Beliefnet
Every school of Buddhism shares a common liturgical tool: music. Across all the traditions, dating back two millennia to the time of the Buddha, monks, nuns, and laypeople have chanted the sutras--the teachings of the Buddha--often punctuated with bell rings, drum beats, gongs, or the clang of cymbals. "Perceiving your own voice means perceiving your true self or nature," wrote the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim, in a guide to chanting. "When you and the sound become one, you don't hear the sound, you are the sound." Union with sound, and the clarity and peace of mind that can come of it, is the goal of the chants and sacred instrumental works compiled on "One Sound," a new CD of traditional Buddhist music from Tibet, China, Vietnam, Korea, Sri Lanka, and Japan.

But while Buddhist musical styles share the dharmic strategy of getting the singer, and the listener, to let go the chattering, everyday mind and drop into what Seung Sahn calls "wisdom mind," the sounds themselves are as divergent as the countries and cultures that spawned them. Out of Tibet come the impossibly bass overtone chanting of monks and a crashing, aural wave of horns, cymbals, drums, and the bagpipe-like gyaling. Japanese Zen created the shakuhachi, or bamboo flute, which like other Buddhist music aims to bring about meditative states of consciousness, and to heal. From Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka comes the stripped-down, slightly nasal lilt of the gathas, or verses of the Buddha chanted in unison by Theravada monks.

"One Sound" was conceived and produced by Ellipsis Arts, a tiny, Long Island-based company that puts together wonderful compilation CDs, exquisitely packaged with photos and bulging with liner notes that offer a primer on the musical subject at hand, whether it's accordion tunes from around the world, funerary music, or the ethereal, forest songs of the Babenzele pygmies of Africa. With Zen shakuhachi player Ronnie Seldin as curator (his performance of "Ajikan" is one of the most melodious pieces on the record), Ellipsis has done the same with "One Sound," serving up an introduction to Buddhism, its tenets, history, and culture in a 64-page booklet and eight pieces of Buddhist music. For listeners new to Buddhism, it's an ingenious introduction.

Seldin, who helped compile Ellipsis' "Trance" series of spiritual music, wanted a range of sound and sutra on the CD, and here he succeeded. The Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Naht Hanh chants a mellifluous "Prelude to Sitting Meditation" that is so gentle and intimate, you can sense the silence behind and between the sounds of his voice. But however effective the chant may be as technique for clearing the mind before meditation, its words carry their own very literal appeal: "In the early morning the dharma body shines radiantly./Sitting in meditation, I smile with joy./This is a brand new day; I vow to walk through it in mindfulness."

"Hyakuhachisan," a Shomyo chant recorded by monks of Japan's Tendai school of esoteric Buddhism, is at moments reminiscent of Gregorian chant. It is one of the most mesmerizing pieces on the album. The word shomyo originally referred to the study of phonemes--the smallest units of sound in speech that are believed to create particular vibrations in the body--and by extension, the universe--that was part of a set of ancient Indian spiritual teachings. Those teachings meshed with Buddhism and spread across Asia, and when it arrived in Japan, Shomyo became the name for a potent, melodious form of chanting that was, and remains, the province of the Tendai priests and monks, who have transmitted the technique from master to disciple in a carefully cultivated lineage since the ninth century.

Though a Tendai "outsider," Sakurai Makiko is a professional singer who has become famous in Japan as a chanter of Tendai shomyo. In a recent interview, she described the contemplative process of "entering" the chant. "After chanting [shomyo] a few times," she says, "I found I couldn't remember it at all, thought it was boring, and started to feel irritated. There was something inside me that continued to try and "catch" the music. But I finally gave up and began to let my body become submerged in the sound. By allowing this to happen, I experienced a feeling of well-being, and so began to understand the sound. By throwing out all my formulas [for analyzing music] and facing the sound, I began to see the sound itself as it was. [Shomyo] demanded that I throw away everything."

Two Tibetan pieces on the CD are the most musically dramatic and will be familiar to anyone who has heard Tibetan monks sampled on everything from film scores to TV commericals. Tibetan Buddhist music uses a panoply of instruments--thigh-bone horns, cymbals, pellet-filled drums, and extremely long, straight horns called dung that stretch out on the ground before the player--to create a wall of sound that alternately drones and blasts the mind into one-pointed attention. Ethno-musicologist David Lewiston's recording of Mandel Tachen, or "mandala offering prayer," by the monks of the Drepung Monastery is an extraordinary example of chordal chanting, where each singer produces as many as three notes at a time. And Lewiston's essay about the first time he ever recorded Tibetan monks in a Himalayan monastery in the 1970s gives a thrilling window onto what it's like to be in the midst of that kind of musical energy.

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