Glory in mind, Chinese monks restart a Buddhist musical odyssey

Xinhua News, Nov 15, 2005

Beijing, China -- To Buddhist Master Longjiang, listening to popular music is an act that infringes upon his faith. Even the great names in classic music are as strange as the world's remotest corner.

"Beethoven?" he shook his head and gazed reporter with a blank face as if reporter were from another planet. "Mozart?" he again shook his head.

"I've never heard about them before," the 80-year-old Buddhist master replied while sitting in a room surrounded by drums at the Grand Xiangguo Temple, a noted Buddhist monastery in Kaifeng, an ancient city along the mud-clogged Yellow River in central China.

When it comes to Buddhist music, however, Master Longjiang was recognized without question as one of the most skillful monks at the monastery that was once known for its band and religious melodies.

First built in 555 AD, the temple, whose current name means the Monastery of Great Assistance to State, has its prestige and influence reach the peak during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and became the intercourse arena for poets, artists, musicians, and the commons and nobles because of its close connection with the royal family and its outstanding music.

Though such devotion and tradition in the temple survived numerous wars, floods and dynasties replacement, the temple's splendor was dilapidated and fell to its bottom in 1927 when warlord Feng Yuxiang, then ruler of Henan Province, ordered his soldiers to expel the monks and turn the site into a market. It became a Buddhist monastery in 1992 again.

To revive Buddhism and reclaim the temple's glory in music, the abbot Great Master Xinguang selected 22 full-time musician monks, mostly young monks older than 15, to reorganize a Buddhist musical band in 2002.

"As part of Buddhist culture," said Master Yuanjie, the band's deputy head, "Buddhist music has its broadness and profoundness, it contains sacred chanting and instrumental music."

"Our temple has a great past in Buddhist music and we just need to pick up the lost part of it," he said, "Master Longjiang is our treasure."

Longjiang is currently the only monk in the band who knows how to play certain musical instruments and read the musical staff.

The instrument Yuanjie mentioned was called "bili", a 20-cm long flute-like tin tube with seven holes. Other instruments used by the band members include wooden fish, tambourine, flute, horn and a Yamaha electronic organ.

"You need some energy to play the 'bili'," said Longjiang, "you can't make a sound if you are not strong enough."

Longjiang once bet Yuanjie, 26, a lunch that Yuanjie couldn't blow the flute-like instrument. And he won.

"It is all a result of hard practice," said the 80-year-old master. He said he heard Buddhist music for the first time when he was 12 and decided to convert to the religion.

Generation difference is evident within the Buddhist band. For example, Longjiang can only read the staff while those young monks only know about the numbered musical scores.

The Nike sock wearing by some young monks and their interest in computer installed with Microsoft's Windows system also reflect their connection to the outside world.

"Compared with our generation, few young people now can endure the hardship during training," Longjiang said. "If you don't give things, you can't get things."

To train those young musician monks, the temple has invested 2 million yuan (about 125,000 US dollars) during the past three years to buy instruments and invited professional musicians to instruct the band.

"To keep its life, Buddhist music must keep its youth," Master Yuanjie said.