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Early Buddhism had a negative attitude towards music and dance; the Vinaya codes explicitly prohibit monks, nuns, and lay followers not only from performing, but also from listening or watching performances. This stance is still standard in Theravada Buddhism. The Mahayana traditions took a different position; for them, at least some types of music and dances (those who contained Buddhist elements or could be used to promote Buddhism) could be considered offerings to the Buddhas and were therefore allowed. Moreover, canonical descriptions of the Pure Lands are replete with references to music and melodious sounds of all kinds. However, in most Mahayana cultures monks were (and still are) only allowed to play a limited range of ceremonial instruments, and extra-liturgical music and dances are performed by lay people. Japan seems to be a notable exception, both for the richness of music and dances used at Buddhist rituals (Gagaku 雅楽 and Bugaku 舞楽) and for the fact that Buddhist priests also engaged in music and dance in religious and secular contexts.
The involvement of devout Buddhists in artistic production and enjoyment caused doctrinal debates regarding the status of the arts in the Buddhist cultural system. It appears that poetry was discussed first, also because of Chinese precedents (Bo Juyi 白居易, Jp. Hakurakuten 白楽天, 772-846), in arguments that shifted literary creation from “crazy words and ornate discourses” (kyōgen kigyo 狂言綺語) to ways to enhance the human sensibility and promote the Buddhist teachings. However, at about the same time, toward the eleventh century, we also encounter similar discussions about music, which led to the idea that “instrumental music is an activity leading to rebirth in the Pure Land” (kangen mo ōjō no waza/gō to nareri 管弦も往生の業となれり), thus overturning the classical Buddhist precepts on the subject. Professional musicians at court adopted this view, which was explained by their art’s function as offering to the Buddha and as a way to promote Buddhism. In fact, there is a scriptural basis to this: the Sutra of the questions by Druma, King of the Kinnara (Daiju kinnara-ō shomon-gyō 大樹緊那羅王所問経, T. 625; Skt. *Druma-kinnara-rāja-paripṛcchā-sūtra), translated by Kumārajīva in the early fifth century. (An earlier, second-century translation by Lokakṣema also exists, T. 624). It is a little-known scripture today, without an extensive body of critical scholarship. This paper explores the Buddhist philosophy of music expounded in this scripture and its later impact in medieval Japan, where it informed the understanding of music; it was quoted explicitly in the Gagaku encyclopedia Kyōkunshō 教訓鈔 (early thirteenth century), and its imagery seems to inform the Buddhist ceremonial music and dance (bugaku hōyō 舞楽法要) still performed today at Shitennōji 四天王寺 temple in Osaka.
Bio: Fabio Rambelli
University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Religious Studies and Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies (July 2010—present): Professor and ISF Endowed Chair of Shinto Studies, currently Director of UCEAP Tokyo Study Center (August 2016—August 2018)