“…[I]f you are painting my song the way I sing, then it would be like a sky with drifting clouds without having to wonder about the borders in the clouds. So there [are] infinite possibilities in that space of how many different shapes of clouds that will form, or how many clouds that you won’t see…
A lot of the time it’s a very improvised melody. And I use this as my space, the instrument as my space, and then my voice to float on it. So sometimes it becomes the heartbeat, or sometimes it becomes the space. It’s kind of the instrument that I have. The way I sing is very deeply rooted in the Tibetan nomadic lineage, where my parents come from… It’s almost like singing from one mountain to the other mountain.”
In this brief clip from the Artist and Buddhist Contemplatives gathering at the Garrison Institute in 2015, Tenzin Choegyal offers an example of singing “from one mountain to the other mountain.” He picks up one syllable, OM, and takes it where he wants spontaneously, letting the breath carry it.
Tenzin’s soaring vocals move from gentle to thunderous all in the space of a song. He has the soul of a poet, immersed in the wisdom and compassion of his teacher, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
He frequently collaborates with musicians in his adopted home of Australia, and in Japan and the U.S. In the U.S., his collaborators include Jesse Paris Smith, musician and co-founder of Pathway to Paris. With Philip Glass, he composed the score for the recent film, the Last Dalai Lama? Jesse, Rubin Kodheli and Rick Patrick joined Tenzin in a concert as part of the Artist and Buddhist Contemplatives Project event at the Garrison Institute in October 2015.
The group’s pieces are crafted on improvisation and listening. They opened with a one-note song. In Tibetan singing, Tenzin says, there is a dismantling of the physical being, just staying in consciousness.
The second piece, a part of what Tenzin calls a meditative theater ritual, is an excerpt from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s a project Tenzin has been working on for a decade. “In the Tibetan text, [the Tibetan Book of the Dead] sounds like it’s talking to you,” he says. “The best way to read it was to put it with music.” Jesse, Rubin, and Tenzin performed a longer excerpt of this with Laurie Anderson at the Rubin Museum in a performance so moving that it brought at least one attendee to tears.
According to Tibetan tradition, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, also known as Liberation Through Hearing During Intermediate State, was composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava, written down by his primary student, Yeshe Tsogyal, and buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet. It was subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, Karma Lingpa in the 14th century. The book works as a guide for those who have departed on their journey to the next life and for those left behind, offering instructions over the course of a 49-day grieving period. It offers rituals to occupy the mind that are repeated over that period, and slowly one’s grief diminishes.
Born to a nomadic family in Tibet, Tenzin’s parents fled that country during the Chinese occupation when he was a child. He was sent to the Tibetan Children’s Village School in India, begun by the Dalai Lama’s sister. His music is infused with the sounds and spirit of his homeland and is his passport to the world and global musical collaborations. In these collaborations, he brings a Tibetan flavor to all that he does from the transcendent pieces with a string ensemble in Australia to the joy of school children singing OM MANI PADME HUM, the mantra of compassion, in his song Heart Strings. His musical collaborations are also metaphors for the life of a nomad, a refugee who can’t go home and instead brings home, in this case, music, to the world. He is a warm-hearted and focused musical ambassador for Tibet.
While Tenzin can express a transcendent and powerful majesty through his voice, the tragedy of the Tibetan cause is also there. The guttural plea in some of the songs started when he moved to Australia. It is a way to express a very specific kind of anger: compassionate anger. (In Tibetan Buddhism, wrathful dieties can wield a compassionate anger: one that is used to protect the Dharma, the teaching.) Tenzin used this sound in collaborating with a heavy metal band to show the anguish of the self-immolation of Tibetans protesting the Chinese presence in Tibet. “[It’s] the black thunderous cloud which is going to pour down very quickly,” he says, “but then when it pours…slowly it goes away.”
Tenzin’s practice of bowing to an audience both before and after performances is an acknowledgement of all beings. One of the things he has appreciated in exile in Australia was learning that the Aboriginals acknowledge the spirit of the land. Holding the Dalai Lama and the plight of the Tibetan people in his heart, Tenzin performs regularly with Pathway to Paris, founded by Jesse and Rebecca Foon to make the Paris climate agreement a reality. As the Dalai Lama has said, the issue of Tibet is also tied to protecting the teachings of Tibet. And it is also tied to protecting the ecosystem of Tibet, the roof of the world. Tibet’s glacier melt is dangerously exacerbated by global warming. As the ice melts, the water floods the land below. Tenzin wants to “make sure that this blue planet, the only home we have, is sustained with its roof [Tibet] intact.”
Another song offered that evening, Nomad Song, was inspired by a poem of the sixth Dalai Lama: “Drops of rain wash away the love songs written on the sand, but love, though unwritten, stays long after, in the heart.” It’s a love poem and an entire Buddhist teaching in four brief lines, Tenzin says: what is written on the sand and washes away, the entire idea of impermanence established and explained in just a few lines.
The Tibetan words nying thik, which Tenzin has translated as Heart Strings, can also be translated as heart lines or heart lineage. For the accompanying music video, Tenzin collaborated with 150 Tibetan children from India, Mustang, and Nepal, the next generation in the Tibetan lineage. The children sang a chorus of OM MANI PADME HUM, the compassion mantra which is often translated as “the jewel is in the lotus.” The lotus grows in a pond from its muddy bottom, offering a beautiful flower. It’s often treated as a metaphor for the confusion within our own minds and the world that can be transformed into the realization of the truth of our luminous and compassionate essence. It can also be a metaphor for the Tibetans in exile who, out of tragedy, have brought the treasure of their teachings to the world
At the Artist and Buddhist Contemplatives Project gathering, Meredith Monk opened the first evening by inviting everyone into a circle to vocalize AH. Following the vocalization, Robert Thurman gave an impromptu explanation of the origin of AH, which is the foundational sound of AUM, more commonly known as OM.
The formal presentations of the gathering ended with the sounds of Heart Strings soaring in Garrison’s beautiful great hall as Tenzin’s and the group’s OM MANI PADME HUM filled the space with the mantra of compassion.
Sara Overton is an artist based in New York City and founder of the Artists and Buddhists Contemplatives Project.