Music in the Pure Land

More than three and a half years have passed since I was assigned to Seattle Betsuin. One thing I was impressed by in the Betsuin’s service program is the plentiful music. Seattle Betsuin Sangha sings a variety of Buddhist Gathas. Instrumental, Taiko, and Choir performances are often included in the service program. Although I am not very musical, I learned Gagaku (ceremonial court music of Japan) in Japan. So, I launched the Seattle Gagaku group three years ago. The gagaku group is practicing monthly by Zoom now. The group performed Gagaku when the Chigo procession took place during the Eitaikyo service, the Betsuin anniversary, last year.

Gagaku has three kinds of wind instruments. The first one is called Hichiriki which produces the main melody. The volume of Hichiriki’s sound is so loud. It is said that Hichiriki expresses the sound of earth where we live. The second one is called Sho or Ho Sho. The sound is like a harmonica or a pipe organ. Sho produces chordal sound. It is said that Sho expresses the sound of heaven where the phoenix lives. The last one is called Ryuteki. It is like a flute and supports the main melody. It is said that Ryuteki expresses the voice of the dragon that comes and goes between earth and heaven. It is also said that the music produced by these three instruments expresses a microcosm.

Some people may wonder if Gagaku music is for Shintoism (the traditional polytheistic religion of Japan). But I learned that Gagaku has a history of being performed at Buddhist temples, as well. Gagaku was introduced into Japan along with Buddhism around 600 – 700 ACE from China and Korea. Have you ever been to Todaiji temple in Nara, Japan? There is a great statue of the Buddha there. Gagaku was performed at the consecrating ceremony for the Buddha in 752 ACE. Gagaku is also performed at our Jodo Shinshu temples. If you have chance to attend a major service at our mother temple Hongwanji such as Hoonko service and Ohigan service, you will see some designated ministers performing gagaku during the services. Gagaku was also performed at the closing service during the 2020 BCA National Council meeting and NW Convention in Renton, Washington last year.

We are the followers of Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land Buddhism). The guidance of the Pure Land is one of the most important teachings for us. How do you understand and appreciate the Pure Land? Some people understand that the Pure Land is like Disney Land or the place where your dreams come true. Some Japanese people use an expression “it is just like the Pure Land” when they bathe in Onsen hot springs. It seems that everyone has a different perspective of the Pure Land. Therefore, it is necessary to consider specialists’ works of the Pure Land. These are called “The Three Pure Land Sutras”. There are various expressions and descriptions on the Pure Land in these Sutras. There is a description on the Pure Land using music as an example. Our founder Shinran Shonin wrote a hymn (wasan) based upon the description.

The delicate, wondrous sounds of jewel-trees in the jewel-forests
Are a naturally pure and harmonious music,
Unexcelled in subtlety and elegance,
So take refuge in Amida, the music of purity.
(CWS P. 39, Hymns of the Pure Land)

Let me share my appreciation of this hymn. There are various jewel trees in the Pure Land. A gentle breeze blows and shakes the leaves and produces elegant sounds. There are no words to describe the beautiful sounds. These sounds naturally harmonize and produce unexcelled music. Whoever hears the music, Wisdom and Compassion spontaneously rise in their heart. Amida Buddha prepared the Pure Land for us to attain enlightenment. We just follow Amida Buddha’s guidance.

In the Pure Land, the sound and voice of the breeze, shaking leaves, waves, and birds produce the sound/music of Dharma ceaselessly. This means that the Pure Land is completely filled with the sound of Dharma. There is no room at all where anything else seeps in. There is no room for our greed, anger, and ignorance to be present. Our human attachments (Bonno) cannot exist in the Pure Land. Therefore, there is no Duhkha, human suffering and pain there. Whatever we possess in the Human world, we cannot carry them into the Pure Land at all. Therefore, we all attain enlightenment without fail once we are born into the Pure Land.

In this human world, we can hear the Buddha Dharma. However, unfortunately our life is not filled with Dharma. Most likely, we, Bonbu (ordinary beings) put Dharma away and our life is filled with our desire and ego. There is no way to extinguish a flame of our blind passions. Amida Buddha could not abandon these people and prepared the Pure Land and the Path to the Pure Land. Our founder Shinran Shonin revealed that it is the path for us and tells us to follow its guidance.

In Jodo Shinshu, we recite Namoamidabutsu which means I take refuge in Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha condensed all virtue into Namoamidabutsu for us and sends it to us. I appreciate that recitation of Namoamidabutsu is an aspect of the music of the Pure Land coming out from our mouth. Then, I truly understand that the Pure land is working here and now to deliver the Dharma to me. It is such a grateful aspect.

We are Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land Buddhism) followers. We learn from the Pure Land, listen to the Pure Land, walk our life toward the Pure Land, and reflect upon our life and our world
through the Pure Land. It is the way of Jodo Shinshu follower’s life. I shared my appreciation of music in the Pure Land today. Please think about the Pure Land while listening to music.