American Gāthā

Several years ago, I did some research on Shin Buddhist music in the United States, ultimately publishing an article on the subject [PDF]. A lot of the research I did then found its way into my doctoral dissertation, and I’ve always been interested in returning to the topic. Of course, post-PhD life can be busy! One necessarily needs to take on certain projects that lend themselves to professional development, and it can be hard to say no. Over the last several months, however, I’ve cleared my plate and am now finally able to return to the subject of Buddhist music.

For more than a century, Shin Buddhists in the United States have sung gāthā (hymns) set to Western-style music, often accompanied by piano or organ, during weekly Dharma Family Services. Theses songs have a long and colorful history in the US, a history that is not often discussed in the academic literature on American or Western Buddhism. Songs sung include updated versions of traditional Japanese folk songs, Shinran Shonin’s devotional poems (wasan), and modern compositions by life-long and convert Buddhists alike.

In a very general sense, I’m interested in the types of music being composed, performed, and played within US Shin Buddhist communities today, who’s making this music, and why. My long-term goal is to write a book on the subject which will focus primarily (though not exclusively) on music performed as practice during Shin Buddhist rituals, services, and celebrations. I am curious about the place of music-as-practice within the borader context of Shin Buddhist ritual/practice life. How does music making compare to, say, reciting the nembutsu, reading a book about Buddhism, mediation, or hearing a Dharma talk? Furthermore, are US Shin Buddhist musical practices local in nature or do they travel across the country? In what ways has the music of Jane Imamura, for example, helped shape a shared sense of belonging among Shin Buddhists across North America?

These are some of the big questions I’ll be asking over the coming year as I research this topic, interview music makers, and survey members of Shin Buddhist communities about their musical and practice lives. To help in this regard, I’ve set up a new website called “American Gāthā” where I’ll chronicle my work and solicit information and feedback. Please check out the site and subscribe for updates.

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