If Music Be The Fuel of Desire, Don’t Play On…

I was once at a retreat where the teacher – a Theravadan monk – was asked whether there was any music in Buddhism.  I forget the answer, though I did think of the Shakuhachi, of Tibetan thigh-bone trumpets, and of Imee Ooi’s sutra recitals…  but obviously the Theravada position on this will contrast the Mahayana, given that, according to the Gītassara Sutta, even when chanting Theravadan monks should not to do so ‘with a musical intonation’ (I don’t say this intending to imply that it is a bad thing).  I’m currently reading Red Pine’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra.  In the framing introduction, Ravana, Lord of the Rakshasas, sings praises of the Blessed One, in a passage opening with a lengthy list of modes, styles and meters from contemporary Indian music.  And my own teacher, Bhante Sujato, was an indie/rock musician in lay life.

Although I don’t see it as my own spiritual practice – in the same way that I do yoga but don’t see it as my own spiritual practice – I have a deep love for devotional music, both as listener and in communal performance – qawwali, kirtan, and spirituals or early Christian folk, in particular.  The two former both have deep roots in Indian religious practice (Islam and Vedic belief, respectively).  I write on popular music, and, if I may speak anecdotally, there seems to be an (often ‘smash’n’grab’) revival of the use of tropes from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religion in ‘alternative’ musical circles, from Grails’ album Burning Off Impurities to Lee Noble (“No Becoming,” “Desire Isn’t Suffering”), Mind Over Mirrors (“Wichita Vortex Sutra”), Akron/Family (“Gone Beyond”), or Fennesz (“The Stone of Impermanence”).  There are various pieces of popular music which don’t reference Buddhism (though they are sometimes by Buddhists, as for Laurie Anderson) which I feel reflect Buddhist principles in interesting ways – Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” say, Tiny Tim’s “Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life” – or perhaps Eurythmics’ “This Is The House.”  The topic of ‘celebrity Buddhists’ in the arts and in music is one for another essay, but I will say that one of my 80s synthpop idols, Stacey Q, released a little-known acoustic album inspired by Tibetan Buddhism.

Clearly, though, at a basic level, the teachings of the early Canon are that indulgence of sense pleasure is dangerous and seductive – with music being a form of sense pleasure.  Westerners find this principle hard to come to terms with.  But in Theravada the eighth precept, taken by monks and also periodically by laypeople, is as follows: “I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).”

Why so?  It’s been convincingly argued by many, including Thanissaro, McMahan, and Carette and King, that much of what is understood as ‘Buddhism’ in the West in fact bears little resemblance to any of the traditions, but is rather Western Romanticism, further filtered through the New Age culture of the 60s and 70s.  This state of affairs has come about not only as a result of Westerners interpreting the teachings according to their own lights, but also by Asian teachers from Buddhist cultures reframing those teachings in the modernist and colonialist context.

A central part of Romanticist ideas is that spirituality, authenticity and fulfilment are related to the free, untrammelled expression of creativity, in particular, in art (this is seen as aligned with emotion, intuition and so on, and contrasted to a tyrannical ‘Reason’).  So to Westerners, it seems like a no-brainer that music should be part of a spiritual path.  Thus, many – notably in the Zen tradition, which more than others has devalued the concept of restraint in action, and valorized creativity – see music-making as aligned with or central to their practice, or see (Zen) Buddhism as informing their work.  The most famous of these might be John Cage, a musician for whom I have a great deal of respect, but this discourse can also flow over into the “Zen and the art of…” Orientalist New Age-ism so common in Western approaches to art and the creative endeavour.   This paradigm generally employs the idea that creativity must be spontaneous expression, rather than a laborious process of thinking-and-pondering or a purposeful application of skilled technique developed over time.

All this, however, isn’t to say that music didn’t play a positive part in the early teachings.  In the Sona Sutta, the Buddha instructs the monk Sona, who has not yet reached arahantship and who, as a result, is considering returning to lay life to enjoy wealth and make merit.  In his former lay life, Sona was a musician who played the vina, a stringed instrument; and so the Buddha uses a simile of the well-tuned vina, with ‘middle way’ strings neither too slack nor too loose, in order to help Sona with his practice (specifically, with the application of the appropriate level of persistence).  And…

“after that, Ven. Sona determined the right pitch for his persistence, attuned the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there picked up his theme. Dwelling alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute, he in no long time reached & remained in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness.”

In the Muni Sutta, too, the sage is described as “Pondering what is on-pitch and off,” and the idea of being ‘well-tuned’ is common throughout the Suttas.  Thanissaro writes:

“Throughout ancient cultures, the terminology of music was used to describe the moral quality of people and acts. Discordant intervals or poorly-tuned musical instruments were metaphors for evil; harmonious intervals and well-tuned instruments were metaphors for good. In Pali, the term sama — “even” — described an instrument tuned on-pitch … It also adds meaning to the term samana — monk or contemplative — which the texts frequently mention as being derived from sama. The word samañña — “evenness,” the quality of being in tune — also means the quality of being a contemplative … The true contemplative is always in tune with what is proper and good.”

I’ve been thinking about music as action, as practice, and as metaphor in light of a concept in Heidegger’s Being and Time– that of ‘stimmung.’  In German, the literal meaning of ‘stimmung’ is tuning, as of an instrument – and this then comes to mean one’s mood or humour.  In a passage resonating with the Buddha’s definition of vedanā (feeling, sensation) as either pleasant, painful or neither-pleasant-nor-painful, Heidegger suggests that this stimmung is either good, bad or indifferent.   Furthermore, Dasein (the conscious subject) always ‘has’ a mood – the indifferent mood is not ‘nothing.’  Or, as we might say, conscuiousness always has an object (though this object is not always vedanā).  Mood, argues Heidegger, discloses itself and discloses situated being: “Being becomes manifest as a burden” (this should sound familiar).  And while a mood of elation can alleviate the burden, it also discloses that burdensomeness.   We can tune into this, or turn away; usually we turn away, because we do not want to perceive the burdensomeness of being – least of all when it is (momentarily, to some extent) alleviated!

Heidegger writes that “It is always by way of a state-of-mind that this turning-away is what it is.”  I don’t take the Abhidhamma as canonical – and indeed, I think that the attempt to do an ontology-psychology of the Sutta material, as the Abhidhamma does, is misguided. But I’m reminded of the Abhidhamma paradigm that citta (consciousness) must take an object, and that cetasika (mental factors which accompany citta) arise and must arise with it – it is as a cetasika that vedanā exists.  In Heideggerian terms, Dasein (as my friend Winton puts it) is “always up to something.”  But if we think that what mood discloses is that which consciousness “is acquainted with, knows and believes” at the time that this mood exists, then we are deluded.  And the character of our capacity for delusion is positive: the specific worldhood of the world, which “is never the same from day to day,” shows itself precisely through the unsteady and fitful mood, not through these associated factors

Heidegger’s ‘world’ and ‘worldhood’ seem to me to be closely associated with the Buddha’s concept of the world.  In Jayarava’s translation of the Kaccānagotta Sutta we see the following:

“it is right here in this ‘fathom long’ body endowed with perception and cognition that I declare the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”

The Buddha has no interest in whether the world ‘exists outside of us’ in an ontological sense; this is a question which will not be useful to investigate.  But without being solipsistic, I’d suggest that the world that is of interest from a soteriological perspective is the world which we bring into existence and which we experience, in what Heidegger would call its ‘everydayness.’  For Heidegger, the mood, feeling or affect which discloses this world is not and should not be treated under the heading of ‘psychology,’ for it is far more fundamental than that.  He thinks that we can get around this misunderstanding – which has persisted since Classical philosophy – by turning to phenomenology.  And indeed the Buddha states,

“With the eye and forms as condition, eye-consciousness arises. The coincidence of the three is contact. On the basis of contact there are sensations, which give rise to desires. Desires are fuel which supports becoming. With becoming there is birth, and from birth old-age, and death, grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble are produced. This, monks, is the origin of the world.”

Beginning with the experienced senses (including mind) – that is, phenomenology – the links of dependent origination are traced to the experience of dukkha as the fundamental nature of all experience (except, of course, nibbāna).

For Heidegger, mood comes before cognition and volition, but in the classical formation of dependent originationvedanā (which, we know, does not mean mood, but ‘feeling’ in the sense of ‘sensation’) arises after avijjā (ignorance), saṅkhāra (what we will here term ‘mental dispositions’), viññāṇa (consciousness), nāmarūpa (name-and-form), saḷāyatana (the six sense bases), and phassa (contact).  So perhaps Heidegger’s ‘stimmung’ is most closely associated with saṅkhāra, though that is a notoriously slippery and difficult term.

At this point, we’ve come very far from our discussion of music.  For me, as someone for whom music has been and continues to be very important (second only to reading and writing), I feel that music gestures toward the transcendent, but in a way that is usually unsatisfactory, with the quality, relative to desired transcendence, of not-quite-getting-thereness.  This can sometimes be elided in the hypnotic and communal setting of group performances, but it still doesn’t hit the point of satisfactory transcendence.  At various points in my life, though not since I took my lay precepts, I’ve been a weed smoker, and as others will know, the marijuana high makes music deeper, more intricate, more beautiful, more interesting – generally more transcendental.  Whenever I used to listen to music straight and experience this ‘nearly-there’ quality, I imagined that that high was what was missing (a good example of how the pervasiveness of dukkha can lead to heedlessness!)  But of course, even on the high, that quality of ‘complete satisfaction and absorption right here, right now’ is not fully present.

So – and this may be an unsurprising conclusion – I don’t share the modernist Zen perspective that music or artistic creativity have a special connection with Buddhist practice or philosophy, except inasmuch as all activities that we undertake, and which (even if problematic as sense pleasures) are not directly harmful to others, can be a part of the path.  That doesn’t mean I plan to stop listening to thinking, or writing about music, but hopefully I’m aware of the limitations and dangers therein.  I know that some teachers employ meditation techniques using sound – the tones in the ear, for example – as a practice; and any form of meditation involving phrases or mantras has an element of ‘sound’ even if that is the sound of one repeating a phrase to oneself internally.  My own primary practice is insight meditation following attention.  Here, I might hear a sound (a birdcall if I’m lucky, a grinding piece of machinery if I’m not) and try to be aware of the sound-object hitting the ear, the consciousness of hearing, the response to what is heard (pleasure to the birdcall, aversion to the machinery), discursive thoughts and associations that arise in response, the dying away of the sound-object itself, and so forth, as they happen.  That’s all.


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