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'Beompae:' solemn chant for Buddhist ritual

By Han Chang-ho, The Korea Times, July 18, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- "Beompae" are chants and songs inspired by Buddha's sacred words. Performed in Buddhist temples during special ceremonies, they have the function of training in harmony with Buddha's teaching by means of bodily actions, speech, and thought.

<< A scene from a five-day fesetival on ``beompae'' or chants and songs inspired by Buddha's sacred words that took place in 2004 at National Theater of Korea in Seoul. The Buddhist chants and songs are used during Buddhist ceremonies and aim to achieve harmony with Buddha's teaching via bodily actions, speech and thought. / Korea Times file

There are several theories of its origin. It might have originated from the musical devotion of Bodhisattva at the assembly of Vulture Peak. It has also been claimed as the creation of Tsao Chih (192-232), who is said to have been inspired by the super-natural sound that he had heard while at Yushan (which means Fish Mountain).

There were some in particular who passed on the Buddhist chants and songs to later generations. In China's Wu dynasty, Zhiqian composed a beompae piece. Also Kang Seng-hui wrote parts of Buddhist chants and songs, which became popular in Southern China. Later this piece came to Korea by Seon master Jingam, the monk of Silla Kingdom, who had studied abroad China's Tang Dynasty. After his return to Silla, Jingam taught the music in Ssanggye Temple, where it was received with enthusiasm by the monks and the lecture-hall was filled to capacity with students.

Beompae can be divided into three main divisions: "anchaebi" (sutra style chant), "baggatchaebi" (hotsori [short style chant] and jitsori [long style chant]), and "hwacheong" (secular Buddhist ritual chant).

Anchaebi is the simplest ritual music, consisting of ``yuchiseong" (a chant hymn prior to the earnest request of the respectable teacher's appearance); ``chak-uiseong" (a chant hymn describing Buddha's words and his behavior); `` pyeon-gaeseong"(a chant hymn of praise to the virtue and doctrine of the Buddha): and ``gaetagseong" (a chant hymn accompanied by a wooden gong).
Anchaebi lyrics are mainly written in Chinese. Contrary to baggatchaebi, it forms a compact series of short sounds with four or six syllables per line. Usually the master monk of a ceremony or the head monk plays it during the service.

Baggatchaebi is a recitation of a Chinese poem composed of quatrains while anchaebi is that of reading a prayer written in prose. Baggatchaebi is recited as either a preparatory stage for anchaebi, or as a summary of the ceremony after performance. It is generally this baggatchaebi sound that refers to beompae. The style features a winding high pitch so that they can attract public attention in the course of the ceremony.

The atmosphere of this ceremony rises to the climax when in harmony with the performance of Buddhist dances such as nabimu (seungmu, butterfly dance), baramu (cymbals dance), or beopgomu (drum dance).

Lastly hwacheong's melody is easy for the general public to follow. Also its text is based on the vernacular Korean language, and consequently its meaning may be easily understood by the laity. For example, hoesimgok (a song advising a kind-hearted life) has the form of two parts; one the life story and the other the after death story. It is sung by each beompae monk with a unique voice in Korean.

The style of hwacheong performance is closely related to folksongs in terms of its singing technique, poetic form, vocal projection and rhythmic structure. Because of the use of Korean language in the text and folk elements in the music, hwacheong could perhaps have had its origin in an attempt to make Buddhism more easily understandable for common people.

In beompae, music mixes with song and chant, and solo voices interchange with the chorus. Long ago, there were many pieces; however, these days there are only a few left. Contemporary versions are shorter than the lengthy chants of old, and fewer monks take the time to learn this ancient art. Nevertheless, they are more frequently performed on stage recently. The recitative texts were originally brought to Korea in Chinese and Sanskrit but some portions are now read and recited in Korean. This music, simultaneously with ``samul" (four musical instruments), glorifies the Buddhist ceremonies with acoustic and visual effects. The songs are beautiful and inspire faith in the Buddhist community.

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