A stammering musical Bodhisattva?

Prelude to shengguan score, Hanzhuang village,
Xiongxian county, Hebei.

A Buddhist monk called Miaoyin 妙音, “Wondrous Tones”, is associated with transmissions of the grand shengguan suites that have punctuated the vocal liturgy of amateur village ritual associations around Xiongxian county in Hebei since the late 18th century (see also under Local ritual).

Hannibal Taubes, ever on the trail of recondite historical byways, leads me to Gadgadasvara, a minor-league figure among the great Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Since his name literally means “stammering tones”, even if he’s an imaginary being, he may appear to be a promising early Indian candidate to complement my list of great Chinese stammerers—and a musical one, to boot (see also stammering tag). But there are several strands to unravel here, both for ancient India and late-imperial China.

Gadgadasvara, as described in chapter 24 of the Lotus sutra (e.g. here and here),

emits rays of light from his topknot and between his eyebrows and illuminates the world of the Buddha Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña [Kevin for short—Ed. Try saying that with a speech impediment].
Gadgadasvara passes through many worlds, and his beautiful form is described. He arrives at Vulture’s Peak Mountain on the seven-jeweled platform and presents a necklace to Śākyamuni Buddha, inquiring after him on behalf of Buddha [Here we go again—Altogether now] Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña. *
(source here).

Gadgarasvara Nepal

Modern bronze image of Gadgadasvara, Nepal.

Svara is not just “sound” or “voice”, but the comprehensive system of musical pitches as represented by sargam solfeggio (see e.g. here). Sources do indeed allude obliquely to Gadgadasvara’s mastery of music:

In the worlds through which he passed, the land quaked in six ways, seven-jeweled lotus flowers rained everywhere, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly musical instruments sounded spontaneously without being played. 

Still, musical accomplishments play only a minor role in his transcendent CV:

According to T’ien-t’ai’s Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, this bodhisattva is called Wonderful Sound because he propagates the Lotus Sutra throughout the ten directions with his wondrous voice. Among the many sutras, Bodhisattva Wonderful Sound appears only in the “Wonderful Sound” chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

And he doesn’t seem to be among the numerous cosmological deities who feature in the rich mythology of Indian music.

As to gadgada, the etymology of stammering, faltering, even sobbing, is clear. However, there seems to be no suggestion that the Bodhisattva was ever actually portrayed as a stammerer. Moreover, would any Indian, now or at any earlier point in history, be conscious of the etymology? Instead, the name has long been interpreted as “Wonderful Voice” or “Wonderful Sound”, and that is how it was rendered in Chinese.

So alas, Gadgadasvara is not an ancient mystical precursor of the characters listed here. In short, neither stammering not music make fruitful avenues to explore! Aww.

Conversely, Moses (like Marilyn Monroe) has been widely recognised as a stammerer, although the evidence is open to dispute (see e.g. here and here). The image on the left (from the latter article, p.169) shows the ancient hieroglyph for “stammer”!

* * *

From Lotus sutra scroll. Source: British Library.

In medieval Chinese translation, Gadgadasvara became Miaoyin 妙音 “Wondrous Tones”—which seems a faithful rendition of how the Sanskrit name has been understood.

After that inconsequential excursion to the ancient world of scripture-revelation, let’s return to our musical monk in Qing-dynasty Xiongxian county. It remains to be seen how distinctive it was for a monk to be given the name Miaoyin. For the double-character names chosen for Buddhist and Daoist clerics, either the first or second element was stable within each generation (cf. Customs of naming), and miao 妙 was often adopted for the first; the second character yin 音 seems less common than sheng 聲 (sound)—such as the cohort of young monks at the Guangji an temple in Beijing in the 1930s (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.223).

Anyway, even if Miaoyin received his early ritual training in Beijing before being deputed to staff a rural Hebei temple, such occupational “musical monks” (yiseng 藝僧) performing rituals around the old city were most unlikely to be familiar with the Lotus sutra, which is not among the ritual manuals that they performed—so our musical monk clearly wasn’t named after Gadgadasvara.

Still, while he would have been utterly remote from the abstruse concerns of ancient Buddhist cosmology, the prelude to the Hanzhuang score does indeed describe him as “Chan master Miaoyin, Wang ‘Bodhisattva’ Guanghui” (妙音王菩薩光輝禪師)—the honorific “Bodhisattva” suggesting his local reputation.

Anyway, do get to know the wondrous tones of the shengguan ritual suites attributed to Miaoyin, still being performed by ritual associations in Hebei villages (cf. ##8 and 14 of playlist in sidebar, and for the process from singing the oral gongche to instrumental performance, ## 9 and 10—with commentary here)!

Gongche solfeggio score, Hanzhuang: Hesi pai prelude to Qi Yanhui suite.

Long story short: like “And did those feet in ancient time?“, my title seems to resemble those questions they ask you at airport check-in—to which you’re pretty sure the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes just in case.

* I don’t mean to labour the point à la Stewart Lee, but in search of wisdom, I find this helpful explanation:

The Sanskrit term Kamaladalavimalanakṣatrarājasaṃkusumitābhijña can be transliterated into English as Kamaladalavimalanaksatrarajasamkusumitabhijna or Kamaladalavimalanakshatrarajasamkusumitabhijna.

Thanks for that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s