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Buddhist Music of Vietnam*

Among the most interesting of Vietnam's music are the musical activities associated with religious beliefs.  Traditionally, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are the religions that have long influenced the philosophical life of the Vietnamese. However, the earliest rituals were probably derived from animism, a system of beliefs later integrated into the present adoration of saints, gods and goddesses, and heroes and heroines who successfully defended the country from foreign invasions.  Religions imported from India, the West, and the Middle East are found to a lesser degree, but Buddhism, with the most organized system of music, is found in more than one thousand temples nationwide (right image: Hanoi's One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple).

Through contacts with Indian and Central Asian merchants during the first century, the people living in what is now northern Vietnam had an acquaintance with Buddhism. Though Buddhism elsewhere in Southeast Asia derives from the Theravada tradition, Buddhism in Vietnam is part of the Mahayana tradition. The term But (derived from the word Buddha) denotes the most ancient legends of Vietnam. Buddhist religion, the Way of the But, is associated with Vietnamese culture and music at all levels of society.

The first Buddhist community was founded in Vietnam in the Second Century with five hundred Vietnamese monks.  The founding of Buddhist temples and translation of Sanskrit liturgical texts occurred at the same time.  Buddhist chant developed early and has continued to evolve.  Because Vietnam's Buddhism is in the Mahayana tradition, its chant shares many traits with those of East Asia.  The basis of Buddhist ceremonies is the collections of various texts: sutras (kinh) are the main liturgical texts, translated from Sanskrit to Sino-Vietnamese and Vietnamese; poems of praise (ke, tdn); mantras (chu), a secret language transliterated from Sanskrit; and short phrases and texts used in particular ceremonies. The arrangement of texts for a service varies from country to country and from region to region, but the presence of similar texts does not necessarily imply that the same music was chanted.  More than thirty services and ceremonies are held in Buddhist temples, public places, and private homes. Any of more than three hundred texts may be selected for use on these occasions. (right image: monks holding a service in Hue.)

Vietnamese Buddhist music uses three vocal styles: cantillating sutras and mantras, singing poetic hymns, and mixing speech and song. In the first category, a soloist or chorus cantillates, with tempos regulated by the equal beats of a wooden slit drum. The term tung refers to the chanting of sutras; the term tri, of mantras. The texts of the hymns may be sung in various styles, depending on the type of poem used in the service or ceremony. This category is probably the most elaborate in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition.  The musical style of tdn is reserved for songs of praise, ke for daily hymns, and xuong for announcing the purpose of the ceremony.  The style of
xuong is responsorial (i.e., soloist first, followed by choir--c.f. the responsorial opening of the below video of monks and nuns chanting the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese.  In other parts of a ceremony, sam phap are chants for reciting the names of buddhas and bodhisattvas before one prostrates or bows; doc is a reading of a ritual announcement, bach is a statement of the reason for a ceremony honoring a deceased patriarch or a superior monk, niem is a song for the offering of incense, and thinh uses solemn words to invite the chief of the ceremony. Tan is the most sublime, in both music and text. Many texts are poems written by respected monks. Further musical subdivisions are based on the modes and rhythms used.

Strictly speaking, music is prohibited in Buddhism, monks are forbidden from listening to music made by those outside the religious community.  However, musical meanings and concepts are shared by lay people and Buddhist monks alike.  For example, monks understand the concept of mode (similar to musical "scales"...but different from those used in Western music).  Music in everyday monastic life emphasizes the voice and allows only a limited use of Buddhist instruments.  However, yet the nhac le, the dhai nhac, and the nhac bat am ensembles are used in the great ceremonies to perform introductions or postludes and to accompany the monks' changing of tan.

Percussion instruments used in Buddhist temples include the slit drum, a bowl bell (chuong gia tri), the large bell (dai hong chung), a small bell (chuong bao chung), a large drum (trong bat nha), a small drum (trong dao), a bronze or stone plaque (khanh), a wooden plaque (moc bang), a gong, a hand bell (linh), and a pair of conch shells (phap loa 'the voice of Buddha's teaching'). Teaching these instruments is part of musical training in the temples, and it is more specialized in the temples of the ung phu, the Vietnamese Buddhist school of chants. The concepts taught in this school were established during the Tran Dynasty (1200s and 1300s). The other two schools were du phuong 'school of preaching' and tao thien 'school of meditation'.

Music may serve as an intermediary between the living and the dead during ceremonies and rites, such as the chau van ritual and the roi bong ritual (below), in which one pays respect and offers thanks to gods and historical figures honored for their good deeds. The most important instrument of the chau van ritual is the moon-shaped lute; other instruments are gongs and drums. In this ritual, a medium is possessed by one or more of twenty-four deities. A possession ritual is organized on the anniversary days of important gods or on private occasions. A medium may be a female or male, who, when in trance, performs dances in front of the altar. A singer and some musicians, sitting on one side, begin to sing and play songs corresponding to the god in possession.  Chau van songs are sung in one of ten modes...and each mode is associated with a specific mood, pitch collection, rhythmic structure, tempo, and ornamentation.


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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).
  • Bezacier, Louis.  "Le pantheon des pagodes bouddhiques du Tonkin" [The pantheon of Buddhist temples in Tonkin]. Cahiers d'Etudes Francaises d'Extreme Orient (Hanoi, 1942 ) No. 33.
  • Coue, A.  "Doctrines et ceremonies religieuses du pays d' Ann am" [Doctrines and ceremonies of Annam]. Saigon: Bulletin de Ia Societe d'Etudes Indochinoises (3rd Quarter): 85-93, 230-7.
  • Nguyen, Phong T.  La musique bouddique du Vietnam [The Buddhist music of Vietnam]. Ph.D. diss., The Sorbonne University, Paris, 1982.
  • Nguyen, Phong T.   Textes et chants de /a liturgie bouddique vietnamienne en France [Texts and chants of the Vietnamese Buddist liturgy in France]. Kent, Ohio: ARVM, 1990.
  • Nguyen, Phong T.  "Text, Context, and Performance: A Case Study of the Vietnamese Buddhist Liturgy."  In Amy Catlin, ed., Text, Context, and Performance in Cambodia,Laos, and Vietnam.  Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Dept. of Ethnomusicology, 1992; 225-32.
  • Nguyen, Phong T.  "Music and Movement in Vietnamese Buddhism." The world of music 44, 2002 (2).
  • Ni Shuren.  "Da Xiangguosi yinyue de goucheng" [The structure of the music of Da Xiangguo-si Temple]. Zhongguo yinyue 1986.4:68-70.
  • Ni Shuren.  "Da Xiangguosi yinyue wenxian chutan" [A preliminary study of the music reference in Da Xiangguo-si Temple]. Zhong guo yinyue 1990.1:91-5.
  • Ni Shuren.   "Daojiao yinyue yu fojiao yinyue de bijiao yanjiu" [A comparative study of Daoist and Buddhist music], in 2 parts. Yinyue Tansuo 1992.1 :23-30; 1992.2:39-46.
  • Tran, Van Khe.  "Aspects de cantillation: Techniques du Viet-nam" [Aspects of cantillation: techniques of Vietnam]. Revue de Musicologie Vol. XLVII (July, 1961), Paris, 37-53.
  • Tran, Van Khe.  "Musique bouddhique au Vietnam" [The Buddhist music in Vietnam]. In Jacques Porte, et al., eds., Encyclopedie des musiques sacrees, vol. 1. Paris: Edition Labergerie, 1968, 222-40.
  • Tran, Van Khe.  Einfiihrung in die Musik Vietnams. Taschenbiicher fiir Musikwissenschaft 79. Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel, 1982.