Monks embrace western music at Tiantai Temple

CCTV.com
Fei Ye
05-09-2014

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple.

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple.

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple, China’s first professional academy of classical Buddhist music. At the third Tiantai Temple Buddhism Music Festival on Wednesday, CCTV reporter Fei Ye explores why monks and nuns have taken up western instruments to communicate the spirit of Buddhism.

Instead of the primitive sounds that characterize traditional Buddhist music, imagine a scene where several nuns and monks are playing Bach and Shubert on violins and cellos. This might be an unusual site for many, but it’s a regular scene for the locals at Tiantai Temple in Hubei Province, where the third Tiantai Temple Buddism Music Festival is held.

Many renowned professors from China’s Central Conservatory of Music are here to participate. The troupe was established in 2008 and is made up of more than 40 monks and nuns aged between 10 and 32. The mastermind behind the troupe is Abbot Wu Le.

“I had been thinking a lot about how we can better present Buddhism to people, so I did a lot of research into other religious customs. When I first entered the Christian church and listened to the choir’s angelic voices, I was mesmerized by the power of the music. From then on, I knew that we needed to do something similar, to use music to convey the spirit of Buddhism,” Abbot Wu Le said.

The troupe is the first of its kind in China. Nowadays, people live a hasty life. They rarely have time to be able to listen to chants or sermons. Therefore, abbot Wu would really like people to seek a sense of peace and appreciation for Buddhism through music, but why classical music?”

“Classical music has been around for hundreds of year, it’s been used in sacred forms for different religions before. Traditional Buddhist music is very stiff and can be an obstacle to young people learning about Buddhism. Therefore, if I want to convey more to non-religious believers, I have to use different ways to convey the soul of Buddhism. Buddhism is not just for old people, it can be closely connected to daily life,” Abbot Wu Le said.

In the beginning, some accused the troupe of rebelling against tradition by shunning Chinese instruments like the pipa and the guzheng. But famous composer Ye Xiaogang thinks otherwise.

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple.

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple.

“I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard about the troupe. Buddhism is imported. Western music is also imported. Music has no boundaries. Any kind of instrument can display the thoughts of Buddhism. Diversified forms can make Buddhist music more appealing,” Ye Xiaogang said.

It wasn’t easy for the monks and nuns in the beginning, when they spent seven hours a day learning and practicing. Sometimes, on special occasions like this festival, well known music professors offer them free lessons.

“These students are very special. I have known them for over a year and they are more diligent and persistent than some professional students. I guess mastering the violin is like meditating,” violinist Liang Danan said.

25 year-old nun Zheng Shu says she wasn’t able to tell the difference between a violin and a viola when she first joined the troupe.

“It was really difficult for us. I’d never even seen a violin before we started learning. There were times when I was frustrated and wanted to destroy this instrument, but I told myself that I have to find peace with it, and only after I attain a sense of inner peace can I feel the subtle changes in tone. I’m so excited to play with some of the best violinists in the country like Liang Danan and Sheng Zhongguo,” Zheng Shu said.

Abbot Wu’s students are all inspired by his pioneering initiative and his ambition to establish a professional orchestra. There are still mixed feelings about this crossover from the Buddhist community, but as time goes by, more and more may begin to see the light.

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple.

Monks are embracing western music in Hubei Province at the Tiantai Temple.

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