We began our exploration of music and religious history by discussing the difficulty to define music and its origins in history. The earliest cultures mimicked nature for functional reasons such as hunting, so when did the evolution to synchronized chanting and drumming actually become something more? And as humans began to ponder natural wonders around them and their existence within them, worship began to play a major role in developing societies. As a start, melody and written music offers some structure of how music as we know it today was born. Some of the very earliest known forms or music, such as Seikilos Epitaph is evidence of musical worship. In the following installments of this series, musical influence of each of the five major religions of the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism will be individually explored. Many of these traditional religious musical forms are used across the globe by early childhood music teachers even today.
The Contradiction of Music and Buddhism
There are very few religious forms across the world that do not have some form of music in their sacred ceremonies. However, the very character of the original Buddhist message that contends things in life with no lasting significance distract from the quest for salvation seems contradictory to the evident influence of music in Buddhism. The association of music with earthly desires led early Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from music practice and even the observation of musical performance. In Pure Land Buddhism, however, paradises are presented as profoundly musical places in which law takes the form of wonderful melodies. Most Buddhist practices involve some form of chanting, while some make use of instrumental music and even dancing. Music can be used in Buddhism as an offering to Buddha, a means of memorizing sacred texts, or cultivating meditation.
Different Styles of Traditional Buddhist Music
Buddhist Music is considered part of Buddhist art and varies upon the different areas of the world it is practiced. Starting from the foothills of the Himalayas, Buddhism spread across Asia where, over time its original traditional practices became refined and regionally distinct. Historical Honkyoku are 36 collected pieces of music played by wandering, flute-playing Japanese Zen monks called Komosu in as early as the 13th century. Komosu temples were ordered destroyed in 1871, but the music honkyoku remains one of the most popular contemporary music styles in Japan today. Chanting is a part of most regional Buddhism, but is very prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism, where the chants are often complex recitations of sacred texts in Tibetan or Sanskirt. Some forms are accompanied by drums, while monasteries often maintain their own chant traditions. Shomyo, a style of Japanese Buddhist Chant, features both difficult (ryokyoku) and easy (rikkyoku) styles to remember.
Contemporary Buddhist Music
Today, Buddhist influence can be heard in all different forms of contemporary music, from jazz, rap, and classical, to C-pop. Bibiladeniye Mahanama Thero is a Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk who is also a renown spiritual music composer. Li Na is a famous Chinese singer who became a nun in 1997 and went on to produce many popular Buddhist music albums under her new name Maser Chang Sheng. Several notable western musicians practiced Buddhism and cited it as a large influence on their music, such as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. In 2009, Tina Turner and Buddhist musician Dechen Shak-Dagsay collaborated on an album combining Buddhist chants and Christian choral music called the Beyond Singing Project.
In some Buddhist teachings, music can be considered an earthly pleasure that distracts from the path of enlightenment. Yet music has always been a part of Buddhist religious traditions, as well as contemporary social forms. As we next explore the same kind of influences on Christianity, we will start to see a strong and undeniable bond between music and the major religions of the world. Children’s music educators may find this helpful in providing this influential context in the classroom while presenting sacred and even secular music.