Essay on Shomyo "On the Shichiseikai "

Sanzenin Temple (Ohara, Kyoto)

I had long hoped to visit Ohara, famous as the heartland of shomyo (Buddhist sutra chanting), and that wish finally came true. Toward the middle of April, I went to Sanzenin Temple in the Ohara region of Kyoto Prefecture for the first time. April saw the return of cold weather, and the cherry blossoms, which would normally have long since been scattered, were still on the trees. By now, Sanzenin has become one of Kyoto's must-see temples for tourists, and like other famous temples, there is a sense of commotion in the air. Yet, there is no doubt that long ago the quiet village of Ohara, isolated as it is from the secular world, was the perfect environment for the monks to practice their music.
The pamphlet describes it this way, "The entire Ohara area, known some 1,000 years ago as Gyozan [literally, Fish Mountain], prospered as a site for practicing Tendai shomyo (Buddhist music), and earned the faith of those in search of a peaceful death. The sound of the monks' chanting must have carried from the banks of the two rivers, the Ritsu and the Ryo, that lie on either side of the upper temple, Raigoin, and the lower temple, Shorinin, deep within the trees, and as far as the stones along the roadside." Until reading this explanation, I had thought there was an actual mountain called Gyozan in Ohara. But apparently there isn't, it's just a name used to refer to the entire area. At any rate, Gyozan was a name that was widely known as a center for shomyo practice, and eventually, became synonymous with shomyo. This is evident from the names of shomyo anthologies such as the priest Sokai's Gyozan Mokuroku (from the thirteenth century) and the esoteric Buddhist text, Gyozan Taigaishu.
The two narrow rivers that flow on either side of the upper temple have not only lent their names to the two types of shomyo, but also to the two modes used in all Japanese traditional music. (I'd like to deal with this in another article in greater detail.)


Incidentally, the name Gyozan is not originally Japanese. In the Abhidharmakosa, it is noted that the shape of Mount Chiji, the seventh mountain in the Kyusanhakkai (literally, "nine mountains, eight seas") area near Mount Sumeru, resembled a fish according to ancient Indian cosmographers. There is also a mountain with the same name in Shandong Province in China, which like Ohara was famous as a base for shomyo seminaries. So, Gyozan and Buddhist music were originally linked together by the historical traditions of China. Here's how: There was a man called Caozhi, who was the fourth child of Wudi of Wei (an ancient country in what is now China). It is said that Caozhi was a brilliant scholar and that he could effortlessly read Buddhist scripture. Once, when Caozhi was visiting Gyozan, he heard the sound of Bonten (Brahma) emanating out of nowhere. Deeply moved, he copied down the melody and created the first shomyo score. In its role as a base for Tendai shomyo seminaries, Ohara then has strong connections to ancient Indian cosmology and China traditions. It might sound a bit farfetched, but one of the reasons I developed an interest in shomyo was that both Indian classical music and shomyo share the world view and musical outlook of ancient India.

The Oldest Musical Form

It is quite surprising to learn that Buddhist prayers and shomyo, or the form of chanting words organized in musical phrases, has continued for thousands of years. To the priests, this was just a part of everyday life. And although it may not even have struck them as music, shomyo is certainly one of the oldest forms of music in the world that has continued until the present day. Vedic chanting, begun by the Brahmin of ancient India, also continues today. It is part of the same tradition that has kept Japanese Buddhist shomyo alive for such a long time. One can imagine from reading the Natya Sastra (an ancient Indian treatise on music theory completed between the second and sixth centuries B.C.) that despite a variety of changes that occurred along the way in each era, vedic chanting has not changed all that much and the basic structure of the music is similar to that of ancient times. Music as entertainment began later in India and continues as an artistic form adhering to a complicated set of theories as the classical music of today. If one views the existence of Japanese Buddhist sutra and shomyo as being linked to the chanting methods of the ancient Indian Brahmin, it is truly amazing to see how the tradition has superseded both space and time, and endured.

Toward an Interest in Shomyo

My interest in the chanting of sutra and shomyo by Buddhist monks was stimulated by the first event I organized in Japan after coming back from India. Titled "Memorial Rite for the Three Founders: Buddhist Mantra with Indian and Middle-Eastern Music--The Arrival of Heavenly Music from the West," it was held in 1987 in front of the main hall at Chionin Temple. Until that point, I had never heard of anyone consciously describing sutra chanting as "music." Perhaps this applies to most people, but I for one had never been able to think of shomyo as music. The first things that sprang to my mind when I heard it were funerals and memorial services, and I could never quite get past the stink of the incense. But in the process of going through rehearsals with the monks, I remember feeling deeply impressed by the musicality of the thing. This was related I think to the sheer volume of their natural voices and the harmonic overtones that arose from the chorus of singular voices that should logically have been limited to a handful of sounds fairly lacking in changes. I also found out that some monks were better than others at continuing to chant and going on to the next phrase, and that their skill and the "blessing" of the sutra were subjects of conversation among them. It was this experience that made me start to view Buddhist ceremony in a new light. The ceremonies are in fact "complex" performances that integrate music with movement and employ tools of the Buddhist altar such as the mokugyo (fish-shaped wooden slit drum), hachi (vessel-shaped wooden drum), hyoshigi (wooden clappers), and various sizes of bells as percussion instruments to accompany the "vocals."

Religion, the Source of Secular Music

I am by no means suggesting that this point-of-view was my own "discovery"; it was simply a commonplace notion that I had never before realized. It is clear that religion and music have been indivisible elements from the outset. There is probably no need to cite such obvious examples as Christianity, the origin of Western music, and Islam (with the exception of secular vocal and dance music) with its beautiful azan(the call to ritual prayer often given from a minaret or mosque) to make the point that shomyo and Buddhism are just as closely linked. Religion has continually been one of the major sources of secular music and controls the degree to which it is viewed as an independent form of entertainment. This is just as true of Japanese traditional music, on which shomyo and sutra chanting are thought to have exerted a great influence. In his book, Buddhist Music and Shomyo, the late Buddhist musicologist OYAMA Kojun writes, "There is no other choice but to suppose that many of the fundaments of Japanese vocal music have their genesis in shomyo." The late KOIZUMI Fumio, an ethnomusicologist who has had an enormous impact in the field, too, believed that shomyo provided the basis for Japanese popular songs and folk ballads. While the music of sutra chanting and shomyo are at once a means of encouraging faith, propagating religious beliefs, and conducting ceremonies, among the monks who practice them, there are undoubtedly a great number who are attracted to the beauty of the music itself. The music created by these people also serves as a link between regular people and their faith. In his work Shomyo Genryuki, the priest Gyonen Daitoku (d. 1321) recorded these thoughts, "To the ear of each and every man, there is delight to be found in an encounter with the purity and elegance of the voice; to the heart of one and all there is solace to be taken in the sorrow and warmth of the sound." Priests such as Jakugen, who founded Shorinin in 1014, which might well be called the "temple of Buddhist music in Ohara," and Ryonin, who founded Raigoin in 1098, seem to have been trying to increase the delight and solace in shomyo as a music.

Contemporary Shomyo

Even now, roughly 1,000 years since the age of Jakugen and Ryonin, the tradition of shomyo is flourishing. Recently, performances of shomyo are being giving in foreign countries. Contemporary music composers have created new forms of shomyo. The monks, however, while being an essential element, appear in comparison to have been overly content with the traditions of shomyo and lacking the will to invent new techniques and works of their own. While tradition is something that is regulated by firm conventions, performance is something that is constantly new, and as in Indian classical music, a magnanimous attitude toward new interpretations and creations is vital. Without this, tradition dies. For the beautiful music that is shomyo to have a wider appeal and provide the ears and hearts of its listeners with delight and solace, there is, after all, a need for innovation and imagination on the part of the monks, though shomyo's religious ties don't make this a simple undertaking.
The Shichiseikai (literally, "seven-voice group") is a shomyo practice group composed of young, Kyoto monks from the Jodo sect of Buddhism. Since last year, I have been recording their shomyo and songs of praise at a temple in Kyoto. The initial exhilaration I felt from shomyo at the Chionin event, the close kinship I discovered between Indian music and shomyo, and the dangers I have mentioned regarding tradition--these are the things that motivate me to continue this work.