Music in Buddhism

The bangkok Post, Nov 26, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand -- The first impression the general public may have of Buddhism is how it turns its back away from worldly pleasure. While that might be true, there is a role for music, one of life's worldly and heavenly pleasures, in Buddhism.

For example, when Prince Siddhattha left his worldly life behind and became an ascetic, he first studied under many respected gurus of the time and found no effective way to reach the end of all physical and mental sufferings. That was when he decided to embark on his own path and tried different experiments.

During his time, there were two major schools of thought regarding how to reach the end of sufferings. The first school taught that, in order to conquer all your mental defilements and thus reach the end of sufferings, you have to follow your heart's every desire. Their reasoning is that, once you have fed your desires to one point, you will feel bored of it all and would not have any more desires and become Enlightened.

But Prince Siddhattha was a crown prince who has had it all and still felt that he is nowhere near Enlightenment. Therefore, it was natural for him to choose the second school of thought, which is to deprive yourself of all worldly pleasures and to torture yourself to the extreme. This school of thought believed that, when you have deprived yourself of everything, your desires will become weak and eventually disappear.

Being a very determined man, the Prince took to his task seriously. It could be said that he took all the extreme measures of torturing and went even further. At one point, he went as far as not eating more than one single pea a day in order to starve his body and hopefully to kill his desires.

Again, as we now know, that extreme measure did not work. In fact, Prince Siddhattha was on the verge of dying as he collapsed one day. The Devas, heavenly sentient beings, saw what happened and thought they had to give the Prince some clues. So, one Deva disguised himself as a young man travelling on a boat along the river, passing by where the Prince was collapsing.

And what did the Deva-cum-young man do? He played a harp. At first, he tuned the strings of his harp too tight and the sound did not come out right. The second time, he tuned the strings too loose. Naturally, the sound was also awful. It was only the third time, when the young man tuned his strings just right _ not too tight and not too loose _ that the music came out perfect.

Upon hearing what happened, Prince Siddhattha , with his innate wisdom, knew instinctively what to do. He realised that neither the harshest way nor the most lax would yield the best result. It's got to be the Middle Path _ not too harsh, yet not too lax. That was when he decided to eat again, but moderately, and tried cultivating his mind along the same idea, meaning not getting too deep into the samadhi, or concentration, but merely observing things as they are in the present moment. The latter practice is vipassana meditation and is also the heart of Zen practice.

After the Prince changed to the Middle Path, it did not take long for him to become Enlightened. And since the harp playing helped trigger his wisdom, it can be said that music also held a great role in the Enlightenment of the Prince who would then be known as Lord Buddha.

Centuries afterwards in Japan, music also had a role in the spread of Buddhism. Around the 12th century, travelling monks would recite The Tale of the Heike, a war chronicle teaching the Buddhist Law of Impermanence, to the accompaniment of the biwa, a musical instrument similar to the lute.

Then, between the 13th to 19th centuries, there was this practice called suizen where Fuke monks would play the shakuhachi bamboo flute as a form of meditation in order to attain self-realisation. Fuke monks would play the shakuhachi while wearing a large woven basket hat that covered their entire head as they went on pilgrimage. The idea was perhaps to shield their eyes from the worldly pleasures and helped them concentrate better on their musical meditation.

However, the sect started to see its demise during the Tokugawa Period (1608-1868). Totally oriented to retaining their dictatorship, the Tokugawa government imposed a travel ban on the citizens. They could not travel to other provinces freely and needed difficult-to-obtain travelling documents. The exception, however, was given to the Fuke monks, since they were considered pilgrims. This way, the Tokugawa government disguised many masterless samurai, the ronin, as monks so they could travel across the country as spies.

After the demise of the sect with the modernisation of Japan, Fuke Zen has seen a slow recovery today. If the monks can play flutes as a form of meditation, so can we. Do you play any kind of musical instrument? If so, have you ever considered using it to cultivate your mind and develop your wisdom so that you might attain self-realisation and thus Enlightenment one day?

If you are interested in how music and the power of being here and now can turn your life around, you may want to consider going to a mindfulness meditation retreat first to learn the ropes of what it is like to practice vipassana or Zen meditation.

From there, you can easily apply the idea to your musical pastime. Hey, you never know - Enlightenment might just be around the next few notes!