It is now widely known, that Vajrayana—in Tibet and the other Himalayan and trans-Himalayan countries—evolved forms of liturgical chanting of unusual power and subtlety. These forms spread into Mongolia, China, and even the Russia Buriat region around Lake Bykal. We speak of ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ now, as a matter of course in the West – but really this term is not an entirely accurate one. Although Tibet and the other areas which practise Vajrayana Buddhism were highly influenced by a staggering number of Tibetan masters, only Bhutan now remains as a free country with Buddhism as its national religion. We cannot change the name Tibetan Buddhism to Vajrayana, because all these countries practice the entire scope of the yanas. Vajrayana is simply what they all have in common, in terms of distinguishing them from the Buddhism which exists in other parts of the East, and it is Vajrayana which has given us such an inordinately rich heritage of liturgical chant.
The Gélug monks of the Gyütö Tantra College are now so famous for their ‘Bull’s Roar’ chanting style, that the ‘new age’ has cashed in on what has been falsely assumed to be the deliberate use of vocal augmented harmonics. This, in ‘new age’ parlance, is referred to as ‘over-tone’ chanting. Many people now imagine that merely producing these so-called ‘overtones’ has some spiritual benefit in itself – quite divorced from liturgical recitation and visualisations. So people now accomplish the art of chanting meaningless syllables to impress their friends at dinner parties and similar spiritual gatherings. This sad example of ‘new age’ spiritual materialism is a continuation of almost a century of projecting phantasy on to Tibetan and Vajrayana culture. This trend began with the theosophists and continued, through Madam Blavatski and Alice Bailey, to ‘Lobsang Rampa’ – a plumber from Plymouth who took over where they left off. We were then treated to a book of fictitious ‘Tibetan physical exercises’, and the invention of ‘the Tibetan singing bowl’ which spawned such a boom in the metal industry in Taiwan, that the stalls of Kathmandu have been piled high with ‘Tibetan singing bowls’ for a decade.
I hope that this short talk on Tibetan Tantric music will help to provide a little fundamental information against which other more unlikely ideas can be measured. The ‘Bull’s Roar’ style of chanting I mentioned, is actually one with which I am somewhat familiar, so I will begin by discussing it a little – in order to dispel some of the fictions which have grown up around it. In my early twenties I practised Vajrabhairava sadhana with the Gyüdtö monks. I had received Vajrabhairava empowerment from Song Rinpoche, a great Gélug Lama now sadly departed. I was encouraged to join the Gyüdtö monks in practise by Song Rinpoche, and the practitioners of Gyüdtö were kind enough to welcome me. One of their number, Thubten Dadak, who was of Nyingma parentage particularly befriended me. He served me in the capacity of translator on several occasions and we often discussed the meanings of the English words which were then in vogue for translating Tibetan terms. He was a very helpful, kind friend and I owe him a great deal in terms of the time he gave me.
At that time, the Gyüdtö monks practised in a dilapidated shed with a packed-earth floor. The door and roof were simple wooden frames upon which flattened oil cans had been nailed. In the winter rains we could hardly hear our own voices for the drumming of the rain on the roof, so the famous ‘mystical overtones’ were often impossible to hear. It is now a little-known fact that the Gyüdtö monks do not actually try to produce these ‘overtones’ – they are simply an accidental side-effect of chanting very deeply. It used to be a relatively common practice for young Gyüdtö monks to force hemp rope down their throats to deepen their voices. Whether this custom is still widely practised, I do not know. I never enquired for myself with regard to cultivating a better bull’s roar, as I was somewhat uncertain about the idea. However I found, through regular practise at Gyüdtö, that I could reach the low notes; and, although I never achieved any appreciable volume in that vocal range, it had a sufficient effect on my voice to significantly improve my ability to sing ‘Yang’. I am alas still a baritone [laughs] much to the chagrin, I am sure, of those tenor and soprano students who valiantly attempt to follow me in chanting and singing.
There are numerous different styles of chant (dönpa – don pa) of which I could speak, and Phüntsog Rinpoche has kindly invited me to talk with you about Yogic Song in Dzogchen, and particularly within the Aro gTér lineage. So let us begin with yang.
Yang (dByangs) or Dzogchen Gardang (rDzogs chen sGar gDang) is one of the major methods within the Aro gTér lineage. The Dzogchen method of Yang involves finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of sound. Yang differs considerably from liturgical chanting or dönpa – so it is important to be able to distinguish their contrasting principle and function if one is to establish a true understanding of the use of voice in Dzogchen practise. Yang, as the Dzogchen practice of finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of sound, is radically different from dönpa. Although Tibetan liturgical chanting exists in distinct contrast to Tibetan folk music—with regard to its principle and function, as well as to its modality and style—there are Dzogchen styles of ‘singing’ which closely resemble folk music. It is for this reason that criticism has historically been levelled at the Nyingmas in particular.
Phüntsog Rinpoche: Yes [laughs]. The Drigungpas and Drukpas have also been accused [laughs].
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Some factors amongst the newest Tibetan monastic trend have charged us with being the Buddhist equivalent to the guitar-playing Christian clergy. Popularist motivating has been credited to Dzogchen yang on the basis that is resembles folk music more closely than the more monotone styles of the monastic environment in which a sharp distinction is made between sacred and profane. It is for this reason, amongst others, that we cannot make statements about Tibetan sacred music which are too ‘tightly definitive’. Close study of the Tibetan spiritual culture eventually highlights the fact that there are many exceptions to the rule.
For example, I have heard it stated that solo singing did not exist in Tibetan sacred music, and that multiple voice chanting was the sole distinguishing vocal characteristic. However, in the Dzogchen traditions solo singing is actually quite common. In fact it should be evident that there can be no alternative to ‘solo singing’ for any yogi or yogini in solitary retreat, whether they are monastic or non-monastic, celibate or non-celibate. This is especially true of gÇodpas and gÇodmas who often travel alone. Even in ngak’phang dratsangs where members of the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé practised together, there existed solo voice renditions of Dzogchen yang by great masters. Such solo singing was performed in the context of both transmission and of inspirational song. Individually performed inspirational songs were often sung by yogis and yoginis as an aspect of tsog ’khorlo (tshogs kyi ’khor lo – gana chakra) – a symbolic practice involving the offering and sharing of food and wine.
Phüntsog Rinpoche: Milarépa is a great example of solo singing.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes indeed – as was Shabkar. If one reads the namthars of the great Lamas of all schools one finds the spiritual songs they sang to their disciples.
The Vajrayana repertoire contains many different formulations. It differs so radically from Western musical forms, that even musicologists with knowledge of oriental forms are not well equipped to describe its peculiar dynamics. The origins of Tibetan sacred music are not easy to trace. The Tantras relate that sacred music originates in the Yang of the khandros and pawos (mKha’ ’gro and dPa bo – dakas and dakinis) The word yang, as it is used here, is said to relate to the Sanskrit word sarasvati (auspicious intonation) which was the style of chanting employed at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, but it has a meaning in the Dzogchen traditions which is quite distinct from the liturgical meaning within Sutra and Tantra. As I said previously, the word for the liturgical recitation chants is dön. The term dön-ta (’don rTa) is used to denote the way in which the meaning of the liturgy is ‘conveyed’ by the rTa (horse) of the tune. In both monastic and non-monastic liturgical settings, melodies are employed as aids to memorise texts. Monks and nuns, upon entering a monastery—and ngakpas and ngakmas, upon entering ngak’phang dratsangs—are initially instructed to engage in the memorisation of texts, through hearing and repeating the body of liturgical material in use at their gompa or ngak’phang dratsang.
When I was at Gyüdtö in McLeod Ganj in the early 1970s, every monk was required to attain competence in liturgy, and if a monk failed in developing the required ‘dzo’ of voice, he could expect to be expelled. None ever were to my knowledge – but it was evident that they applied themselves rigorously. All the Gyüdtö monks participate in chanting, because their education and symbolic knowledge depend upon the experience of performing Tantric rites. Chanting and the memorisation of texts is a prerequisite to progress within the monastic systems of all schools, and is therefore central. Books in the Vajrayana culture were not easy to access – they were extremely valuable and it was therefore expedient to memorise everything required for one’s practice. This is something which Khandro Déchen and I advise to all our students – and they find it valuable not to be encumbered by too much Xeroxed material [laughs]. However our repertoire, both sung and chanted, is relatively minimal.
Chanting texts is intended to create a largo effect of one chanting in order that practitioners can get a handle on what it is that they are contemplating. The meaning of words is crucial here. Because of this, recitation is not always melodic. Tantric music is often employed as it serves to ‘disorientate’ the liturgist with regard to his or her dualistic orientation. Tantric instrumentation effects practitioners’ perceptual states in such a way as to render them more receptive to the functional energy of the practice. This practice of liturgical ritual ‘drüpthab’ (sGrub thabs – ‘method of accomplishment’ or ‘sadhana’ in Sanskrit) involves one’s self-generation as the yidam – the meditational deity, wisdom being, or awareness being. Drübthab involves tantrikas visualising themselves arising in the form of the yidam with the aid of music and the chanted text.
In the Buddhist Tantras, yidams demonstrate the nondual state in terms of specific qualities which act as catalytic impulses within each practitioner. Within the Sutras compassion for the suffering of dualised beings is expressed through the performance of monastic music, because music is said to produce happiness. It is therefore not simply an offering to the Lama, Sang-gyé, Chö, and Gendün (Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) but a means of nourishing everyone and everything everywhere. In terms of Sutra, this means that a chanting monk or nun can ‘gain merit’ due to the enjoyment of his or her listeners.
The Sutric teachings also maintain that human karmic vision of scared music is limited. The Sutras divide sacred music into ‘outwardly evident’ and ‘internally projected’ music. While practitioners are chanting or playing their instruments, they should simultaneously produce internal music in order to authenticate the inner mandala of the yidam.
The seventh Dala’i Lama, Kelsang Gyatso (sKal bZang rGya
mTsho – 1708-1757), whilst circumambulating the roof of the Potala,
saw a minion of the protector Gönpo chag-druk nakpo (the six armed
Mahakala) dancing in the sky. The seventh Dala’i Lama sent an
attendant to discover what was manifesting below. His attendant made his way
down to the main chanting hall – but it was empty. There was merely a
solitary dishevelled old yogi in worn-out monastic robes. He was sitting in the
entrance tapping a stone rhythmically on the steps. The Dala’i
Lama’s attendant asked:
What are you doing here? and the old yogi
(who turned out to be a former Gyütö monk) said:
Gyütö, at this time of day, we play Tantric music and as I cannot be
there I’m just nostalgically tapping this stone on the step and imagining
the music. When the Dala’i Lama was told of this, he exclaimed:
Mahakala is dancing in the mind of that old yogi.
The function of Tantric music (which is internally projected but not outwardly evident) is that for the practitioners, the inner dimension of the Tantric music performed is of greater power than the outer dimension of its audible aspect. This inner aspect relates to Mind – as in ‘body, voice, and Mind’.
Body is represented by the Tantric instruments.
Voice is the corporeal sound energy.
Mind is the space in which inner non-dual music-display performs itself.