for choir & orchestra
We connect to our traditions primarily through the stories told in works of art: film, novels, and music. Traditions are lost when those stories go untold. As a practicing Buddhist since 2005, I have longed to bring the teachings of early Buddhism to life in my music. While there are biblically-inspired operas, oratorios, and cantatas like Messiah, Samson and Delilah, Moses und Aron, and others, we don’t hear the equally compelling stories of Sappadāsa, Ambapāli, or Bhaddā.
The words of The Path are from the Pāli canon, the most ancient extant Buddhist texts. These texts includes stories, poems, philosophy, practice instructions, and homey wisdom of the Buddha and the first generations of Buddhists. I am deeply aware of the risks of misrepresentation and cultural appropriation, and I do not take this project lightly. I have taken great care to honor generations of Buddhists from all over the world that venerate these scriptures by working steadily and respectfully to understand the meaning and the intention of the words I have set. I read the Dhamma daily and try to live my life by these teachings. The Buddha himself taught that the Dhamma should be shared with people of all cultures and could be recited and taught in the local language. The Path is a deeply personal exploration of my own understanding of Buddhist thought and belief, but I also seek to show that so many of the questions we have, struggles we face, and sources of inspiration we rely on were as powerful and relevant 2500 years ago as they are today.
The need for a new translation arose from my desire to make an English translation that was more easily accessible to a non-Buddhist audience and to make a rendering that is better sung than read or chanted. While this translation aims more for poetry than word-by-word rendering, I have nevertheless always striven for accuracy. I have also minimized technical and unusual vocabulary.
I would very much like to acknowledge the debt I have to previous translators of the text used in this work, especially Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Sujato. Thanks to Louis Epstein for his help with these program notes. A very big thanks to Anton Armstrong, Mark Stover, and Steve Amundson for their incredible efforts in bringing this piece to life. Finally, I would like to thank my teacher Bhante Sathi for his help with this project and all of his good works. Their help was invaluable. However, all errors are entirely my own.
Notes on the Program
The Path begins as many Buddhist events and ceremonies begin: with the Tisarana, the taking refuge in the Triple Gem. Taking Refuge here means that it is these three things that a Buddhist looks to for guidance. The Dhamma here means the teachings of the Buddha. Sangha means the community of Buddhists, particularly the community of monks and nuns. Very little of the music in The Path is meant to sound like music traditionally associated with Buddhism. The exception is the very beginning, where a temple block begins the recitation. While temple blocks are widely used in modern classical music as merely a set of woodblocks, they are used in China, and here, as an aid in reciting sacred texts.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is the first great teaching the Buddha gave after his Awakening and is the framework for the entire practice. Tradition states that it was given to the five ascetics that the Buddha practiced with before his Awakening. It is one of the three Cardinal Discourses, along with the Anattalakkhana Sutta, and the Fire Sermon that lay out the backbone of Buddhist philosophy. The music here is massive, a “lions roar” that “sets rolling the wheel of the Dhamma”.
While the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is powerful and monumental, other collections are extremely personal and dramatic. Sappadāsa is one of the poems of the Theragatha, a collection of poetry of early Buddhist monks that tell the story of their lives. Sappadāsa is the dramatic recollection of his near suicide.
Rain, on the other hand, is a sweet simple reverie. The little melody that begins this piece was created by my daughter Molly when she was 6. She was singing herself to sleep in the back seat of our car as we drove near Siming Hu Lake (四明湖) in 2013. She created this little tune, which I captured on my phone and later transcribed.
The parallel collection of the poetry of the ancient nuns is the Therigatha. Like the Theragatha, it is full of personal stories: sad, silly, and ultimately inspiring. This collection is one of the earliest texts in any tradition that discusses women’s spiritual quests in their own words. Ambapāli was found as a baby by a gardener at the foot of a mango tree in the king’s gardens. She was beautiful but had no family, so she became a courtesan. She grew rich and later in life converted to Buddhism. In her old age, Ambapāli was ordained as a nun. In this poem she contemplates her aging body. The music uses the Locrian mode, a rarely used scale with roots in Ancient Greece that is both familiar but unsettling.
Dhamma, Therike, Puñña, and Sumangala’s Mother are also poems from the Therigatha. Dhamma was born a rich woman. After she was married, she became a follower of the Buddha and wished to ordain. Her husband would not allow her, so she had to wait until his death to go forth. Her poem tells the story of her Awakening at an extreme old age.
Therike was a woman from Vesāli. She converted to Buddhism after hearing the Buddha teach. When Pajāpatī Gotamī, the Buddha’s stepmother, became a Bhikkhuni (nun), Therike wanted to as well, but her husband refused. She continued her practice, and one day while cooking she deeply realized that all things are impermanent and became an Anāgāmī (a high level of enlightenment). When her husband realized what had happened, he immediately took her to Pajāpatī, who ordained her on the spot. Both of the following verses were composed by Pajāpatī and spoken to Therike and Puñña as newly ordained nuns. I have set them as a lullaby with a dramatic exhortation in the center.
Sumangala’s mother (the Sumangala of the earlier verse) was born to a poor family near Sāvatthī. She married an equally poor farmer who was cruel to her. Her name is unknown, but she too went forth as a nun and achieved complete Awakening. In this little poem she reflects on her own hard life and the power in letting go of all suffering, but the music itself is a dance of joy.
Several sections of the path are from the most beloved collection of Buddhist poetry in the Theravada tradition, the Dhammapada. This collection of the “greatest hits” of Buddhist poetry is the source for Dhammapada and Fear.
Anicca vata sankhāra is a short orchestral interlude, but it too is based on a text. “Anicca vata sankhāra” means “everything is impermanent” and is considered one of Buddhism’s key tenants. It is a traditional Buddhist funeral text.
The Anattalakkhanasutta is another of the three Cardinal Discourses and the second teaching given by the Buddha to the five ascetics. The theme of the teaching is that there is no True Self, no essence. Seeing through this illusion is one of the keys to Awakening. Part I is a massive canon, where the voices are separated by only an eighth note. Unlike a typical canon where the voices fit together in chords, the result here is more like a complex of overlapping lines echoing through a cathedral.
The Kumārapañhā is a teaching verse given to novice monks to learn a few of the basic terms. It is a call and response between the master and junior bhikkhu. They are accompanied by a male choir representing the sangha. Instead of words, they use vocal effects and constantly shifting vowels to support, cajole, and uplift the junior monk.
At first it might seem strange to have a list of the parts of the body as a religious text. In fact, the Dvattimsakaro is one of the first things that a new monk or nun will memorize because it is the basis of an important type of meditation. In this meditation the meditator experiences each part of the body, one by one, noting that none of them are the True Self.
The Karanīya Metta Sutta is one of the most beloved of all Buddhist scriptures. It is chanted by monks, nuns, and lay people, and is even a staple in Sri Lankan classrooms. The subject of this sutta is loving-kindness, one of the most fundamental teachings of the path. It is a teaching for everyday life as well as a deep meditation.
The Udanas are inspiring poems attributed to the Buddha. Udana stretches the limits of words to describe the heights of deep meditation, but the music is joyful and dancelike. I use a host of unusual percussion instruments including milk bottles and a jawbone to create a joyful but slightly disconcerting groove.
Hatthaka is an a cappella setting of a poem on the peace and happiness of reaching the final goal of the spiritual life. They sing throughout in parallel fifths, a sound sometimes associated with Gregorian chant and points being deducted from music theory assignments. It is a sound also sometimes used generically to indicate primitivity or archaicness. I use it unattached to any of those associations here. It is instead used because of the special resonance that can be achieved with voices singing in perfect fifths, a sound impossible, for example, on keyboard instruments.
The Fire Sermon was premiered in 2007 by the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and St. Olaf Orchestra. This piece became the seed of this complete work. The Fire Sermon is also the title of the longest section of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot called The Fire Sermon a “Buddhist Sermon on the Mount.” This rendering is a passionate oration on the pain of life lived without wisdom.
Nirodha is the ending, the passing away, the cessation of all suffering. It is the final step of Awakening, Nibbana. This orchestral interlude musically gestures toward that final transcendent experience. The Path ends with one of the most beloved verses from the Dhammapada, No Bliss Higher Than Peace. It is a call to remember that the goal of practice is joy, bliss, and freedom.
-notes by the composer