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Shōmyō ( Japanese声明) is a Buddhist ritual chant in Japan , which the practitioners themselves see less as music and more as a ritual practice .


Legend has it that on the Chinese peninsula Shandong , the Yushan ( Chinese  魚山  /  鱼山  - "Fischberg" Jap. Gyozan ), the reclusive Cao Zhi heard (192-232) sounding of caves music. He understood it as the music of the heavenly musician Ghandharva Pancika . Inspired by this, he began to translate Buddhist sutra texts into chant, from which the fanbai chants ( 梵 唄  /  梵 呗 , fànbài ) developed - hymns that essentially consist of elongated individual notes and short melodic turns.

The art of this ritual chant was probably at the height of its development during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Kūkai and Saichō , the later founders of the two great Japanese traditions Shingon and Tendai , and also Ennin, the actual narrator of the Tendai chants, studied in China at this time. A small number of texts and rites have survived to this day. From the year 730 there is a description of a ceremony with the title Sange - it is the scattering of lotus flowers . The accompanying hymn is still one of the most sung pieces from today's Japanese Shōmyō repertoire. The text was taken from the Prajnaparamita Sutra ; the rite was first mentioned in China around 497.

The singing tradition was passed down to Korea and Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries . While it was lost in its countries of origin, India and China , it has been preserved there.

In Japan, the Fanbai chants were first read in Japanese as Bombai , only later they were given the name Shōmyō . This name came from the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term Śabda Vidyā : the science of words and sounds, which was one of the five studies of the Brahmins . Efforts were made to sing the imported chants as true to the original as possible without reforms. As early as 752, for the opening ceremony of the great Buddha by the Tōdai-ji in Heijō-kyō , in which over a thousand monks and priests are said to have participated, Shōmyō was performed together with music and dances. The hymns Bonnon , Shakujo , Bai and Sange were probably presented in a manner similar to how they are still taught today in the Shōmyō centers. Of the three great Shōmyō traditions of Nara , Shingon and Tendai , it was above all the Tendai tradition from which the other younger schools adopted their style of singing.


Shōmyō is performed either as a soloist or in a choir, usually without instrumental accompaniment. The texts are short and comprehensive. They either consist of excerpts from sutras or praises. The tones are stretched for a particularly long time so that the content is comprehensible and enables the one-pointedness of the mind. Singing aims to dissolve the awareness of time - this non-time must therefore be adapted to the inner time, the inner rhythm, the breathing rate and the heartbeat. The melodies are a combination of stereotypical motifs that are put together like a mosaic. Each motif is defined in its form and has a name. Each Shōmyō school has its own repertoire of such melodic fragments. The languages ​​of the texts vary within three large groups: Sanskrit , Chinese and Japanese . The tone system also changes from pentatonic five- tone scales to seven tones and tones with a frequency between a whole tone and a semitone can also be used. The notation is called Hakase . Straight or curved lines and their combinations are used. It is based on a similar concept as the new notation of Gregorian chant .


The existence of this musical notation cannot hide the fact that Shōmyō was passed down orally. The transmission mostly took place in secret. Even nowadays, those involved in this process do not understand the Shōmyō as music. The ideal is the perfect imitation of the teacher's singing, without any personal ingredient from the student. It even goes so far that any individual characteristics that may occur with the master become an integral part of the tradition of the students. A specialty developed, whereby it became quite common among Buddhist monks to devote themselves exclusively to singing for their entire life.

Often, especially with Shingon , the study of the signs of Shittan ( Sanskrit : Siddham), on which the mantras are based, was also included. This ancient Sanskrit script is given essential and far-reaching meanings. Form (character shape), speech sound (acoustic phenomenon) and the meaning of the syllables are the subject of cosmological religious philosophies and, in a broader sense, also belong to Shōmyō. The first and most significant Siddham symbol is the A, which is revered as the source of all vowels and consonants . It contains every sound and is contained in everything. In an all-encompassing sense, all physical and spiritual things arise from the seed syllable A (A-ji). The cosmic Buddha Vairocana , who stands for the unity of all phenomena, is embodied in her.

Content and meaning

The aesthetic criteria of the Shōmyō song can be derived from a passage in the Sukhavativyuha Sutra: "If a Buddha country still distinguishes between beautiful and ugly, I do not want to be a Buddha of such a country". From a Buddhist point of view, beauty should not be understood as the simple opposite of unsightly, as it would be nothing more than a dualistic conception. Nevertheless, aesthetic principles emerged in Japan that were applied to all artistic spiritual disciplines. Their four components mean for the Shōmyō:

  • WA (harmony) - arises between singer and listener
  • KEI (respect) - refers to music that serves transpersonal principles, the nature of being
  • SEI (purity) - aims at a music as a ritual that purifies the heart
  • JAKU (silence and simplicity) - express themselves in minimalist melodies and in the calm flow of sounds

The deliberate renunciation of sonic seduction means that Shōmyō can only be audience-oriented to a limited extent. It demands a different kind of listening - listening that does not distinguish and does not identify with what is heard. That enables a still mind in which every sound can return to its original meaning. The pragmatic purpose of the listeners, however, is often simply that they hope for a transfer of earnings that will bring them benefits.

The particular emphasis placed on right hearing as part of the eightfold path in Dharma practice is described in the Śūrṅgama Sutra :

“The eye does not penetrate barriers, neither the mouth nor the nose.
Only through contact does the body feel that thoughts are confused and torn.
But the voice, near or far, can always be heard constantly.
The five other organs are imperfect, hearing alone is all-pervasive.
The ear registers the 'being' or 'not being' of sound and voice as 'is' or 'missing'.
Where there is no sound, nothing is heard, non-hearing is by nature empty.
The absence of the sound does not mean the end of hearing, the
presence of sound does not mean the beginning of hearing.
Hearing itself is permanent, what is heard is what arises and what passes away.
And even if ideas are formed in a dream, although one does not think -
hearing remains.
Because the ability to hear is beyond thinking and extends beyond mind and body.
In this Saha world, teaching is done by voice.
Whoever cannot see through the nature of hearing follows the sound and is born again. "

- Śūrṅgama Sutra, 5.2


  • Arai Kōjun; Music and signs: notations of Buddhist chants from Japan, written sources from the 11th to 19th centuries Century; Cologne 1986 (catalog for the exhibition of the Museum for East Asian Art of the City of Cologne, March 15 - April 13, 1986; from Japan. Transl.)
  • Walter Giesen: On the history of Buddhist ritual singing in Japan. Tracts from the 9th to 14th centuries on the Shōmyō of the Tendai sect (Studies on Traditional Music of Japan; Vol. 1). Noetzel, Wilhelmshaven 2005, ISBN 3-7959-0842-6 (also dissertation, University of Bonn 1974).

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