What did the Buddha mean by 'music'?


I’m reading this thread at a blues festival, but nothing for me when on retreat, except perhaps 4’33”. :zipper_mouth_face:


Well, as is often the case, I wasn’t really sure what I asking in the OP :blush:, but I think that things are becoming clearer with all of your kind responses so far… :thinking:

… I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m attempting to integrate some of the Buddha’s advice into my practices. I guess that I’m interested in how you guys pick up, handle and use the idea contained within the 7th precept of not listening to music. I’m also interested (as always) in how we can take these ancient ideas and apply them in our modern world.

So the advice to not listen to music seems to be within the broader category of not seeing shows. Which makes a lot of sense in the time of the Buddha. If you wanted to listen to some music, you would need to go and hang out where the musicians are. Now that behaviour is fraught with a lot of problems for practice as you are now involving yourself in socialising with others and a two way communication between performer and audience - play and applause for example. Today it is different we can listen to music without the need for a performer - we can alter our sonic world at the press of a button.

Since I last posted I have spent a few hours, eyes closed, in a room without any other humans, sitting in front of an open fire with it’s crackling and spitting playing beautifully on my ears. Occasionally one of the old dogs would come in and their deep breathing and occasional snoring would also become part of my delightful sonic environment engendering deep love and appreciation. Then came that natural turning inwards towards deeper states of calm, peace and happiness where those sounds retreat. Then after some time, a natural return to the world of the senses as I return to the sound of the fire and slumbering dogs accompanied this time with the little pitter patter of rain on the windows. So these sensory (delightful, subtle, musical??) periods form handles on either side of that deeper non-sensory experience. One might say that I have built here a suitable place for meditation?

In one of the suttas if I remember correctly (hopefully one of you wonderful people will be able to supply a reference - I have tried but can’t find it so maybe my memory is faulty), the Buddha gives up the ascetic life but finds a suitable place for striving - maybe a secluded grove or a glade in the forest - something like that. Now, there are a lot of ‘natural’ sounds in those sorts of places - birds, insects, rain on leaves. If my memory serves correctly the Buddha does seem to delight in finding this place.

As @ERose suggested, in the modern world it is difficult to find such places. But these days we can alter our sonic environment to a great degree to block out some sounds and promote others to the forefront. Perhaps this gives us opportunities to create a personal space that is suitable for striving?

One assumption was that all practicing Buddhists on this forum would be engaging with these 8 precepts at least once every two weeks on uposatha days.

You might want to check out the late Pauline Oliveros and her work on Deep Listening and Sonic Awareness too.



I think there’s many people like yourself who use this forum but are not Buddhists. Also, lots of people who are attracted to Buddhism would still hesitate to call themselves Buddhists, and there are many people who are Buddhist but still don’t follow the 5 precepts, let alone 8! :grinning:

It’s great that you’re here and so open minded. It’s good for us Buddhists to remember that other readers are not Buddhists, or are curious maybe-Buddhists, or entirely new Buddhists, so we should temper our more dogmatic tendencies here.


I have asked a similar question before.

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Thank you. This seems a sensible way to handle it. Those musical bits that rattle around your head. These are the sort of sonic things that get in the way during meditation.

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That was a nice thread. I’m wondering where you draw the line between sound and music yourself?

I found it amusing that Thag 4.1 was offered as a counter, where it was said:

Thag 4.1 is a verse and when I sounded it out (as verses need to be) even using my beginners pali it sounded most musical! :wink:

“Alaṅkatā suvasanā,
mālinī candanussadā;
Majjhe mahāpathe nārī,
tūriye naccati naṭṭakī.

Piṇḍikāya paviṭṭhohaṃ,
gacchanto naṃ udikkhisaṃ;
Alaṅkataṃ suvasanaṃ,
maccupāsaṃva oḍḍitaṃ.

Tato me manasīkāro,
yoniso udapajjatha;
Ādīnavo pāturahu,
nibbidā samatiṭṭhatha.

Tato cittaṃ vimucci me,
passa dhammasudhammataṃ;
Tisso vijjā anuppattā,
kataṃ buddhassa sāsanan”ti.


'dem bones, 'dem bones,
ooooooh 'dem bones,
'dem bag 'o bones.


I feel that Buddhist conduct for practitioners, that the Buddha taught at least, was all focused around jhāna training. He wanted people to stop the tendency to chase after sensual affect, or emotional affect triggered by sensory affect, and instead train in the deliberate generation of non-sense-based affect, such as pīti, sukha and so on.

So, there are many rules to isolate us from generating pleasant sensory affect, such as avoiding eating for pleasure, not refusing unpleasant tasting food, only using clothes and shelter to stop unnecessary negative homeostatic affect (hunger, thirst, illness) and negative sensory affect (insect bites, cold etc.) but not for sensory enjoyment, not using perfume, avoiding shows and music etc., and not even chanting the suttas musically.

I think that it’s worth remembering that this is about jhāna practice - to stop us from being stuck in the sense shpere, unable to break through to the non-sense sphere of jhāna. Why? Because most people have no intention to do jhāna practice, and indeed most of Buddhism has rejected jhāna practice. So in that case they have no need for these rules, it just makes them stuffy protestant-type people for no good reason!

Interestingly, I wonder whether the Mahayana rejection of these types of rules, engaging more in the sense pleasures (Vajrayana in particular perhaps, though of course plenty of Japanese Buddhism also), might be directly connected to their rejection of jhāna.


You present a dichotomy of two. Jhāna vs. sensual.

Yet there is a third. The battle between jhāna and sensual ceases with the ending of the search. It ends with Right Freedom.


This is a big part of it, certainly. But there’s another aspect as well. Even for non-renunciate Buddhist who is not practicing jhana, or even trying to attain it, there are still drawbacks to sensual pleasures:

[F]or the sake of sensual pleasures kings fight with kings, aristocrats fight with aristocrats, brahmins fight with brahmins, and householders fight with householders. A mother fights with her child, child with mother, father with child, and child with father. Brother fights with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, and friend fights with friend. Once they’ve started quarreling, arguing, and fighting, they attack each other with fists, stones, rods, and swords, resulting in death and deadly pain. This too is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

How much does listening to one song, one album, or one concert contribute to this? Only an infinitesimal amount, to be sure. But it’s probably good to have a reminder that sensual pleasures easily tempt people into cruelty. Wear them lightly at best!



Yes, this is why I found it odd that the quote said:

If enlightenment is really permanent, then you would expect there to be no longer any need to avoid these sensual activities.

But then, consider that the Buddha continued to practice jhāna even after he was enlightened. Clearly he was not using jhāna at the time for the purpose of ending the defilements etc., since he had already completed that task. The only logical conclusion I can see is that he continued to practice jhāna because he derived pleasure from it. And remember, he had already consideed that it might be bad to indulge in that pleasure, when he was habituated in the rejection of all pleasure (perhaps because he took on Jain views, or, perhaps he considered that view even before leaving his home and joining the Jains. But he concluded that since jhāna gave pleasure ‘not of the sense’, it was fine, good to do.

So then, if we add together the evidence that the Buddha continued indulging in jhāna all his post-enlightenment life; with the information here that all arahants will continue avoiding sensual activities, we seem to be left with two most logical choices:

  1. Arahantship is not permanent, and must be maintained through jhāna practice, and thus you need to continue to protect yourself from excessive sensual stimulation in order to maintain functional jhāna practice. Or,
  2. Arahantship is permanent, but, all arahants (who we already know are all accomlished in jhāna practice since the suttas tell us this) will continue to practice jhāna and therefore avoid excessive sensual stimulation so that they can maintain their jhāna practice. Presumably because they want to live experiencing more pleasure, and jhāna practice gives non-sensual pleasure far exceeding the pleasure one can derive from sensual experience.
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I find TV and shows momentarily interesting but invariable wander off to do other things. I actually enjoy washing dishes more than watching shows. Others might construe that as observing a precept, but it is more of a disinterest.

Now and then there is a show or song that captivates. I actually find these helpful and use these as indications of what to meditate on. What emerges is non-captivation.

Because of this, I would think that the Buddha simply abided in emptiness per MN121 (“Nowadays, I…”) using jhāna as required by circumstance but not obsessively either.

To your question on permanence, I would hypothesize that one could probably drug an arahant and make them a cocaine addict, but that would just be mean. For their part, they might simply let go sooner using jhāna to depart.

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What do you mean.?

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I stopped listening to music while driving when I realized I almost ran a red light.

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Then he entered the fourth absorption. Emerging from that the Buddha immediately became fully extinguished. --DN16


I think so. Could the search for nibbana be characterised as a search for the highest bliss? There’s even a sutta suggesting they practice focusing on impermanence as well after enlightenment. I think their minds are made infertile for weeds like craving to grow.


Such an interesting question this is.

Because when the Buddha attained the highest bliss he was visited by a certain deity who poked him and said, “what about the others who might hear the Dhamma?”. This is perhaps actually the arahant dilemma–whether to step onto the perfected path or not. Even the dying Buddha teased Ananda a bit saying that Ananda had lost three opportunities to ask the Buddha to stay longer. Perhaps because of that teasing, a future Buddha will have once been Ananda.


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Once an arahanth always an arahanth. There’s no rebirth.!

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Then where do perfected ones come from?

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Bodhisattvayāna, of course.

I’m kidding! Kidding!

:speak_no_evil::hear_no_evil::see_no_evil: :mage: