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Composed: 2018

Length: 115 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2 = alto flute, 3 = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cowbells, crash cymbal, finger bells, finger cymbals, fish blocks, flexatone, glockenspiel, Chinese cymbals, Chinese drum, marimba, mark tree, paigu drums, roto toms, slapstick, sleigh bells, small gong, snare drum, pair of stones, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, Tibetan double cymbals, Tibetan singing bowl, triangle, tubular chimes, vibraphone, water basin with stand, strainer, & plastic cups, water phone, wood blocks), celesta, harp, strings, ancient fantan pipa, solo vocal quartet, female & male indigenous performers, children’s chorus, & mixed chorus.

About this Piece

Act I: The Bodhi Tree
Act II: The Deer of Nine Colors
Act III: A Thousand Arms and A Thousand Eyes


Act IV: Zen Garden Act V: Heart Sutra Act VI: Nirvana

Commissioned jointly by the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Mel- bourne Symphony Orchestra, Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion promises to “takes your breath away” (Dresden Music Festival).

Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion – the first of its kind among a history of Christian Passions – weaves stories that have lived in the hearts and minds of the Eastern World for thousands of years. Inspired by the ancient city of Dunhuang and its awe-inspiring Mogao Caves, the music powerfully illustrates the lessons of Buddha. The Mogao Caves have been protected for the past thirty years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: “Located in an oasis of the Taklamakan Desert in Western China, the ancient city of Dunhuang became an important outpost of the Silk Road nearly two thousand years ago. For centuries, it flourished as a center for Buddhist worship and learning. Generations of monks and pilgrims carved shrines out of the  rock cliffs at Mogao, gradually building one of the greatest collections of Buddhist painting, sculpture, and architecture in the world.” (Dunhuang Foundation).

Inspired by the powerful history of spiritual and cultural exchange of the Mogao Caves, as well as the groundbreaking musical history discovered in the Dunhuang murals from the 4th-14th centuries, Tan Dun spent two years locating, visiting, researching, and documenting the lost musical manuscripts from the Dunhuang Library Cave. His fascination with and countless hours of research into translating and unearthing “the ancient sounds of Dunhuang” culminate in this ambitious new work, weaving chants, stories, and sounds of Dunhuang into an oratorio made up of six individual short tales.

Capturing the ancient  narratives of the Buddha’s teachings and the timeless, universal concepts of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice, Tan Dun summarizes the stories portrayed on the walls of the Mogao Caves in an extraordinary and unique musical work, premiered May 23,

2018, in Dresden, Germany, by the Munich Philharmonic and the Choral Academy of Lübeck, the composer conducting, with Sen Guo, soprano; Kang Wang, tenor; Shenyang, baritone; Huiling Zhu, mezzo-soprano; Tan Weiwei, female indigenous singer; Batubagen, male indigenous singer; and Wenqing Shi, fantan pipa soloist and dancer.


A Dunhuang mural entitled Nirvana is grad- ually revealed: a reclining Buddha occupies the entire stage, reposeful with eyes half- closed. Behind him are his disciples, who will be characters in the following acts.
Accompanied by music, the mural dissolves and the characters walk out elegantly from the mural, with Little Prince, the Bird of All Lives, and the Bodhi Tree leading the way. Act One begins.

Act One: The Bodhi Tree
An ancient chorale chants at the foot of the Himalayas. Little Prince and a group of boys are frolicking with birds. A bird falls from the sky. The saddened Prince asks who could ease his sorrow. All of a sudden, the sky opens up a crack, and the voice of Mantra is heard: “Be at peace. Place the poor dead bird on one side of the scale. Cut a piece of thy own flesh and place it on the other. If the scale balances, thou shall be pacified.” The boys execute Mantra’s decree for the Prince, but surprisingly, the scale does not balance. Mantra reappears and tells Little Prince that all lives – tiny as an ant or giant as a dinosaur – are equal. With that being true, the Prince ought to place his entire body on the scale in order to achieve balance. Little Prince is enlightened.

He walks towards a Bodhi tree as lotus flowers manifest with his every step. He meditates under the tree for 49 days and becomes Buddha. The dead bird revives, hovers around Buddha, and identifies itself as the Bird of All Lives, sent by the Mantra. The Ode to Compassion: Equality (created from and inspired by Buddha’s Light Prayers by Master Hsing Yun) rises, lauding “men shall love all creatures, and all shall be in harmony” and celebrates the dawn of enlightenment.

Act Two: The Deer of Nine Colorswhoever can capture the Deer of Nine Colors: “Most precious creature, her skin will make women glow, her horns and bones will increase men’s longevity, who- ever discloses her whereabouts, the

The beautiful Deer of Nine Colors and her sisters are strolling along a mysteri- ous lake when they hear a plea for help. Against her sisters’ wishes, the Deer of Nine Colors rushes to save the Drown- ing Man, who recognizes that his savior  is the very creature the King has been fervently pursuing. Alerted by the Man’s malignancy, the Deer requests him  not to disclose her whereabouts or he “shall reap what he sows.” The Man swears that he will never betray her. Back in the city, the King promises an enticing reward for whomever can capture the Deer of Nine Colors: “Most precious creature, her skin will make women glow, her horns and bones will increase men’s longevity, who- ever discloses her whereabouts, the King hereby offers a hefty reward – millions  of gold and numerous jewels and endless land.” Tempted by the promised reward, the Man betrays his savior and leads the King and his guards to capture the Deer of Nine Colors. The Deer cries out desper- ately to Buddha for help, but is stabbed to death by the Man. When the King and his guards learn that the Deer once rescued the Man from drowning, they shed regretful tears. The Ode to Compas- sion: Karma  (created from and inspired by Buddha’s Light Prayers by Master Hsing Yun) rises as karma befalls the Drowning Man, who cramps, rots, and dies slowly beside the dead Deer of Nine Colors.

Act Three: A Thousand Arms and A Thousand Eyes
In a magnificent palace, the Emperor enjoys a hallucinatory apsara dance performed by his three daughters – Miaoyin (alto), Miaoshan (soprano), and Miaoqing (pipa soloist/dancer). Suddenly, a Court Guard rushes in to report that a woman is in urgent need of a pair of arms and eyes to save her from dying. No one volunteers to help except for Miaoshan – the fairest of the three daughters: “Parents gave me my eyes and arms. Buddha gave me my heart and soul.” In order to save the lives of the dying mother and her baby, she willingly decides to offer her eyes and arms. Out of love for his daughter, the Emperor voices his strong objection. A father-and-daughter’s love runs long and deep in tears. Eventually, Miaoshan convinces her father and gives over her fairest eyes and arms in a solemn ritual kneeling in a circle around her, the chorus watches Miaoshan as she floats above them shedding her eyes and arms. The funereal music begins: Ode to Compassion: Sacrifice (created from and inspired by Buddha’s Light Prayers by Master Hsing Yun). In the midst of the wild dance, [Miaoshan] rises as a sculpture of Bodhisattva with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes, her arms caress our human wounds and her eyes watch out for our human suffering. The ritual contin- ues as all dance passionately.

Act Four: Zen Garden
Inside Songshan Mountain, where Zen Buddhism originated, nature ’s water music is heard accompanied by awe-inspiring visuals. Monks meditate and chant the Mantra of Nine, contemplating the philosophy of life. Master Monk (i.e., Daman Hongren, the fifth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism) teaches his disciples to listen for sounds in silence and observe forms with no shape. A Woodcutter (i.e. the future Huineng, the sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism) passes by and begins to speak about his unusual understanding of Zen. Provoked Monks rush in and challenge the Woodcutter to a kungfu combat. Master Monk pacifies them by stating his wish to “hear everyone’s own understanding of Zen. That has been understood from each individual’s life practice and meditation.” Woodcutter and Master Monk engage in a lively philosophical debate: “the body is a Bodhi tree” vs. “Bodhi, in essence, is not a tree”; “the mind is a clear mirror” vs. “the mind/mirror is inherently without form”; “clean the mirror/mind often, to free it from dust” vs. “the mirror/mind cannot gather dust, since there is originally never a thing.” After the debate, Master Monk is deeply moved and tries to convince Woodcutter to stay and meditate with him and his disciples. The Ode of Compassion: Zen Dreams (created from and inspired by Dajian Huineng and Monk Wuchao poems) rises amid organic music and sounds of water, wind, and stone.

Act Five: Heart Sutra
Under a rare total solar eclipse, a Fire Bal- let manifests in the desert of the Mountain of Flames. A Minstrel Monk named Kongxian returns to Dunhuang when he encounters Nina, a dying woman from the West. Kongxian chants mantras and revives her by sacrificing his very last drop of water to give to her. He finds baby silkworms and pupae woven in Nina’s hair, as Nina explains that after her hometown silkworms died away from an unexplained epidemic, she went on a journey to Suzhou to collect these species. But now, she is afraid she will not be able to complete her journey home to the opposite end of the Silk Road. In the bitter cold of the night,  Kongxian and Nina huddle together for survival in order to warm themselves, but Nina dies in Kongxian’s arms… To commemorate this tragic encounter that occurred during Kongxian’s arduous journey of bringing the Heart Sutra from the West to the East, the Monks pick up their ancient musical instruments and join together with Kongxian in the Ode to Compassion: The Heart Sutra (translated by Master Xuanzang).

Act Six: Nirvana
The mural Nirvana reappears onstage, re- calling the Prologue. Buddha solemnly tells his disciples that he would soon enter Nir- vana. Everyone weeps; however, Buddha speaks calmly and compassionately, wittily imparting his wisdom on life and the other shore: “The scenery in life is as beautiful as poems and paintings.” The inspired disciples engage in a lively exchange with Buddha on the philosophy of life and the human mind. In grief, the disciples request whether they can ask one last question, and Buddha agrees. The disciples ask Bud- dha, “Are you God?” Buddha answers, “No, I am not.” “Are you the Son of God?” “No, I am not.” “Are you sent by God?” “No, I am not.” “Please enlighten us: what are you?” “I am… awake…” as Buddha closes his eyes and leaves for Nirvana. Moon and sun dis- appear. Mountains and rivers shudder. All goes into darkness. Bells toll. The Ode to Compassion: Heaven Earth Mankind rises, accompanied by a shining moon.