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Thursday, August 25

The singing of The Jesus Prayer and The Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya Sūtra

The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer in English:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

The prayer is generally not sung, although there are a few instances of this at YouTube. This one is my favorite. It's beautifully sung in the Russian language by the choir of monks at Valaam Monastery in Russia.

A visitor at the YouTube page kindly provided transliteration to the Latin alphabet so those who don't read Cyrillic text can sing with the monks:

"Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Syn Bozhe pomiluj mya greshnago."

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Stanzas from The Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya Sūtra

The Sanskrit lyrics interspersed in the instrumental score are stanzas from the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, "The Heart of the Perfection of Understanding," the best-known Mahayana Buddhist sutra, generally referred to in English as "The Heart Sutra." 

The score was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto for Bernardo Bertolucci's 1993 Little Buddha. Ryuichi composed all the music for the film but the particular music featured above is the final track, titled "Acceptance."

The Sanskrit stanzas are sung by English soprano Catherine Bott, whose vocal specialty is Baroque music. She is accompanied by The Ambrosian Singers, the British choral group.

There is a story connected with "Acceptance."  You see, almost no one who saw the movie beyond, I suppose, those who are very familiar with Sanskrit realized that Ms. Bott was singing in Sanskrit or that she was singing stanzas from the sutra, and it seemed Ryuichi didn't take out an ad in a trade paper to announce these facts. 

This isn't surprising given that Little Buddha was made for Western audiences and that never before in all the centuries since its composition had The Heart Sutra been sung. And until Ryuichi got hold of it, no composer would have imagined the sutra being sung in High Baroque. (Or is it High Renaissance?)

But he is known as a particularly innovative composer. What he did with a few stanzas from The Heart Sutra was transform them into perhaps the most majestically spiritual music that has been composed in the modern era. I can only wish that George Frideric Handel had heard it.  

Yet the meaning of the lyrics remained hidden because most people had no idea they were listening to Sanskrit, much less The Heart Sutra.       

The years passed after Little Buddha's premiere, the musical score to the film all but forgotten. 

One day, on January 15, 2013 to be precise, a man named Egon Blant uploaded the "Acceptance" piece to YouTube with the visual of the Little Buddha theatrical release poster to accompany it. There it was eventually found by a man named Minh Tue Vo Thanh. About a year ago he added this comment to the YouTube page:

I have listened to this score hundreds of times. But today, I realized that the lyrics are the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra in Sanskrit - the Essential Perfection of Wisdom:

iha śāriputra: rūpaṃ śūnyatā śūnyataiva rūpaṃ

(O Sariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form)

rūpān na pṛthak śūnyatā śunyatāyā na pṛthag rūpaṃ
(emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness,)

yad rūpaṃ sā śūnyatā; ya śūnyatā tad rūpaṃ
(whatever is emptiness, that is form)

evam eva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskāra vijñānaṃ
(the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness) 

I was completely stunned and moved to tears to hear Sanskrit singing in such an artful, operatic manner. ‪#‎mindblown‬

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[smiling]  YouTube can certainly be a mind-blowing place.

I do have a quibble; the last stanza posted (evam eva vedanā saṃjñā saṃskāra vijñānaṃ) doesn't sound to my ears to be the one that Catherine Bott is singing, although I'll grant I'm not listening with the best sound speakers. 

However, there is no question that the Sanskrit in the stanza is correct and in the correct place in the sutra. So this is a minor mystery I might clear up by listening to a few recordings of the sutra being chanted in Sanskrit.

But once the ears realize what they're hearing the other stanzas sung by Bott are easy to follow with help from the Sanskrit text. And because the melody is quite simple, nothing tricky, it's easy to sing along with Bott although for most in a lower musical register than hers.     

I'll add that a couple months before Egon Blant posted "Acceptance" someone beat him to the punch, but using a gorgeous video of the sun slowly setting over water as the visual accompaniment, which I've used here for a special reason I'll perhaps explain in a subsequent post.

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Is there any way to square The Jesus Prayer and the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya Sūtra?

Oh I think there's more than one way, but that's enough deep thought for me for one day. It all comes down anyway to a guy, a gal, a dark cocktail bar on a rainy afternoon, and the piano player.


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