Icons of Korean Buddhism │ Beompae: Solemn Buddhist Ritual Chants __ Han Chang-ho

Solemn Buddhist Ritual Chants

Beompae are Korean chants and songs inspired by Buddha’s sacred words. Performed in Buddhist temples during special ceremonies, they inspire practitioners to live in harmony with Buddha’s teachings in every thought, word and deed.

There are several theories about beompae’s historical origin. Indian legend claims that it is derived from the offerings of music by bodhisattvas at the Assembly on Vulture Peak, where Sakyamuni Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra more than 2,400 years ago. Over in East Asia, it has also been claimed as the creation of Cao Zhi(192-232) at the end of China’s Han Dynasty, who is said to have been inspired by the supernatural sound he heard while at Yu-shan (Fish Mountain).

There were some in particular who passed on these Buddhist chants and songs to later generations. In China’s Wu dynasty, Zhiqian composed a beompae piece. Kang Seng-hui also wrote Buddhist chants and songs that became popular in Southern China. Later these pieces were brought to Korea and adapted to its own musical sensibilities by Seon master Jin-gam, a monk of the Silla Kingdom. After his return to Silla from studying in Tang China, Jin-gam taught his adapted compositions in Mt. Jirisan’s Ssanggyesa Temple, where they were received with enthusiasm by the monks who filled the lecture hall to capacity. To this day he is honored as the father of Korean beompae, and his biography and achievements are recorded on a stone stele carved by the famous scholar Choe Chi-won.

Performance of the cymbals dance

Beompae can be categorized into three main styles: anchaebi (sutra style chants), bakkatchaebi (divided into hotsori [short style chants] and jitsori [long style chants]) and hwacheong (secular Buddhist ritual chants).

Anchaebi is the simplest ritual music, consisting of yuchi-seong (a hymn chanted prior to the earnest request for the respectable teacher’s appearance); chageo-seong (a hymn chanted to describe Buddha’s words and his behavior); pyeon-ge-seong (a hymn chanted in praise of the virtue and doctrine of the Buddha) and getak-seong (a hymn chanted and accompanied by a wooden gong). Anchaebi lyrics are mainly written in Chinese. In contrast to bakkatchaebi, they form 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 them during worship services.

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

The atmosphere of this ceremony rises to a climax when in harmony with the performance of Buddhist dances such as Nabimu (butterfly dance), Baramu (cymbals dance), or Beopgomu (drum dance).

Lastly, a hwacheong’s melody is easy for the general public to follow, and its text is based on vernacular Korean, and consequently, its meaning may be easily understood by the laity. For example, hoesimgok (a song advising a kind-hearted life) has two parts; one the life story and the other the after-death story. It is sung in Korean by each beompae monk in a unique voice. The style of a hwacheong performance is closely related to folksongs in terms of its singing technique, poetic form, vocal projection and rhythmic structure.

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

Han Chang-ho | Researcher at KIBET

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