The most widely know spiritual practice in Vajrayana cultures was the calendar of group assemblies either in monasteries, ngak’phang dratsangs, or within the yogic gars – such as the Aro Gar. The Tantric music at these assemblies would range between spoken recitation, and forms which are increasingly musical according to school, lineage, and individual tradition. The Nyingma assemblies tended to favour the most melodic forms – as did the Drigung and Drukpa Kagyüds.
Phüntsog Rinpoche: Yes – that is because they most closely resemble the Nyingmapa in their beautiful liturgical melodies.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: They also hold many practices in common, as well as having a rich gTérma tradition.
Phüntsog Rinpoche: Yes – and that is particularly true of the Drigung School.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Each school, tradition, and lineage —each monastery, ngak’phang dratsang and yogic gar—had its own specialised Tantric music. The main body of Tantric practice differed, but usually contained a cycle of Lamas, yidams, and chökyong/srungma (chos sKyong and srung ma – male and female protectors) which drew on the teachings of particular lineage Lamas. Tantric music was usually categorised in terms of the yidams and protectors they addressed. Tantric rites include Tantric music which expressed the nature of the focal Lama, yidam, khandro/pawo, or protector (bLa ma, yi dam, mKha’ ’gro/dPa bo and chos sKyong/srung ma).
The rite performed in the visualisation of peaceful yidams is called as shi-wa (zhi ba). The style of shi-wa is slow and graceful. Liturgical changes from one section of a drüpthab text to another are exact and smooth. Peaceful instruments include: sil-nyen (sil sNyan), gyèling (rGya gLing); ting-sha (mthing chak); drums (chö-na – chos nga), and conch horns (dung – gDung) – although in the Aro gTér tradition the conch horn and ting-sha also have ‘wrathful’ functions.
The rites performed in the visualisation of joyous yidams is called as Ga-wa (dGa ba). The style of ga-wa is melodic and embellished. Joyous instruments include: sil-nyen, gyèling; ting-sha; drums, conch horns, and shang lang (shang lang) which are a cross between a cymbal and a bell. The shang is mainly used by the Bön tradition but it also has Buddhist uses. Also of interest is the large mélong (me long – mirror) – which is not actually an instrument, but is used as such in the music of Kurukula (Rig ye-ma – rig byed ma) where it is struck gently with a wooden stick like a pestle. When played together, these mélongs produce a whirring hum (kyu rur ru). The copper or silver version of the human bone trumpet (kangling – rKang gLing) is also used for the practice of joyous yidams in certain cases.
The Tantric music performed in the visualisation of wrathful yidams and protectors is know as drak-po (drag po). Wrathful yidam and protector practice demands a strong powerful voice with rough intonation. Wrathful instruments (played loudly and brashly) include: cymbals (rolmo – rol mo) or bub’chal (sBub ’chal); large cymbals (bub-chen – sBub chen); human bone trumpets, large drum (nga-chen – sNga chen); skull drum (töd-nga – sTod nga); large damaru (gÇod nga); and long horns (dungchen – rDung chen or radong – rag dung).
Sometimes wrathful Tantric music is performed, accompanied by hurling gTormas, in order to dispel demonic influence. This type of Tantric music needs to be powerful and continuous, and its efficacy can be judged according to whether those who hear it feel sufficiently nervous.
The styles of Tantric music are written down in a form of notational script called yang-yig (dbyangs yig). Although there are different forms of yang-yig belonging to the different traditions, each type functions in a similar way. They are suggestive rather than specify. Yang-yig accomplishes this through complex sequences of curved lines which occasion ‘movements’ – guiding the voice through the modulations of each syllable.
In some yang-yig linguistic annotations suggest the texture or physique of the vajra melody. Such annotation in the Dzogchen style suggests that the voice should: fly like a vulture; soar like an eagle; rise in space like the garuda; flow like a river in spate; crash like a mountain torrent, or be as light as the twittering of a bird.
Within such notations there are often apparently ‘meaningless’ syllables, and it has been suggested by certain naïve persons that these extra sounds are a device for the purpose of deliberately obscuring meaning. This quaint idea would have us believe that those without authentic transmission and authorisation are thereby foiled in their attempt to delve ‘mysteries’ for which they are unprepared. Such ideas owe more to the over-active imagination than to the subject of yang-yig. These words are actually mantric syllables and although often secret, they are not used to cause obfuscation. These extra sounds facilitate the often protracted melodies of yang, particularly in the case of Dzogchen yang.
Phüntsog Rinpoche: There are many types of voice used in chanting and singing. Could you speak about them?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes – in some systems each is specified according to its origin within the body. There is ‘physical-space voice’ (khog-pa’i kè – khog pa’i sKad); ‘throat voice’ (grin-kè – mGrin sKad); ‘nasal voice’ (na-kè – sNa sKad); ‘male voice’ (po-kè – pho sKad); ‘female voice’ (mo-kè – mo sKad); and ‘neutral voice’ (ma-ring-kè – ma ring sKad). In the Aro gTér we have what is called ‘Self-voice’ meaning ‘natural voice’ or ‘of-itself voice’ (rang-kè – rang sKad.)
Phüntsog Rinpoche: There are as many as thirteen instruments which can be played together at any one time.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes – these are often divided into four categories: rung or chimed instruments, stringed instruments, blown instruments, and beaten instruments.
Rung or chimed instruments enrich the texture of the Tantric
Stringed instruments inaudibly insinuate serenity.
Blown instruments (those which play melodies) dramatise.
Beaten instruments dominate the basic structure.
Within the Aro gTér tradition, these modes are linked with the four Buddha-karmas of enriching, pacifying, magnetising, and destroying. The Tantric orchestra can include two chö-nga (damarus) with two bells; two stick drums; two sets of gyèlings; two kanglings; two long horns (dung chen); and two conches.
The rolmos are played in a both clockwise and anti-clockwise semi-revolutions, which makes use of their harmonics producing astonishing effects. The stick drums are played with sticks formed into the shape of ‘question marks’. Rolmo and stick drums lead the Tantric orchestra and create its rhythmic direction – the other instruments usually only augment. The rhythms of the drums and bells do not accord with Western concepts of musical tempo. There are no evenly measured temporal assemblages. The timing is taken solely from the passage of the rite in question. Rhythmic assemblages often change in duration, and accelerate so that rhythm as such becomes unrecognisable. This lack of a compositionally coherent rhythm which separates time into equal measures is unique to Tantric music.
The dung-chen, which are often about six to nine feet long, can sometimes measure thirty feet long if they are played on monastery roofs. They have a range of over three octaves and produce sounds which are cavernous and seem to emanate from the vastness of space. Their reverberations are of such a physical magnitude that they have been known to loosen the dental apparatus of those who played them – to the point at which teeth have been known to fall out.
Special training is needed for the gyèlings and long horns as they require skill in circular breathing. That is why Khandro Déchen and I have introduced the use of the ‘three dungchen line up’. By this means three people can overlap to create a continuous sound. Rolmo, although seemingly simple to play, require many years of practice. Their subtleties are considerable and the many ‘feathering’ and ‘cork-screwing’ techniques are quite difficult to master. The rolmo are the responsibility of the um-dzé (dbU mBzad) – the master of chant and yogic song. He or she leads the performance of Tantric music and voice. He or she is the musical director. In the hierarchical divisions of spiritual leadership, the um-dzé ranks second below the Lama.
Each Vajrayana tradition has a cycle of Tantric music, but in contradistinction to other linguistic texts, yang were rarely carved into wooden printing blocks. Almost all musical notation and notation of yang-yig were hand-written and so much has been lost. The Aro gTér traditions of song, of course are all oral (oral/aural) and so they depend entirely on transmission. The ‘Flight of the Vulture’ for example, is now simply held by those who have learnt it and who practise it. There is much that I could say about the many vajra melodies of the Aro gTér tradition, and the way in which they were taught – but we have little time at the moment. As I showed you all earlier, the ‘Flight of the Vulture’ and the other bird sem-dzins of this kind, are taught through the use of mudras in which the thumbs touch and the fingers spread like wings. Through the use of this method the yang-yig is physically demonstrated rather than using a text – but that of course requires a continuing lineage of practitioners who can pass these things on.