Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tibetan Buddhism: Tantras of Gyuto

When this was first purchased on cassette in the early 90s, it came fairly close to the reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, so there was attempt, even if not looking to practice Buddhism, then at least to be open to other ideas beyond Western ones and to see this recording as something beyond music, though many might question where this is actually music.

Recorded in 1972 at the Gyütö Tantric College at Dalhousie, India, where thousands of Tibetans moved to at the invitation of India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru after the Chinese invasion and conquest of Tibet in 1959, the project was supervised by David Lewiston, who compiled so many fantastic performances of music around the world for the great Nonesuch Explorer series.

Tantras of Gyütö  consists of two long pieces.  The first, "Sangwa Düpa" is a 41-minute excerpt from a tantra, lasting seven and a half hours and performed by forty lamas and monks chanting a text that has to do with the universe and the energy the chanters draw from its immovable sacred characteristic.  From the strength derived from the contemplation of the universe, participants become more attuned to the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha. 

The chanting features a "one-voice chording," in which each person sounds a chord in a low bass running between B and D, as well as another note more than two octaves higher.  A remarkable production is that another note can be heard in conjunction with the expressed one.  The example in the very informative liner notes by Lewiston and Francesca Freemantle is that "When the C two octaves below middle C is sounded, the E above middle C is heard clearly." 

Moreover, there is actually another E note a full octave above that that is not easily heard by the untutored ear!  There are also overtones or augmented notes and the great complexity of this style of chanting required some three or more years for the monks to master.  The text is also memorized, which also takes a great deal of practice and repetition.

Also of note is that, while an individual might chant in a monotone or a short melody and two or three might share the same pitch, a larger group brings together different pitches and mantras are also rhythmically free, each monk reciting at his own pace.  This adds to the rich and powerful effect of the overall recitation.

With Buddhism's main concern of moving past the vain illusion of ego and into an identification with the great void of the universe, free from earthly constrictions and constructions, the chanting and singing of ancient mantras, picturing or visualizing the nature of the universe in a freed mind, and other practices are essential to tantric practice.

Chanting in a metrical form by the group forms the basis for the piece, with solo voices indicating the beginning of a new chapter or a new section within one and an extended vocalizing of a given chord would occur with the end of verses.  "Sangwa Düpa" has origins dating back at least 1500 years ago and perhaps as far as nearly two millenia.

The second, shorter piece, "Mahakala" is eighteen and a half minutes in duration and the subject matter deals with a transcending awareness in the form of a demon-like god with horrifying physical features, but which manifests a protection to the Buddhist against selfishness.  There is a wrath in the battle against the ego, but it leads to a total sense of peace in the conquest of the self. 

This tantra is traced directly to the Buddha and it made its way to Tibet about 1000 years ago and it can be, like the "Sangwa Düpa," be performed with voice only or, as on this recording, with instruments, including drums, cymbals and the powerful radong, a six-foot long bass melody trumpet, although the a capella version does include a rhythmic slapping of the celebrants' hands on  rosary.  Some recitations of the Mahakala can take twelve hours, though the use of excerpts over a three to five hour period is more typical.

It is striking that, at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, between 10 and 20 percent of the male population of that country, some 300,000 to 600,000 in all, were monks in Buddhist monasteries.  The occupation of Tibet by the Chinese over a half-century has been very controversial and the subject of much discussion throughout the world.  More recently, self-immolation has been a common method for Tibetans to protest the Chinese takeover of their country.

However it is taken, whether by someone practicing the Tibetan form of Buddhism or by a listener who is open minded and curious, the effect of hearing this amazing recording can be striking.  This listener has found that listening with headphones with concentrated attention has a strong effect, even if the goal is not to try and follow Buddhist tenets.  Something powerful and, hopefully, long lasting, is still attained.

Tibetan Buddhism:  Tantras of Gyütö (Nonesuch Explorer, 1988)

1.  Sangwa Düpa  41:18
2.  Mahakala  18:31

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