SuttaCentral

What did the Buddha mean by 'music'?


#1

In another thread @jarek said:

Over the past decades, the ‘music’ that I listen to has been getting more and more abstract. I mainly listen to field recordings now such as those by Chris Watson - https://chriswatsonreleases.bandcamp.com/ … I’m not sure how ‘skillful’ this is though as I’m not sure what the Buddha meant when he talked about ‘music’ as in the 7th precept (of 8) - such as in:

As long as they live, the perfected ones avoid dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows; and beautifying and adorning themselves with garlands, fragrance, and makeup. I, too, for this day and night will avoid dancing, singing, music, and seeing shows; and beautifying and adorning myself with garlands, fragrance, and makeup. I will observe the sabbath by doing as the perfected ones do in this respect. - AN3.70

It is also unclear to me if the music part of this precept is about playing music or listening to music? I guess that it is playing music, as listening to music would’ve been covered by seeing shows in the time of the Buddha?

Which leads me on to recorded music. Listening to recorded music (I’m supposing) wasn’t around in the time of the Buddha. This is something that can now be done alone and at very low volumes and some recorded music might be considered quite skillful from a Buddhist point of view? I’m thinking of maybe the generative music of Brian Eno for example.

Maybe some of the minimalists work of the 1960’s and 70’s, especially those involving tape loops and the like would also be considered skillful? Many of these examples do not ‘fire the passions’, but can very much calm them as a precursor to meditation. And what about generative music compositions such as Longplayer?

And I would of course be remiss in not mentioning 4’33" by John Cage.

So I’m wondering. Where do others draw the line in terms of skillful and unskillful in terms of listening to … ummm … ‘sounds’?


#2

I would consider it a violation of the 7th precept to listen to any kind of music whatsoever. Delighting in sounds is antithetical to the fulfillment of the nekhamma-renunciation aspect of right intention on the noble eightfold path. Of course I’m not a monastic and am not, at least at this time, attempting to fulfill that aspect of the path. But if I’m at a monastery, no music whatsoever, no ifs ands or buts about it for me.

:anjal:


#3

There is a difference between listening to music, or perhaps it would be better to say “hearing” music, and delighting in it. The fact is, in this day and age, it would be very hard for someone, monastics included, not to hear music. For example, when monks make their alms rounds through the streets of inhabited areas of any size in predominantly Buddhist countries, chances are they will hear some music playing from time to time, whether it is from a passing car or being played in the homes or places of business where they stop to collect alms.

The trick is to hear the music without delighting in it. This is where one’s meditation practices come into play. A friend of mine who will be ordaining next month gave me some very good advice about what to do when hearing pleasant (or unpleasant, for that matter) sounds when meditating. To be succinct, one simply notes the sound without becoming positively or negatively attached to it. If you hear a bird chirping (presumably a pleasant sound), simply note to oneself, “Listening, listening, listening.” If you hear an unpleasant sound like a jack-hammer, also simply note it, without hatred or ill-will. Unless one is hearing impaired, not even a forest monk will be able to not hear pleasant sounds, such as the aforementioned bird chirping.

As for what constitutes music, that is sort of subjective (keeping in mind that music scholars probably have definitions for what qualifies as music). It could very well be the sound of a bird chirping, if one is to take literally the metaphorical expression, “that’s music to my ears.” So, again, assuming that someone strictly keeping the seventh precept is exposed to music (e.g., monks making alms rounds in populated areas where music is being played outdoors), the approach would be to note it and let it pass, without delight or aversion, and without craving or attachment.


#4

I agree. I mean I think it would be a violation of the seventh precept for someone to listen to sounds that were crafted or compiled by humans specifically to be listened to. Delighting in the sounds of birds singing while you’re outside would not violate the precept but it would still be delighting in sound and therefore a departure from the fulfillment of renunciation. Although if a monastic sporadically enjoys the sights and sounds of nature around them I wouldn’t hold it against them. I’d consider the alluring sights and sounds of humans and their creations to be more of a stumbling block to the spiritual life than those of nature.

:anjal:


#5

Thanks for your comments thus far both.

How about delighting in chanting or delighting in a dhamma talk? For me spoken word is just a genre of music.


#6

Music is designed to grab our attention. Even if someone simply claps their hands rhythmically, there is an inclination to step in time. The clapping grabs our attention. And the call of a bird is also designed to grab attention.

It’s actually quite interesting and quite difficult to be equanimous around engaging sound. Even if one fights it, one still is fighting IT. In the gym, they play music. So I play the suttas in my headphones. Instant solitude and peace! Dhamma notes! :headphones:


#7

I’ve seen various commentators categorize the playing part as falling under ‘music’ and the listening as falling under seeing shows—but either way they both fall under the 7th precept anyway.

If you’re following the eight precepts, then seeking out and intentionally listening to music would break the 7th precept. Of course, you don’t have to live the eight precepts every day (though some choose to). They’re meant to steer the mind inwards, towards meditation and seclusion—not necessarily because because doing the sixth, seventh, and eighth precept are “bad.”

The more important thing is monitoring your mind while you’re either listening to music or come across it. Is it aggravating greed, aversion, and delusion, or not? That would be the determining factor for whether it’s skillful or not.

As AN9.72 points out:

Mendicants, there are these five emotional shackles. What five? Firstly, a mendicant isn’t free of greed, desire, fondness, thirst, passion, and craving for sensual pleasures. This being so, their mind doesn’t incline toward keenness, commitment, persistence, and striving. This is the first emotional shackle.


#8

Yes. There is a direct neural connection from the ears to the motor neurons of the legs bypassing areas of brain associated with conscious regulatory activity. That’s why it is so difficult for some people to stop tapping their feet to the music. I guess it is there (from an evolutionary perspective) to get us up and running when we hear something dangerous.


#9

The point in chanting and dhamma talks should ideally be to grasp the meaning of the sentences being chanted or spoken. If one indulges in the pleasant sound I’d say that is problematic.

“Mendicants, there are these five drawbacks in reciting with a drawn-out singing sound. What five? You relish the sound of your own voice. Others relish the sound of your voice. Householders complain: ‘These ascetics, followers of the Sakyan, sing just like us!’ When you’re enjoying the melody, your immersion breaks up. Those who come after follow your example. These are the five drawbacks in reciting with a drawn-out singing sound.” - AN5.209

:anjal:


#10

I find listening DN33 to be not delightful, nor does it cause aversion. Instead, it is actually a sound that facilitates a preoccupation with equanimity.


#11

Satisfied, the mendicants were happy with what Sāriputta said. - DN33

Maybe that should read: Neither satisfied nor unsatisfied, the mendicants remained in equanimity with what Sāriputta said. :wink:


#12

I think it’s about intention more than anything else. A monastic who hears music as they’re going on almsround can’t help if their mind finds flits off and finds delight in it. Old habits die hard and the mind often whisks off to where it wants. Hopefully they would be mindful enough to realize what’s going on and redirect the mind to a wholesome object. There’s no fault there. If that monastic found themselves favoring a particular alms-route so they could delight in music while along it, that is a fault. Similarly with birdsong, sounds of nature, etc. At a high level of diligence in practice, one is seeking to fully replace one’s delight in the 5 cords of sensual pleasure with delight in the Dhamma which occurs at the mind.


#13

I have come at this from a slightly different direction within my practice. I’ve never set out to enforce the precepts, but rather found that the deeper one is immersed in the Dhamma and mindfulness, the less appealing ANY distractions become. Music is a hollow distraction that draws attention away from what is perceived as important. As such it is interferring with equanimity. As such it is preferable not to have this distraction. If it is unavoidable, then it’s just part of what is noticed. But the purposeful seeking out of distractions becomes distasteful. The same with reading non-dhamma, watching tv, engaging in small talk, etc etc.

I understand that one may need to restrain these things in the beginning, especially if one can not abide in seclusion for any significant amounts of time. So my perspective is that enforcing the precepts is like mimicking the conditions that arise from seclusion.

The interesting thing IMO is that the outcome (disenchantment with these things) is a natural result of right mindfulness.

I hope this is useful and sparks another perspective :slight_smile:


#14

IMO he meant dance rhythms and ear worms. That thump thump that gets in your heart whether its a frame drum or electronic bass. And that repeating lick, that riff, that Ohrwurm. IMO that’s what he means.

Or the fourth note of Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet IMO


#15

Ok, what about white sound generaters, or environmental records such as surf? Thoughts?

@Polarbear From your later post

The point in chanting and dhamma talks should ideally be to grasp the meaning of the sentences being chanted or spoken. If one indulges in the pleasant sound I’d say that is problematic.

… “should” these be delivered via computer generated voices?

It seems to me that at some point, disembodying communication from theses fortunate human-life lives becomes a barrier.

(No species-ism intended!)


#16

If listening to music is the worse thing one does as a human, then you’re still doing pretty well!

Let’s not be too hard on ourselves or others, not everyone is a renunciant. We don’t want Buddhists to be seen as the kind of fundamentalists who try to ban music in their countries, yeah? I think it’s important for general readers on this forum to know that the 7th precept is for committed Dhamma practitioners. One can still be a Buddhist and listen to music. Interestingly, many people listen to music to calm down or to find a sense of beauty in their life. Others use it to create joy. All of these are far better than some other sorts of activities which are actually more harmful. Some forms of Buddhism and other religions use music as a spiritual tool. For some, it’s a pathway into meditation. I know many monks who are former musicians and they turned out ok, so it’s not an evil… And listening to it might not be a black and white, good or bad thing, especially for most Buddhists, who are lay people.

Humanity’s relationship to music is very complex and it has played an important part of our evolution. Don’t feel too upset if you still like a bit if Bach or Metallica even. There are sounds all around us at all times and even the engine of a bus or the hum of an air conditioner can turn musical when you haven’t heard music for a long time!
As you practice more meditation you might find you want less music in your life, and more quietness. But to be clear, for most people, you don’t need to give up music to be a buddhist.


#17

I don’t think that people living in monasteries or renunciants should be listening to white sound or environmental records. If they think they need it to sleep well, the Buddhist answer would be to try Metta:

“Mendicants, you can expect eleven benefits when the heart’s release by love has been cultivated, developed, and practiced, made a vehicle and a basis, kept up, consolidated, and properly implemented.

What eleven? You sleep well. You wake happily. You don’t have bad dreams…- AN11.15

This is because someone striving to realize that nothing is worth adhering to shouldn’t depend on music as a source of well-being.

For monastics and non-monastic renunciants and monastery dwellers, I think the below advice applies:

“Don’t indulge in sensual pleasures, which are low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. And don’t indulge in self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and pointless. Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One woke up by understanding the middle way, which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and extinguishment…

Know how to assess different kinds of pleasure. Knowing this, pursue inner bliss. - MN139

Using sound as a source of pleasure is in opposition to the internalization of well-being, I.e. inner bliss.

I think monastics should ideally chant according to the guidelines laid down by the Buddha.

Agreed, I was listening to some pretty sweet ragas on Pandora’s Indian Classical Radio Station today. My points on the whole no music deal only apply when one is at a monastery or if one is not at one but is a monastic or has taken on the 7th precept as a practice.

I myself usually listen to music at least 3 days a week. I did not mean to come across as criticizing lay people, such as myself, who listen to music when not following the 7th precept.

The OP was asking about the conduct of arahants and the proper following of the 7th precept and all my responses about not listening to music should be read with that in mind.

:anjal:


#18

ok, ty, fyi white noise is also a sound barrier, made to cancel out soundwaves, by physics. It’s not a medicine, though it can be therapeutic or helpful to lowering distractions or input.

One of things I notice, in living as I now do in poorer areas, is that quiet is a luxury the poor often cannot have. Thin walls, closer quarters, less vegetation,… Everyone makes do, as best they can.

edit: oh, I do use Metta meditation often when I lie down, it’s wonderful, and I think good practice for eventual death. Also good of course during wake cycle. And of course breath meditation, can be effective at both those times, as well, though I prefer to do just one at a time usually.


#19

If this was so, I totally misread the OP! zif this was so, I apologize; please, disregard my comments as they certainly are not advice to or effort to describe the conduct or perspective of arahants!

=D running away now, as quietly as possible but with speed! While keeping (somehow) my right side towards any arahants nearby!


#20

@Media

I’m now listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and checked out some of Chris Watson’s field recordings. So thanks :headphones:

:anjal: