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Buddhist Music

#Sounds of Korea l 2023-05-25

Sounds of Korea

Buddhist Music

Welcome to “Sounds of Korea” on KBS WORLD Radio. This traditional music program invites you to deepen your understanding about Korean traditional music by taking a closer look at various music-related topics every week. Today, we’ll talk about Buddhist ritual music and hymns. I’m your host ________. Please stay tuned, I’ll be back shortly.  

In year 804 during the Unified Silla period, Buddhist monk Jingam진감 went to China to study Buddhism. He returned home in 830, importing beompae범패, songs sung by Buddhist monks during Buddhist ceremonies. Beompae songs were also popular in Silla society, but people seemed to like new songs more. People flocked to the temple where Monk Jingam lived to learn the new imported beompae songs. More amazingly, the beompae songs performed back in those days survived more than a thousand years to be sung by Buddhist monks at important ceremonies today. The melodies, of course, changed a bit over the millennia, but still retained their exotic vibes. The first song presented today will be “Jitsori Georyeongsan짓소리 거령산.” One of the characteristics of beompae is the long sounds with a wide fluctuation in the pitch, and jitsori pieces are characterized by long and grand melodies. Here is “Jitsori Georyeongsan” sung by Buddhist monk Songam송암.

Jitgeori Georyeongsan/ Sung by Monk Songam

Jitsori is performed when a group of people are engaged in some kind of activity. When a big ritual is performed at a Buddhist temple, it is usually held outdoors with a large painting of Buddha called ‘goebul괘불’ hung nearby, because a main prayer hall cannot accommodate many visitors. Georyeongsan means ‘raising Yeongsan Mountain’ and Jitsory Georyeongsan is sung when a goebul painting of Buddha is carried out to the yard. Here Yeongsan Mountain actually refers to Yeongchuksan영축산 Mountain where Buddha preached his scriptures. A part of the Georyeongsan lyrics describe how people turned to Buddha and Buddhist saints gathered at Yeongsan Mountain. Vocal piece “Yeongsanhoisang영산회상” passed down as part of pungryu풍류 music for learned gentlemen was once a song describing this gathering at the sacred mountain. The song was lost over time but left various spinoffs which are passed on as a collection of nine songs. One of those songs are entitled “Yeombuldodeuri염불도드리,” clearly indicating its association with Buddhist music since the term ‘yeombul’ means a Buddhist prayer. “Yeombuldodeuri” was usually performed only as an instrumental piece, but it was arranged into a song recently. Today we’ll listen to “Yeombuldodeuri” sung by Kim Young-ki and Kim Hee-sung to Sung Eui-shin’s haegeum accompaniment.

Yeombuldodeuri/ Haegeum by Sung Eui-shin, sung by Kim Young-ki & Kim Hee-sung

The Buddhist scriptures were written mainly in Chinese characters or in ancient Indian language, making it quite difficult for ordinary people to understand. Even Buddhist prayers were comprised of profound, obscure words, so monks had to explain the Buddhist teachings in Korean for laypeople and sing songs based on those teachings at the end of an important ceremony. One such song was “Hoisimgok회심곡,” which means a song about a change of heart. The song teaches the common people to disregard their hearts prone to laziness and depravity and follow Buddha’s teachings to lead an honorable life. Unlike beompae songs, the lyrics of “Hoisimgok” are easy and its tune cheerful like a folksong, appealing greatly to ordinary people. “Hoisimgok” was performed not only at Buddhist ceremonies, but also at concerts held by professional singers. The main theme of “Hoisimgok” is birth and death. It sings of how a person is born into this world by the grace of Buddha and one’s parents and how much love and work go into raising little children. The song aims to teach each listener that his or her life is precious, and life shouldn’t be wasted. It also presents the various types of hell a sinner experiences after death and warns people that they shouldn’t commit any sins and do good while alive to avoid going to hell. Let’s listen to Ahn Bi-chui singing “Hoisimgok” as we wrap up this week’s Sounds of Korea.

Hoisimgok/ Sung by Ahn Bi-chui

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