The importance of music as a vital part of spiritual practice and religious culture is acknowledged by all the major religions of the world. However, of the great religions Buddhism alone seems to have trouble finding a place for music. The contemplative sage requires the nourishment of silence as much as the nourishment of food. In fact, sometimes a monk deliberately will go without food to take refuge in a lonely place where he may be certain his meditations will not be disturbed.
For an advanced meditator, a world of silence without music or social chitchat might be a beautiful thing, indeed even a requisite. However the majority of human beings would feel that something important, even essential is missing from their lives. By popular demand, music is not going away any time soon. How can Buddhist society find a proper place for it?
The primary function of music in society is to communicate moods—emotional values. Unfortunately, the vast majority of music today, and probably in most times and places, is not at all noble but crass and dull. The more selfish, venal and superficial the ideas and moods of a performer’s music, the more popular the artist seems to become. This tends to give music a bad reputation among thoughtful meditative people who are serious about self-realization.
If music has any place in authentic spiritual life and Buddhist culture (and I’m hopeful that it can), it would have to express moods and ideas conducive to spiritual elevation. Let’s see if we can find a place where music can contribute to the Noble Eightfold Path, and then examine in more detail the kind and style of music that would fit those requirements.
The very beginning of the Noble Eightfold Path is the stage of Faith. At this stage the aspirant is still very much in the world, is deluded by many cares and attachments to false things, quite attached and sensitive to the impulses of sentimental moods. The purpose of the stage of Faith is to overcome the ignorance of selfish desire with desire for the Path. This provides the impetus, and the method is to accumulate merit. The means in this stage is to hear from the Buddha, either directly from the Suttas or from a realized contemporary teacher. This hearing should be done in an assembly of admirable friends who already have some experience with and confidence in the Teaching and the Path.
These assemblies of the faithful are an excellent venue for appropriate musical performances. The music should engender values of nobility and compassion and express sentiments of introspection, tranquility and gentleness. It should encourage people to give up passionate attachment and yearn for the inexpressible beauty of Emptiness. The best type of music cultivates the moods associated with the spiritual life: detachment, calm contemplation, beauty, and a certain kind of heroism born of the certainty that we all have the power to realize the highest truths independently.
The Vedic science of rasa-tattva details the basis of the expressive laws of music, dance, drama and the other fine arts. In this system the peaceful, detached mood favored by the Buddha and his followers is called neutrality (śānta-rasa):
“The supporting moods of neutrality are servitorship (prīti-rasa), disgust with conditioned material existence (bībhatsa-rasa), heroic determination to attain realization at any cost (dharma-vīra-rasa) and a sense of wonder at the exalted beauty revealed by deep meditative states (adbhuta-rasa). The passionate sentiments of erotic love (madhura-rasa) and the fighting spirit of warriors (yuddha-vīra-rasa) are the enemies of śānta-rasa. Anger (raudra-rasa) and fear (bhayānaka-rasa) are the enemies of both those who are self-satisfied by detachment and self-realization (ātmārāma-śānta-rasa), and those who are still on the path to that attainment (tapasvi-śānta-rasa).” — (adapted from my edition of Śrī Bhakti-rasāmrta-sindhu by Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī)
Thus the five principal moods—neutrality, servitorship, parenthood, friendship and romantic love—are listed in descending order of favorability for our purposes. Of the seven secondary moods of astonishment, enthusiasm, humor, lamentation, anger, fear and disgust or hatred, only the first two are of any value to our objective.
The exclusion of passionate and negative moods means the vast majority of popular and even classical music is unsuitable for Buddhist venues. But specially purpose-composed music in the primary mood of neutrality supported by secondary moods of astonishment and enthusiasm will do very nicely. Now that we have the beginning of a specification, we can discover which musical forms are suitable for our purposes.
The Indian raga system already contains many such forms. The pentatonic scale has long been associated with spiritual moods and association. But if we compromise just a little and also allow some religious moods of servitorship and family sentiment, we can use the seven diatonic scale modes as well. This allows much more harmonic freedom of expression, giving us a palette of great flexibility. However, as a general rule we want to avoid modulation and chromatic harmony.
The exclusion of passionate moods would restrict us to music without tempo (alap or atempo), and in the lower range of tempo (30-80 beats per minute). Odd-numbered rhythmic cycles—3, 5, 7 or more beats—incline the listener toward meditation. Heavy drums would also be undesirable, in favor of light percussion such as tabla and similar instruments. This aesthetic would also preclude loud instruments, huge orchestras and big concerts. A small ensemble in an intimate setting is best.
A more subtle point regarding musical form. Common recognizable forms like ABA, AABA, sonata form etc. lead the listener to looking anticipate a set of culturally-conditioned musical structures. The mind tends to get ahead of itself and drift into trying to predict the future. To encourage staying in the moment and experiencing the music instead of predicting it, we should avoid familiar repetitive forms. This principle would guide us toward improvisation rather than set arrangements, creating unique and unpredictable performances.
Certain musical forms and rhythms come with cultural associations that automatically make them undesirable. Rock music, with its ubiquitous backbeat, is inevitably associated with passion and enjoying spirit. Heavy metal is dark, misanthropic and misogynist. Rap and hip-hop express violent inner-city anger and greed. Reggae sings of a dissolute life of irresponsibility. Modern classical music has become empty of purpose and popular support. Various ethnic forms like Latin, Blues and Indian have their own unique cultural associations, which we also would like to avoid.
There is certainly a need for a uniquely Buddhist style of music that would serve to incline the listener toward spiritual moods and values. Possibly traditional Buddhist devotional prayers could be set as hymns, punctuated with soft, gentle improvisations that inspire and support contemplation of their meaning. The aim of Buddhist meditation practice, realization of emptiness, must be accomplished in silence. But those in the beginning stages of the path can benefit from the encouragement and moral support of properly composed and carefully performed music.