The Music Of The Buddhists

One more musical post in honor of “Jazz Appreciation Month”

When I first began attending meetings of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, there was no thought of how the Buddhist teachings might affect the music within me… or whether it would affect it at all. It began as a simple weekly spiritual search for clarity and it was months before the traveling monks rolled in from Nepal to tour the U.S., beginning with their American “home base” at the Buddhist center in Atlanta.

Some of the monks worked on (and destroyed) mandalas. Some of the monks were “singers,” and several blew the large, long horns that were played for certain ceremonies. After they arrived, they attended one of our Tuesday Night teachings. We had a meditation, then some chanting, with bells and small cymbals chiming and clanging. It set a deep Oriental mood for me, but I was waiting for the big horns. There were four of them, and when they finally blew, their sound was low and powerful… but no melody! It was simply a loud drone that instantly disappointed me. I waited for some musical interest of any sort, but there was none.

Lhasa (Neujahr), Tubenbläser mit Potala, Lamas blasen das Neujahrsfest ein

“It is a long, deep, whirring, haunting wail that takes you out somewhere beyond the highest Himalaya peaks and at the same time back into your mother’s womb.” Wikipedia

Walking back to the car after the teachings, I asked my friend Carl, “What the hell was that droning about?”

Carl smiled. He had been a charter member of the Buddhist temple in Atlanta, (Drepung Loseling Monastery) and had anticipated that, as a musician, I’d be disappointed. “Yeah, I thought you might not like that. It’s not Western music, of course, or music at all, for that matter. Some think it’s a call to the spiritual world, to the universal power, to acknowledge them, to be reminded that we are here, reaching out to it.”

Hmph. Most unsatisfactory. That evening my appetite for Buddhist learning was temporarily muted by the lack of any music at all, save for little bells and big horns. Not what I was hoping for at all.

What I’ve come to think about the horns is far simpler than I could’ve guessed. The bells and gongs, which make their somewhat happy sound, is to call our inner selves to attention. The low, mono tone horns are simply a vibrational highway that carries our best intentions into the cosmos, much like their chanting does. In essence, those sounds and chants could be thought of as their hymns. Yet while our hymns are designed to ease the mind and focus our beliefs, the buddhist chants and horns redirect our intentions and transform our hearts, if we let them. And I let them.

It was so easy. I’ve heard the monks chant and dance and drone for over a dozen times, and now it sweeps me away. It’s a crazy power that these centuries-old performances can hold for one. Some meditating, some monks chanting and I’m whisked off into a timeless, floating realization of selflessness that is so beautiful. No damned wonder so many of them renounce all worldly pleasures for this – it’s totally addicting, in a totally non-addictive way. Don’t ask me to explain that.

Geshe Labsong, our fantastic teacher, whom we nicknamed Geshe La

And there’s a strange, kind of fun rub here. I was raised Episcopalian, and was an altar boy for three years, as well as the pumper of the bellows for our church organ on Sunday mornings. Through those years I heard so many Episcopal hymns, and learned to love them all. They remain with me to this day, because I am, after all, an American who basically was a Christian until I was forty.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church In Virginia City, Montana

I was the sound man on a movie crew that shot a documentary for the Episcopal general convention in 1997, held in Philadelphia. Naturally they had a great chorus singing in a huge, beautiful church. They pulled out all the stops with every hymn, and I got chills several times from hearing the power and the beauty of those hymns. At that point I’d been attending Buddhist teachings for over two years. Hearing the wonderful Episcopal hymns, which by the way, are many of the same hymns sung in other denominations, I got really confused all over again. The hymns were reaching a place in me that came from my childhood and religious experiences with the church at a young age. It left me wondering, for a short time, whether I had abandoned the church without really understanding it.

The last day of the convention was inspirational. The best and most powerful hymns were performed to perfection, and when I finally got back to my suite in the evening, I immediately hit the little fridge in the room and inhaled the small bottles of wine I found. The week had sent me into a spiritual skid, and I needed to make some sense of it, to analyze what had just happened to me, and to somehow right my flimsy spiritual ship. The only music that has ever made me feel as good as most Christmas music was either good jazz or classic rock.

By the middle of the second glass I was getting it sorted out. It was a curvy, twisty (and maybe a touch convoluted) path I was drawing, but it made sense that night… and still does. Simply put, my identity was tied up in music. As a then 54 year-old composer/musician, I was emotionally tied to music in general. The memories and feelings of the beautiful hymns had caught me off guard and hit me pretty hard. I had temporarily confused my spiritual feelings with the Christian hymns, because the old hymns still meant so much to me. As soon as I understood that I had mistakenly connected the hymns with my present belief system, the confusion disappeared. I still had to run it through my head several times to make sure it was the right answer… and it was. Happy and enlightened, I poured another glass of wine.

I’ve come to understand I will always love many Christian hymns. And Christmas music? Some of it still brings tears. We can’t just snap our fingers and make the teachings of our youth simply go up in smoke. Doesn’t work that way. But it’s all okay, as long as we know who we are now, and where those feelings and memories come from. I will always be totally amazed at the incredible art that has been made over the centuries, by artists who held Christian beliefs. The churches, the temples and the museums in Europe convinced me that Christianity, in its many forms, is easily the most powerful inspiration for artists around the world. I now know how easy, and misleading, it can be to feel our identity is in what we do, rather than who we are.

I can now hum an Episcopalian hymn right before I meditate. I can also feel the calm of the Buddhist horns droning away. And I now appreciate the strangest new music of all, the deep and blissful peace that comes with… silence.

Steve Hulse

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