Scholar speaks on globalization of Buddhist music

by Anna Nguyen, The Arkansas Traveller, Oct 27, 2008

Fayetteville, Arkansas (USA) -- For the final lecture of the East Asian Week series, Hwee-San Tan presented her research on "Sounds of the Human World: Globalizing Buddhist Music As An Expression of Spirituality" last Thursday, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Early Asian and Middle Eastern Musics.

Dr. Tan is a long-standing colleague whom we meet most often at the annual meetings of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research," said Elizabeth Markham, UA professor of ethnomusicology. "[Her] lecture brought us an aspect of musical globalization we would be most unlikely to know anything about here at the University of Arkansas."

"Tan completed a Ph.D in ethnomusicology and a post-doctoral fellowship in the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, where she is a research associate. She researches Buddhist rituals for the dead and its liturgical music in Fujian and northeastern China and Taiwan and also examines modern Buddhist songs.

"I became interested in Buddhist music when I first heard a performance of Buddhist liturgical music by monks from Tianjin and also when I acted as an interpreter for Professor Tian Qing, Buddhist music expert in Beijing's Music Research Institute," Tan said.

During her presentation, Tan discussed the origins of traditional Buddhist music and the modernization and globalization of the music, which has become a phenomenon. Traditional Buddhist music has a long history, originating in India. In the first century, the primary focus of Buddhism was the translation on sutras, but in the sixth and seventh centuries the music began to change, Tan said.

"Buddhist music came from India, brought by central Asian monks who translated it," she said. The development of music became known as early as the 14th century, where it was performed at rituals for the dead for filial piety and paying respects to ancestors. Notable changes began to occur in 1966, when a monk name Master Xingyun from Mainland China founded the Foguangshan monastery, which promotes the idea of a humanistic view of Buddhist practices, a modern Chinese Buddhist philosophy developed in the 20th century, Tan said.

In 2003, Xingyun wrote more than 200 Buddhist lyrics and openly invited people who were also interested in writing lyrics. The contest, known as "Sounds of the Human World," became an annual competition held in Taipei, Taiwan, and song entries are from a myriad of languages, such as Korean, French, Portuguese, and German, promoted by the Foguangshan branches worldwide, Tan said.

"[The competition] is a modern attempt, but it is not the first attempt to introduce Buddhism," she said. "Since its [mainstream] arrival in the 1950s, many have been trying to introduce it.

"Buddhism was branded as a 'religion of the dead,' and the revival of it began during the Buddhist Reform Movement by a monk name Taixu," she said. "He promoted a modern ideology of religion for the living and coined the term 'living Buddhism' [Rensheng Fojiao]."

During the 1930s, a monk named Hongyi responded to Taixu's call to modernize Buddhism by composing new Buddhist songs. This was an era for social change and to throw away baggage from imperialism, she said.

"It was not a new movement, but a continuation of modernizing ideas to try to attract the youth," Tan said.

The "Song of the Triple Gem," lyrics written by Taixu and the music composed by Hongyi in the 1930s, became the Buddhist anthem but it is "not used in ritualistic practice, which says something about the Buddhist movement," Tan said.

Popular music in the "Sounds of the Human World" competition is an important aspect, making pop music prevalent by fusing Western sounds.

"[On a personal judgment] it's rather painful at times to listen to the music," said Tan, who also said that the songs are produced in five CDs every year. "It can become trivial and banal." However, Tan notes that the music is an emblem of modernity and is a tool for creating solidarity in society to the youth.

Because of the modernity that the competition heavily invests in trying to globalize Buddhism, the question of authenticity is constantly posed. Song entries for the competition include a variety of music genres, such as hip-hop, pop and classical. The songs have moved away from being overly religious and generally deal with world peace and the promotion of compassion, Tan said.

Tan said the model of Buddhism is just beginning to expand and it's too early to assume its impact on long-term goals.

"At the end of the day, the meaning of the words are important and will reach out to people," she said. "Music first pleases the ear and attracts the audience."