Shōmyō (Japanese Buddhist Sutra Chanting) from the Temples of Nara


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Boasting a history of more than 1200 years, the Japanese form of Buddhist sutra chanting, shōmyō ranks among the world’s oldest continually performed musical forms. Originating in ancient India, Buddhist sutra chanting was transmitted to China along the Silk Road before entering Japan. The first recorded performance of shōmyō in Japan was at a ceremony to celebrate the completion of the Great Buddha at the famous Nara temple of Tōdai-ji in the year 752 CE.

Rarely heard outside of Buddhist temples, an event at Japan House London in autumn 2019 offered guests the chance to experience the meditative chants of shōmyō in a special concert-lecture featuring monks from four of Nara’s most important temples.

During the event, Tōdai-jis chief monk or bettō explored the history and forms of shōmyō in a special talk before introducing a demonstration of the ancient ritual in which a chorus of monks from the temples of Tōdai-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji and Saidai-ji joined their voices to recite chants from the shōmyō repertoire.

This concert-lecture was part of a season of events allowing Japan House London guests to experience the sacred rites and rituals of the religions of Buddhism and Shinto led by representatives from the temples and shrines of Japan’s ancient capital of Nara. It coincided with the British Museum’s display of rare Buddhist and Shinto treasures Nara: sacred images from Early Japan, which can now be enjoyed in an online video.