What is the attitude of Buddhism toward music, singing and dancing? Is there a way for these activities to become a means by which one achieves Liberation? This is a very important point in Buddhism.
In an early teaching, Talaputta Sutta, the Buddha told the singer and dancer Talaputta that singing and dancing, as activities that provoke sensual desires, will ultimately lead the performer to the lower realms. The Buddha’s reasoning is this: In performing music and dance, the performer arouses attachments to worldly pleasures in the audience, and as this attachment appears to lead one away from the Path, then the performers themselves are liable to enter the lower realms. (For those who are rather new to Buddhism, ‘lower realms’ mean those places where you will be if you are hell beings, hungry ghosts, or non-human animals.)
This is not quite a positive attitude toward music and dance. However, as we have seen in the previous post on the Pali chant performed by Sri Lankan girls, the chant is really beautiful and is musically well structured. And if you have listened to Theravada monks chant, you also have an idea that this is almost musical. So what is going on?
The point in the Talaputta Sutta is that, if the performance has its intention merely to entertain or merely to elicit attachment, then the performer could go to the lower realms. But the Buddha did not say that any performer of music and dance will all go to the lower realms. Otherwise these girls will have booked their places in the lower realms merely through their singing, which is absurd. So those musical and dancing acts who motivations are not mere entertainment appear to be exempt.
This is an important point, because it implies that music, songs and dances are not ‘bad’ in themselves. And it points a way for them actually to become a means by which one appreciates the Dharma and gain a foothold on the Path toward Enlightenment. As an illustration let us look at this dance from Nepal:
Very beautiful, isn’t it? The dance was originally intended as an embodiment of the Buddhist deities, in this particular dance is the female Buddha Vajrayogini. She symbolizes the transformative power of the Buddhas and the triumph over ignorance. Here our own attachments and ignorances are being turned inside out. Instead of these defilements dragging us down toward the lower realms, they are being transformed through the power of Vajrayogini so that they instead become positive forces leading us in the opposite direction, that is toward Enlightenment itself.
Thus we are not watching this dance just as we are watching a commercial and entertaining one. We are having a very bad habit because all of us are accustomed to watching these entertainments and we are ingrained in this habit when we watch this dance. This is nothing like the entertaining dance that you watch in most other videos on YouTube or on television at all. Nothing is further from the truth. Watching and participating in this dance is a very spiritual. We are being invited to enter the sphere or ‘mandala’ of Vajrayogini herself, and the figure dancing before our very eyes is not merely a dancer, but Vajrayogini herself appearing to us in the flesh so that we can watch and touch her. And by doing this our defilements are being transformed through the tremendous power of Vajrayogini.
So this is perhaps the attitude of Buddhism toward music and dance. When the Buddha tells Talaputta that his musical and singing career would lead him toward the lower realms, what he actually meant was that for those who are just beginning on the Path, perhaps they might need to stay away from these performances for a while, otherwise they would still be attached to them and hence find no bearing on the Path. This is the case only if these musics and dances are not intended to encourage or to transform one so that one progresses along the Path, which seems to be the Buddha’s presuppositions in his discussion of this matter with Talaputta. But music and dance can indeed be very powerful tools toward realization of the Path, so long as one is able to distinguish the simple attachment that the Buddha implies when he talks with Talaputta from the kind of music and art that transcends mere attachment and become transformative power in themselves.