Friday, July 25, 2008

Listening to the Void #2

One of the hallmarks of human culture is its use of music to express just about every emotion and reflect the many variegated expressions of human activity such as religion, sexuality, nationalism or just having good old fun. At present, Chinese Buddhist music is emanating from the notebook on which this article is being written, and in response, feelings such as pleasure, devotion and peacefulness are inspired in my heart. Music is a powerful thing.

I recall that during the first Gulf War when Baghdad was being bombed some Iraqis would dance and sing in front of news cameras chanting the name of their country and (then) leader Saddam Hussein. They were using music to show defiance towards their attackers and support of the Iraqi regime. (Of course, many, many more Iraqis did not dance and sing on the streets like this, so whether these individuals reflected the sentiments of their fellow compatriots or not is an entirely different matter.) National anthems are a similar form of music, evoking a multitude of images and feelings in relation to one’s country in the hearts of those that recite them. Similarly, music is also an expression of cultural identity, and here in Thailand there are several traditional musical forms reflecting the different regions and strata of Thai society, all performed in schools, universities, and via the media as an affirmation of ‘Thai-ness’.

Most of us who have grown up in the West are familiar with the singing of Christian hymns. Sung with much fervor and devotion they are an integral part of most church services, encouraging loving feelings towards God and are also an expression of Christian identity. Monastics in the West have used plainsong or Gregorian chants to cultivate similar feelings accompanied by a reflective attitude to the songs. Go to any professional football match in England on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see thousands of people chanting the praises of their favorite player and his teammates. This isn’t restricted just to football, of course; most sports have music and chants associated with them. Rugby, for instance, is notorious for its tongue-in-cheek and rather saucy chants heard during matches. Singing can therefore be a kind of affirmation of who we believe ourselves to be, whether we are singing for our country or our religion or even our sports team.

Of course, we listen to music for another good reason too: it’s enjoyable. Millions and millions of dollars are spent across the globe every year on the best-selling albums, and radios blast out the latest songs of the newest talent to hit the airwaves, along with older classics from the last century and beyond. Music is found in barn dances, weddings, discothèques, raves, birthday parties, stage shows, and of course, on the television. Mp3 players, i-pods, and even most video games contain music. My wife just purchased a new mobile phone that not only allows her to listen to mp3s but also lets her listen to the radio. Apparently, she can even make and receive telephone calls on the thing!

Listening to traditional Chinese Buddhist chants can reveal an important aspect of music that is usually overlooked: the space in between the notes. For, if all the sounds were drones going on and on simultaneously, it would be very difficult to discern any melody or rhythm in music. (And – unless distorted by modern technology – the human voice cannot drone on for much more than a few minutes, anyhow.) Even in music that uses drone-style sounds such as Indian music, only one instrument is normally used to make a droning noise which is used as a kind of background hum to the tunes played over it. And those tunes all have gaps in between the notes.

Let’s look closer at those gaps in music, for they point at an important aspect not only of sound but of life itself. Choosing a piece of music that isn’t too boisterous or chockablock full of many, many different sounds, devote this time to sitting down with an attentive mind and listening carefully. This can be done in a formal meditation position or sat or led down quite casually, as long as one doesn’t move around too much or become dozy and fall asleep. (Although, if you’re tired, why not go to sleep and do this experiment when less drowsy?)

Keeping pretty still and with eyes closed to cut out any visual interference with this experiment in sound, pay close attention to the chosen piece of music. Take in the various instruments on the song, focusing on each one in turn, noticing the particularities of the way they sound. For instance, one can listen to a bass guitar, recognizing its typically low muffled sound, creating a beat alongside any percussion being played. Also listen to the space in between the tune the bass is playing and see that the space is every bit as present as the bass guitar itself, but that normally we don’t place our attention on it so it goes unnoticed. Can you hear how the space not only lies in the gaps in between the notes of the music, but that it also surrounds them, never really going away – where can space go?! Indeed, prior to the first sound of the song there is space, and after the last note of the music has died away, space is present also. Space is here before the arising of sound, during the sound’s existence and after it has finished. Now, if you listen to the sounds that are arising where you are, there is also this peaceful silent space.

Unlike music, space doesn’t give us anything to grasp hold of and identify with. We can’t use space to express our nationalism, nor can it be used to illustrate our love of Jesus Christ, Amitabha Buddha or Sri Krishna. Space doesn’t inspire particular emotions such as love, hate, desire, loneliness, nor does it encourage the attachment that accompanies such feelings. Space is an openness which is experienced as the peace at the heart of the most discordant noise, and a void into which all sound falls eventually. If we focus on space, rather than the sounds that occur within it, we experience a widening of the otherwise limited human perspective. It’s difficult to react with any strong emotions to spaciousness; it is a void into which everything that we cling to as me and mine falls into.

Yet this isn’t as awful as it might sound, for if we let go of our attachments to sounds, sights, thoughts, memories etc, we experience them as they truly are, giving them the chance to express themselves in the fullness of being without interference from our ego. Then, we might well find that genres of music that previously were not appreciated can be heard in a more expansive way, without the negative presumptions of the ego to interfere. In the same vein, focusing on space can also help us to let go of negative feelings towards other human beings and creatures, making us less egotistical and reactionary. And even this ego itself can be seen in relationship to the void in which it appears, and we can know ourselves as we truly are perhaps for the first time, courtesy of the spaciousness that lies at our center.


They call him James Ure said...

Great post. Music is definitely very spiritual and I've always felt it that way. It can be so beneficial to releasing negative energy or to improve our mood.

G said...

Using music to brightening our mood is a useful exercise, and one that is indicative of the skillful means used in Buddhism.

As to the main point of the post, listening to the space in between the notes, Justin, did you give it a try?

Be well in the Dharma,

Anonymous said...

Recently been practicing just resting in the "sound of silence" a similar way just paying attention to the realm of music, words and sound can be quite meditative. You mention the space between the notes, similar to the space between the in and out breath, or the space between any sensation, or thought.

JD said...


This was a nice and interesting post. I have never tried to listen to music this way before but will give it a shot today while I'm casing my mail for the day. I have some Gregorian Chant on my mp3 player that I keep along with Dhamma Talks. I find that the chants just sort of flow and have always been conducive to spiritual reflections of one sort or another. I wish you well.

G said...

Resting in the sound of silence has been a practice of mine for some time, too, Aparajita. I find it can work well with being aware of the actual silence, too.

Justin, I hope you find listening to the space between the notes of the Gregorian Chants rewarding. I like to listen to the silence in between Buddhist chanting, also, as it really emphasizes the meditative nature of the chanting.


madsolitaire said...

Thank you for the timely reminder :-)

In my interaction with others, I shall remember to look at the 'space' in the 'other', and to also relate to others from the 'space within'...

Thanks again.

G said...

Recognizing the 'Buddha Space' both in other beings and here at home is the heart of the matter, isn't it, Solitaire?

I've enjoyed your posts at 'No Answers', too, especially the last one about dreams and Buddhism. Reminds me of that old nursery rhyme:

"Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream;
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!"