Tuesday, April 21, 2009
"[O]ne should be beware. Average people, blind with the cataracts of dimwittedness, not only have a heap of defiled, perverted behavior, but even produce proofs and charts about it, and present it as wonderful subject matter."
--Jigme Lingpa, Dancing Moon in the Water
I must confess, when I first heard that people were setting mantras to music, my initial reaction was one of horror. However, since I always strive to be open-minded about things, to the extent of letting them prove themselves, I decided to withhold judgment until all the evidence was presented.
The first things I heard were those horrible bubblegum mantras. During this period I lived in a Chinese household, and the lady of that house -- bless her heart -- brought this stuff home and proceeded to play it 24 hours a day. I do not know who makes these recordings, nor do I understand how, because they all seem computer-generated. I have highly eclectic musical tastes. I can listen to Chinese classical opera, Italian grand opera, Cambodian ghost music, Sonny Boy Williamson, Merle Haggard, and Jackson Browne. I can listen to almost everything, but two things I have decided not to hear: rap music and bubblegum mantras.
There are silences so perfect that they are insulted by music, but there is no music so perfect that it can be insulted by silence. In a very gross sense, mantra, while certainly inclusive of music, is not music but perfect silence. I use the word "silence" in this latter sentence in the evocative context of silence of the spheres: the resonance of deep space. Mantra is, after all, what space sounds like. Mantra is also what space feels like. All sound is mantra, but not all mantra is sound.
Oh, wow, man... maybe mantra is like some sort of organizing energy (little new age joke here). Well, if it is, you better be able to sing, right?
Some people argue, "you can't break mantra." That could be true, and if it is, then this truth is not delimited by mantra, but extends to all forms of sonics. If it may be said that mantra cannot be defiled because of its very nature, then it would be equally true that culturally specific and highly individual decisions about "good" and "bad" language are completely unnecessary. That would be a real eye-opener, now wouldn't it?
Close the eyes of the children.
Anyway, I stumbled along thinking that mantras set to music are a wrong idea, and I waited to hear music set to mantras. My wait was rewarded around 1996, with Lama Gyurme and his collaboration with Jean-Philippe Rykiel; the latter a real musician, as distinct from a machine. I played their rendition of the Medicine Buddha mantra 24 hours a day for over a year. I think it is profoundly beautiful, and I also think "music" has nothing to do with its beauty. Close on the heels of Lama Gyurme came Yungchen Lhamo, and again, the spirituality of the artist made all the difference. Sheer beauty.
Yet, as beautiful as it is, we should not be lulled into relaxing our vigilance. In Tibet, cruel hunters used to play flutes in order to captivate deer. We should ask ourselves: what is the net effect of mantra set to music?
"The behavior of ghosts and harmers is weird." --Jigme Lingpa.
That is one study. Here is quite another, which comes to us courtesy of the Buddha Pests. Their teacher has "released her album," and they now wax ecstatic (these are actual quotes):
"It is like [name tenderly deleted so as to not frighten livestock] is giving all of us a whole new way of practicing while we wrestle with the traditional transliteration of Tibetan and Sanskrit - or worse, some of us may feel dry and empty from more culturally 'unaccessible' protocols and traditions!"
Damn! Those pesky, dry sadhanas again! They give me split ends! Put on the dance mix!
"And the rest of the world is invited to join in because these are Universal Truths. The Cult of Compassion if you will- All can join in. Those of us with commitments will still chip away at the beautiful traditional chants and melodies - but yippie-kaya-hooo that we can supplement with this blues fest full of mantra!"
The phrase "blues fest full of mantra" is one that I have finally lived long enough to hear used in a sentence. However, to outdo himself, our breathless reviewer adds (and I am not kidding):
"Hrih... hrih... hrih... PHET. Yeah. No that is the dharma shisizzle!"
"Personally, I now feel that I have both a "formal" chanting practice, the Chimed Sog Thig (Or any of our pujas) or I can pop my mp3 player on my head ... with my simple earbuds while I commute to work and experience my practice in the "easily digestible" form of music that comes from my culture and speaks to my heart and mind, and stays in my mind all day long. Both are emanations of Mandarava's aspirations - one a bit more formal than the other - but both pack a whallop!"
Of course, this is very funny, but it is also very, very sad. These people have deceived themselves so thoroughly, they cannot even entertain the slightest notion that what they do is terribly wrong. They call it "guru devotion," hellbound and happy to be traveling in company. Well, the dog's tooth, and all that....
You know, sometimes it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. Still, I cannot resist the temptation:
"Now I'm gonna' kick it with Machig Labdron, gonna' get my thug on with a new kinda' tune, gonna spit my flow with the Chodpa rap, put a whole new meanin' on peel yo' cap. Yah, peel yo' cap, yah, peel yo' cap, gonna' save sentient beings when ya peel yo' cap...."
(drum solo here)
Just my opinion, but somebody needs to get over to America really, really fast, and straighten out this mess.