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Buddhist Music of Tibet*



Located on the southwestern frontier of China, Tibet has an average elevation of more than 4,000 meters above sea level and is often referred to as the "roof of the world."  Mount Chomolungma (Everest), the highest peak in the world, lies partially within its territory. In Tibet, the high, cold air is oxygen-thin; signs of human habitation are sparse; and transportation is difficult.  At the same time, the local conditions and customs are unique, and the music is rich and enchanting.

Tibetan Buddhism, the main religion, was introduced during the seventh century; thereafter, it absorbed the beliefs and rites of the original inhabitants and took the form of sects such as the Gelu (Gelug) 'Yellow Teaching', Ningma (Nyingma) 'Red Teaching', Geju (Kagyu) 'White Teaching', and Sajia (Sakya) 'Flower Teaching'.  Monasteries of the Gelu sect are spread all over the region. Monasteries are centers of education and cultural activities as well as religion.

Buddhism in Tibet is characterized by adherence to Mantrayana Buddhism; however, four major schools have developed within Tibet, each with its own set of practices and important scriptural texts. Buddhism came to Tibet in the seventh century and blended locally with Bon, an older religious practice that significantly influenced Buddhism's development. Tibetan Buddhist music includes distinct regional differences in style, but each monastery is in contact with central mainstream traditions, and even the smallest monasteries have specialized roles for each person.

Tibetan Buddhism divides ancient Tibetan culture into ten categories, the "greater five" and the "lesser five." These are the study of handicrafts, medicine, metrics, logic, Buddhism, rhetoric, ornate diction, prosody, drama, and astrology. Tibetan literary sources preserve a large cultural heritage, such as the historical works Wedding Feast for the Wise, Historical Annals, and Origin and Development of Religious Sects; the historical-poetic legend Princess Wencheng; the epic poem Lift of Gesa'er (Gesa1) Ling; the sung poem Cangyang jiacuo Love Song; the biographical novels Biography of Milariba and Lift of Poluonai (Pholhanas); Sajia Maxim ('Treasury of Elegant Sayings'); and the medical book Four Medical Tantras.

Tibetan painting, sculpture, and architecture all have their own unique styles and have had a widespread influence among the masses.  The Tibetan calendar records years with the five phases, yin and yang, and the twelve animals, and can accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses. There are many traditional festivals, including the Tibetan new year, the Great Dharma Conference, the Bathing Festival, the Snow Festival, the Fruit-Watching Festival, and the Horse-Racing Fair. Such festivals are invariably accompanied by music and dance.

The use of sacred sound as a formula for the transformation of human consciousness is most apparent in the chanting of the Mani prayer to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara (Tibetan, Chenrezig). All of the teachings of the Buddha are believed to be contained in this short, six-syllable mantra, which does not require initiation by a lama and is the most widely used of all Buddhist prayers. As the Buddha taught that suffering was unnecessary, he offered various methods to root out the causes of suffering. The Mahayana school (Great Vehicle) believes that the practice of compassion is the surest means to remove all suffering from oneself as well as others. According to the Mantrayana tradition of Tibet, the quickest and most powerful way to do this was by linking one's mind to the mind of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, through chanting of the Mani mantra. The act of chanting, which may be repeated indefinitely, enlarges the circle of compassion beyond oneself to all sentient beings, and completely removes attention from the desires of the individual ego. This chanting is often accompanied by rotating a Tibetan prayer wheel in one of various sizes. Though there are multiple meanings to this enigmatic formula, a literal translation and interpretation follows the text in both Sanskrit and Tibetan:


Behold! The Jewel is in the Lotus:
The practice of Compassion is united with Wisdom
to achieve the Buddha nature.

In considering Tibetan Buddhist chant, it is essential to rethink the entire concept of melody and rhythm.  Many outside Tibetan culture are accustomed to think of melody as a sequence of rising or falling pitches.  In Tibetan Tantric chanting, however, the melodic content occurs in terms of vowel modification and the careful contouring of tones. In other words, it is in the shift of timbre or tone color that the melodic content and forward movement occur.  Because of the proliferation of CDs of Tibetan music, some Europeans and North Americans have come to recognize the very deep sounds and resonance of Tibetan Buddhist chanting--but few listeners follow the sounds much further beyond their superficial exoticism.  In terms of rhythm, it is necessary to go beyond the idea of grouping notes in beats of twos and threes to dealing with extremely complicated, logorhythmic formulas that extend into the hundreds of beats. These rhythms not only form a link between song, ritual, dance, and drama, but also serve to enact or manifest aspects of Buddhist cosmology. The performance practice of Tibetan Buddhist chant occurs in multiple daily services, in which monks sit facing each other in rows. The leader, or dbu mdzad, not only leads the singing but also plays percussion. Tibetan chant falls into three categories: 'don (recitation chant), rta (melodic chant), and dbyangs (tone contour chant). Of these three, dbyangs is the sound with which outsiders are most familiar.  It is produced in such a way that listeners can perceive a very deep tone, a mid-level tone, and an upper harmonic "whistle) tone (i.e., overtone), and this is referred to as a "chordal" chant. This multi-tone technique is related to the style of khoomei singing found in Mongolia and Tuva, and actually sounds as if one singer is producing two or three pitches simultaneously. Some outsiders hear it only as a drone or as a single pitch, but it embodies the important technique of tonal contour chanting, which serves as a "note melody." An appropriate perception of it depends upon a willingness to train the ears to hear beyond the most obvious melodic feature of rising and falling pitch.

 Dbyangs contour chanting, or Tibetan Tantric chant, is often performed in association with instrumental music, or rol mo, including cymbals (sil snyan), oboes (ryga gling) and long trumpets (dung chen). The cymbals symbolically create the mandala diagram through the way in which they are played: an imaginary line is drawn clockwise by the right cymbal around the rim of the left cymbal while accelerating pulses are played. Then the pattern goes from left to bottom center, to upper right, and then from the lower right to top centre to lower left, crossing again. The cymbals are also played in decreasing mathematical formulas of even-numbered beats 180, 170, 160, 150, etc., and increasing by odd numbers.

The trumpet players do their own contour playing as well, including trilling the tongue against the palate and buzzing the lips, shaping the cavity of their mouths to create overtones. The trumpets are six feet long and vibrate so powerfully against the players' skulls that only young people can play them; over a period of a year the teeth begin to loosen and can fall out. Tibetan Buddhist performance practice often includes an accelerating pattern (referred to as a "fall"); this pattern appears in the sound of the large cymbals. 


Among the religions of Tibet, the Gelu sect of Tibetan Buddhism is the most popular. The religious music of the Gelu sect is consistent with that of other sects; in general, it can be divided into music praising the sutras and instrumental music.  There is a great variety of melodies for the chanting of surra texts, but the lamas pay particular attention to the concepts of da and yang. Da 'the pace of an advancing horse' refers to the speed and length of the rhythm; yang 'tone' refers to the highs and lows, rises and falls, of the melody. Through their handling of tonal highs and lows and their grasp of rhythmic pace and length, the lamas cause the surra-praising music to brim over with a religious feeling that is related to the content and imagery of the surra texts. Depending on the surra texts, there may also be an accompaniment by characteristic musical instruments such as drums, handbells, bone horns, and bass horns.  (video)

Instruments used in Tibetan Buddhism include:
  • ritual instruments, such as the small hand bell (dril-bu) and small drum rattle (damaru
  • timekeeping instruments, such as the large double-headed frame drum with handle, which is struck with a stick (rnga), and different kinds of cymbals (sbugchal and sil-snyan);
  • wind instruments, always played in identical pairs, such as the conch shells (dungdkar), spectacular telescoping horns (rag-dung or dung-chen), short horns made of human bone or metal (rkang-gling); and oboes (rgya-gling).



The chanted surra texts are recorded in an ancient kind of musical score called yangyi, in which a line is shifted up and down to represent the movement of tones between high and low. This type of curvilinear score and the sheng quzhe 'tonewinding' score used in Han Chinese regions during the Han dynasty are similar in terms of the basic principle, but yangyi seems somewhat more scientific and practical.

Religious instrumental music is performed during festivals and in mediums' trance dances (qiangmu). Ensembles consist of such instruments as tongqin (bass horns), gangling (bone horns), jialing (suona), e (drums), and bujian (cymbals). The number of each type of instrument is variable.  Especially during the performance of Qjangmu (a trance dance), the playing of the orchestra and the movements of the dancers are coordinated with great precision, thoroughness, and beauty, just as the complementary colors of red flowers and green leaves add to each other's splendor.

Aside from the ensemble performance of religious instrumental music, there is also solo performance of the jialing, including Jiannaisi, a composition in praise of the boddhisatva Avalokitesvara; and Eganghajie, played on the eve of a religious festival. The tongqin also has its own musical scores, consisting of a number of pictures; it is sometimes called a huapu 'decorative score'.

Tibetan court music also became incorporated into the banquet music of the Qing (Manchu) Chinese court. The Da Qjng huidian 'Great Qing Dynastic Canon' records:

The Qing emperor Gaozong pacified Jinchuan and obtained its music. ...Later on, the Tibetan Panchen Lama E'erdeni came to court to offer music. This was also entered into the [corpus of] banquet music, as fanzi yue ['barbarian music' of the Western border]. In Jinchuan, the music is called a'ersalan, da guozhuang, sijiaolu banchan, and ihashilunbu. A 'ersalan has one person each manning the deli, the boju 'er, and the delewo, and three people attending to the dance, in the guise of frolicking lions .... Sijiaolu has six people attending to the dance, holding bows and shields. Zhashilunbu has people manning the deli, the bazhu, the cangqing, and the longsima'erdelewo, and six people attending to the dance, and ten "barbarian" children each holding an ax ... and singing Buddhist songs.

Tibetan Buddhism comprises the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Foundational Vehicle, Mahāyāna Buddhism, and Vajrayāna Buddhism. The Mahāyāna goal of spiritual development is to achieve the enlightenment of buddhahood in order to most efficiently help all other sentient beings attain this state. The motivation in it is the bodhicitta mind of enlightenment — an altruistic intention to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings.  Bodhisattvas are revered beings who have conceived the will and vow to dedicate their lives with bodhicitta for the sake of all beings. Tibetan Buddhism teaches methods for achieving buddhahood more quickly by including the Vajrayāna path in Mahāyāna.

 Buddhahood is defined as a state free of the obstructions to liberation as well as those to omniscience. When one is freed from all mental obscurations, one is said to attain a state of continuous bliss mixed with a simultaneous cognition of emptiness, the true nature of reality.  In this state, all limitations on one's ability to help other living beings are removed.

It is said that there are countless beings who have attained buddhahood. Buddhas spontaneously, naturally and continuously perform activities to benefit all sentient beings. However it is believed that one's karma could limit the ability of the Buddhas to help them. Thus, although Buddhas possess no limitation from their side on their ability to help others, sentient beings continue to experience suffering as a result of the limitations of their own former negative actions


Today, Tibetan Buddhism is adhered to widely in the Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia (on the north-west shore of the Caspian), Siberia and Russian Far East (Tuva and Buryatia). The Indian regions of Sikkim and Ladakh, both formerly independent kingdoms, are also home to significant Tibetan Buddhist populations. In the wake of the Tibetan diaspora, Tibetan Buddhism has gained adherents in the West and throughout the world.




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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).
  • Attisani, Antonio.  "Facets of Tibetan Traditional Theatre." Tibet Journal/21(2), 1996: 128-39.
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    1990
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  • Collinge, Ian.  "Developments in Musicology in Tibet: The Emergence of a New Tibetan Musical Lexicon." Asian Music 28(1; 1996-97):87-114.
  • Crossley-Hoiland, Peter.  "The Religious Music of Tibet and Its Cultural Background." In Proceedings of the Centennial Workshop on Ethnomusicology. Vancouver: Vancouver Provincial Government, 1968.
  • Crossley-Hoiland, Peter.  "rGy-gling Hymns of the Kamu-Kagya: The Rhythmitonal Architecture of Some Tibetan Instrumental Airs." Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology I (3; 1970):79-114.
  • Crossley-Hoiland, Peter.  Musical Instruments in Tibetan Legend and Folklore. Los Angeles: University of California, 1980.
  • Dan Muqiu.  "Zangzu Zongjiao Yishi Zhongde Yingbinqu [Welcome music in Tibetan Buddhist rituals]."  Zhongguo Yinyue [Chinese music, 1990]39:70-1.
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  • Ellingson, Ter.  The Mandala of Sound: Concepts and Sound Structures in Tibetan Ritual Music. Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin.
  • Ellingson, Ter.  "The Mathematics of Tibetan Rol Mo." Ethnomusicology 23(2; 1979):225-43.
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  • Helffer, Mireille.  "Reflections Concernant le Chant Epique Tibetain" [Reflections concerning the Tibetan epic chant]. Asian Music 10(2; 1979):92-111.
  • Helffer, Mireille.  "Du texte a Ia museographie: donnees concernant Ia clochette tibetaine drei-bu" [From text to museography: data concerning the Tibetan dril-bu bell.] Schaeffner Festschrift, 1982, 248-69.
  • Helffer, Mireille.  "Le gandi: un simandre tibetain d' origine indienne [The Gandi: A Tibetan Simandre of Indian Origin]." Yearbook for Traditional Music 15 (1983):112-25.
  • Helffer, Mireille.  "Observations concernant le tambour tibetain rnga et son usage" [Observations concerning the Tibetan drum rnga and its usage]. Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology (1983)4:62-79.
  • Helffer, Mireille.  "Preliminary Remarks Concerning the Use of Musical Notation in Tibet." In Zlos-Gar: Performing Traditions of Tibet. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Words and Archives, 1986, 69-90.
  • Helffer, Mireille.  "An Overview of Western Work on Ritual Music of Tibetan Buddhism (1960-1990)."  In Max Peter Baumann et al., eds., European Studies in Ethnomusicology: Historical Developments and Recent Trends. Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel (1992), 87-101.
  • Helffer, Mireille.  Mchod-rol: les instruments de la musique tibetaine [Mchod-rol: the instruments of Tibetan music]. Paris: CNRS Editions, 1994.
  • Kaufmann, Walter.  "The Notation of the Buddhist Chant (Tibet)." In Walter Kaufmann, Musical Notations of the Orient, Notational Systems of Continental, East, South and Central Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1967, 355-417.
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  • Kishibe, Shigeo.   "Lamaisme thibetain" [Tibetan Lamaism]. In Jacques Porte eta!., eds., Encyclopedie des musiques sacrees, vol. 1. Paris: Edition Labergerie (1968), 190-8.
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  • Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene de.  Tibetan Religious Dance: Tibetan Text and Annotated Translation of the 'Chams Yig .  The Hague: Mouton, 1976.
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  • Sa-skya Pandita (1182-1251 A.D.)  Rol mo'i bstan bcos [Treatise on music]. In The Complete Works of the Great Masters of the Sa-skya Sect of the Tibetan Buddhism. Tokyo: Toyo Bunko, 1986.
  • Samuel, Geoffrey.  "Songs of Lhasa." Ethnomusicology (1976) 20(3):407-49.
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