and its civil administration in the 11th Century brought about profound changes in Buddhism.  Religious institutions bound up with the fortune of the court nobility declined, while a highly aestheticized and sentimentalized religion, based ont he refined enjoyment of beauty, could not meet the challenge of the difficult time ahead.  With the constant warfare, famine, pestilence, and social disruption of the ensuing Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi, and Azuchi-Momoyama (1333-1615) periods, a new form of Buddhism arose, whose primary mission was to bring salvation immediately within reach.  This Buddhism for the masses, called Pure Land Buddhism or Amida Buddhism, had little to do with the arts and aesthetics

After the Kamakura period, several sects of Zyodo and Hokke Buddhism, derived from the Tendai teachings, became established. These sects gradually came to have their own style of syomyo and ritual, based on those of Tendai, and adopted secular songs of the time as each sect established its own doctrine.

Another form of Buddhism that arose during this difficult period was Zen Buddhism, whose roots were in China and India.  Zen emphasizes personal enlightenment through self-understanding and self-reliance.  This is achieved by means of meditation using practices related to the yoga practice of ancient India.  In Japan, Zen Buddhism was supported by the military class during the Azuchi-Momoyama period.  Aesthetially, Zen inspired many of the traditional arts of Japan, such as landscape painting, landscape gardening, swordsmanship, the tea ceremony, and noh drama.  It was under the patronage of the Ashikaga shogun that Zen and its allied arts, including noh drama, evolved and developed.

In addition, two schools of Zen Buddhism, with their music and ritual, were introduced from China: the Rinzai sect, by Eisai (1141-12 15); and the Soto sect, by Dogen (1200-1253). The Buddhist music and ritual of the Rinzai sect and the Soto sect were based on the style of Song China; those of the Soto sect were partly influenced by syomyo of the Tendai and later the Singon. In 1654, the Chinese monk lngen (Yin Yuan) introduced to Japan the Obaku sect of Zen Buddhism from Ming China, along with its ritual and music.  Buddhist music of this sect, surviving unchanged in the seventeenth-century Chinese style, was quite different from other Japanese Buddhist music.

The Japanese accepted Buddhist chant introduced from China verbatim (or "notatim"), along with with its Chinese name bonbai.  But after the tenth century, the development of the Buddhist ceremonial system demanded an increased repertory of syomyo; accordingly, syomyo pieces using the Japanese language and style- hyohaku, kosiki, wasan, and others-were created. After the mid-Heian period, therefore, three languages were used for Japanese Buddhist chant: Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese. Buddhist chant was then studied within the category of syomyo, in terms of phonology (or linguistics), so the Chinese term bonbai was replaced by the term syomyo...except in Zen Buddhism.

The melodic line of syomyo is determined primarily by the intonations of the Chinese characters of the text: that is, sisyo (Chinese, sisheng 'four tones', 'four kinds of intonations').  The notational signs of syomyo are straight or curved lines, alone or in combination, the position and direction of which are based on the inflection of the Chinese character. These signs are called hakase 'learned man'--that is, one who teaches grammar and phonology.

Buddhist ceremonies, hoe, are held daily, monthly, annually, or irregularly. They can be classified in terms of their religious purpose as (1) ceremonies in which monks beg forgiveness for their sins and hope to obtain salvation; (2) ceremonies repaying an obligation to Buddha, to deities, or to the founders of a school; (3) prayers for the safety and prosperity of the nation or an individual; (4) commemorations or memorials; (5) ceremonies for a new statue of Buddha, a mandala, a hall, etc.

Japanese Buddhist syomyo is essentially monophonic vocal music performed by monks. It is mostly unaccompanied, but it is fairly often accompanied with percussion instruments of indefinite pitch. Solo syomo pieces--bai, saimon, hyohaku, kyoke, kosiki--may all be sung by a head monk leading the ceremony, or each piece may be sung by a different monk. Syomyo pieces sung in unison are generally chanted in either of two ways:  responsorial
(left example), in which a soloist begins chanting and then a chorus of monks chants; or in alternatim (right example), in which a soloist and chorus chant alternately. Each soloist is selected according to his skill as a singer and his rank as a monk.  Most often the monks chant while seated, but sometimes they chant while walking (and rarely while running) around the hall, alternately bowing down and standing up to worship, and distributing flowers or performing on instruments.


The melodic styles of syomyo may be divided into two main groups:  (1) singing, and (2) recitingSyomyo in singing style is comparable to melismatic Gregorian chant; single syllables of the text, written mostly in verse, are delivered with several notes and extended by ornaments (below). This type of
syomyo includes san, bai, sange, kada, sandan, and wasan.  The syomyo reciting style is comparable to syllabic Gregorian chant; generally, it has one note to each syllable of the text, which is written mostly in prose. This second type of syomyo includes saimon, hyohaku, kosiki, and rongi.

The music of syomyo can be further classified in terms of ritual function: (1) worshiping the "three treasures," namely Buddha, dharma, and Sangha (sorai, sanrai, kuyomon); (2) worshiping various buddhas and bodhisattvas (syorei, raisan, butumyo, raibutu); (3) reciting the name of Buddha or a bodhisattva repeatedly, to represent Buddha to the monk's self (nenbutu, kassatu, hogo); (4) praising buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other Buddhist symbols (san, kada, sandan); (5) confessing and making vows to Buddha (sange, seigan); (6) praying for the nation or oneself or another person (kigan, syugan); (7) invoking or sending forth Buddha or other deities, such as guardian deities (kanzyo, buzyo, buso); (8) purifying and ornamenting a hall (bai, sange, bonnon, syakuzyo, buzyo); (9) lecturing about or discussing Buddha or other Buddhist topics (kyo, kyosyaku, ge, kosiki, rongi); (10) enlightening (kyoke); (11) declaring an offering (saimon, hyohaku); (12) sharing religious effects (eko).

Most of the musical instruments used in Buddhist ritual are percussion instruments (idiophones) classified in terms of construction and performance.  For example, the inkin (below left, top row) is a bowl-shaped bronze or copper vessel, suspended from a lintel or set on a cushioned stand and struck with a mallet on the rim (video: The Heart Sutra)

Hyōshigi (below middle, top row) are clappers used in the monastery, and are made of solid pieces of hard wood.  Another distinctive idiophone is the
Moktak--a wooden fish with lotus pattern, struck with a beater (below right, top row).
  Buddhist drums (membranophones) include a wooden tubular or frame drum struck with one or two mallets. They include the Taiko (below left, bottom row), the Wadaiko (below middle, bottom row), and the Uchiwadaiko (hand-held flat drum; below right, bottom row).

Buddhist instruments serve three general functions:  (1) to indicate religious meaning (an offering, a prayer) and to give pleasure to Buddha or the deities by playing the kei, rei, hatu, nyo, syakuzyo; (2) to signal monks to begin or end an action within a ritual (to meet, to walk, to sit, to stand) by playing, for example, the kane or inkin; (3) to accompany chanting or reciting by taiko, mokugyo.  Such accompaniment is usually very simple, involving only beating time or performing uncomplicated rhythmic patterns with one or a few instruments.

The Obaku sect, which uses many percussion instruments, is exceptional.  Often, an instrument associated with the first function also has the second function; for instance, when the rei is played for Buddha by the head monk, it also signals the monks to begin chanting.  Whereas gagaku (court instrumental music) is generally not categorized as Buddhist music, it has been used as an offering to Buddha and as an accompaniment to a specific syomyo piece (like "Sanzyuniso").

In Zen Buddhism, the skills of musical performance coexist with ethical values, and are viewed being related to the spirit of self-control and moderation.  In Zen, an image of Buddha is formed from nature (trees, plants, stones), and the voice of Buddha is heard in the wind flowing through pine trees.  Most traditional Japanese music is often performed in the style of seiza'kneeling', with little physical movement. The same posture (back straight, eyes looking forward, face expressionless) is maintained throughout a performance, and the performer does not move to or beat time with the music. In an ensemble of musicians, all the performers usually face in the same direction and do not look at each other.  All this contributes to self-control and reflects the spirit of Zen.  The quiet, meditative syakuhati music of the Huke sect was strongly influenced by Zen. This music was originally religious, and the syakuhati was not considered a certain unchangeable sound; the sound of a waterfall, the murmur of a brook, a sound of rain, the sound of waves.

The classic Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunyata) is conveyed through performance. The shakuhachi bamboo flute, played by mendicant beggarpriests, has been widely recorded and features virtuosic playing techniques. One of the hallmarks of the shakuhachi performance is the skilful use of silence. With a single instrument, judicious use of the "emptiness" of silence contributes tremendously to the overall "Buddhist" musicality of performance, just as absence is used to similar effect in Japanese art and architecture.

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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).
  • Arai,K.  The Historical Development of Music Notation for Shomyo (Japanese Buddhist Chant): Centering on Hakase Graphs." Nihon ongakushi kenkyu I, 1995:vii-xxxix.
  • Fukui, Hajime.  "The Hora (Conch Trumpet) of Japan." Galpin Society Journal 47 (1994):47-62.
  • Giesen, Walter.  Zur Geschichte des Buddhistischen Ritualgesangs in Japan: Traktate des 9 bis 14 Jahrhunderts zum Shomyo der Tendai-Sekte. Kassel: Barenreiter, 1977.
  • Gunther, Robert and Heinz-Dieter Reese, eds.  Auf Buddhas Pfaden zur Erleuchtung. «Dai Hannya Tendoku 'e.» Symbolische Lesung
    des Mahii Prajfia Paramita Sutra. Eine buddhistische Musikzeremonie mit ShOmyoRitualgesang der japanischen Shingon-Schule (Buzan-Zweig), pasentiert vom Ensemble Karyobinga Shomyo Kenkyukai (Kashoken) unter der Leitung von Yusho Kojima. Programmheft zur Deutschland-Reise. Koln: Japanische Kulturinstitut (2002).
  • Gunzel, Marcus.  Die Morgen-und Abendliturgie des Chinesischen Buddhisten. Gi:ittingen: Seminar fur lndologie und Buddhismuskunde (1994).
  • Gutzwiller, Andreas.  Die Shakuhachi der Kinko-Schule: Studien zur Traditionellen Musik Japans. Kassel: Barenreiter (1983).
  • Gutzwiller, Andreas.  "Die Fliote Shakuhachi: von Bettlern zu Mi:inchen zu Musikern." In Sylvain Guignard, ed., Musik in Japan: Aufsiitze zu Aspekten der Musik im heutigen Japan. Judicium Verlag (1996), 47-57.
  • Gutzwiller, Andreas and Gerald Bennett.  "The World of a Single Sound: Basic Structure of the Music of the Japanese Flute
  • Han Jun.  "Wutaishan fojiao yinyue" [The Buddhist music of Wutai-shan mountains]. Zhongguo
    Yinyue 1:29-32.
  • Gutzwiller, Andreas and Gerald Bennett.  "The World of a Single Sound: Basic Structure of the Music of the Japanese Flute Shakuhachi."  Musica Asiatica 6:36-59.Shakuhachi." Musica Asiatica (1991) 6:36-59.
  • Harich-Schneider, Eta.  "Chant bouddhique japonais: le shomyo" ("Japanese Buddhist chant: the shomyo"). In Jacques Porte et al., eds., Encyclopedie des musiques sacrees, vol. I. Paris: Edition Labergerie (1968), 199-213.
  • Harima, Shoko.  "Chugoku Shomyo No Kenkyu" [A study of Chinese Buddist chants]. Toyo Ongaku Kenkyu, No. 11 (1984), 7-38.
  • Hill, Jackson.  "Ritual Music in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism: Shingon Shomyo." Ethnomusicology 26 (1982): 27-39.
  • Iwahara, Teishin.  Nanzan Shinryu Shomyo no Kenkyu [A Study of the shomyo of the New Nanzan Sect].  Tokyo: Bunseido, 1932.
  • Jin Wenda.  "Fojiao yinyue de chuanru ji qi dui zhongguo yinyue de yingxiang" [The dissemination of Buddhist music and its influence on Chinese music]. Zhongyang Yinyue Xueyuan Xuebao I (1992): 87-92.
  • Johnson, David, ed.  Ritual Opera, Operatic Ritual: "Mu-lien Rescues His Mother" in Chinese Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California, Chinese Popular Culture Project, 1989, I.
  • Johnson, David, ed. , Ritual and Scripture in Chinese Popular Religion. Berkeley: University of California, Chinese Popular Culture Project (1995), 3.
  • Keene, Donald.  No and Bunraku: Two Forms of Japanese Theatre. New York: Columbia University, 1990.
  • Kishibe, Shigeo.  The Traditional Music of Japan. Tokyo: Ongaku no Torno Sha, 1984.
  • Liu Jie.  "Fo, Daojiao yinyue zai Shaanxi minsu zhong" [Buddhist and Daoist music in the folk customs of Shaanxi]. Yinyue Tansuo I (1990).
  • Oyama, Kojun.  Shomyo no Rekishi Oyobi Onritsu (A history of the shomyo tonal system). Koyasan University, 1930.
  • Seyama, Toru.  "The Re-contextualisation of the Shakuhachi (Syakuhati) and Its Music from Traditional/Classical into Modem/Popular." the world of music 40(2; 1998):69-83.
  • Tsuge Gen'ichi.  "Toyo Ongaku Gakkai and Music Research in Japan." Yearbook for Traditional Music 32 (2000):157-65.
  • Waterhouse, David.  "Japan: IV. 3. Buddhist Music." In Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, eds., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 2001.