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Buddhist music is not unfamiliar to many Buddhists. The term “Buddhist music” can refer to musical genres and social practices1 broadly comprising sounds or music that forms the foundational architecture of ceremonies and rituals, and/or symbolic expressions through music or instruments that highlight aspects of Dharma teachings. These form both monastic and non-monastic genres performed by both professional musicians or lay Buddhist groups and how Buddhist music is viewed may also vary quite differently.

In an interview with Imee Ooi, For You Information finds out more about her perspectives of Buddhist music as Chinese-Malaysian record producer, composer, and singer who composes and arranges music for classic Buddhist chant, mantra, and dharani. Known and recognised for her significant contribution to Buddhist music, Imee is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA), a fellowship granted to outstanding achievements toward social progress and development.

Artistic Musicality Meets Purpose

When tuning in to Buddhist music, one would realise that there is perhaps no one standard uniform pattern that it adheres to as Buddhist music is influenced by its Buddhist school of tradition, styles, philosophical approaches on top of the purposes and inspirations behind how the Buddhist music pieces are created. And for Imee who has dedicated 25 years of her music career with a significant focus on Buddhist music, it is evident that she understands the special space reserved for Buddhist music in the hearts of many Buddhists, Imee does not take for granted the reverence accorded to it and in fact highlighted, “I strive to create not only Buddhist music but good music of artistic value. And people listen to my creations not only because it is Buddhist music, but because of the musicality and expressions that they find a connection with.”

Imee’s professionalism as a musician and dedication in propagating the Dharma through her artistic musicality brought profound impact to the Buddhist community not only in her home country but in many countries. Many of her renditions of classic Buddhist chant, mantra and dharani have become familiar tunes to many – her name would for sure come to mind whenever one mentions Buddhist music, and she is heartened to be acknowledged for her contribution, “I was really surprised to be nominated and then awarded Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts; (really) because I have never really kept a list of my achievements or driven to win awards. For many years, I have simply done what I think is important in expressing the Dharma teachings that can be made more accessible through music.”

For Imee, it is not her popularity she has garnered or the recognition given to her work that drives and motivates her, but with the purpose of using music to connect not only Buddhists, but aspiring Buddhists and/or anyone interested to learn more about Buddhism through her creations. And this includes creating space and platforms for her to engage the younger generation of musicians such as founding JSJG.

Harmonising Different Notes of Practices

With the myriad of Chinese Buddhist music such as Buddhist chant, devotional song and commercial music, there are varying perspectives to

how Buddhist music should be like. For example, cultural musicologists would place emphasis on the musical shape and religious ideology while Buddhologists and ethnomusicologists would pay attention to role of Buddhist music in Buddhist traditions. Also, in more recent years, scholars have pointed out “new” Buddhist music that have appeared in varied forms such as “rock music”, “hymn” and “popular music”.

With these different expectations and convergence of both traditional and modern Buddhist music, it is indeed difficult to define what is Buddhist music, and Imee, shared very candidly, “There are many different views to Buddhist music; how it should sound, how it should be played or sung… Different people like different types of Buddhist music. While it is difficult to define what is Buddhist music, how I see Buddhist music is consistent – it is my pure reverence for Buddha’s teachings, vocalisation of the sacred words of the sutras and the faith in the Dharma. These have anchored me in different ways, giving me inspiration, peace and Dharma joy.”

There are many Buddhist practices and while different musical pieces appeal to different audiences, Imee is steadfast, “My creations may not appeal to everyone, but I strive very hard to make it relevant and of value – be it to a monastic, a practitioner or a lay person.” Truly, like how music transcends all languages, Buddhist music too can indeed transcend the different Buddhist traditions, cultures and practices as well.

Striking a Chord with Buddhist Hearts

In today’s modern context, the use of Buddhist music has gone beyond its common place in rites and rituals. It has taken a different form and has evolved especially with the advent of technology and countless online platforms where there is cross-influence of genres, stylistics and composition, and the popularity of it propagated in unimaginable speed with outreach unhindered by geographical spaces and boundaries.

An innovative musician and singer, Imee is known for pushing boundaries in many of her artistic creations. It was unsurprising that she pivoted online due to COVID-19 SMM and held the Metta Sky Concert in 2020 in cyberspace. But what many did not expect but celebrated with Dharma joy was her collaboration with world renowned Japanese Zen monk and musician, Kanho Yakushiji in 2021, appearing as special guest for online Peace Sky Concert.

When For You Information asked about the origination of the collaboration, Imee without a second thought shared in her usual forthcoming demeanor, “Honestly, it is one musician being moved by another. When you listen to a musician perform, it is not only about the artistic flair and musicality, it goes beyond the ‘technicality’ – it is what is imbued within the creations. And when I first heard Monk Kanho’s rendition of the Heart Sutra, I was really touched, not just as a musician but as a Buddhist because of how he re-presented the essence of the Dharma in a very pure, direct yet powerful manner. And this, I would like to share with Dharma friends who are familiar with my style, and likewise, I hope the collaboration can also provide Monk Kanho's audience another perspective and style that I can share with them.”

She added, “This is what Buddhist music is all about as well. Buddhist music should not be seen only as creating songs that present words from the sutras, or lyrics demonstrating reverence to the Buddha and Dharma  teachings. Buddhist music must not be produced just like another composition or song arrangement, there has to be another dimension to it; resonance derived from cultivation, practice and perhaps even adherence to the precepts.”

“I am heartened to see many young musicians and artistes embarking on this journey of creating Buddhist music. And they play an important role in propagating the Dharma, especially to the younger generation. We cannot underestimate the power of relatable and appealing Buddhist music as these are the Buddhist tunes that will plant the Dharma seed or open the Dharma door.”

Perhaps, regardless of the genre of the Buddhist music, what matters most is for the Buddhist music to touch one’s heart – for the Buddhist music to truly strike a chord with the listener.

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