Pacing the void 步虛

yangfan

Li family Daoists sing Taishang song at central pole to open Hoisting the Pennant ritual,
Yanggao 2011.

Following the recent commemorations of the great Kristofer Schipper, I’ve been re-reading his article

  • “A study of Buxu: Taoist liturgical hymn and dance”, in Pen-yeh Tsao [Tsao Poon-yee] and Daniel Law (eds), Studies of Taoist rituals and music of today (1989).

The volume was the result of a conference held in Hong Kong, just as the revival of ritual traditions was getting under way, with further contributions by such scholars as Michael Saso, Chen Yaoting, John Lagerwey, Ken Dean, Issei Tanaka, Qing Xitai, John Blacking, and Alan Kagan.

It’s impressive that “Daoist music” was considered to belong with Daoist ritual so early; later, scholars of ritual and those studying ritual soundscapes (a more suitable term) would work separately, to the detriment of both.

Many of the articles in the volume are historical; and most of those discussing “rituals and musics of today” concern southeast China and Taiwan. Indeed, even now, this focus of time and place still dominates the field.

Schipper’s article opens with modern practice in south Taiwan, noting that Buxu 步虛 Pacing the Void hymns are sung there in unison at the opening of jiao Offering rituals, as well as within chao Audience rituals. But the bulk of his article concerns early textual history. He notes that while Buxu hymns already opened jiao Offerings in the Southern Song dynasty, their texts date back as early as the 4th century, soon becoming enshrined in Lingbao liturgy. He also seeks clues about how such hymns were performed in medieval times, noting Buddhist influence. And he finds early associations with meditation, citing the 5th-century Daoist Lu Xiujing:

In the practice of the Lingbao Retreat, when reciting the stanzas of the Empty Cavern Buxu: grind the teeth three times, swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the sun and the moon, in front of one’s face. The rays enter through the nose in the Palace of the Golden Flower. There, after a moment, they change into a nine-coloured halo… Again, grind the teeth three times and swallow three times, and then concentrate on the vision of the Primordial Lord of the Three Simple (pneumata) in the Palace of the Golden Flower, in the likeness of an infant…

Schipper also notes the link with the bugang 步綱 Pacing the Constellation (Yubu 禹步) liturgical dance steps, as well as the Buxu genre in secular literature. He ends by stressing the link between music and meditation in the simultaneous execution of an “interior” and external” ritual:

The way of achieving this, and this is borne out in a way no literary source can provide by today’s rituals, is through music. Only music can integrate the different levels of execution during a ritual, make the meditation and breathing of the Master follow step by step the performance of the outward ritual by the acolytes. Only music can bridge the separation between the two worlds and ensure the harmony of man and his environment and beyond that, of all the spheres of the universe.

I much admire Schipper’s stress here on soundscape; and the high bar that he sets for the “internal” aspects of Daoist ritual was indeed evident in the practices of his own Daoist masters in Taiwan. Yet the fundamental importance of soundscape in ritual practice (hardly pursued by later scholars of Daoism) is far wider than the abstruse arts of cosmic visualisation.

* * *

Schipper set the tone for Daoist ritual studies, which relate modern liturgy firmly to the medieval era. Yet the basis of modern practice is the formation of liturgical traditions since the late imperial period. Throughout China, at the opening of the rituals of both temple clerics and household ritual specialists (Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection alike), Pacing the Void hymns turn out to be widely performed today. Thus modern collections of vocal liturgy and the provincial volumes of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, compiled through the 1980s and early 90s (see e.g. under Suzhou Daoist ritual), contain numerous transcriptions of Pacing the Void hymns from all over China.

For temple practice, Buxu hymns such as Dadao dongxuan xu 大道洞玄虛 are part of the Xuanmen risong 玄們日誦 daily rituals (Min Zhiting 閔智亭 ed., Quanzhen zhengyun puji 全真正韵譜輯, pp.31–2):

And such hymns, sung very slowly with melisma, are just as common among household Daoists. In my chapter on vocal liturgy in Daoist priests of the Li family I gave an example:

Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦) is the main hymn that the Li family sings in the Pacing the Void (Buxu) genre. Its incipit is Taiji fen gaohou (“As the Great Ultimate divided high and broad”); this ancient text, sometimes attributed to the Daoist master Du Guangting (850–933), is often found both in the Daoist Canon and in current temple practice.

It consists of eight five-word lines, plus a final fast seven-word invocation to the Great Heavenly Worthy of Five Dragons who Expels Filth (Wulong danghui da tianzun). As ever, my translation stays rather close to a literal interpretation, though the text (such as the obscure third couplet) has been subjected to highly arcane commentary.

Only performed with shengguan wind ensemble, never a cappella, the hymn is mainly used in three rituals: Fetching Water (qushui 取水); Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡), at the central pole; and at the soul hall before the coffin is taken out (film, from 45.20 and 1.14.38). Until the 1950s it was also sung for Opening the Quarters (kaifang 開方), and in the Announcing Text (shenwen 申文) ritual for earth and temple scriptures. Buxu is also the title of a percussion item, which they now rarely play—the longest interlude between sections of certain a cappella hymns, a slightly expanded version of Jiuqu (Daoist priests, p.286).

Taishang song

Taishang song score

So while the hymn texts are “in general circulation” (Schipper’s term again), the melodies to which they sung vary widely by locality.

Anyway, Schipper did well to point out the significance of Pacing the Void, even if he could hardly have imagined at the time how very widespread the genre was throughout the PRC. As he wrote, “an entire book could, and perhaps should, be written about Buxu.”

So our choice of emphasis is significant: whereas the sinological method is to use fieldwork as a mere adjunct to unearthing textual vestiges of medieval theology, a more ethnographic approach incorporates such ritual archaeology into our studies of living ritual repertoires in modern society—further discussed here.

TSS

Coda of Taishang song before the burial procession:
Li Manshan, Golden Noble, Wu Mei, Li Bin.

2 thoughts on “Pacing the void 步虛

  1. Pingback: Pacing the void 步虛 | Stephen Jones: a blog – Dinesh Chandra China Story

  2. Pingback: Ken Dean: discovering Fujian ritual life in the early reform era – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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