Music and Meditation

If you a regular reader of this blog, you might perhaps know that I am also interested in music. Many posts on this blog are about music. So perhaps it’s time to look at any connection there is between music and Buddhism.

Or between music and meditation, which is perhaps easier to write about. There are now many musical pieces designed to help one’s meditation. Look at and listen to the following:

So the question is how does music really help with meditation? As far as I know no Buddhist scriptures mention anything about music as an aid to meditation. If anything the texts tend to suggest that the practitioner find a quiet place free from distractions to do his or her meditation. But music seems to be very distracting. So how about these musical pieces? Are they really distractions? Or could they be of help in one way or another?

In fact some form of music has been in used in meditation practice for a long time. Those who are familiar with sadhana practice in Tibetan Buddhism know that many rhythmic and musical instruments are involved — a lot of cymbals, gongs, trumpets, clarinets, and of course the indispensable bell that always accompanies the vajra. So the practice can be a very loud affair. But if music is a distraction, then why do they have such a big role to play?

Moreover, if one looks at Theravada, which has far more simple rituals, one does find some music in there too. In Thailand there is the tradition of telling the tale of the Bodhisattva Vessantara, who assumed the last human form before eventually becoming Buddha Shakyamuni. The story is told is such beautiful and moving voice that bring tears to many listeners. The chant is indeed beautiful music.

This is a topic which is not well understood or thoroughly investigated, I think. On the one hand, music clearly can be a distraction. Try doing a meditation in a shopping mall filled with piped in music, and compare that to a quiet place in a park. But then there is the problem of employing music in many practices.

As a musician myself, I think my musical practice and performance can be a way of doing meditation. When I play a piece like Bach, all my attention will be glued to the music that I don’t think of anything else. I kind of “lose myself” to the music. There’s no consciousness of what is going on around me, no worries whether who is doing what around me. Just the music — the harmony, the counterpoint, the sheer tone of the piano, the sensuousness of it all.

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A recent article in the Economist explores the question why music is so important in our lives, and the answer is that music and sex are so related that musical prowess translates into more chances to pass on the genes to the offsprings. So the love of music and the pleasure derived from listening to it is perhaps hard wired into our beings. We are programmed to love music because our genes have been selected this way.  The Economist calls this the “food-of-love” hypothesis. Music and sex are deeply related to each other. The pleasures derived from music and from sex may be explainable through the same causes.

What this has to do with meditation and Buddhism is that, if music is really connected to meditation, then if the the “food-of-love” hypothesis is correct, then meditation could also be a skill which, akin to music, develops in tandem with the ability to find pleasure. The article quotes Stephen Pinker as follows:  “A brain devoted to turning sound into meaning is tickled by an oversupply of tone, melody and rhythm. Singing is auditory masturbation to satisfy this craving. Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.” The brain is hard wired to get pleasures from music in the same way as it does from cheesecakes. But how is this related to meditation?

Many meditators report having a lot of pleasures during their meditation. In fact the Buddha himself said that two components, “rapture” (piti) and “happiness” (sukha) are two main ingredients of successful meditation. And even though one goes to the higher stages where rapture and happiness are non-existent, this does not mean that no kind of happiness is available, because the texts say that those who have attained these higher stages of meditation are in some sense moving toward cessation of suffering. Even though the Buddha taught that this is not exactly the correct way to eliminate all sufferings, this can indeed contribute a lot to it.

So meditation seems to contribute a lot to pleasures, and the texts are clear in stating that as long as one remains in the meditative state, one in effect shuts the door from sufferings. However, the Buddha’s contribution is that this does not eliminate all possible sufferings, since one returns to the normal sufferings state once one is out of the meditation. The way toward total elimination of suffering is through realization of complete selflessness, but then a way toward such realization can be achived only through some forms of meditation, both shamatha and vipasyana. The vipasyana, or insight meditation, is also a meditation. Supreme happiness, the highest kind of happiness attainable by a human being (or indeed any sentient being), is only possible through meditation. And if music and meditation are related, then music could indeed be a way toward the realization.

But then what about music as a distraction? What happens when one practices a meditation session and the nearby house is having a wild rock party? This also can be compared with a musician who is practicing Bach while some other music is being played loudly. This is indeed a distraction, but that does not mean that music, per se, is a distraction. It depends on what we are doing at the moment.

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