Glancing furtively over his orange-robed shoulder, a young Cambodian monk clambered up the steep sides of the stone stupa. Standing atop Wat Ounalom’s shrine to the Buddha’s hair tuft relic, facing the first glimmerings of dawn, he breathed in the cool morning air and began to sing “Lotus Flower Offering” (botum thvay phka):
Fresh blooms of lotus—
I offer them with joy.
This novice monk, named Un, was about to be expelled from the monastery for misbehavior. In one last act of defiance, his vibrato-soaked voice rang out over the sleepy markets and shophouses of Phnom Penh:
With hands cupped like buds,
I lift them to my brow.
Un’s song carried over the high walls of the royal palace, stirring King Sisowath Monivong from his slumber. As the king summoned a servant to identify the source of the rapturous melody, Un continued:
I raise my joined palms
high above my bowed head,
bending low beneath
his feet in deep respect.
News of the king’s delight soon arrived at Wat Ounalom, and Un was allowed to remain in robes. Some years later, he received the honorific title of balat by royal decree. Until his death in the early 1960s, Balat Un traveled across Cambodia to share his soaring renditions of Pali and Khmer Buddhist texts. His breathtaking vocal mastery—partly due to an unusual aspect of his anatomy that caused him to drool constantly, even when performing—was captured on a few vinyl recordings of the era. These recordings, which still circulate in Cambodia on cassette tapes and CDs, secured Balat Un’s undisputed reputation as the foremost smot or dharma song (thor bot) master of the 20th century.
I first heard this tale from my first dharma song teacher, Prum Ut (1945–2009), whose teacher, Toeung Phon, had studied with Balat Un. Other masters I met across Cambodia narrated slightly different versions, but all of them pointed to the singular influence of this man, whose expressive performances of Buddhist texts brought them new life. This story of the young Un points to a mischievous streak in Buddhist monasticism, a verve for aesthetic freedom within the austere regulations of the order.
The tension between Buddhist aesthetics that celebrate evocative presentations of the dharma on one side and Buddhist austerities that attempt to limit the musical expression of the faithful on the other can be traced back to the oldest recorded Buddhist texts. Early Buddhist monastic codes expressly forbid monks and nuns from even listening to music, let alone performing it. Yet the Pali Vinaya records instances where the Buddha permitted and even celebrated a certain kind of melodic recitation called sarabhanna, a chanting style that preserves the distinction between long (digha) and short (rassa) vowels (sara). Even though the cadence of sarabhanna in the Buddha’s time is lost to history, its “middle way” approach—between monotone recitation and secular music—represents the core dilemma of Buddhist liturgical music: navigating a course between the twin extremes of asceticism and sensuality.
There’s a mischievous streak in monasticism, a verve for aesthetic freedom within the regulations.
The Theravada tradition, dominant in Cambodia since at least the 15th century, is often stereotyped as being concerned only with monastic purity and the supramundane path to nirvana, to the detriment of the arts. This is, at best, only a half-truth, for the well-studied visual arts of the Theravada in Cambodia are as rich as those of any Buddhist school. But scholars have largely ignored the equally diverse traditions of Theravada liturgical music in both its instrumental and a cappella forms. Among these neglected art forms is the Cambodian dharma song tradition: the centuries-old Cambodian Buddhist practice of singing liturgical texts in Khmer and Pali with complex melodies. Very little scholarship thus far has addressed this musical tradition, whose ornate melodies fly in the face of modernist Theravada strictures against extracanonical practices.
Despite the decimation of traditional culture during the Khmer Rouge period (1975–1979), dharma songs remain an integral facet of Buddhist life among Khmers in Cambodia and in diaspora communities. A Cambodian funeral would hardly be complete without the wail of dharma songs in the background. Although the proliferation of cassette tapes and the scarcity of trained masters have made live performance a rarity in the 21st century, there can be little dispute that dharma song melodies with their aesthetic power lend themselves perfectly to mourning. Yet while dharma songs are commonly associated with funerals, they feature in a wide variety of ritual settings, from brief memorials to all-night Buddha-image consecrations, from intimate healing rituals to exuberant annual festivals. If Cambodia’s ubiquitous temple murals are the most vivid visual representation of the country’s Buddhist life, dharma songs are their aural equivalent.
In 2005, after several months of intensive language study in the capital, I set off for rural Kampong Speu province to begin research on these songs. Arriving at a village at the foot of a small hill along National Road No. 3, I saw two dharma song masters waiting to greet me, a tall, white-haired man and a younger, blind woman with short-cropped brown hair. The man, Prum Ut, smiled broadly as I bowed to them in respect. The woman, Koet Ran, placed her warm hands on my face, tenderly feeling the contours of my nose and cheeks. They led me to a stilted house where I knelt on the hardwood floor alongside fifteen of their young students, who had gathered for their daily dharma song lesson. Prum Ut cleared his throat. The mellifluous voice that emerged seemed at odds with the striking severity of the lyrics from “The Subtle Marks” (sukhumalakkhana):
Bodies and minds don’t last long—
like all things, they break apart.
Birth then death, death then new birth,
time and again without end.
Old age creeps up quietly.
Bodies and minds soon decay.
Thoughts fade away in silence—
nothing can last forever.
The students and I applauded softly before turning to Koet Ran. Her voice resounded with poise and dignity as she sang verses from “Orphan’s Lament” (tumnuonh kon komprea):
O night, how long and how deep!
Before I’d sleep, you’d hold me tight—
Mother, you’d sing through the night,
lest I, in fright, wake and cry.
Mother, I wail for your grace.
Never again your face will I see.
Alone, I burn in agony—
what misery, day after day.
Every afternoon for the next five months, I studied with the two masters and their students. At night I returned to Prum Ut’s one-room house to kneel on the wooden floor and study with him by candlelight until the village was fast asleep. We pored over the pages of traditional accordion-fold manuscripts as I memorized the rhyming stanzas and flowing melodies, Prum Ut patiently correcting my vocal technique and pronunciation.
I was drawn to dharma songs for their hauntingly beautiful exposition of Buddhist doctrines. But I was surprised to find that many dharma songs were dramatic stories of grief and loss that seemed unrelated to the classical Buddhist path to liberation.
What is the importance of dharma songs, I wondered, if they don’t offer teachings on the development of virtue (sila), meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (panna)? One day I brought this question to Koet Ran. “Dharma songs allow us to contemplate our existence,” she replied, squeezing my arm intently.
“We use dharma songs to calm our hearts. We use them to cleanse our hearts, so we can be free of our greed, hatred, and delusion.” I knew that some songs, like “The Subtle Marks,” explicitly focus on the Buddhist contemplation of impermanence, suffering, and not-self. But “Orphan’s Lament,” one of Koet Ran’s favorite songs, seemed more like a secular lament. Koet Ran explained that “after the death of both her parents, the child is stirred. Don’t you understand? We contemplate the story, so that we can be stirred and change our lives for the better.”
Her answer shocked me out of my presumption that only songs that teach about the path to nirvana could be considered dharma songs. In another interview, Koet Ran further clarified, “Dharma songs stir us and still us if we have affinity for the dharma.” In this context, “stirring” is a reference to the Pali word samvega, which literally means “shaking” but figuratively means being stirred or shocked, especially by impermanence. “Stilling” is a translation of pasada, literally “settling” but figuratively the stilling of the heart, a joyful experience of settled conviction. “Affinity,” or the Pali word nissaya, literally “dependence,” is used in Khmer to denote karmic connection or karmic affinity, or that which sprouts from wholesome seeds sown in the past.
Through two years of field research in Cambodia and many more devoted to textual and musical analysis back in the United States, I delved deeper into Koet Ran’s claims about samvega and pasada. My findings showed that the power some Cambodians attribute to dharma songs to either stir or still is intimately connected to each song’s melody, lyrics, and ritual context. Some dharma songs are based on the buoyant sounds of major pentatonic scales (for example, C-D-E-G-A), such as Balat Un’s rendition of “Lotus Flower Offering.” These pasada-evoking songs often feature devotional lyrics and are performed in rituals of worship or blessing. By contrast, other dharma songs, such as “The Subtle Marks” and “Orphan’s Lament,” are based on the mournful strains of dominant pentatonic scales (such as C-Eb/E-F-G-Bb). These samvega-evoking songs feature narrative or didactic lyrics suitable for funerals, healing ceremonies, and recitals of emotive Buddhist stories.
The evocation of samvega and pasada is central to the contemporary performance of Cambodian dharma songs, both in their narrative, didactic, and liturgical lyrics and in their complex melodies. Indeed, to better understand dharma songs—and Buddhist chants more generally—we must look at how their textual and musical features interact within a larger aesthetic.
Both Indic and Khmer Buddhist texts refer to samvega and pasada, separately and in tandem. In Khmer, samvega and pasada take on new dimensions that are especially important for analyzing the aesthetics of dharma songs. The Pali and Sanskrit term samvega is etymologically composed of the intensifying prefix sam + the verbal root vij (“to tremble or shake”). In Indic Buddhist texts, the noun form samvega has a primary meaning of “trembling,” usually in fear and disgust as a response to impermanence, and a secondary meaning of “being moved,” an aesthetic sentiment aroused in the presence of Buddhist teachings and holy sites. However, the recitation of a Buddhist text may elicit this same sense of samvega. Both meanings are crucial to understanding the soteriological relevance of samvega in artistic traditions such as dharma songs.
In Cambodia, samvega takes on a third dimension of empathetic response, an important theme in many dharma songs. The word sangvek in Khmer is a simple transliteration of the Pali samvega and retains both the meanings of “trembling” and “being moved.” The primary stimuli for samvega include impermanence, the suffering inherent in samsara, and the presence of Buddhist holy sites, relics, artwork, teachings, and rituals. But sangvek is connected as well to an empathetic response to the suffering of others.
Dharma songs also invoke the broad semantic field of pasada, a Pali noun connected to the verb pasidati, etymologically composed of the prefix pa (“forward, forth”) and the verbal root sad (“to sink”). In the classical South Asian Buddhist context, pasada is (1) a state of clarity, leading to (2) clear conviction about the main objects of Buddhist devotion and (3) a clear intention to make merit, whether through giving, mental cultivation, or other practices. All three of these meanings are at play in Cambodian dharma songs. (Koet Ran, like most Cambodians, almost never uses the Khmer transliteration of the Pali pasada [pasat]. Instead she uses the vernacular compound chreah thla [“clarity”] to refer to the same concept.)
To understand dharma songs we must look at how the texts and music interact within a larger aesthetic.
The aesthetics of Cambodian dharma songs depends not only on the separate functions of samvega and pasada but also on how they function together. In the Pali canon, the terms are quite common in their various grammatical forms. However, passages in which the two terms occur together or in close proximity are unexpectedly rare. They only begin to appear together in post-canonical texts and commentaries.
One possible avenue for understanding the pairing of samvega and pasada is to turn to the classical South Asian study of emotions and aesthetics, in particular the rasa theory. Rasa (Skt., literally “juice” or “essence”) is a term set in contrast to bhava in the Natya Shastra, Bharata Muni’s treatise on drama (written between 200 BCE and 200 CE). When an actor performs a bhava, or basic emotion such as love or fear, the audience receives the “juice” or “essence” of that emotion, called the rasa, which can be relished by the audience whether or not the emotion is a positive one.
From Koet Ran’s perspective, dharma songs are less about cognitive or didactic content and more about the rasa–like aesthetic experiences they effect in the audience. In this Cambodian musical tradition, we encounter repeated themes, musical modes, ritual contexts, and stated intentions to evoke aesthetic experiences in a receptive listener.
In classical Indian drama, facial expressions, makeup, costuming, gestures, and voice all come together to evoke different rasas, while in classical Indian music, particular ragas (musical scales) are associated with different rasas. Similarly, Cambodian dharma song performance brings together various elements to engender the aesthetic experiences of samvega and pasada. Although the context that rasa theory is historically associated with is not Buddhist but Vedic (Hindu), the basic principle of separate textual and musical elements converging to evoke aesthetic experiences provides a compelling model for understanding dharma songs.
The texts of dharma songs comprise a distinct body of vernacular Buddhist literature. Over the course of reading, memorizing, performing, translating, and analyzing these texts, I developed six genres to categorize them. These categories are my own; none of the dharma song masters I interviewed made such explicit distinctions, though they used informal categorization systems to explain why certain songs would be performed with certain melodies or at rituals. My classification is also influenced by categories developed in 20th-century printed collections of dharma songs.
These six genres can also be conceptualized as belonging to three functional categories of texts: didactic, narrative, and liturgical. Didactic dharma songs focus on explanations or exhortations related to key Buddhist concepts (the first genre, dhammasamvega) or the virtue of parents (the second, matapituguna). Narrative dharma songs, by contrast, draw on either the past lives of the Buddha (jataka) or his final life (buddhappavatti). Finally, liturgical dharma songs may either focus on worship (puja) or protection (paritta).
What is most striking about the six genres of dharma song texts is that despite their apparent diversity of content and practical function, they can be divided rather cleanly into genres that convey either samvega or pasada. The two narrative genres, jataka and buddhappavatti, along with the two didactic genres, dhammasamvega and matapituguna, tend to convey samvega. The two liturgical genres, puja and paritta, tend to convey pasada. Within the dharma song tradition, stories and moral instruction serve to elicit fear, grief, and shock, in contrast to the soothing and inspiring function served by the pasada-conveying liturgical texts.
Furthermore, as witnessed by the admiration awarded to vocalists like Balat Un, the aesthetic dimensions of dharma songs are not limited to their textual content. Their musical qualities are equally important.
I have identified six styles in which Cambodian Buddhists intone texts (an, reading aloud; bol, between an and sot; sot, chanting with one to four pitches; me sot, using four or more distinct pitches without a strict metrical pulse; chrieng, using four or more distinct pitches with a strict metrical pulse; and smot, intonating longer and more complex melodies without a strict metrical pulse).
Dharma songs use the sixth and most complex style, smot. In short, the smot style is the slowest, longest, and most ornamented of all Cambodian Buddhist vocal performance styles. Although the other five styles can each play a role in Cambodian Buddhist ritual performance, only the final style, smot, represents the melodies used by the dharma song tradition. The smot style is so closely associated with the dharma song tradition that smot is actually a more common Khmer term for the tradition than dharma song (thor bot). I have preferred this latter alternative for “dharma song,” however, since smot also refers to a particular vocal performance style that applies equally to non-Buddhist texts and rituals.
I tracked how dharma song melodies within each for the eight smot sub-styles are performed with either Buddhist or secular texts and found distinct patterns connecting samvega–conveying and pasada–conveying texts with certain scales and tonalities. Fifteen melodies and their variations make up the majority of dharma song performance, particularly by laypeople. It became clear that the musical characteristics for smot melodies used with metrical verse texts are intimately related to how aesthetic experiences are expressed and received, and that dharma songs convey samvega and pasada not only through textual content but also through musical characteristics.
The centrality of samvega and pasada in the dharma song tradition suggests a new way of understanding Theravada soteriology in aesthetic terms. Much of the Western academic study of Buddhism over the past 150 years has focused on the cognitive means of salvation in the religion; indeed, the rationality and intellectual cohesion of Theravada Buddhism are widely cited in academic literature. But in the past two decades new approaches to Theravada studies have taken hold. The dharma song tradition is an example of the local production of meaning, wherein the soteriological emphasis of samvega and pasada as the first (and perhaps also the last) step to salvation is distinctly developed.
Musical performance of sacred texts is central to these dimensions across Buddhist cultures. From Japanese shomyo to Tibetan dbyangs, from Chinese fanbai to Sinhala pirit performances, the world of Buddhist textual recitation resounds with melodic strains and rhythmic beats. Many of these musical traditions underwent dramatic change in the 20th century and continue to transform today. Few of these have been studied by scholars outside of ethnomusicology. Despite the repeated calls for more attention to performance in Buddhist studies, only a handful of scholars have addressed the manifold connections between aesthetics, text, music, and ritual in Buddhist cultures. My research provides just one example of the fruits of studying this rich field.
The legacy of orality, music, and performance in Buddhism is so significant, widespread, and salient to the identity and history of the religion that scholars should no longer avoid studying musical traditions along with texts. Sound has been one of the primary mediums by which the dharma is transmitted—a medium as significant as the visual images of Buddhist art and the written words of the canons. The Cambodian dharma song tradition exemplifies the importance of recognizing, studying, and documenting the ways Buddhists express their aesthetics and aspirations through music.
Listen to Trent Walker sing two of the dharma songs discussed in this article in his conversation with James Shaheen on Tricycle Talks.
Adapted from the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (vol. 41 , pp. 271–325). The original article, titled “Samvega and Pasada: Dharma Songs in Contemporary Cambodia,” includes additional information about Trent Walker’s research methodology and findings. A digital copy of the article and a collection of dharma song texts and recordings can be found at trentwalker.org.
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