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Buddhist Music of Korea*

Buddhism was brought to Korea from China late in the 4th century during the so-called Three Kingdoms period of Goguryeo (37 BC - 668 AD), Baekje (18 BC - 660 AD), and Silla Dynasties (57 BC - 935 AD), where it integrated with Korean culture and an unique Korean form of Buddhism emerged.  Buddhism was supported by the state and embraced by the people.  Buddhist festivals at that time drew great crowds of people who would gather to perform elaborate Buddhist ceremonies which included music and dance.

A comprehensive source for learning about early Buddhist rites derives from the diary of the Japanese priest Ennin (793-864), who visited the Korean cloister in Shandong while on one of his pilgrimages to China during the middle of the ninth century. In his account, Ennin noted three Buddhist temple rites in the Korean cloister, complete with some specific titles ofBuddhist chant and a general description of the musical styles of chant performed during his observation.  According to Ennin, three different styles of chant were performed in the Korean temples in Shandong:  one Silla, one Tang, and a third in a style similar to that practiced in Japan. Probably, the Tang style of Buddhist chant was developed during the Tang Dynasty, and the style similar to Japanese chant was an older style that had been transmitted to Japan via Korea before the Tang Dynasty.  Some of the chant titles and texts used in the Korean temples of Shandong correspond to extant Japanese and Korean chants. For example, “Butsumyo,” “Ungabai,” “Sanrei,” “Hatsugan,” “Nyoraibai,” and “Ekoshi” all of which appear in Ennin’s diary together with a discussion of their musical function and styles, seem to conform to present-day Japanese and Korean

Later during the Koryo Dynasty, Buddhism continued to develop and played a significant role in the cultural growth of the nation.  However, in the late 14th century the Chosun Dynasty adopted Confucianism over Buddhism.  Buddhist temples had accumulated a great deal of land and material wealth, and so forcing the closing of temples meant that the court could take control of the land and seize the material objects kept in the temples.

A representation of instrumental music performance and dancing carved on a pagoda in a temple located in Jeollado Province, in southwestern Korea dates from the three kingdoms period. This three-storied, Four-Lion Pagoda of the Hwaeomsa Temple, originally built in 544 and reconstructed during the reign of King Sukjong (1674-1720) of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), is located in the isolated Heights of Filial Piety on the temple site. In carvings around its foundation, Apsaras are portrayed as dancing, singing, and playing a transverse flute, an hourglass drum, and a lute. A similar performance is portrayed on a stone lantern in Todaiji Temple in Japan, constructed in 729, and in pre-Sung Dynasty (960-1279) Chinese mural paintings preserved in the Dunhuang Caves.

These iconographic sources apparently illustrate an early Indian influence that came to Korea and Japan indirectly through China. In India, an ensemble consisting of wind and string instruments accompanied the performance of stotra, the predecessor of East Asian Buddhist hymns. Such carvings or paintings of instrumental performance became obsolete in East Asia after the fall of the Chinese Tang Dynasty in 907. None of the instruments found in these artifacts are used in today’s Korean or Chinese rites.

As Mahayana, the principal sect of Korean Buddhism, became integrated into the people’s daily lives, the practice of its ritual performing arts became thoroughly institutionalized. Korean Buddhism is characterized by a rich repertory of ritual performing arts that play a vital role in intensifying religious experience. These include the ritual dance (chakpifp), the outdoor band (kyongnaech'wi), and the ritual chant.  The latter are sung solo or in unison with rhythmic accompaniment of woodblocks or bells.  Melodic instruments were not played by monks during ceremonies, but occasionally small troupes of local musicians would play accompaniment to Buddhist dances. Today music performances at Buddhist temples are rarely practiced, found only on occasion at the largest temples, and these music performances are normally of a scale much smaller than the elaborate musical elements practiced centuries ago.

Musically, there are three genres of the ritual chant:  sutra (yombul), hwach'ong, and pomp 'ae. They may be further divided  according to their ritual context. The sutra types are called anch 'aebi sori 'indoor chant', and the pomp 'ae, the patch 'aebi sori ' are 'outdoor chant'.  Sutra is commonly called yombul  'invocation'.  Musically, this is the simplest type of chant, so that most Buddhist priests are able to chant the sutras.  Sutras are divided into two groups according to the language used: Chinese sutra, which were translated from Sanskrit; and Sanskrit sutra, written in Sanskrit or phonetically transcribed from Sanskrit into Chinese.  Both types used a syllabic style and accompanied by a mokt'ak (a wooden gong) using one or two primary tones. Most of the sutras are performed at daily services held inside the temple.  (The Heart Sutra, chanted in Korean, accompanied by mokt'ak)

Hwach'ong is the only chant style that uses the vernacular Korean language.  It is performed at the conclusion of special rites and is not ordinarily included in regular daily services. The style of hwach'ong is closely related to Korean folk song in melodic progression and rhythm.  Tthis secular nature of hwach 'ong probably developed out of a need to make Buddhism more readily accessible to common people.

Among the most archaic of Buddhist chang is
pomp 'ae, performed only by trained Buddhist musicians at special rites.  Such
special rites may take a few days, embracing the most expansive repertoire of chant and dance. Pomp'ae plays a major role in the ritual processes, since the content of the ritual is basically fixed and the performance of pomp 'ae is the main factor in varying its length.  Pomp 'ae is monophonic chant, performed by solo voice or chorus, with or without optional solo interpolations. Its musical style is highly melismatic, and it makes such extensive use of vocal patterns that the original text syllables are difficult to locate during the actual performance.  The pomp'ae performed in today's Buddhist rites is based entirely on a very slow free rhythm. Since the melody of each text syllable is greatly prolonged or filled with a series of vocables, the meaning of the text in most cases becomes difficult to grasp.  On a macrostructural level, a pomp 'ae piece consists of a number of stock melodies, each of which is given a tide, such as "bugle sound," "double phrase," or "frequent phrase." These stock melodies serve as the main source of the numerous pomp 'ae pieces and can be reshuffled, reordered, and transposed at the chanters' discretion. 

The performance of pomp 'ae is accompanied by one of the following instruments:  a small handbell, a wooden gong (mokt'ak), or a large Bat gong (ching). The function of these instruments is to provide the signals for the beginning and the end of the chant, to indicate the change of the text lines and text characters, or to indicate the change of musical style. The instrument is played by the chanter himself in the case of a solo chant or by the master chanter in the case of a choral chant.

The instrumental music of Korean Buddhist rites is performed by the outdoor band, called chorach 'i or kyongnaech 'wi, and is usually limited to special rituals (see video below).
The Buddhist outdoor band is unique to Korean Buddhist rites; it is not found in either Chinese or Japanese Buddhist ceremonies. The usual instrumentation of the chorach'i band consists of one or two t'aepy'ongso (a double reed pipe with a conical bore), one ching (a large Bat gong), one puk (a barrel drum), a chegum (pair of cymbals), one nap'al (a long trumpet), and one nagak (a conch horn). This instrumentation resembles that of the royal processional band, called taech'wit'a, or the farmers' band, called nongaktae. The musicians of the chorach 'i band are not necessarily Buddhist priests. They belong to the class of professional musicians who may be associated with the royal processional band or a farmers' band. The main purpose of the band is to perform simultaneously with the ritual chanting and dance.  The function and instrumentation of the chorach'i  band have a striking similarity to those of the Tibetan Lamaist passim orchestra.

Among the countries influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, only Tibet and Korea have practiced Buddhist ritual dances.  The ritual dances are called chakpop in Korea. There are three basic dances: nabich'um 'butterfly dance' (video), a prayer dance in which cherubim and angels symbolically descend from heaven; parach'um 'cymbal dance' (video), a prayer dance performed by a cherub who plays a pair of large cymbals while dancing; and popkoch'um 'ritual drum dance', in which the beating of a huge barrel drum symbolically relieves the dead of their tribulations.  All ritual dances are accompanied by a chant, which is different for each dance.  (video: tutorial on Korean Buddhist dance)


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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).
  • Chang Sahun.  Yomyong ui tongso umak [Eastern and Western music in a new age]. Seoul: Pojinje, 1974.
  • Chung, Chin-Hong.   "Redescription and Rectification of the Modernity Experience of Korean Traditional Religious Culture." Korea Journa/41 (1; 2001):5-17.
  • Hahn Man-young [see also Han Manyong].  "Buddhist Chant." In Survey of Korean Arts: Traditional Music. Seoul: National Academy of Arts (1973), 161-74. 
  • Kugak: Studies in Korean Traditional Music. Trans. and ed. Inoek Paek and Keith Howard. Seoul: Tamgu Dang, 1990.
  • Han Manyong [see also Hahn Man-young].  Han'guk pulgyo umak yon'gu [Studies on Korean Buddhist music]. Seoul: Seoul National
    University, 1980.
  • Lee, Bo Hyong.  "Menari-jo" [Menari Scale]. Han 'guk Umak Yongu [Studies in Korean music, 1972] 2:111-29.
  • Lee, Byong-Won.  "A Short History of Pomp'ae: Korean Buddhist Ritual Chant." Journal of Korean Studies (1971) 2: I 09-21.
  • Lee, Byong-Won.   An Analytical Study of Sacred Buddhist Chant of Korea. Ph .D. diss. , University of Washington, 1974.
  • Lee, Byong-Won.  "Structural Formulae of Melodies in the Two Sacred Buddhist Chant Styles of Korea." Korean Studies I (1977): 116-96.
  • Lee, Byong-Won.  "Micro- and Macrostructures of Melody and Rhythm in Korean Buddhist Chant." Korea Journal (1982), 22:33-8.
  • Lee, Byong-Won.  "The Features of the Mahayana Buddhist Ritual Performing Arts of Korea." The world of music (1985) 27(2):3-14.
  • Lee, Byong-Won.   Buddhist Music of Korea. Seoul: Jungeumsa, 1987).
  • Lee, Byong-Won.  "Korean Religious Music: Buddhist." In Robert C. Provine, Yoshihiko Tokumaru and J. Lawrence Witzleben, eds., Garland Encyclopedia of World Music vol. 7. New York:  Routledge (2002), 871-4.
  • Lee, S. W.  Buddhist Music of Korea. Seoul, 1987.
  • VanZile, Judy.  Perspectives on Korean Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University, 2001.
  • Yang, Hai-Yup [Yang Hyeyop].  Die buddhistische Musik in Korea: Aufzeichnungen und Betrachtungen. Seoul: Seoul National University, 1982.