Bells, gongs, and other dhamma instruments offer valuable insights into the role of sound in Buddhist practice. Participation in musical events in the Theravada Buddhist world is deemed inappropriate for devote laity and for those who have taken monastic vows. The seventh Buddhist precept implores monks “to abstain from dancing, singing, and music,” yet Buddhist monasteries and pagodas are sonically vibrant places that contain a wide variety of layered bells, gongs, chants, and prayers sculpting the sonic environment. This study examines the soundscape of Burmese Buddhist social space and argues that these sounds are essential to understanding the lived practice of Buddhism. After an examination of the construction of gongs, bells, and a variety of dhamma (dharma) instruments in a blacksmith community of southern Mandalay, we follow these instruments to the pagoda and the monastery. Here these instruments are used to mark the acquisition and the distribution of kammic (karmic) merit. Additionally, the sounds that they make are invitations to cultivate particular states of mind, or what the Buddha referred to as the Brahma Viharas, the divine dwelling places of consciousness.

Author Biography

Gavin Douglas holds BMUS and BA degrees from Queen's University, an MM from the University of Texas, and a PhD from the University of Washington. He is currently on the faculty at UNC Greensboro. His writings can be found in Ethnomusicology, The World of Music,Anthropology Today, and a variety of other places. He is the author of Music in Mainland Southeast Asia (Oxford), a text that explores diversity, political trauma and globalization across Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Douglas' research in Myanmar focuses on the state patronage of traditional music, ethnic minority traditions, and the soundscapes of Theravada Buddhism.

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