What Did Buddha Say About Music? A Look at Early Buddhist Music

This article will provide a brief historical perspective on the role of music during Siddhartha Gautama’s lifetime and its influence on the early Buddhist community, offering insights into the roots of musical practices within Buddhism.

I. Introduction

During the lifetime of Siddhartha Gautama, whom we now know as the Buddha, the world was a very different place. It was around 563 to 483 BCE in the ancient lands of India. As I journey back to this era in my mind, I find it fascinating to explore not only the profound philosophical teachings of the Buddha but also the cultural and artistic activities of his time. Music was an integral part of life in ancient India, but, as you’ll see, it didn’t hold a special place within the context of Siddhartha Gautama’s life and teachings. I’m writing a series of articles to trace and explore the path of Buddhist music. I’m curious to see what twists and turns this music took to end up where we find it today. I’ve had extensive exposure to this type of investigation in the Western musical tradition so, I know that this topic is much too large for a few articles. The way I’m envisioning this series is a way for me to get up to speed and have a solid foundation to then know where to go deeper.

Music in Ancient India (c. 563-483 BCE)

To truly appreciate the role of music in the life of Siddhartha Gautama, we must first delve into the world of ancient India/Nepal during this period. The soundscapes of ancient India were diverse, reflecting the multi-faceted culture of the region. Ancient Indian music was deeply intertwined with daily life, from rituals to celebrations and even meditation. The instruments of the time included flutes, drums, and stringed instruments, creating a harmonious blend of melodies that resonated through the streets, temples, and gatherings of the people.

The sound of ancient India was not only a form of entertainment but a medium for spiritual exploration.

Music Theory and Philosophical View of Music in Siddhartha’s Time

I’m part music theorist and part composer, so understanding a little about the musical philosophy of the time is important to me. During Siddhartha Gautama’s time, ancient India was a land of diverse philosophies and spiritual traditions. This rich cultural milieu significantly influenced the prevailing music theory and the philosophical view of music. Several key elements and concepts defined the musical landscape of that era:

  1. The Natyashastra and the Concept of Sangeet: The “Natyashastra,” an ancient Indian text attributed to the sage Bharata, was a foundational work that encompassed theater, dance, and music. It presented a holistic view of the performing arts, which included vocal and instrumental music. In this text, music was considered an integral part of drama and rituals. It emphasized the idea of “Sangeet,” the unification of song (geet), instrumental music (vadya), and dance (nritya), highlighting the seamless integration of these elements in artistic expression.
  2. The Concept of Nada Brahma: Ancient Indian philosophy, including elements from the Upanishads and Vedanta, viewed sound as a manifestation of the divine, often referred to as “Nada Brahma” or “Sound as the Absolute.” This concept acknowledged the profound connection between the universe, the divine, and sound. It underpinned the spiritual significance of music, making it a means of connecting with higher states of consciousness.
  3. Raga and Tala: The concept of “raga” and “tala” (melodic modes and rhythmic patterns) began to evolve during this period, laying the foundation for classical Indian music. Although these concepts might not have been fully developed in Siddhartha’s time, the seeds of what would later become intricate systems of melody and rhythm were sown.
  4. Om: Om is a sacred sound in Hinduism. It represents the Ultimate Reality, the Universe, and the source of all existence! Om is derived from Sanskrit and is considered the primal sound of creation. This just shows how important sound was considered.

Siddhartha Gautama’s Perspective on Music

Now, you may be wondering, what did Siddhartha Gautama himself have to say about music? While the historical record is scarce, the Pali Canon, one of the earliest and most authoritative collections of Buddhist scriptures, provides some sparse insights.

While the Pali Canon contains numerous teachings and discourses by the Buddha, it does not extensively delve into the subject of music. Instead, the Pali Canon primarily focuses on the Buddha’s core teachings, ethics, meditation, and other aspects of the Dharma. Consequently, direct quotes about music in the Pali Canon are rare.

However, there are a few passages that offer indirect references to music or sound in the context of the Buddha’s teachings. Here are two such passages:

1. Lokavipatti Sutta (The Failings of the World)

  • In this sutta, the Buddha discusses various “failings of the world.” While the primary focus is on the impermanence and suffering inherent in worldly existence, there’s a section that mentions music (depending on the translation) as one of the enticements of the world. It emphasizes the distractions and attachments that can arise from the sensual pleasures of the world.

2. Potaliya Sutta (To Potaliya)

  • This sutta primarily discusses the idea of being attached to the sensual pleasures of the world and how they lead to suffering. While music is not explicitly mentioned, it falls within the broader context of sensual pleasures that can distract individuals from the path to enlightenment.

These passages are indirect references and highlight the Buddha’s teachings on the impermanence and ultimately unsatisfactory nature of worldly pleasures, of which music can be considered a part.

It’s important to note that while the Pali Canon does not extensively discuss music, these teachings emphasize the need for practitioners to be mindful of their attachments to worldly pleasures, including sensory enjoyments like music. They encourage individuals to focus on inner peace and the path to enlightenment as taught by the Buddha.

Buddha was not a big fan of music and given my understanding of Buddhism, I can see his point. Music is powerful and can be a seductive pleasure that keeps us from detachment. But as a musician and in the spirit of the Middle Way, I think there are ways music can help point people to the teachings of Buddha and begin their journey. I also believe there are ways to compose music to allow for meaningful meditation.

IV. The Spiritual and Meditative Aspects of Music

While Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings eventually viewed music as a potential “sensual seduction,” it’s essential to recognize that music held a multifaceted role in ancient India during his time. The landscape of religious and philosophical thought was diverse, and various traditions had very contrasting views on music, including Hinduism.

Hinduism and the Role of Music

In contrast to the later Buddhist perspective on music, Hinduism, which was a prevalent religious tradition during Siddhartha’s era, embraced music as an integral part of spiritual and religious life. Music played a significant role in the performance of rituals, devotional practices, and the exploration of higher states of consciousness.

Within Hinduism, the concept of “Nada Brahma” was central, emphasizing the divine nature of sound and the belief that the universe itself is a manifestation of sound. This perspective gave rise to a complex system of musical theory known as “Nada Yoga” or the yoga of sound. Through the practice of Nada Yoga, devotees aimed to reach spiritual realization through sound, including vocal and instrumental music.

Meditation, Relaxation, and Mindfulness Through Music

Music in Siddhartha’s time was not solely for entertainment; it served as a means for meditation, relaxation, and mindfulness. The mellifluous sounds of instruments and voices provided an avenue for individuals to attain states of deep meditation and contemplation.

Many spiritual seekers, including ascetics and wandering mendicants, used music as a tool to attain altered states of consciousness and inner peace. The soothing melodies, rhythms, and harmonies created a conducive environment for meditation and self-reflection.

This contrast highlights the diverse spiritual and philosophical landscape of ancient India. While Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment led him to a more ascetic view of music, other religious traditions embraced the harmonious sounds as a means of spiritual growth, reflection, and inner tranquility.

Music in Early Buddhist Communities

In order to understand the role of music in early Buddhist communities and the geographical spread of Buddhism, it’s crucial to delve into the historical context of early Buddhism in India, the communities that embraced it, and the practices of those communities.

Early Buddhism in India:

Ancient India was divided into numerous kingdoms and territories, each with its own cultures and traditions. The geographic region where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, lived and taught was mainly in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. Specific places closely associated with his life include Lumbini (his birthplace), Kapilavastu (his early years), Bodh Gaya (where he achieved enlightenment), Sarnath (his first sermon), and Kushinagar (his passing).

Buddhism, during its initial years, was concentrated in these regions. The Buddha’s teachings, centered on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, drew followers from various backgrounds and social strata, including ascetics, householders, and rulers.

Early Buddhist Communities:

Buddhism appealed not only to those seeking spiritual enlightenment but also to individuals disillusioned with the ritualistic aspects of some other religious traditions. Some of the key communities that embraced Buddhism included:

  • Monastics (Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis): Monks and nuns formed the core of early Buddhist communities. They renounced worldly life to seek spiritual liberation and enlightenment. Monastic communities followed a strict code of conduct and focused on the study and practice of the Dharma.
  • Lay Followers (Upasakas and Upasikas): Lay followers, both men and women, played an essential role in supporting the monastic communities. They offered alms, built monasteries, and listened to the teachings, striving to incorporate the Buddha’s guidance into their daily lives.
  • Kings and Nobility: Some rulers and aristocrats, like King Bimbisara of Magadha and King Ashoka, were among the early patrons of Buddhism. Their support significantly contributed to the spread of Buddhism beyond its birthplace.
  • Ascetics and Seekers: Siddhartha Gautama initially followed an ascetic lifestyle, and his path to enlightenment appealed to many ascetics who were searching for answers to the mysteries of life and suffering.

Role of Music in Early Buddhist Communities:

While early Buddhism placed strong emphasis on mindfulness, meditation, and the pursuit of inner peace, it was relatively reserved about music in comparison to some other contemporaneous religious traditions.

The Pali Canon, one of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, contains references to the use of chants, hymns, and recitations in early Buddhist rituals and practices. These chants and hymns had specific purposes, often aimed at reinforcing the teachings of the Buddha or marking significant events in the monastic community.

Music, in the form of chants and hymns, was used in rituals such as the recitation of the Vinaya (the monastic code of conduct), the Patimokkha (the set of rules for monastic discipline), and the Uposatha (a fortnightly recitation and confession). Chanting and hymn-singing played a role in fostering a sense of community among the monastic order, deepening the understanding of the Dharma, and creating an atmosphere conducive to meditation and reflection – just don’t get attached to it!

Rough Dates and Historical Sources:

The historical period of early Buddhism is generally dated from the 6th century BCE (Siddhartha’s lifetime) to the 3rd century BCE, particularly the time of Emperor Ashoka. We have information about this period primarily from the Pali Canon, which preserves the teachings and practices of early Buddhism. Additionally, archaeological discoveries, inscriptions, and texts from neighboring regions, such as Sri Lanka, provide valuable insights into this time period.

This era marks the formative years of Buddhism, during which the core teachings were transmitted orally and later recorded in the Pali Canon, making it one of the most significant sources for understanding the early Buddhist community and its practices.

Early Buddhist Monasteries

I was thinking about how the changing architecture of churches impacted the sacred Christian music that was produced. When the vaulted ceilings created massive rooms with lots of reverberation, the music adapted to fit the setting.

The early Buddhist monasteries, also known as “viharas” in Pali, were relatively simple structures, reflecting the ascetic lifestyle and renunciatory ethos of the Sangha (the monastic community). Here’s an overview of what the first Buddhist monasteries may have looked like and where the Sangha lived:

1. Layout and Architecture:

  • Early Buddhist monasteries were often constructed in a tranquil and remote setting, away from the hustle and bustle of “urban” life. They were typically built in natural surroundings, such as forests, groves, and near rivers or other water sources, to facilitate meditation and reflection.
  • The architecture of these viharas was modest and functional. The structures consisted of several key elements:
    • Vihara Hall (Sangharama): The central focus of the monastery was the vihara hall, where the monastic community congregated for daily activities. It was a simple, rectangular building with a thatched roof, supported by wooden or stone pillars.
    • Cells (Kuti): The monks and nuns had individual cells for dwelling and meditation. These cells were small, enclosed spaces for solitude and reflection. Here’s a short article about an early Buddhist monastery (Early Buddhism in India – Archaeology Magazine)
    • Stupas: Many early viharas featured stupas, which were dome-shaped structures housing relics or representations of the Buddha. Stupas served as focal points for devotional practices.

2. Living Arrangements:

  • Monks and nuns lived in individual kutis (cells), which were sparsely furnished. These cells were basic living quarters, often just large enough for a single individual to meditate, sleep, and study.
  • Monastic life was characterized by simplicity and renunciation. Monks and nuns typically possessed few personal belongings and lived a minimalist lifestyle. Their focus was on the study and practice of the Dharma, rather than material comfort.

3. Ritual and Function:

  • Viharas were not only places of residence but also centers for religious activities and rituals. The vihara hall served as a space for daily communal gatherings, including recitation of the Vinaya (monastic code) and chanting of sutras and hymns.
  • Monks and nuns led a structured and disciplined life, with set routines that revolved around meditation, study, and communal practices. The vihara was where they convened to reinforce their commitment to the monastic discipline.

4. Community Support:

  • Lay followers played a significant role in supporting the monastic community. They provided alms, food, and other necessities, enabling the Sangha to focus on their spiritual practices. Donors often constructed and maintained viharas, making them an essential part of the early Buddhist community.

Early Buddhist monasteries were designed to create an environment conducive to meditation, contemplation, and the study of the Dharma. The simplicity and humility of these viharas reflected the foundational principles of Buddhism, which emphasized detachment from material possessions and the pursuit of inner peace and enlightenment. These viharas provided a refuge for the Sangha to live in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha.

Since music was not viewed as a pathway to enlightenment, it is likely that the acoustics of the architecture was not a major consideration when building these early monastery buildings. In the modern Buddhist temples I’ve been to in Thailand and Cambodia, the chanting takes place in rather large, vaulted spaces typically with doors and windows that open to allow a cooling breeze to flow through – I’ll discuss that more when I write about more modern Buddhist music practices.

Early Buddhist Chants

So, what did these early chants sounds like? We don’t really know. But here are a few different styles of chant in practice today that can give a sense of what they may have sounded like.

The Buddha’s Influence on Music

The Buddha’s negative attitude towards music, as reflected in his view of it as a potential “sensual seduction,” has indeed influenced the broader development of Buddhist music and contributed to its unique character. This historical perspective has left a lasting impact on the way music is perceived and used within Buddhist traditions, even in contemporary times.

Influence on Buddhist Music:

  1. Emphasis on Inner Peace and Mindfulness: The Buddha’s teachings underscore the importance of inner peace, mindfulness, and the pursuit of enlightenment by transcending worldly attachments and desires. As a result, Buddhist music, influenced by these principles, tends to prioritize simplicity and serenity. The purpose of Buddhist music is to create an atmosphere that supports meditation, contemplation, and the cultivation of inner tranquility.
  2. Austere Musical Forms: Buddhist music often adopts austere musical forms characterized by minimalism. Traditional instruments and vocal techniques are selected to evoke a sense of calm and reflection rather than to entertain or excite. Melodies tend to be gentle and soothing, aligning with the Buddhist emphasis on mental clarity and stillness.
  3. Chants and Mantras: Chanting of sacred texts and mantras has become a central element of Buddhist music. This practice aligns with the oral transmission of the Buddha’s teachings and emphasizes the meditative aspects of sound. The repetition of these chants fosters a sense of unity within the Sangha and deepens the spiritual experience.

Continuity of Early Musical Elements:

While the Buddha’s reservations about music have certainly left their mark on Buddhist music, it’s essential to recognize that early musical elements continue to persist in contemporary Buddhist music:

  1. Chants and Hymns: Chants and hymns, reminiscent of early Buddhist rituals and recitations, remain central to Buddhist musical practices. These elements serve both as a form of devotional expression and a means of conveying the teachings to the community.
  2. Minimalism: Many contemporary Buddhist compositions continue to maintain a minimalist and contemplative character. Whether it’s the use of traditional instruments, such as the Tibetan singing bowl, or the incorporation of overtone singing in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, the emphasis is on creating a sound that resonates with the Buddhist quest for spiritual clarity.
  3. Simplicity and Devotion: While Buddhist music has evolved over the centuries, it often retains a sense of simplicity and devotion. The focus is on the sacred and the spiritual rather than on artistic complexity or entertainment value.
  4. Contemplative and Meditative Role: Music in Buddhism, both in early times and today, serves as a tool for meditation and mindfulness in spite of Buddha’s opinion on music. It aids practitioners in achieving a state of inner peace and self-awareness, much as it did during the early years of the Buddhist monastic community.

The Buddha’s view of music as a potential distraction from the path to enlightenment has shaped the character of Buddhist music. It has led to an emphasis on simplicity, serenity, and the meditative qualities of sound. While Buddhist music has evolved and diversified over the centuries, these early musical elements continue to underpin its essence, reflecting the enduring commitment to inner peace and the Dharma within the Buddhist tradition.

The Path for Music in Buddhism

As a composer and lay follower of Buddhism, I view my creative efforts in a couple of ways: 1) I can use music to explore my personal non-attachment by creating and letting the music go. I don’t need to hold on to it and treasure it. 2) I can take on the challenge of creating music that is infused with the principles of Buddhism. I think that if the music is created with these intentions that I’ll not be doing harm to anyone’s practice. In fact, I’d like to create music that enhances one’s practice from time to time.