Notes on the Nembutsu
Reflections on the wasan of Shinran

Jodo Wasan 39

The delicate, wondrous sounds of jewel-trees
        in the jewel-forests
Are a naturally pure and harmonious music,
Unexcelled in subtlety and elegance,
So take refuge in Amida, the music of purity.

Pure Music

Perhaps samvrti satya - the worldly or encapsulated, enveloped aspect of the 'two truths' - can afford an opportunity to assist us in the movement towards liberation. The two truths work in a synergy. The dharma constantly descends into the world of illusion and wandering for the sake of suffering beings. So music, too, has a place in the scheme of salvation and liberation. Here, Shinran Shonin, in keeping with the sutras, expounds the meaning of the transformed land (keshindo) - as being the repesentation of the ideal world of the dharma. And music is one of the instruments of spiritual awakening.

In the world, music describes a plethora of genera. It includes rap, rock, dance, nightclub, swing, jazz, 'classical'1 and a huge repertoire of sounds and structures. In the Buddha Dharma, however, the purpose of music is to encourage in us a reflective, introspective, calm and joyful disposition so that we can deepen our understanding.

While much western music has the power to assist us in this way, much of it does not. A lot of music stirs the passions - sometimes unwelcome passions. Much music of the nineteenth century, (the 'romantic' era), is very stirring and while it is delightful and beautiful - and very much to be celebrated and enjoyed - it is not useful in a Buddhist sense. Those of us who love music are fortunate that as well as the stirring, arousing and moving music that we so much enjoy, there is also a class of music within our very own tradition that resembles the description of music in the Pure Land: 'natural, serene' and replete with 'pathos, grace, elegance, and resonance'.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) comes close in the sense that it is balanced, harmonious, conducive to introspection, calm and joy. In our times I think, for example, that the music of Philip Glass (b. 1937) is full of 'pathos, grace and elegance'; it always induces me to contemplate my bonno and my distance from the pure music of keshindo while, at the same, time focussing my heart and mind onto some inexplicable pure point or surface. It goes without saying that Philip Glass is influenced by his Indian friend Ravi Shankar.

Henryk Górecki is an immensely popular composer who touches some Buddhist sensibilities very well in his sounds; and there are many others - for example the Australian composers Ross edwards and Graeme Koehne, perhaps.

However closely the instrumental, vocal and orchestral music of the European post-enlightenment may approach the 'pathos, grace, elegance, and resonance' of the dharma, there is nothing ultimately Buddhist about it. Almost all post-enlightenment themes and modalities are designed to contruct and enhance ego, stir sometimes unhelpful emotions and convey ideas and opinions. Buddhist music, on the other hand, is essentially redolent with emptiness, of shunyata; it pacifies, engenders harmony, inspires yoga, union, prajna, wisdom, and karuna, compassion.

The primary musical form in the Buddhist dispensation is the chanting of the teachings of the Buddha and the sangha. There are two kinds of chanting. One is the recitation of Buddhist teachings in a monotone (dokkyo) and the other incorporates melodies (shomyo) as when, in the Shin liturgy, we chant the wasan and the nembutsu. Sometimes musical instruments are used in Buddhist orchestras to convey the same themes as the chanting of sutras; the music of - not the European enlightenment, but - the enlightenment of the Buddha, emptiness, not-self, compassion, peace, harmony and joy.


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