My life seems to be all transitions recently. In Western music, transitions are sections of music characterized by harmonic motion and nonthematic passagework; passages of musical instability between sections of stability.
My first transition was leaving a stable job in Berkeley and moving to Dharma Drum Mountain, a Buddhist monastery/university in the Jinshan District of Taiwan. My goals were to understand the forms and functions of the Chinese Buddhist liturgy, and to outline a process for creating English language versions of this liturgy.
My second transition came when I met the remarkable Venerable Guo Kai. Guo Kai teaches new monks and nuns to sing/lead the many Buddhist ceremonies and perform using the traditional Dharma instruments. This is an essential component of every sangha members’ training. Guo Kai’s personal vows are to spread the Buddhadharma, and she sees music as key to this effort. To that end, she has been instrumental in reshaping several of larger ceremonies performed here at Dharma Drum Mountain, including the massive Water and Land Repentance.
Venerable Guo Kai has a bright continence, quick mind and blunt tongue. Through a translator (Sarah), Guo Kai told me that creating an English liturgy was incredibly important, and studying the Chinese liturgy was a very good thing to do. I should go to ceremonies, however, I shouldn’t get caught-up in the details. “The Chinese people already have a liturgy.” This liturgy evolved to meet their specific cultural needs. “There is no need to make an English version of the Chinese liturgy.”* An English liturgy should meet the needs of Western audiences, containing texts, music, concepts that are appropriate to Westerners. “Take what is useful in the Chinese ceremonies and move on.”
* She was making a rhetorical point. Gou Kai sees a need for an English version of Chinese ceremonies, but does considers it secondary to the creation of a native English liturgy.
This was a lot to take in. I needed to reevaluate my goals and retool my focus. If I shouldn’t simply dig deep into the Chinese liturgy, making English language versions, what should I do? She left me with the following thought, “if you can accomplish this before you die, you will have lived a valuable life.” …. no pressure …
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I’ve been thinking about two things: liturgical transitions of the past and the needs of Western audiences.
The first of these is actually easier to articulate. Liturgical transitions of the past provide a wealth of useful parallels and models. Possible transitions to examine could be:
- Early Christianity: From Aramaic Speaking Jews to Latin Speaking Romans
- The Sinicization of Buddhist Music and the Establishment of Vinaya Rules
- The Early Middle Ages: How did Charlemagne Unified the Diverse Liturgical Practices of the Holy Roman Empire?
- The Late Middle Ages: Complexity, Innovation and Money
- The Liturgy of the Hours and the Rules of Saint Benedict
- The Spread of Chinese Buddhist Music to Vietnam, Korea and Japan
- The Renaissance: The Reformation (Luther, Calvin and Fatman)
- Codifiying Buddhist Music in the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties
- The Renaissance: The Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent
- The New World: Change and Diversity
- Venerable Master Hongyi and Buddhist Devotional Song
- The 2nd Vatican Council: Opening Up the Spillways or Causing a Flood
- Contemporary Buddhist Liturgical Practices (ex. Ajahn Sumedho’s tonal system to chant Pali)
I will dig deeper into these examples in future posts, discussing what they may and may not tell us about the creation on a native English liturgy. I will mix these examinations with comments on readings, music examples and other materials I come across in my travels. More on the needs of Westerners in time.