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Buddhist Art & Music


The relationship between Buddhism and music is complicated. Association of music with earthly desires led early Buddhists to proscribe musical practice, and even observation of musical performance, for monks and nuns. In Pure Land Buddhism, though, Buddhist paradises are represented as profoundly musical places in which Buddhist law takes the form of gorgeous melodies. A remarkable variety of musical practices has developed for use in Buddhist ritual and practice by both lay and monastic adherents. Most Buddhist practices involve chant in some form, and some also make use of instrumental music, and even dance. Music can act as an offering to the Buddha, as a means of memorizing Buddhist texts, and as a form of personal cultivation or meditation. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen an upsurge in the quantity and quality of international research on these musical practices. The diversity of global Buddhist music and the multitude of scholarly approaches and languages used in writings about it make this a particularly rewarding and challenging field of study.

General Overviews

While it is difficult to generalize about the role of music in Buddhist practice through history and around the world, these sources provide basic introductions to music as it is used in some of the better-known Buddhist traditions of the world. Tarocco 2013 provides a brief historical overview of musical thought in Buddhism and compares liturgical and para-liturgical practices, while Mabbett 1993–1994 organizes its description of Buddhist music along broad sectarian lines, comparing musical practices in Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism. Williams 2006 provides a brief historical and philosophical examination of music and Buddhism and focuses specifically on Buddhist music practices in Japan and Tibet.

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