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Buddhist Music of Thailand*



Beginning about five hundred years after the death of Siddhartha Gautama (543 B.C.), Buddhism began entering Thailand.  Mahayana Buddhism came first, and was later supplanted by the  Theravada or Hinayana Buddhist tradition (little of Mahayana Buddhism remains in modern practices).  Both Sanskrit and Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) profoundly affected Thai languages.  The magnificent chedi at Nakhon Pathom (above left) dates from arounnd 500 A.D., is the oldest known Buddhist structure in Thailand.

Buddhism in Thailand is both a philosophy of life based on the doctrine of the Buddha, and a popular religion.  Ordinary people are more attuned to Buddhist festivities and social activities than to its deeper meaning, and see no contra
diction in maintaining traditional animistic practices.  The temple is the focus of festivities where musical and theatrical events take place, the source of the literacy that serves as the basis for theatrical and narrative stories, and sometimes the patron of musical ensembles. The calendar of Buddhist festivals parallels the agricultural cycle, providing regular activities that require music; Buddhist rites themselves also provide opportunities for making and hearing music.


Buddhist festivals are often occasions for musical performances, both on the temple grounds and elsewhere. The most musical of these festivals include:

1. Songkran (video), the traditional new year, on 13 April, celebrating the end of the dry season and the imminent return of the rains.

2. Awk phansa (video), the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat (khao phansa), occurring in October on the fifteenth day of the waxing moon. A three-month period when agricultural work is heavy and musical performances are avoided, this period ends with relief, merrymaking, and making music.


3. Kathin, between the full moons of October and November, and centering around the community's gift of new robes and other gifts to the monks. Two-day events usually occur on weekends, when a village, a neighborhood, a school, or a government agency provides food for the monks the evening before and then processes to the temple or through the village bearing the gifts the next day. The procession will likely include dancers and musicians (such as a klawngyao...video), and theatrical troupes may be hired to entertain at night.


4. Loi kratong (video), the festival of lights, occurring on the full moon of November, when villages and towns organize parades culminating with the launching of tiny, candlefilled boats, and large, electrically lighted floats on rivers, canals, and lakes.

5. Temple fairs, intended to raise money to help maintain buildings or build new ones, usually occur during the dry months (November to March). Admission to the temple grounds is charged, but most entertainments are free to watch.

6. Music may occur in conjunction with other occasions, such as ordinations, marriages, funerals, the king's birthday (5 December), New Year's Day (1 January), etc.

Thai Buddhism is centrally organized into a monastic order (sangha) under a supreme patriarch in Bangkok.  Whereas monks are forbidden from singing, dancing, playing music, and watching drama, dance, and other secular entertainments, some nevertheless entertain audiences with acrobatic displays of vocal technique while chanting (suat) and preaching (thet).  The money they accept from spectators go to the temple treasurer, who in turn may offer the monks paper chits with which to make purchases.

Buddhist chanting takes place both inside and outside the temple compound, both in the presence of lay persons and in private. The daily routine is altered both during the penitential season and on holy days (wan phra), which occur four times a month.  During these times people bring food to the temple, listen to the chanting of the sacred canon and hymns, and hear blessing chants.

A monk's daily routine begins before sunrise, soon after which he and his fellow monks go forth, each armed with an iron begging bowl (bat), to accept donations of food from the people.  The monks chant, eat, then assemble to chant the morning service (tham wat chao). A large temple drum beaten at 11 A.M. signals that lunch must be eaten before noon, when the chanting begins.
  The remainder of the day is spent at study, at work, and at leisure until dusk, when the monks reassemble for the evening service (tham wat yen). The services last from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on how many chants are chosen by the abbot who leads the chanting.  Some chants are obligatory, but the abbot may introduce other chants--including some that may reflect on the events of the day.  Ideally, each monastery is to observe both services; but in reality, many monasteries have only the evening service--and some observe that one only occasionally outside the penitential (khao phansa) period.


As the entire repertory of Buddhist chants takes considerable time to learn, many monks will learn only some chants or parts of chants.  Few monks can fully understand the sacred texts in Pali--
the original language of Theravada Buddhism.  As a result, many monks who chant and even some who preach do not know the literal meaning of what they are saying. Traditionally, the sacred texts were written on long strips of dried palm leaf and joined with cords.  Today, texts are more likely to be read from printed palm leaves or modern books.  There is no musical notation, and consequently no indication of the melodic contour of the chant...which must be learned by rote and memorized over time.

All monks, including the abbot, kneel and face the image of Buddha. They chant some passages with heads bowed to the floor, muffling the sound.  Inexperienced monks are permitted to use their copies of the jet tam nan when no lay observers are present; but when observed, the monks must chant from memory. Many monks chant only the passages they know and remain silent during the remainder--leaving to the more knowledgeable monks the duty of keeping the service going.

There are also chants for the ordination of monks (suat nak), for the robe-giving festival (suat kathin), and for various other occasions. Chants may be destinguished as either short chants (suat san, with syllabic text setting), or long chants (suat yao, more melodic and florid).



Chants are performed without instruments--with the exception of the temple drum (or bell) and a large hanging bossed gong.  These are used to mark important points in the text.  Because Pali (the language Theravada Buddhism) is a non-tonal language, chants in Pali may theoretically be chanted on a single tone.  However, in practice, this rarely happens, and the chant takes on melodic contour. The resulting melody can be rationalized in several ways. First, melodic inflections occur to relieve the boredom of a single pitch. Second, melodic inflections occur because the texts are written in Thai letters, some of which have built-in tonal inflections. Inflections also occur out of habit, or to express feelings. While the same text will not necessarily be chanted the same way in every temple, customary patterns unify the Thai tradition.

The sang yok style, used in the vast majority of temples, is distinguished by its slow tempo, the alternation of two durational values in a two-to-one ratio, a tendency to evenness, and an unsystematic approach to phrasing. The makot style, used only in Dhammayut temples, is faster in tempo and given to clear and systematic phrasing, with a greater variety of durational values (transcribed as quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes). Though meter is absent in these chants, quarter-notes may be juxtaposed with sixteenth-notes--giving passages a syncopated feeling.



Thai  culture has a Hindu-derived ritual called sukhwan or tham khwan to preserve or restore the health of a person undergoing life changes or a rite of passage.  When performed for monks, it is called ba si.  Its purpose is to retain or call back the khwan--meaning 'psyche', 'morale', and 'spiritual essence'.  The rite is conducted for various occasions: including marriage, ordination, promotion, pregnancy, and childbearing, preceding a long trip, at the beginning of the Buddhist penitential season, before an important enterprise, for the sick and dying, for reintegrating people into the community after a period of time in prison or military service, and after a bad omen (such as a lightning strike). The vocal recitation varies in style, especially with regard to scalar pattern.  Some recitations use as few as three pitches, others as many as six, and there is close coordination between the melodic inflections and the tones of the words.


In central Thailand, such elaborate ceremonies were formerly accompanied by a piphat that played music throughout.  The ceremony is common in northern and northeastern Thailand, but has become rarer in central Thailand--where it is identified with the more traditional villages.







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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).
  • Anuman Rajadhon, Phya.  Thet Maha Chat. Thai Culture New Series 21. Bangkok: Fine Arts Dept., 1969; new printing 1990.
  • Anuman Rajadhon, Phyu.  "Popular Buddhism in Thailand." In William J. Gedney, ed. and trans!., Life and Ritual in Old Siam: Three Studies of Thai Life and Customs. New Haven: HRAF, 1961, 61-98.
  • Miller, Terry E..  "A Melody Not Sung: The Performance of Lao Buddhist Texts in Northeast Thailand."  In Amy Catlin, ed., Text, Context, and Performance in Cambodia,Laos, and Vietnam. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Dept. of Ethnomusicology, 1992, 161-88.
  • Tambiah, Stanley J.  Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1970.
  • Wells, Kenneth E.  Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities. Bangkok: Suriyabun Publishers [The Church of Christ in Thailand], 1975.
  • Wong, Deborah.  Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Performance. University of Chicago, 2001.












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