Author  Reverend Heng Sure

Buddhism in the West has reached its second century. If the Asian experience of Buddhist history is any judge, it may be another hundred years before a truly indigenous Western Buddhism flourishes outside of Asia. So you might say that we in the West are still in our bridge phase, or to borrow a Northern California tree crop metaphor, we are still grafting an Asian cultivar to our North American rootstock. In Mendocino County, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is surrounded by orchards of walnuts, pears, and grapevines. They are mostly hybrids, the results of grafting. Native California rootstocks are disease and bug resistant, but maybe not too flavorful. When a skillful vintner or horticulturist grafts a bud from an exotic and delicious, but fragile Manchurian variety onto the hardy California rootstock, in a year or two the result is a disease-free, bug resistant and tasty new hybrid.

My experience with Chinese Buddhist music exemplifies the hybrid principle. Having immersed myself in Chinese Buddhist sacred music for three decades I have learned that at heart, in terms of music appreciation, I’m deeply a product of my Western upbringing. But I have discovered riches in Chinese sacred music that I intend to carry across the bridge into the West.

What survived past the first century of Indian Buddhist music’s advent in China? Only a trace of Sanskrit gathas, some names and terms, and the basic practices of reciting precepts, chanting sutras, mantras, and praises. The rest of the liturgy was eventually replaced or hybridized by Chinese forms as Buddhism became Chinese. I predict the same thing will happen in the West. The Chinese adapted Indian Buddhist music; the West will adapt Chinese Buddhist music to our tastes. And we will have grown a tasty hybrid.

What will survive? Probably the essence of chanted sound, some experience beyond words and culturally-bound melody.

For example, on board a ferry boat in the South China Sea, I witnessed the power of Buddhist music to heal the heart, beyond culture, beyond language. In the predawn darkness of Puji Monastery’s Buddha hall that morning, I saw local fisher folk, both women and men, wearing yellow rubber boots and overalls, bowing to Guan Yin Bodhisattva before getting in their boats and heading out to sea. I met them again at sunrise, they were the crew of the ferry boat we rode, lurching across the waves to the distant rock that was Luoqie Mountain. We were heading for the smaller of two islands dedicated to Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva, (Avalokiteshvara) the Awakened Being of Great Compassion. We were going to inspect the new temples for tourists that were rising from the ashes and stones of the holocaust of the Cultural Revolution.

The boat was a small, sturdy diesel, and the winds picked up as we roared through the troughs. Twenty passengers huddled in groups beneath the rail or braved the wind and spray on benches on the open deck. Our craft seemed at times to be making negative headway; the crests threw us back farther than we were advancing through the troughs. The wind was howling, and we were beginning to regret having come out. At that point an elderly woman in a raincoat, sitting on a overturned bucket began to sing out loud, seemingly to herself, with her eyes closed. An older nun in a gray cap from Potala Mountain immediately joined in from the front of the boat. I saw their mouths move but the wind and engine roar obscured the song.

I couldn’t tell the song from the wind but by the third chorus their keening, wailing chant rode atop the wind. It was a strangely familiar tune; it may have awakened a distant memory. I knew I hadn’t heard it before, not through my ears. How could it be so familiar?  Their melody was as wild as the ocean, it went deep inside my inner ear, or was it through my skin, like a vibration? The song was Guan Yin’s own voice, put into the air by Guan Yin’s water clan; people who relied on her compassionate vows to keep them alive amid the waves and wind.

The song ignited my mindfulness; I found myself reciting along with the chorus, “Namo dabei guanshi yin pusa,” spontaneously, without having made a conscious decision to do so. As I chanted, the sacred name and the keening melody calmed my heart and replaced my apprehension at the size of the pounding waves and the fragility of our craft. The sound was as ageless as the sea and as eternal as the needs of the humans who crossed it. Buddhist music in China had become an engine that kept sailors afloat through the countless autumns. Whether it was Buddhist or not as the boat pitched in the waves was irrelevant; this was an essential healing sound, from the human heart that anybody could understand.

I recalled a passage from the “Universal Door Chapter” of the Lotus Sutra,

“Mindful of the strength of Guan Yin Bodhisattva, 

You’ll float atop the waves and will not drown.”

Guan Yin Bodhisattva hears the cries of living beings and responds to us wherever we are, perhaps she appears in sound itself, and bestows courage.

Yet the translation of sacred Buddhist music to the West is not entirely smooth sailing. At Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco, where I left home and trained as a Novice, when chanting, everybody followed an earlier generation of Western monks and nuns from our own Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, who had traveled to Taiwan to receive their ordination. This group of five brand-new monastics picked up what they could of the ceremonies at the time. But because they were Westerners, with Western musical sensibilities, when we heard their performance of Chinese Buddhist liturgy, our group often reproduced it inaccurately. In some cases our emphasis was wrong, or our phrasing; sometimes the melody or the pronunciation was more Western than Eastern. Our teacher, the late Chan Master Hsuan Hua corrected us once, twice, three times, but at some point, he let the inevitable evolution of cultural encounter take place.

One day several nuns visited Gold Mountain from Taiwan. During evening chanting their faces wrinkled into sour expressions. Customary Chinese courtesy gave way to forthright criticism: “Wrong! That’s flat out wrong! That’s not how you sing it!” said the nuns. They appeared offended by our free interpretations of what were to them, sacred and inviolable forms.

We reported the incident to Master Hua, who responded, “I can’t stand it either, the way you butcher Chinese melodies, but I practice patience. Of course you’ve got it wrong. Most Westerners aren’t going to learn Chinese forms. It wouldn’t be natural. Buddhist music in the West has to adapt. You must quickly translate the chanting and the ceremonies into Western modes. That way the Chinese Sangha won’t be able to criticize you and find faults. They know Western music even less than you know Chinese music. Once you translate it they won’t know whether it’s good or bad. Do this work right away!” said Master Hua. Now, thirty years later the work of translating liturgy is still in progress.

A few summers back I took part in an ordination. Twenty-eight men and women from the US, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, received the “three mandalas of complete precepts,” that is to say, the Shramanera, Bhikshu and Bodhisattva Precepts. Among the Shramanera precepts is one that asks the candidates to promise, “To the end of my life I vow to never again sing, dance, play musical instruments or watch or listen to entertaining diversions.” I made a mental note that at the same time these brand-new monks and nuns, quite literally, as part of their monastic careers, will be making music all day long.

Buddhist monasteries are musical environments. These new monks and nuns in the Mahayana tradition would on that day and every day, spend a minimum of two and a half hours in the Buddha Hall chanting, and on holidays or sessions, the ceremonies can last for twelve hours, sometimes for twenty-one days. The regular liturgical chanting starts at 4:00 AM with half an hour of mantras and Dharanis, then includes chanting of sutras, praises, Buddha’s names, invocations, repentances, dedications, blessings, and protection verses. The tunes and music modes are in some cases 1400 years old. They are healing, and when sung with a sincere heart, have the power to bring the mind to single-pointed clarity and stillness.

So what is the difference between permitted music and prohibited music? How does one distinguish daily chanting and reciting from singing? The answer is that Buddhist music, like all things Buddhist, aims to nurture both wisdom and blessings. Buddhists live in the world, while striving to transcend the world. Like the pristine lotus that is rooted firmly in the mud, a Buddhist liturgist makes music, but ideally, does not attach to it; he or she chants but not simply to make pretty sounds.

The point of holding precepts is to purify body, mouth and mind for mastering the stillness and concentration of samadhi. Samadhi is hard to approach when the eyes and ears are undisciplined. The vow that restrains singing and making music is designed to check the worldly habit of using music indiscriminately. Music in the mundane world is often about courtship, bonding and expressing the complex and confusing emotions of romance, love, hate and sorrow. My Scots-Irish ancestors knew what music was for: music was for dancing, for drinking, for fighting, for making revolution, and for marching to war, all activities that monks and nuns leave behind, in order to approach samadhi and gain liberation from suffering.

But a cultivator of the Buddha’s Way needs to balance another set of guidelines for music: when music is used to praise the Triple Jewel and the Bodhisattvas, it creates blessings and merit. When playing sacred sounds, monks and nuns can take part in music without breaking the precept against “singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, or watching and listening to such events.”

For example, in the Lotus Sutra we hear that:

“If someone employs persons to play music,

Striking drums or blowing horns or conch shells,

Playing pipes, flutes, zithers, harps,

Balloon guitars, cymbals and gongs,

And if these many kinds of wonderful notes

Are intended wholly as an offering;

Or if one with a joyful mind

Sings a song in praise of the Buddha’s virtue,

Even if it is just one small note,

Then all who do these things have attained the Buddha way.”

–– Chapter Two “Expedient Means”

A meditator who cultivates samadhi, can contemplate how all sounds, including music, are sense-objects, born of conditions, and therefore empty, transient, and lacking any intrinsic nature. Music passes by in an instant, but is still capable of “defiling the ear organ” if the contact inspires craving or aversion in our minds. In fact the problem is not with sounds, or with our ears and the consciousness behind them. Sounds are wholly neutral; it is the mind that turns sounds into dangerous or banal, pleasant, unpleasant, familiar, strange, comprehensible, or cacophonous.

The Chan School tells a cautionary tale about an unwary cultivator who thought he had already mastered a profound state of dhyana concentration. One day he noticed the harsh sound of a kingfisher bird outside his meditation hut. He clung to its annoying sound, got angry, and his mind moved. He lost his samadhi concentration and obstructed his progress towards awakening and liberation.

The Sixth Patriarch Sutra teaches cultivators to transcend the mundane world right within the world; there is no other realm than this one to learn mastery of the senses. There are few places on earth that are truly silent; to try to block out sounds is itself full of noise and movement. The path to wisdom for a meditator involves using precepts to tame the mind that desires sensory contact. In time, with skill, the eyes can look and the ears can listen but the mind doesn’t move.

“The eyes contemplate shapes and colors but they don’t linger inside;

The ears hear the “dusty” sounds of the world but the mind lets them go.”

Manjushri Bodhisattva in the Shurangama Sutra says that sound is the medium that Buddhas use to teach us in this realm. He celebrates the ear organ as the most effective means for awakening to the Dharma. In this realm, “the substance of the teaching resides purely in sound,” says the Shurangama. Although sounds are “dusty” objects of the material world, nonetheless hearing them clearly and discriminating them accurately remains our best avenue for awakening here in the world.

Someone on the Bodhisattva Path stays within the world, and by letting go the habit of loving or hating sounds, cultivates stillness right within the movement of the busy marketplace. When we sing the praises of the Triple Jewel, and glorify the Bodhisattvas and Dharma Protectors, we plant blessings and create merit. In this country we can use music to praise the Triple Jewel and the Bodhisattvas; we use it to teach principle, to gather in and harmonize the conscious awareness of an audience, to accompany sutra text, to restate sutra text in verse. In the end as in the beginning, music is magic. Whether one can use it or not depends on your samadhi.

I had been a folk-singer from high school through graduate school. At one point I even made my living with my guitar. But having made up my mind to leave the home life and become a monastic, I let go of my guitar in an attempt to practice what I thought was a religious austerity. I assumed that as a monk I would have to give up a prized possession, my Guild D-40 guitar. To my dour, Protestant way of thinking, and from my narrow understanding of Buddhism and attachments, if I liked something, it surely had to go.

When I entered the monastery for a trial run just before leaving home, I put an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle, and listed my guitar at an absurdly low price. The phone rang within thirty minutes of my posting the ad. The man’s voice said, “Guild guitar? $300.00? Don’t sell it, I’m coming right over.” The buyer arrived with his girlfriend in less than fifteen minutes and while I was opening the case to show him the guitar, the phone rang again.

“Shi Fu?”

It was Master Hua, calling from his quarters on the third floor of Gold Mountain Monastery.

“What are you doing?”

“Selling my guitar, Shi Fu.

“Why are you doing that?”

“I’m going to leave home, remember?”

Master Hua (In English) “Stooopid!”

“Shi Fu?”

“Who says you have to sell your guitar? Can you learn to play the guitar so that your mind doesn’t move, so that the guitar doesn’t play you? This is America, not China. You have to use every skill you possess to teach the Dharma within your own Western culture. You know in this country for a Bhikshu to play guitar could be a very useful, expedient means!”

Clearly, I wasn’t hearing the teaching that Master Hua wanted me to understand.

“But Shi Fu, I want to leave home. The guitar is a big attachment. I need to break all my attachments, so that I can leave home.”

“Stooopid!” he said, and he hung up the phone. I sold the guitar to the man and regretted it immediately. For the next twenty-five years I immersed myself in the Chinese Buddhist musical tradition and came to love the purity and power of its spirit, even as I never completely mastered its idioms. I feel entrusted to carry on a tradition, but the tradition must move and evolve to stay true to the spirit of the Buddha’s expedient wisdom.

Twenty-five years later, I watched James Baraz use his guitar as a tool for teaching Dharma and for generating harmony. James Baraz leads the Spirit Rock East Bay Mindfulness Community every Thursday evening at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. One night James was celebrating his 50th birthday and the group was in fine spirits. James picked up his battered old Gibson J-45 guitar and strummed a Crosby, Stills, and Nash tune. On the spot the group gave James their full attention and sang along with the chorus, “Teach your parents well… just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.”

I realized that in this country, as Master Hua had pointed out, the guitar had a profound power to focus our awareness of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I subsequently picked up guitar-playing once again, to explore writing American Buddhist folk songs.

In my attempt to create a hybrid Buddhist music in North America, I am introducing songs about Guan Yin Bodhisattva during my Dharma talks. During a visit to Hong Kong, I decided to enhance my Dharma talk with Jennifer Berezan’s ode to Guan Yin, “She Carries Me.” The song’s chorus has simple lyrics, a gentle melody, and a compassionate feel. Chinese Buddhist audiences are unaccustomed to monks playing guitars. Guitars came to Asia not with acoustic folk music but with raucous rock ‘n roll. The lone cowboy picking a tune under the stars isn’t part of the Asian view of the guitar. The Asian experience of the guitar is bound up with drums, amplifiers, long hair and revolution. So when the senior monk at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas picks up his guitar, people could easily assume that .

The Hong Kong disciples of Master Hua are among the more conservative and traditional members of his extended Dharma family. So when I set the guitar out on its stand before the lecture I could hear in-drawn breath all over the hall. The lecture went well, with images and stories of Guan Yin Bodhisattva. Midway through the talk, I reached for the guitar, demonstrated the chorus and launched into the song, in English, for the Cantonese-speaking audience. By the second verse, the entire audience was singing along; at the end I noticed some misty eyes; through English lyrics and acoustic chords, the same mysterious essence of compassion arose as on the ferry in the South China Sea. We all joined together in being mindful of the strength of Guan Shi Yin.

An elderly lay-woman, Ms. Liang, came up at the end of the talk; I knew she was an opinion leader among the Hong Kong disciples. I braced for a critique. She said, “You know, we’ve been needing some music in our Dharma talks for a while now. Singing really opens up the heart and helps digest the principles of the Sutras!”

Below I’ve included a recent song I wrote that talks about Prince Siddhartha’s state of mind before he abandoned the palace for six years of cultivation in the forest. He has just seen the Four Messengers (old age, sickness, death, and then a monk) at the city gates and has realized his mortality and the limits to his freedom. Then, when he saw the monk with bowl in hand, looking serene and concentrated, the Prince realized his potential for escaping Samsara. Although he loves his wife, Yashodara, he doesn’t want to die in the palace, unsatisfied and helpless in the face of impermanence. He leans over her while she sleeps and says goodbye then sets out for the forest to cultivate the path to Awakening.


Prince Siddhartha had a wife,

He loved her like he loved life,

She was fine, she was fair,

When he said goodbye, he said to her,

Yashodhara, look at where life leads,

Yashodhara, I’m going to try to get free.

I took a little trip into town,

I learned that death will cut us down,

I woke up by the city wall,

Freedom to die is no freedom at all.

Like you, I never heard an old man sigh,

I never knew that people die,

Like you, I never heard a sick man moan,

Today I learned this body ain’t my home.

Yashodhara, death is haunting me,

Yashodhara, love won’t set us free.

Then I saw another man,

Who walked in robes with bowl in hand,

His gaze looked neither left nor right,

His brow was clear, his eyes were bright,

I asked him what he did all day,

He said, “I cultivate the Way,”

“I watch my mind, I watch my breath,

In the end, it’s life and death.”

Yashodhara, I couldn’t love you more,

Yashodhara, that’s why I’m walking out that door.

Some will say that I’m a fool,

Some will say that I’m too cruel,

This is the best thing I can do,

When I get free, I’ll come back for you,

Yashodhara, look at where life leads,

Yashodhara, I’m going to try to get free. 


Copyright ©  Rev. Heng Sure, 2005 All Rights Reserved,

* An mp3 of this song is available at