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sa Sound Arts vol.2

What Appears Through Chanting:Tendai Shomyo Ryokyoku

SAKURAI Makiko, female shomyo chanter, explains shomyo and the experience of transcending music by means of the human voice.

What is Shomyo?
The word, shomyo, refers to the calling of God's name by the Brahman monks of India, the expression of prayer to God, and the versification and voicing of God's teachings (sutra); in other words, the act of chanting. From India, shomyo was transmitted to China, and along with Buddhism, from China to Japan, where it was adopted as part of esoteric Buddhism. The act of chanting shomyo was introduced as a method of salvation, an ascetic practice to be performed by believers themselves.
Rikkyoku and Ryokyoku
In the Tendai sect of Buddhism, during the late Heian Period, Ryonin (1072- 1132) standardized and compiled the shomyo texts that had been introduced from China sometime in the middle of the 9th century, and built the original shomyo seminary at Raigoin, a temple in the Ohara region of Kyoto. From this time on, Tendai shomyo was called, Tendai Ohara Shomyo. To the south of Sanzenin, a temple in the heart of Ohara, runs the Ryo River, and to the north of it runs the Ritsu River. The Ryo flows wide in a gentle, curving motion, while the Ritsu's current is made up of a group of bouncing billows. By using these characteristics as a metaphor, shomyo was broken down into two styles: ryokyoku and rikkyoku. Simply put, ryokyoku shomyo might be described as foreboding and difficult to understand, as compared to rikkyoku shomyo, which is relatively easy-to- understand and easy-to-remember. Many of the ryokyoku texts are written in Bongo (Sanskrit transliterated into Japanese), and of those that are written in Kango (Chinese characters), most contain only one short extract from the original sutra. Rikkyoku, on the other hand, is made up of a collection of Kango verses. By repeating these phrases and adding a melody, the sutra began to sound like coherent musical compositions. This coherence gave rise to a form, and the flow of the melody created a tempo. The rikkyoku style is believed to have been the basis for many of the distinguishing features of Japanese music, and was later connected to the creation of Japanese traditional music. Which is to say, rikkyoku is musical and songlike whereas, in ryokyoku, chanting strikes the listener as being a stronger element. When structured, as in rikkyoku or music in general, singing becomes a method of communication between human beings. It is a method similar to speaking, which is structured by grammar. However, chanting is the act of linking oneself, as a human being, to God using the spiritual power of the voice. This is, at least, the ideal on which shomyo as it is found in esoteric Buddhism is based.
What is Ryokyoku?
Personally, I am more attracted to the difficulty of ryokyoku than I am to the ease of rikkyoku. The ryokyoku compositions all seem to sound about the same and have few distinctive characteristics. There is no melody to stick in your head, since there are only a few intervals to begin with, and no changes in pitch. If you listen to ryokyoku for one minute, you might assume that the piece will continue on in about the same way until the end, making it difficult to concentrate on the music and easy to start feeling sleepy. Shomyo isn't the only music like this. Similar characteristics can be found in the music of great ceremonies such as the Nobeyahyoshi style of gagaku (Japanese imperial court music), and gending in the Indonesian gamelan. That is, formless compositions created in sound. Not music in which a form is created by sound. Not something firm and easily broken like form, but rather something flexible and free. For that reason, this music is vague and incoherent, and as a musical form, it remains incomplete.
How to Listen to Music
After becoming charmed by music like ryokyoku, the way I listen to music has changed: I have begun to listen to music with my inside. Although I was at first attracted to it, after chanting ryokyoku a few times, I found I couldn't remember it at all, thought it was boring after all, and for some reason, started to feel irritated. I think this was because there was something inside me that continued to try and catch the music. But I finally gave up and began to let my body become submerged in the sound. Then even though I didn't understand the form, the sound began to come inside me. There was no form, but I felt myself resonating with and being enveloped by the sound, and by allowing this to happen, I experienced a feeling of well-being, and so, began to understand the sound. The way that I had studied and listened to music up until that point had been to draw on my past knowledge and refer to every conceivable form, formula, grammar, language, principle, and idea. Then by finding something even slightly applicable, I would find some place to start, and try to listen to and remember the music. This method had been extremely effective in every other genre. But for ryokyoku, it just wasn't valid. By throwing out all the formulas and facing the sound, I began to see the sound itself as it was. The sound of ryo(kyoku), then, demanded that I throw away everything.
How Sound Should Be
The sound of ryo doesn't appear according to the music, it appears when all of the formulas are thrown away. It makes no difference whether the music is heard and understood through the existence of one's self, the sound of ryo is sound that exists either with or without the self. Disciples of Tendai shomyo chant to reach this state of mind. Among other methods of ascetic practice, there is a form of meditation called shikan in Tendai. Ryokyoku is a guide toward this state of mind. Ryokyoku itself is the power of sound. In this way, ryokyoku allows you to see sound or fill the body with sound until the beat of your life and the oscillations of sound become one. When you have the sensation that your entire body is listening, or that you have become sound itself, you can remember the composition. Moreover, sound doesn't have an opposing relationship to the self that is suggested by expressions such as, "I memorized that music," but naturally becomes a part of your body. The sound moves your body and this allows you to chant. Sound that becomes one with you tries to take you to another place. In the sound of ryo, there exists the power to lead you in many directions.
Where the Sound Leads
In both gending in gamelan music and ryokyoku, the first sound is expressed in a weakened manner. It feels as if you are being pulled toward or falling to the final sound. When listening to either gending or ryokyoku, it seems as if you are counting backwards in time to find out how long it will take to reach the final sound. Then the final sound brings with it a slight feeling of happiness. This was the opposite of every kind of music I had heard until that point: compositions that stimulated me, compositions that called up my emotions, impressive compositions, intelligent compositions, and in one sense, the opposite of all music that contained some form of tension. In these kinds of compositions, the first sounds give form to the rest of the music. And whether the first sounds are strong or weak, or the number of sounds is many or few, they create a situation in which music can be made. The place, where it is made, is then filled with the life force of the new sound and the more sound is made, the more it seems to take on the qualities of human life. Yet what happens after the last sound in shomyo is "death." Or, a situation in which physical energy is lost and spiritual energy is increased. The soul and spirit fill the place and it seems as if a messenger is coming to accompany you to the next world. But just because you chant ryokyoku, doesn't mean that you will die. There's no reason to think your life span will be shortened either. It is an experience of temporary death. There are several sections (like those at the end of sentences) that are scattered within each ryokyoku--and these can be thought of as "little deaths." After experiencing several of these little deaths, at the very end of the ryokyoku a "big death" occurs. This too is to me a feeling of bliss. It is an affirmative feeling toward the thought of death. This is the goal of the religious activity of chanting. And to mention ascetic practice again, whether it is meditation, some other austerity, or chanting, I believe that it is all practice for death .
What is Chanting?
Five years have passed since I first started to chant shomyo. In that time, I have heard comments like these over and over again: "Why do you chant shomyo in front of an audience?," or, "If you're going to chant, do it at home by yourself." I think these comments probably arise from the puzzled feeling people get when they see chanting occur before their eyes. This is because more than a regular singer's performance, there is something about shomyo that people find unforgivably unsightly. It makes them consider their own ideas about religion and makes me appear to be selfish to be involved in an activity that should be extremely selfless. Chanting shomyo makes something appear. In other words, an idea is not being expressed through sound. Nor is it being used to try and explain something. Chanting makes something appear through the act of chanting. I feel that this something is the "universe" as well as "truth." This also allows us to feel relaxed and be at peace. But my voice is still a prisoner of my body and my self can still be seen. This is why I must practice death day-after-day. More than the physical effort it takes to practice death, it becomes important to ask yourself how aware you have become. Awareness is a state separated from things, a state in which the heart is released and can be free. This is because it has become possible to go to and return from the world of the dead. This is not a physical technique, it is a kamuwaza (a Shinto term meaning 'superhuman feat'), the art of separating the spiritual from the physical. To realize peace through this art, I believe I must continue the ascetic practice of chanting.

The following events featuring performances by SAKURAI Makiko had to be canceled due to the earthquake: February 1, 1995 (Wed.): SAKURAI Makiko Workshop: "In Search of the Origin of the Voice--The Voice of Buddhism (on Shomyo)" February 3, 1995 (Fri.): "Banrei no Hibiki (The Sound of 10,000 Spirits)"
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