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).
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
|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
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.
* * * * * * * * * *
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).