CHANTING & MUSIC
BCA has a rich history of chanting and music that is incorporated into temple services and special events. The spread of Mahayana Buddhism from India through Asia to Japan and then to America is reflected by hymns sung in Pali, chanting and music composed in Japanese, and English-language music developed in Hawaii and the mainland United States since the 1920s.
Sutra chanting is a religious action recommended for Shin Buddhist followers to carry out in their daily lives. We express our joy to be able to encounter Namoamidabutsu and the Pure Land teachings through chanting the sutras.
Buddhist chanting also contains meditative, ritual, and learning aspects. Being fully engaged in chanting enables us to focus on the present moment; this focus is helpful to receive the dharma message. Shin Buddhist chanting relies on simplified melodies that can be chanted together, uniting the sangha.
Temple service chanting may include:
Dedications to the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) common to all Buddhist traditions; selections from The Three Pure Land Sutras, which record the teachings of the Buddha; compositions of Pure Land Buddhist teachers such as Nagarjuna and Shandao; and the writings of our founder, Shinran Shonin.
Examples of Shin Buddhist chanting were more limited until dharma services moved online during the pandemic. Today, nearly all temple YouTube channels feature service videos with chanting.
Sariputra, in that Buddha-land, when a gentle breeze begins to blow, causing the arrayed jeweled trees and decorative jeweled nets to stir, they produce subtle, harmonious sounds. It is as if a hundred thousand musical instruments were being played spontaneously.
Temple services also include gathas (songs). Lyrics may contain poems/verses from Buddhist texts or be based on Buddhist themes. Composition styles range from traditional hymnal music to more contemporary sounds, and reflect the contributions of many Shin Buddhist musicians, ministers, and members. Gathas are sung together as a sangha, sometimes featuring an accompanist and group of singers or choir.
Perhaps the most notable gathas originating from Japan are Ondokusan I, Ondokusan II, and Shinshu Shuka. Both versions of Ondokusan are based on a poem (wasan) written by Shinran Shonin to express deep gratitude for the compassion of the Buddha and all of our dharma teachers. Shinshu Shuka (Anthem) debuted in 1923 in honor of the 700th Anniversary of the Jodo Shinshu teaching's establishment.
When the BCA Shin Buddhist Service Book was published in 1994, the Gatha Committee also created companion audio recordings for most of its songs and music, coordinated by the late Rae Imamura. The first three gathas below were recorded by the late opera vocalist Mika Shigematsu with piano accompaniment by Rae Imamura. They also recorded additional Japanese language gathas. We now plan to add gatha recordings rotated over the calendar year. The English gatha recordings currently featured are ones with lyrics written by Rev. Seigen H. Yamaoka with vocalists Hector Vasquez, Elizabeth Bishop, and The Pacific Mozart Ensemble. Copyright is held by BCA Records.
Gagaku, the oldest orchestral tradition in the world, is imperial Japanese court music performed for special services in Shinto and Buddhist temples. Gagaku was introduced into Japan along with Buddhism around 600-700 ACE from China and Korea. Incorporated into Shin Buddhist liturgy in the 17th century, gagaku is used in processional music and in some formal chants.
A dharma message by Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki with more information on gagaku is available here:
The contribution of music has been invigorated recently by a new BCA Ad Hoc Music Committee established in 2020. The Music Committee has a broad scope of work, with many subcommittees for various areas of music at our temples. Future plans include documenting and sharing music history and recorded music on this website to support temple services.
To experience the range of music at BCA temples, watch the Seattle Betsuin 12th Annual Music Service, which includes sutra music, gathas in Japanese and English, and contemporary musical offerings.