Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mantra, Music, and the Age of Corruption

A reader made comment yesterday, setting off the whole "ought mantra be set to music" thing yet again. Or, maybe it should be the whole "ought mantra be set to bad music" thing. These seem to be two different subjects. Yet if memory serves, it is Hesse, in Magister Ludi, who makes the point that a degenerate age produces degenerate music. So, maybe this is one subject after all: "ought mantra in the degenerate age be set to degenerate music in order to make it palatable to degenerates."

I have dealt with this subject in the past (here, here, and here), never to my own or anyone else's satisfaction.

However, our reader was commenting in the context of our little spy vs spy item, and offered this opinion:

"I think all this might be happening because of this corrupt idea to make mantras into music, whether pop or whatever. I don't know who started it, but they say now it's hard to move about in Bodha or Da'sa without hearing the constant drone of mantras with instrumental accompaniment through way-too-loud loudspeakers. Buddha never taught to broadcast your mantras, received in Vajrayana ("Secret Mantra" I believe it's called in Tibetan) to the whole public with a beat to dance to. Scusi moi, my Francaise, but really, Au contraire, mon cher."

She (or he) has a point:

"When the concealed secret substances, deities, mantras, tormas and so forth are openly shown, the dances and magical mantras and all the essences are changed. The Word of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the lamas saying that mantrayana should be kept secret, if broken, in this life there will be inauspiciousness, our family lineages will be broken, wealth will decrease and there will be enemies and anger. In the next life we will fall into Hell."

Other, rather more severe injunctions are found in numerous places throughout the literature, but this (from Mani Kabum) is the one which jumps immediately to mind.

The operative word, above, is "changed." It is quite clear that when we set a mantra to music, we have changed something. As an example: I learned the Vajra Guru mantra from my teacher. He learned it from his teacher, so on and so forth, back to the time of Padmasambhava himself. There is an obvious continuity. However, since learning the Vajra Guru mantra from my teacher, I have heard it set to music, done completely differently in order to accomodate said music. Where is the continuity?

Take another example -- and this, I think, is right to the bone: when you take the speech empowerment from the deity, you repeat the mantra. This establishes continuity (among other things), yet, were you to change the received mantra by setting it to music, I believe you would lose that continuity (among other things).

I absolutely admit to being very conflicted about this. I do so enjoy hearing Lama Gyurme's rendition of the Medicine Buddha mantra. I think the distinction is that they have set the music to the mantra, rather than the mantra to the music. Still, I cannot say that this is appropriate.

I am here speaking of mantra, as distinct from sutra, or prayer, but in the latter category -- that of prayer -- we have the example of the Seven Line Prayer. I have heard the Seven Line prayer done several different ways -- usually by caterwauling harpies -- yet, in the termas, it is specifically addressed as a secret teaching.

What are we to make of this?

People who engage in this practice will jump up and say, "this or that great lama approved," but that doesn't impress me. There are all sorts of examples of famous lamas with fancy titles running around, acting like idiots, dragging their students to hell. There are also some extraordinarily clever demons about:

"Guru Rinpoche says that in these degenerate times demonic forces (demons, negative spirits, and harmful entities) are intentionally manifesting, sending forth deceptive emanations of themselves in the form of spiritual teachers, appearing as great scholars and realized ones, honorable and disciplined on the outside yet actually harmful entities on the inside. They are intentionally trying to lead sentient beings into lower realms."

This is something we hear about all the time:

"Guru Rinpoche also said that during these degenerate times there are many demons and spirits who will say they are deities when they are not. Specifically, there are nine types that will come into human realms to lead beings astray on the spiritual path in these times. These negative spirits will manifest deceptive displays, making it appear that they have reached the first, second and third bhumis when in fact they haven't. They will display magical signs to cause you to believe they have. They will even appear as bodhisattvas when they are not. They will manifest different signs and miraculous displays, through body, speech, and mind, so inconceivable that they will take your mind away. Seeing these deceptive displays of power, beings with weak merit and karma will experience the arising of faith in their minds and will focus all their devotion on these negative beings."

These are quotations from a commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche, and I believe he should know, because he has had direct experience with such matters. His commentary is one thing, but I think we also need to go straight to the primary source, which in this case would usefully be considered the Shurangama Sutra. I did a little piece on this recently, and you can find the links there. I firmly believe -- to the level of moral certainty -- that such a demon has indeed manifested and deceived all sorts of lamas who really should have known better. The damage done by this demon is still being calculated. I find it probative that the demon in question is one of the most vocal proponents of "musical mantra."

However, we really don't have the luxury to fool around with this, do we? As vajrayana practitioners, like a snake in bamboo, we can only go two directions: up or down.

Try as I might, I can't remember Dudjom Rinpoche gettin' jiggy with it. I can't remember Kalu Rinpoche snapping his fingers and shuffling his feet. I can't remember the 16th Karmapa kickin' it with the homies and beating out solos on his damaru. My own teachers didn't whistle while they worked, and these are the only people I feel I can completely trust.

There is also the issue of ordained listening to music... but that's another diatribe for another day.

I gotta go upgrade my iPod.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

0 reader comments: