Gītassara Sutta: A Brief Commentary

Rod, from The Worst Horse and Shambhala SunSpace, posted this the other day on Facebook. It got my mind buzzing again, as it does from time to time, about the relevancy of music to Dharma practice.

The Gītassara Sutta

Bhikkhus, there are five dangers of reciting the Dhamma with a musical intonation. What five?

Oneself gets attached to the sound others get attached to the sound, householders are annoyed, saying, “Just as we sing, these sons of the Sakyan sing”, the concentration of those who do not like the sound is destroyed, and later generations copy it.

These, monks, are the five dangers of reciting the Dhamma with a musical intonation.

As you all know, my musical background is one of the more extreme sorts, I have always preferred Death Metal. I love the power behind it, the musicianship and it’s complexities. It is one of the most under appreciated musical genres, and for that I am grateful. There are already enough clones of Suffocation and Carcass, I’d hate to see the metal landscape if it went mainstream. But, I am getting off topic here…

I’ve always enjoyed the fact Buddhist principles are open for questioning, & have been open to one’s own interpretation. Everything isn’t as literal as it may seem. As Buddhism adapts from culture to culture, change is inevitable.

One thing that bothers me is the “purists” out there that take things so literally, they forsake all those who go against what they call “Dharma spirit.” These are the same purists that have no issue with putting chants and mantras to a melody to make it easier to memorize, or seem more palatable when someone less knowledgeable walks into a temple.

I was lurking in a forum a while back saw this discussion on Metal and Buddhism. For the most part, it was an interesting conversation. Then, there were the purists I mentioned above. Of course they said how they had no issue with it, but then went on to say how evil and noisy the music is and that it has no place in the Dharma.

One of the users had a great quote as part of their signature in the forum, it’s a shame others posting there didn’t stop to read it. Here is what it says…

“The real Buddhism is not books, not manuals, not word for word repetition from the Tipitaka, nor is it rites and rituals. These are not the real Buddhism. The real Buddhism is the practice, by way of body, speech and mind that will destroy the defilements, in part or completely…Though a person may never have seen or even heard of the Tipitaka, if he carries out detailed investigation every time suffering arises and scorches his mind he can be said to be studying the Tipitaka directly, and far more correctly than people actually in the process of reading it.” – Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

Regardless of the genre, music of any sort can be positive as far as Dharma goes. Artists such as Ravenna Michalsen have a softer, and more ethereal sound. Then we have prominent Buddhist teachers, such as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, whose spoken word over various song styles inspire with  one listen. Well known hip hop artists, the Beastie Bows, even have a song called Bodhisattva Vow.

Since this blog has started, I’ve spoken with a number of Buddhist/ Buddhist themed metal acts such as The Firstborn, Dosa Jhana, Deadly Light, Rest In Disgrace and even had a guest post from my buddy Melle Kramer of the Danish metal act, Obsidian (he also has been drumming with Dosa Jhana lately) on how he relates meditative practices while playing live music.

I am no monastic, I have no intention of becoming one either. Maybe, and I stress the maybe, I would be a bit more “hardcore” about my Dharma practice and would banish all thought of music intonation in my life, but it’s not the case. I enjoy listening to music, it has always been, and always will be, a HUGE part of my life. If some bands integrate Buddhist messages within their music, than I am all for it, and I embrace it wholeheartedly.

I have also heard the argument that those involved in the death metal scene are to close to death, and embrace it in to morbid of a manner. Ummm… HELLO! I’m not sure if those same people that condemn metal heads for being overly morbid have heard of impermanence. Maybe they haven’t heard of the Tibetan practices of Phowa. Buddhism is just as hung up on death as metal is. As a Buddhist, I’ve been taught to embrace death in a way that there is no fear of it. It is something that is inevitable and happens to us all. Without death, we are never truly free. That being said, I leave with this parable, yes about death.

24 Hours To Die

Raj asked Buddha, “Reverend Sir, how come my mind wanders around to forbidden places and yours does not?” “Sir, how come I do back-biting and you don’t?” “Sir, how come I don’t have compassion for others, while you have?” All the questions that Raj asked were of similar nature.

Buddha replied, “Raj, your questions are good, but it seems to me that in 24 hours from now you will die.”

Raj got up and started getting ready to go.

Buddha asked, “Raj, what happened? You came with such vitality now you are totally dismayed.”

Raj said, “Sir, my mother told me that your words are true and are to be held in high esteem. So please let me go so that I may meet my family members, friends and others before I die.”

Buddha said, “But there are still 24 hours. Sit, we will talk more.”

Raj said, “Reverend Sir, please let me go. I must meet my people before I die.”

So Raj left and went home. Met his mother and started crying. The word spread. His friends came; other family members came; neighbors came. Everyone was crying with Raj. Time flew.

Raj was busy either crying or counting the hours. When only 3 hours were left, he pulled up a cot and lay down. Although the Death had not yet arrived, poor Raj was kind of dead.

When only an hour was left, Buddha walked in.

Buddha said to Raj, “Raj, why are you lying down on the cot with your closed eyes. Death is still an hour away. And an hour is 60 minutes long. That’s a lot of time. Get up, let us talk.”

Raj: “Sir, what is it now that you want to talk? Just let me die peacefully.”

Buddha: “Raj, there is still time and our talk will get over before the ‘ordained’ time.”

Raj: “Okay, Sir . . . say what you have to say.”

Buddha: “In the past 24 hours, did you curse anyone?”

Raj: “How could I curse anyone? I was all the time thinking about death.”

Buddha: “In the past 24 hours, did you think or wish ill for anyone?”

Raj: “How could I do that? I was all the time thinking about death.”

Buddha: “In the past 24 hours, did you steal?”

Raj: “Sir, how can you even ask that? I was all the time thinking about death.”

Finally the Buddha said, “Raj, I don’t know who has to die and who has to live. But understanding the ultimate truth — i.e. death — can be very enlightening. All the questions you posed to me have been answered by yourself because of the awareness of death that you experienced during the past 24 hours. The difference between me and you is that you were aware of death for the past 24 hours, I have been aware for the past 24 years.”

One Comment

  1. Thanks for the great post, Nate! I think that music (whether listening to it or making it), like so many other activities, can be brought to the path, or can become an impediment to the path. In that regard, whether or not music is a dharmic or non-dharmic persuit depends on the intention of the person listening to, playing, or writing it. Just my $1.05…


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