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Buddhism and the Qin 1
Shoso-in qin: Buddhist theme 2        
The traditional guqin repertoire does not have a sufficient amount of music with clearly Buddhist themes to allow a music program devoted solely to that (comment), so this page is mainly intended as a basis to explore the potential nature of a future program.

Somewhere it has been written (unfortunately I cannot recall the source) that the real development of the qin into its modern form (specifically a construction designed to produce a delicate sound, making it difficult to be performed for a general audience), and its modern ideology (an instrument to be appreciated only by refined sensibilities), took place in the period between the Han and Tang dynasties. This was the period when Buddhism first made strong inroads into China, and the author of this article speculated that one of the aims was to make it less appealing to such "foreign" influences. Throughout history there have been dictums specifying that the qin should not be played by such people as Buddhists and foreigners.3

On the other hand, it is clear that since early times there have been many Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, who play the qin. Indeed, the qin's traditional aesthetic has particular appeal to certain aspects of a Buddhist sensibility.4 Indeed, at least one famous Tang dynasty poem, Loushi Ming, has a line that mentions playing qin and reciting a Buddhist text.5

Xu Jian's Introductory History of the Qin, Chapter 6.A.1., Qin monk teachers and disciples in the Northern Song dynasty, mentions a number of players who were monks. And Zhou Qingyun's Qin Shi Xu has a special section for Transcendental Players, many of them Buddhist. Clearly there were enough players to have formed a distinctive Buddhist style.

However, there is little to indicate that the style or repertoire of Buddhist players was ever different from that of any other players. Thus, for example, Feng Ru Song Ge has lyrics attributed to the 4th century monk Jiaoran, and Bai Xue Qu has lyrics by the 10th century monk Guan Xiu, but there is nothing particularly Buddhist about these.

The programs related to Daoism and Confucius contain little that is related to rituals. Mostly they have melodies connected to stories of famous Daoists or Confucians, or they concern Daoist or Confucian principles.

In contrast, there are no known traditional melodies dealing with Buddhas or famous Buddhists (other than Pu'an). And very few melodies seem to deal specifically with Buddhist concepts. Since these are not always easy to distinguish from some Daoist ones, one might suggest that Buddhist players have not felt a need to develop a special repertoire.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that Buddhist monks or qin playing literati, in their places of quiet meditation, did not use the qin when reciting texts or otherwise engaging in meditation. That this was never written down is disappointing but perhaps not surprising.6

Buddhist guqin melody repertoire

Only the second piece listed below, Pu'an Zhou, is in the active modern repertoire. There are several versions but most are very similar; an exception is mentioned below. Beginning with #3 the listed pieces come from just a few handbooks; they were found by searching Zha Fuxi's Guide. I have made tentative transcriptions and recordings of the first two versions, called Shitan Zhang; I am not aware of any other recordings of these earliest versions.

  1. Shitan Zhang (Stanzas of Siddham)
    Distantly related to Pu'an Zhou, this is a chant with qin accompaniment. Tradition says it resulted from someone over 400 years ago writing down music from (or perhaps for) a Buddhist chant, but I have not yet heard of modern attempts to try to reconstruct said chant from the qin melody. This tracing chart shows that there were versions of either Shitan Zhang or its descendant Pu'an Zhou in over 50 handbooks from 1589 to the present.

  2. Pu'an Zhou (Incantation of the Monk Pu'an)
    This is the only clearly Buddhist melody in the modern repertoire. The popular version (mainly from the Peng family tradition) is played without chant text. Interpretations vary in length, but there is little melodic difference between most of them.

    The chart with Shitan Zhang traces the various versions of that title and Pu'an Zhou. These include what seem to be some intermediate versions between Shitan Zhang and Pu'an Zhou, at least one of which, the Guangling school version, can be heard today. I know of no one playing it as written in the earliest sources.7

  3. Mahaprajnaparamitra Heart Sutra (摩訶般若婆羅密多心經 Mohebanruopolomiduo Xinjing)
    At least two handbooks have settings of the original Heart Sutra text:
    Although the text of both is almost the same, the music seems unrelated. Both seem more a hymn than a chant.

  4. Withered Timber Intonation (枯木吟 Kumu Yin)
    Only in 枯木禪琴譜
    Kumu Chan Qinpu (1893; XXVII/136)
    14950.6 枯木 kumu does not give the Buddhist meaning, for which see Soothill, p. 304:
       "withered timber....applied to a class of ascetic Buddhists, who sat in meditation, never lying down."

  5. Melody of the Naluo Rule (那羅法曲 Naluo Fa Qu)
    Only in 枯木禪琴譜
    Kumu Chan Qinpu (1893; XXVII/137; see previous and next)
    40173.51 那羅那里 Buddhist term: 那羅 naluo is the 男性 male essence, 那里 nali the female essence.
    No chant text; Soothill, p.248, has naluo meaning "nata", dance.

  6. Prelude of the Lotus Society (蓮社引 Lian She Yin)
    Only in 枯木禪琴譜
    Kumu Chan Qinpu (1893; XXVII/143; see previous two)
    Guide 43/---/571; the melody is that of Gui Qu Lai Ci, with lyrics altered/re-written into a Buddhist text
    Begins 歸去來兮,蓮社之樂胡不歸....; the Lotus Society (32496.43) is said to have originated
    with the famous monk Huiyuan (慧遠法師; 334 - 417)

  7. Small Pu'an Zhou (小普庵咒; Xiao Pu'an Zhou)
    Only in 雙琴書屋琴譜集成 Shuangqin Shuwu Qinpu Jicheng (1884; location uncertain) and 十一絃館琴譜; Shiyixianguan Qinpu (1907; XXIX/24)
    Apparently a qin version of a Pu'an Zhou for the pipa; no chant text.

More recently some music recordings have been published on Buddhist themes, both chants and purely instrumental.8 Regarding the chants, there is no reason why old or new chants should not be paired to guqin, but without amplification the instrument would probably only be heard if the chant was done solo. As for the instrumental, to my knowledge these always include other instruments with the qin.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Buddhism and the Qin 佛教與琴
As mentioned above, although there are only a few melodies (mostly no longer in the active repertoire and not, to my knowledge, reconstructed) on a purely Buddhist theme, other melodies express sentiments that would naturally appeal to certain Buddhist ways of thinking.

2. Shosoin qin (正倉院琴)
This is a photo of an image inlaid onto the top of what is said to be one of the earliest known surviving qins, in the storehouse at the Shoso-In in Nara, Japan; here it is copied from Cecilia Lindquist, Qin, p.141. The qin is discussed at length in Van Gulik, Lore. After establishing that the overall motif is of a literary gathering such as the famous one at the Lanting Pavilion, Van Gulik continues (pp.207-8):

"But this motif of the literary gathering does not explain why three figures are set apart in the enclosure, nor does it explain the dominant position of the tree, and the genii floating in the air. These elements, and especially the arrangement of the picture, suggest an entirely different, un-Chinese subject, viz. a Buddhist represenation of the Engightened One, or of one of the deities of the Mahayanic Pantheon....

"When we now ask ourselves which period in Chinese history could be expected to produce such a dual representation, we immediately think of the Northern Wei period. Under the rulers of this outlandish dynasty, who were fervent Buddhists, Buddhist art reigned supreme...."

Van Gulik identifies the upper instrument as a "qin pipa, a forerunner of the Japanese biwa". It actually looks to me more like an ancient ruan. 25578.168 秦琵琶 qin pipa gives as its earliest reference the 10th century 舊唐書 Old Book of Tang; 42492 阮 says that the ruan as a music instrument was the same as 42492.36 阮咸 ruanxian, for which its earliest reference is the 唐書 Book of Tang (10th or 11th c). Claims have been made for its being indigenous to China, for its being brought from Central Asia, and for its being adapted in China from a Central Asian original.

If Van Gulik's analysis is correct, and the qin was made during the Northern Wei dynasty (386 to 534), it must be the oldest surviving qin in existence. That the other instrument depicted on the inlay might have been of Central Asian origin, even though the image was inlaid on a qin, might also seen as representing the continuing tentative nature of the connection between Buddhism and the qin.

3. Criticism of allowing Buddhists to play qin
The mere fact of such comments can be seen as evidence of Buddhists playing guqin.

Van Gulik, Lore, discusses these prohibitions on pp.62-4, quoting (Yangchun Tang) Qin Jing as saying "沙門子不宜鼔琴". The original can be found in QQJC VII/275: this is the title of a short essay rather than part of a list. It begins "按雅調玄徽唯不宜於塵俗而溜流衲子寔崇....").

On pp. 63-4 Van Gulik tells several stories in which Daoists refuse to teach Buddhists.

4. Traditional aesthetic
Very little seems to be known about the aesthetics of early Chinese Buddhist music, and the fact that there seems little in common between the flavor of traditional guqin music (as expressed in through its ideology) and that of the modern Buddhist chant recordings with synthesizers, so commonly played in or around Chinese temples today, does not help in pursuing this line of enquiry. (For the guqin equivalent see the Longyuan recordings listed below.)

5. Meditating with qin?
Whether or not the meditations are strictly Buddhist, there is much reason to think that far more melodies were played than were ever written down. This is in part because qin music has never been a "composed" tradition (music written down by someone for someone else to play). Rather it was an oral tradition, with people (perhaps especially students) writing down the way a master (perhaps their teacher) played a particular melody. One can particularly imagine that apparently simple settings of poetic texts were often created on the spot and often varied.

6. Unwritten Buddhist meditations with qin?
Two reasons for not publishing such music could be that it was constantly changing, depending on mood of the day, or that it did not follow the apparently accepted syllabic setting almost exclusively used in the past for qin melodies with lyrics.

7. Performing Shitan Zhang
François Picard has had an ensemble perform his reconstruction of the early Shitan Zhang. A qin is included in the ensemble, but I am not sure how prominent it is. The rhythms he uses are quite different from those on my reconstruction. According to my understanding, he based his rhythms on Buddhist texts as they are chanted today. I made mine by comparing several early versions, analyzing the ornamentation indicated in the tablature, assuming that they were related to a single original, then trying to find a rhytm that fit all this data.

8. New Buddhist musical settings including qin
Here are two examples with which I am familiar:

  1. Invocation of Zhunti (准提咒 Zhunti Zhou)
    Track 10 of the metal string CD Art of Qin Music, Vol. 3
    Arranged and performed by 黃永明 Huang Yongming, with her qin accompanied by xiao flute, erhu fiddle, gong, chime and muyu ("wooden fish" a wooden idiophone). This is said to be based on or in the style of chants in the 佛光寺 Foguang Temple tradition of Taiwan. The setting is quite melismatic, i.e., it does not follow the syllabic setting almost exclusively used in the past for qin melodies with lyrics.
  2. Chinese Guqin of Sky (天禪 Tian Chan)
    巫娜 Wu Na, 龍源音像 Longyuan Sound, HD-036, 2010
    Also called "Zen Sky", this is one of a series of New Age/meditative CDs from 龍院佛音
    Longyuan Buddhism. All tracks have metal string qin with other instruments, often including synthesizer and sound effects. The other titles include Spatial Mountain with Quietness (空山寂寂 Kongshan Jiji), Seven Stringed Music (七絃清音 Qixian Qingyin), Spring Flow Under the Moon (月下流泉 Yuexia Liu Quan) and so forth.

This leaves open the question of why there is so little actual old or new qin music on Buddhist themes, why modern examples are usually so different from the traditional qin aesthetic (see above), and why, especially, a melody such as Se Kong Jue, with its lovely setting for the Heart Sutra, could disappear so quickly, and not be followed by others.

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