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Buddhist Music Comes West

2009年04月02日 09:36:00 佛教在线 点击:0

Heng Sure, PhD

Board President of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association

Buddhism in the West has reached its second century. If the Asian experience of Buddhist history is any judge, it may be another hundred years before a truly indigenous Western Buddhism flourishes here in the Americas and Europe. So you might say that we in the West are still in our bridge phase, or to borrow a Northern California tree crop metaphor, we are still grafting an Asian cultivar to our North American rootstock. In Mendocino County, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is surrounded by orchards of walnuts, pears and grapevines. They are mostly hybrids, the results of grafting. Native California rootstocks are disease and bug resistant, but maybe not too flavorful. When a skillful vintner or horticulturist grafts a bud from an exotic and delicious, but fragile Manchurian variety onto the hardy California rootstock, in a year or two the result is a disease-free, bug resistant and tasty new hybrid.

My experience with Chinese Buddhist music exemplifies the hybrid principle. Having immersed myself in Chinese Buddhist sacred music for three decades I have learned that at heart, in terms of music appreciation, I’m deeply a product of my Western upbringing. But I have discovered riches in Chinese sacred music that I intend to carry across the bridge into the West.

What survived past the first century of Indian Buddhist music’s advent in China? Only a trace of Sanskrit gathas, some names and terms, and the basic practices of reciting precepts, chanting sutras, mantras and praises. The rest of the liturgy was eventually replaced or hybridized by Chinese forms as Buddhism became Chinese. I predict the same thing will happen in the West. The Chinese adapted  Indian Buddhist music; the West will adapt Chinese Buddhist music to our tastes. And we will have a tasty hybrid.

What will survive? Probably the essence of chanted sound, some experience beyond words and culturally bound melody.

For example, on board a ferry boat in the South China Sea, I witnessed the power of Buddhist music to heal the heart, beyond culture, beyond language. In the predawn darkness of Puji Monastery’s Buddha hall that morning, I had seen local fisher folk, both woman and men, wearing yellow rubber boots and overalls, bowing to Guan Yin Bodhisattva before getting in their boats and heading out to sea. I met them again at sunrise, they were the crew of the ferry boat we rode, lurching across the waves to the distant rock that was Loqie Mountain. We were heading for the smaller of two islands dedicated to Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva, (Avalokiteshvara) the Awakened Being of Great Compassion. We were going to inspect the new temples for tourists that were rising once again from the foundations of the past.

The boat was a small, sturdy diesel, and the winds picked up as we roared through the troughs. Twenty passengers huddled in groups beneath the rail or braved the wind and spray on benches on the open deck. Our craft seemed at times to be making negative headway; the crests threw us back farther than we were advancing through the troughs. The wind was howling and we were beginning to regret having come out. At that point an elderly woman in a raincoat, sitting on a overturned bucket began to sing out loud, seemingly to herself, with her eyes closed. A older nun in a gray cap from Potala Mountain immediately joined in from the front of the boat. I saw their mouths move but the wind and engine roar obscured the song.

I couldn’t tell the song from the wind but by the third chorus their keening, wailing chant rode atop the wind. It was a strangely familiar tune, that may have awakened a distant memory; I knew I hadn’t heard it before, not through my ears. How could it be so familiar?  Their melody was as wild as the ocean, it went deep inside my inner ear or was it through my skin, like a vibration? The song was Guan Yin’s own voice, but put into the air by Guan Yin’s water clan; people who relied on her compassionate vows to keep them alive amid the waves and wind.

The song ignited my mindfulness; I found myself reciting along with the chorus, _Namo dabei guanshi yin pusa,_ spontaneously, without having made a conscious decision to do so. As I chanted, the sacred name and the keening melody calmed my heart and replaced my apprehension at the size of the pounding waves and the fragility of our craft. The sound was as ageless as the sea and as eternal as the needs of the humans who crossed it. Buddhist music in China had become an engine that kept sailors afloat through the countless autumns. Whether it was Buddhist or not as the boat pitched in the waves was irrelevant; this was an essential healing sound, from the human heart that anybody could understand.

I recalled a passage from the _Universal Door Chapter_ of the Lotus Sutra,

_Be mindful of the strength of Guan Yin Bodhisattva,

You’ll float atop the waves and will not drown._

Guan Yin Bodhisattva hears the cries of living beings and responds to us wherever we are, perhaps she appears in sound itself, and bestows courage.

Yet the translation of sacred Buddhist music to the West is not entirely smooth sailing. At Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco, where I left home and trained as a Novice, when chanting, everybody followed the an earlier generation of Western monks and nuns from the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, who traveled to Taiwan to receive their ordination. They picked up what they could of the ceremonies at the time. But because they were Westerners, with Western musical sensibilities, when we heard their performance of Chinese Buddhist liturgy, our group often reproduced it inaccurately. In some cases our emphasis was wrong, or our phrasing; sometimes the melody or the pronunciation was more Western than Eastern. Our teacher, the late Chan Master Hsuan Hua corrected us once, twice, three times, but at some point, he let the inevitable evolution of cultural encounter take place.

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