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  • UNESCO Collection Week 4: Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist Rituals

    Week Four of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music spotlights Buddhist ritual music of Japan and Tibet in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.


    By Fred Gales

    These two albums, originally released in the 1970s, are devoted to an important Buddhist ceremony, one of the Japanese Shingon (“true words”) school and the other of the Nyingma (“old”) school of Tibetan Buddhism.

    The schools are related in that they belong to the third “esoteric” or Vajrayana mainstream of Buddhism and thus share an emphasis on rituals, mantras, and initiations as well as the use of an elaborate system of sound symbolism and offerings of music.

    To the best of my knowledge, both albums were groundbreaking at their time and provide fascinating insight into how music and sound are used in Buddhism. They are also historical documents illustrating the cultural and religious practices of the time.

    Japan: Shomyo Buddhist Ritual - Dai Hannya Ceremony
    Shomyo Buddhist Ritual is a 1975 recording of the Shingon Dai Hannya ceremony. The central part is a cursory reading of a key Buddhist text—the prajna paramitra sutra or the large sutra of transcendental wisdom—is embedded in an elaborate framework of chanting (shomyo), body gestures, playing of musical instruments, and meditative and ritual acts. These elements are all meant to enhance the spiritual effectiveness of the ceremony.

    The story of Shomyo Buddhist Ritual as an album starts in 1966.  For the first time in Shingon’s 1,100-year-long history the abbot Yuko Aoki (1891–1985) and his monks performed a Buddhist ceremony on a stage at the National Theatre in Tokyo.  It created a sensation, and shomyo was immediately recognized as a national treasure.

    Despite the opposition of the more conservative members of the Buddhist community to the ritual being presented as a performance, Aoki and his monks continued to present the ritual at the National Theatre, and in 1973 they were invited to join a worldwide tour of Japan’s most outstanding musicians.

    During this tour Shomyo Buddhist Ritual was recorded on a theatre stage by the German public broadcasting station WDR, a key player in the dissemination of world and avant-garde music in Europe. After the monks’ return to Japan, the number of performances multiplied, and by the 1980s the once occasional ensemble had become institutionalized as the Karyobinga Shomyo Kenyukai.

    The monks became professional musicians and participated in performing compositions by modern composers such as Ishii and Matsushita, taking their shomyo chanting art gradually farther outside its original ritual context.

    Tibetan Ritual has a similar structure to Shomyo Buddhist Ritual. This time, however, the ceremony is dedicated to Yeshiki Mamo, one of the fearsome protectors of the faith of the Nyingmas. As the one-eyed mother of wisdom, she is also a symbol of the basic Buddhist concept of non-duality and the interconnectedness of all beings.

    The innovation of Tibetan Ritual is that it breaks with the earlier habit of publishing compilations limited to excerpts of Tibetan religious music. Sitar player Manfred Junius (1929–2004) was responsible for the album’s recordings, one of ten records the German-born scholar, musician, and author of “The Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy” recorded for UNESCO in North India.

    Unlike Shomyo Buddhist Ritual, Tibetan Ritual was recorded in its usual context, in this case, the Mindrolling Nyingma monastery of Dehra Dun in 1971. This refugee monastery had just a few years earlier been re-established and was not yet, as it is nowadays, a large and thriving religious establishment.

    At that time, the Tibetan community in exile was struggling to rebuild its culture and religion, and only a small number of monks were well versed in the teachings and ritual expression of their faith. Nonetheless, Tibetan Ritual is well executed and well recorded without distortion of the powerful and penetrating sounds of the orchestra with its shawms, long horns, large drums, and cymbals. The voices are balanced and there is almost none of the sneezing, coughing, and similar noises which are so prominent in other field recordings.

    While the liner notes of Shomyo Buddhist Ritual provide all the basic information necessary (only the names of the different stages of the ceremony and the individual shomyo hymns are lacking), those of Tibetan Ritual are another story.

    They start with some highly speculative and uninformed remarks about Asia’s prehistory and the nature of Tibetan Buddhism. The ritual is described superficially, and although something is said about the instruments and the symbolism of the sounds employed, none of performing monks are named, nor has any attempt been made to explain why the recording is divided in three parts.

    Curious also is that the pictures of Yeshiki Mamo and the monks with their instruments on the original LP sleeve have been replaced by images that have nothing to do with the record except being “Tibetan.” 

    A pity but these deficiencies are small fry compared with the value of the musical content heard on Tibetan Ritual.

    Fred Gales, MA
    Independent researcher, broadcaster and author on traditional musics with the Dutch company Sound Reporters

    UNESCO Collection Week 4: Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist Rituals | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings