Music (vàdita) is the making of sounds in a structured manner for the purpose of creating a pleasing effect. During the Buddha's time, the most sophisticated music was played by orchestras of five instruments (Th.398).
The Buddha seems to have had a deep appreciation of music, probably as a result of his princely upbringing. When he heard Pancasikha sing to the accompaniment of his lute he commented that ‘the sound of your strings blends well with the sound of your voice and the sound of your voice blends well with the sound of your strings’ (D.II,267).
One of the eight Precepts is to avoid playing or listening to music, no doubt because it hinders the development of mental stillness and peace (A.I,212). Music or singing has never been used in the påjas of the Theravada Buddhist tradition although in Sri Lanka people sometimes do what is called the Hevisi Påja, the offering of sound, which includes drumming. The music of trumpets, drums and cymbals is an essential part of most Tibetan påjas while gongs and bells are used in Chinese Buddhism.
Music is considered an art and for some Buddhists, art is seen as another attachment. While it is clear that a fully enlightened arahant may have little use and no attachment to mundane things like art, for other Buddhists and those interested in Buddhism, art can be a wholesome action and interest. The Buddha saw its value because he said monks and nuns could beautify their monasteries by painting them different colours and decorating them with various geometrical and floral designs (Vinaya 2. 117). As Buddhism spread in the centuries after the Buddha's passing his teachings gave an impetus to all the arts - painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and to a lesser degree music. There are Buddhist Vinaya rules against monks and nuns indulging in arts, shows, and games, but this rule does not apply to lay people. Monks and nuns are supposed to devote their lives to the study and teaching of Dhamma and it would look unseemly for them to be seen by lay people engaged in such things as watching movies, painting pictures, playing musical instruments, or discussing creative chess strategies.
The training exercise of avoiding music in the eight Precepts is only for those designated times when Buddhists are more serious in their practice, for about two days per month and while on retreat. At other times, it is quite acceptable for Buddhists (lay people) who are interested to engage in music playing or listening.
See also: Chanting
- Buddhism A to Z. Ven. Dhammika, 2007.