Where the Music of India and Japan Meet


 On the Shichiseikai (Part Two) / The Buddhist World : Full of Music (1)

Besides beginning a lecture and workshop series at Xebec in July, NAKAGAWA Hiroshi will be producing a concert by the Shichiseikai shomyo group that is scheduled to be held in November. Continually involved in a wide range of activities centered around Asian music, this is the second article in a series of four on Indian and Japanese music and new music that has its origins in these traditions.

There is Music in the Pure Land Too


Buddhist image 1




Buddhist image 2

 There are a great many descriptions of music throughout Buddhist scripture, including some in those sutra that are chanted by monks. Take, for example, the Amida-Kyo (Smaller Sukhåvat·vy¨ha) that I recorded the other day with Shichiseikai, which assures us that in the world awaiting us after our deaths, Jodo (the Pure Land), there will be music playing.

In part because this sutra was written in classical Chinese, it struck me as being quite sublime when the monks chanted it. For the most part, the words contain a concrete description of the Pure Land: In the Pure Land, there is a pond from which exquisite waters flow abundantly with sands of pure gold covering its bottom. On the surface of the water float yellow, red, white, and blue lotuses, and the four banks surrounding the pond are staircases made of gold, silver, glass, and crystal. The part about the staircases reminds me of the purification baths in Benares, India, where I lived for three years. Maybe it looked something like these. Next, there's a description of tengaku (music of the heavens) and how it is always playing.

Of course, there is no mention here of genre, it might be jazz, rock, enka (Japanese ballads), Western classical, reggae, the Nenes, or Tsugaru shamisen. But since these sutra were written down by ancient Indians, it is safe to say that the music of the heavens was the Indian music of the time. A few verses down, it also says that the instruments of the heavens can produce 100 thousand different sounds, and that a net full of bells in the trees makes mysterious sounds as it sways in the breeze. Is this perhaps something like ambient music?

The Jodo sect also teaches that at the time of our death we will be guided to the Pure Land by a group of musicians who come to welcome us with their instruments. I had always had the vague impression that the place we go after death would be silent, but it sounds as if there will in fact be music. This is by no means the only description in the Amida-kyo. The other two sutra that make up the three canons of the Jodo sect, the Muryoju-Kyo (Larger Sukhåvat·vy¨ha) and the Kan-Muryoju-Kyo, also describe the magnificent world of the Pure Land as containing not only music but paintings and sculpture, descriptions which were to have a great influence on all types of Japanese art.

Buddha Was Born Together with Music

The descriptions of music are not, of course, only limited to the afterworld. There are so many of all kinds that it is no exaggeration to say that Buddhism is jam-packed with music. In his book Buddhist Music and Shomyo, OYAMA Kojun writes that from the time of his birth until he reached Nirvana, Siddhårtha was constantly surrounded by music, as the following passages from Buddhist scripture make clear.

When he was born, Siddhårtha, riding a white elephant and emanating radiant light, appeared in his mother Måyå's dream. At that instant, the sound of koto, drums, and song could be heard. It must have been an instant something like that "jaan" you hear when you turn on your Mac. (from the Shugyobon-Engi) Following his birth, Siddhårtha was raised as a prince in a palace. Wanting to keep him within the palace, the king prepared a host of attractions to entertain the prince. There was a room prepared for him inside the palace that held an orchestra of harps, so (a kind of koto), gogen (a five-string koto), kotsuzumi (small drum), koto, biwa, saiko (drum), drums, sho (a wind instrument made up of bamboo pipes), and shichiriki (a small double-reed instrument)--there were a thousand of each as well as a thousand kinds of song and dance being performed. Music could be heard twenty-four hours a day. (from the Butsu-Hongyoshu-Kyo)

Although he was raised in this environment of non-stop music, one day Siddhårtha found that the musicians had fallen asleep and made the best of this opportunity to escape. The reason given for his desire to get out of the palace was his search to find out why all human beings suffer, and through meditation and other ascetic practices, discover some method of releasing them from their pain. But it is just as easy to imagine that because he had been constantly surrounded by music since the day he was born, he wanted a little rest.

 At the time he left home, Siddhårtha was 29, and after six years of meditation and yoga, he became enlightened. He had, in other words, become the Buddha at the age of 35. As I write this, I can't help but think, "Okay, satori at 35, and here I am at 46 still full of worldly desire and miles away from enlightenment." At any rate, it wasn't long before Siddhårtha found himself in the midst of music again. Delighted at having found enlightenment, Siddhårtha became enthralled with playing the instruments of the heavens, so much so that he lost all sense of the difference between night and day. The gods and goddesses responded in kind by assembling a collection of flowers and incense, and performing their own music as a blessing. Later, when he visited Sarnåth to begin the first Buddhist sermon, and also when he visited RåjagÂha (a town in Central India, which was the capital of Magadha) in search of an appropriate place to start disseminating the Buddhist teachings, Siddhårtha began by playing his own music. This wasn't however the music of the ancient human world, but the music of the heavens. (from the Kako-Genzai-Inga-Kyo) And again as he made his way toward Nirvana, there was, naturally, music. In the Hokuhon-Nehan-Kyo (Nirvana Sutra), there is even a list of all the instruments that were played at the time. I don't know whether these descriptions are literally true or not, but even today there are Indian ascetics who leave home to sing songs in praise of the gods. So it doesn't take a great stretch to imagine that Siddhårtha himself used music as a means of propagating his teachings. Even if we accept the fact that the scriptures were written by the faithful, it is quite easy to believe that Siddhårtha was a very talented musician.  Buddhist image 3

The Great Asian Music Festival in Nara


Buddhist image 4

It was through a variety of stories and sermons such as these that Buddhism was introduced to Japan, and under the patronage of the government began to blossom. In the Nara Period, Buddhist ceremonies and services thrived as national events. At these events, it was common practice to perform music. The most lavish of all of these was the Daibutsu-Kaigan-Kuyo-e held at Nara's Todaiji Temple. It is clear from written records such as the Shoku-Nihongi, an official government document, and the Todaiji-Yoroku that this was an Asian music festival of an unbelievably grand scale. The passage describing the festivities in the Shoku-Nihongi is short, yet it leaves no doubt of their magnificence. Here's my translation of what happened: "On April 9, the Great Buddha was at long last completed and ready to be viewed. The Emperor came to Todaiji for the event, and he himself gave instructions to a number of government officials and organized a large service. The order of events and positions of the participants in the ceremony were the same as the official ceremony performed on New Year's Day. Officials of the fifth-rank and higher wore full-formal dress, while those of the sixth rank and lower wore formal uniforms in colors that designated their rank. Ten thousand monks, the Utaryo (the government's official music corps, which included many foreigners), and musicians from each of the temples were assembled. In addition, aristocrats and rulers from other regions were in attendance, and groups of dancers and singers performed. The latter included Gosechi (a group of five girls dancing to music of the Japanese Court), Kume-Mai (dances using drawn swords accompanied by music), Tatefushi (dances performed with helmets on and swords and shields in hand), Arare-Hashiri (also known as Toka; at the end of this song and dance, the performers repeatedly shouted, "Forever!," as they ran), and Hoko (a Chinese dance performed by girls dressed in hakama). The garden was divided into two parts, east and west, and a vocal performance was given in which singers called and responded to each other. It is impossible to accurately explain the event in words. Since the introduction of Buddhism, there has been no event as magnificent nor as grand." (from the Shoku-Nihongi, Vol. 18, 752 A.D.)

An Indian Was There Too


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 Since this event was the object of national pride and prestige, it can't be said that it was entirely Buddhist. Yet, the descriptions of music found in Buddhist scripture must have had an influence on how it was planned and carried out. It is also interesting to note that there was an Indian who took part in the festivities. In 736, Bodaisenna (or Bhodisena), a monk from southern India, arrived by way of a ship carrying Japanese envoys back from Tang Dynasty China. As the kaiganshi(master-of-ceremonies) of this event, his was the most important role. Bodaisenna is also thought to have been the monk who transmitted Indian-style shomyo to Japan. There is no way of knowing exactly what Indian shomyo of the day was like, but it may have been similar to the Vedic chants that continue to be performed in India today. And it is possible to imagine that there were instruments or a musical system to accompany it. Frankly, as an Indian music performer, the thought gives me goose bumps. Besides Bodaisenna, Buttetsu, a monk from Rinyu, North India ( probably present-day Vietnam) and some monks from China took part in the event. It is astounding to think that this incredibly grand and gorgeous "great Asian music festival" was held all of 1,244 years ago. The Daibutsu-Kaigan-Kuyo-e was almost like a music festival sponsored by the Imperial Court, but it was common practice to include music in regular Buddhist ceremonies as well. Music of the day was still thought of as entertainment, but as time went on, music became more closely entwined with ceremonial proceedings until the two became inseparable. Music then began to be performed at all types of ceremonies not only those of the central government, but at every temple in the country, and this in turn led the Buddhist world to be filled with music.

(to be continued next issue)

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