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."
As an introduction to all things Buddhist, "One Sound" misses a couple of beats. While the trajectory of Buddhism's spread across Asia is well told in the booklet, the actual history of Buddhist music is sketchy, and some of the explanatory notes to tracks seem incomplete. In the notes to a fan-pai chant, an exquisite solo vocal paean of unknown Chinese denomination, the term "fan-pai" is defined as "sacred declamation, the term applied to all Buddhist vocal music." But in reference material on Chinese and Buddhist music I searched, the phrase "fan-pai" does not appear. Lastly, the choice of the Sri Lankan paritta ("protection") chanting, while representative of the form, is disappointingly lackluster compared with other Theravadin chant I have heard. It may be entirely "utilitarian" as a spiritual tool, but it can also be beautiful depending on the chanter and the oral style of the lineage.
Master Seung Sahn opens "One Sound" with "Morning Bell Chant," a pre-dawn ritual recited by hundreds of Kwan Um Zen students around the world before the first morning meditation. Seung Sahn chants as only a sincere practitioner can--nothing added, nothing taken away: just pure, sonorous intonation. It is that quality that brings the listener into the monastery, into the music, into its infinite possibility for "wisdom mind," and "One Sound" delivers the possibility over and over.