The Way of Jodo Shinshu
Reflections on the Hymns of Shinran Shonin

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' 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.

Much music of the nineteenth century, (the 'romantic' era), is delightful and beautiful and very much to be celebrated and enjoyed. 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.

The primary musical form in the Buddhist dispensation is the chanting of the teachings of the Buddha and the sangha. Sometimes musical instruments are used in Buddhist orchestras to convey the same themes as the chanting of sutras; the music of the enlightenment of the Buddha, emptiness, not-self, compassion, peace, harmony and joy.

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