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Recently, while reading about the immolations that have been spreading through Tibet, I came across a video on YouTube of the Tibetan National Anthem. Even though I have been in the Dharma community since coming to Southern California in 1994, I had never knowingly heard it played or sung. Of all of the Sutras I have heard and all of the Tibetan gatherings I have attended, no one had ever identified any piece of music as the anthem of Tibet. I didn’t know they had one. So when I found it on YouTube, I was surprised; when I heard it, I was captivated.
Known as Gyallu, the lyrics are based on the teachings of the Buddha. They are attributed to Trijang Rinpoche, who was a spiritual guide to the 14th Dalai Lama for some 40 years. Apparently, the lyrics were set to an ancient piece of sacred music; I would love to know the Sutra it comes from. The melody was sinuous and elevating, and seemed to exude hope. It had a hook in it, too. The first version I ran across was Camerata of St. John’s version, a brilliant performance with a soulful lead cello accompanied by intervals of violent string arrangements. It sounded like it was in the key of F#. I listened to it over and over.
For the past few years at Bodhisattva, it has been my pleasure to play Christmas carols on a set of Tibetan singing bowls and shoot a little video of it. So every year as the Christmas season approaches, I start mulling which Christmas carol I’d like to play. But by now it was late November, and Gyallu was staying with me. I was headed to The Rubin Museum in New York for their Serai event right after Thanksgiving. The more I thought about it, visualizing myself spending a week there, cocooned in its spiraling galleries of Himalayan Sacred Art, the less likely I was going to feel like playing “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on Tibetan bowls. As the immolations quickened, it seemed all the more important that this hymn should be heard.
So, Gyallu it was. The only trouble was going to be learning the melody in less than 7 days time, while flying to New York, setting up a booth at The Rubin Museum of Art, doing a five-day trunk show and giving some singing bowl workshops. I realized that as haunting as Gyallu was in the key Camerata had played it in, it was too hard a key for me. To begin with, I’m not at all gifted with the kind of ear where I can hear something once or twice and pick up on it. Learning Christmas carols on the bowls is easy: I’ve heard those melodies since I was in the womb. Although this melody had very simple scales in it, it seemed labyrinthian to me.
We know that music is a mnemonic device. What I didn’t realize is how handy it is to have words to find our way around a piece of music. There wasn’t time to learn both. Finally, I found the music in a G major key which simplified learning the tune. I hadn’t had the occasion to read music since I was around 14, and this music was charted by a Westerner. Although I heard wide variations in the recordings by Tibetan artists, I used it as a guide. It goes something like this:
The short time frame meant that would mean I had to practice it at night. As I had to commute out to my friend’s house in Staten Island every evening, that meant lugging about 15 pounds of bronze bowls on the subway and the ferry each night. Which I did, plugging into a Tibetan version on YouTube while steaming past the Statue of Liberty. It was an emotional juxtaposition for me, these nightly sightings of our national symbol of freedom, listening to this song of spiritual liberation sung by a people who are not free to sing it in their own homeland. I contemplated our own violent path to independence, and wondered what path Tibet can take to spiritual and cultural freedom. It seems that the quest for Tibetan autonomy is perennially pushed off the front page, with no artillery or rockets to attract headlines. It is a quiet struggle, where monks as well as laypeople feel the imperative to be free is more important than life itself. I stared at Lady Liberty’s face. She is steadfast, resolute, fearless. She inspired me to never give up hope for Tibet.
Halfway through the Serai trunk show, I approached Dawn Eshelman, programming manager at The Rubin, and asked if it would be possible to shoot our video at The Rubin. Graciously, she and the Rubin management allowed us to use the theater Sunday, at the end of the workshop. Theo Dorian, a friend from numerous film classes in our college days, generously gave us his time to shoot. Susan Lamoureaux supported us with access to lighting and the Rubin’s remarkable sound system, and let us keep shooting til the Museum’s doors were closed. Prisanee Suwanwatana, manager of the Rubin Shop, very kindly made sure our booth was covered, and stayed late that night so we could pack up our bowls and our gear. The staff at the Rubin were so amazingly supportive. My thanks to Tashi Choedron, the beautiful Tibetan museum tour guide, for her encouragement.
Although The Dalai Lama himself makes no call for Tibet’s independence from China in any way, he tireless asks of us to support Tibetans in their quest to win the basic human right to practice their religion in peace and to preserve their culture for future generations. If you would like learn more about what you can do to help, please visit International Campaign for Tibet.
Om Mani Padme Hum.
William Ward, a former New Yorker who resides now in Pensacola, FL was a Chef for 13 years. To relieve his job related stress, he discovered meditation. He now has a full time sound healing practice and has been a Bodhisattva customer since 2009. William will be playing his collection of Bodhisattva singing bowls on the program shifthappensradio.com on 6/21/12. We are in the process of building William a two-octave Master Healing set.
How did you get involved with bowls?
That’s one of the most important questions. It started with a meditation. In a meditation, there was a sound that I can’t even begin to describe with words – it brought a knowing of an unconditional love that was there – just the deepest experience of peace I’d ever had. What it taught me was that God was real within us, which was what I was looking for and was the reason I was meditating. A few months later, I walked into a conscious living store, heard a CD playing and heard the bowls. Tears of remembrance of the sound I experienced flooded me, and I knew I had to look into it. And that’s how it all started.
You started with Crystal bowls?
The Crystal bowls and Tibetan bowls came at the same time.
What were you looking for?
I was looking for what I had experienced in that sound and I wasn’t finding it everywhere. That’s why I stuck with you guys. I’ve done a lot of research and looked around and you guys connected very well with everything I was looking for.
Did you study with any one?
I read some books, Mitchell Gaynor, “The Healing Power of Sound”, and Jonathan Goldman “Healing Sounds”. They were both very helpful, as they expressed my experience in ways I couldn’t yet grasp with my own words. Reading up on it helped me to find my own words, for which I am eternally grateful.
So you never studied with anybody, but you read the books and got started from there?
Yes. It was more an intuition that just brought everything together – the more I worked with them and shared them, the more intuition expanded from the experience. The experience was the knowing. I just followed that.
Please talk to me about how you integrate the Crystal and the Tibetan Bowls. Usually people resonate with one or the other.
What I was looking for was to recreate that sound in the experience I had – it is my wish for everyone to experience that for themselves. I found that to re-create that sound, I had to use more bowls, I had to fill in certain spaces. And it opened my eyes to see how chords were playing while I was filling in the spaces, and it expanded from there. I loved the harmonies and the timbres and the higher frequencies when I brought in the Tibetans.
Tell me how you work with the Chakras.
I was very skeptical about the Chakras and didn’t understand them in the beginning. So I really put some time into understanding them for myself. It’s psychosomatic, because our Chakras lie along our Central Nervous System. I realized what effects our nervous system the most is our thoughts about reality. Who I think I am affects every way in which I will express myself.
We’re all spirit having a human experience; however, if I’m too connected to the human experience it limits that awareness. Where our blocks happen is when we forget this reality. Reality is itself the seen and the unseen working hand in hand. I started seeing everything as vibration – whether you can see it or not, it is in vibrating form like an orchestra playing its song. So when I say reality, everything in existence has its song that it’s singing, each component or instrument is vital for the whole composition. And we as humans have that awareness of observation. So where and who we think we are, we are. But we don’t have to stay there. And that’s the correlation I was making with the Chakras being psychosomatic – reality is limitless, it always has been.
Usually when we hear the word psychosomatic, it refers to someone manifesting a physical condition simply by believing they have it. Is that what you mean be psychosomatic?
Not manifesting, but knowing it to be true. For example, our Root Chakra is connected with physicality. And we can stop there, which most of us do, or we can look to see energetic origins of physicality, which would raise our awareness of that Chakra more.
How did you choose working with the diatonic scale system as the basis of the Chakras as opposed to any other system?
I never put any thought to it, I just went where I was guided, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. I just went with my intuition. But I do love to learn how other people use their styles and techniques.
When you do your sessions, you just put the Tibetans on the body?
Almost always. Sometimes I’ll also place the crystal bowls on the body.
How do you decide that?
Each session is different. There’s a knowing in the moment. What I love about the bowls is that it’s not imparting a verbal knowledge to them, it’s sharing the experience with them, which is priceless.
Why do you do what you do?
It was important for me when I experienced that peace within, that became my new passion. And I know that when everyone can find that place that is within them, we will all know, so naturally, how we can move forward together, in a sustainable way for the environment, our children and their children.
Tell me about the show you’re doing.
El – the host of Shift Happens radio – called me and said that she’d heard from quite a few people about me, and she wanted me to come on for a two hour segment. It will be airing 10 PM EST 6/21 and will be available on podcast afterward. www.shifthappensradio.com.
Tell me about the collection from BTC you will be using tomorrow.
I’ll definitely be using my C# Highwall and the Pentatonic set, and then I’ll use Pentatonic cup set if I have the spacing. I have one E that was gifted to me that’s a 10 or a 12”, so I don’t know if I’ll have the space for it or not. For the crystal bowls, I have an Alchemy set.
So you will be giving us that experience tomorrow. We’re really looking forward to hearing it!
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s Teachings on The Heart Sutra
Bloomington, Indiana, May 11 – 13, 2010
The Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (TMBCC) hosted His Holiness’s teachings in the lovely, storied campus of Bloomington, Indiana. Bodhisattva Trading Company had the opportunity to exhibit our authentic antique singing bowls, along with about 30 mostly Tibetan vendors, and were to set up in a 120’ x 60’ tent adjacent to the Indiana University Auditorium where the teachings were being held. We were wary of Indiana’s propensity for rain, having been soaked at a similar event three years ago. For good reason! As I went to the Budget counter to rent our van, footage of tornadoes ravaging Kentucky played on the monitors. Paling, I asked, “Those aren’t around here, right?” to the rental agent. “Well, not yet,” he replied. “But this is Indiana. It’s pretty cold right now and there’s a warm front is coming in. So anything can happen.” Great… we’re setting up in a tent in tornado alley!
The sky darkened, although sunset was not til after 9 PM. Rain (my business partner) and I reminisced about the teachings in Coral Gables, Florida, in November of 1999, when we watched anxiously as Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc up the Florida coast just two days before His Holiness’ teachings were scheduled to begin there at the University of Florida. The Hurricane roughed up Coral Gables, took off up the East Coast as thousands streamed into Ft. Lauderdale from all over the country for the teachings. Under balmy breezes and sunny skies, His Holiness settled in to talk on the finer points of Atisha’a Lamp and Emptiness, answered the same questions everyone has been asking him for decades with grace and humor, gave a public talk in Ft. Lauderdale, and left. Meanwhile, Hurricane Andrew had taken a u-turn over the Carolinas, went south and blasted back into Coral Gables the night of the day we all went home. Synchronicity? We believed not. What might he be able to do for us now, we wondered.
Bleary, I climbed out of bed and found my way to the hotel lobby. There, contentedly planted in a rocking chair, a rosy faced Western nun and I exchanged greetings. Her name meant “Bliss of the Dharma”, but I called her Anni Chu for short. She was an ex-pat American from Texas, who had moved to Sweden 20 years ago to become a Buddhist nun. I asked if his Holiness had arrived in Bloomington yet. “He arrives at TMBCC around 3 today,” she answered brightly. Ah, yes. We had been invited!
His Holiness’ schedule was not announced to the vendors or the public at large. His arrival at the Center was merely the last stop on his schedule, and he would retire to his private quarters at the Center shortly after. The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center is the spiritual hub for the largest community of ethnic Mongolians in the world outside of Mongolia. It had been 3 years since His Holiness had been there to visit his elder brother and cultural center founder Thubten J. Norbu. Unfortunately, his brother succumbed to illness and left his body in September 2008. Due to his own illness and schedule constraints, His Holiness had been unable to come. So his arrival was a welcome and emotional moment for the Sangha.
By early afternoon, we had staked out our space in the tent and proceeded to try to strategize how to put the booth together without the coming weather ruining our thangka paintings. By 1:50, we had almost nothing done, but had ordered pipe and drape and loaded in our tubs, and took off for lunch in town, and then on to TMBCC.
Driving up the rural roads to the Center, Tibetan flags fluttered in the distance and a cloud of incense billowed up from a burner beneath TMBCC’s brightly painted entrance gate adorned with prayer flags. Beneath the gate was an exquisitely painted mandala, drawn in chalk by the monks. When we arrived, the press was poised at the gate, and Tibetan dancers in traditional costumes and musicians with drums and large Tibetan cymbals called Rolmo milled around, waiting for His Holiness to arrive. Secret service and police patrolled and the Sherriff’s department scrutinized all who entered.
The dancers were teenage Tibetan girls in traditional Hunters masks, heavy constructions fringed with huge white manes of fur. “I’ve got a fur ball,” one of them complained.
Women in their traditional silk dresses called “Chubas” stood by, some with vividly colored aprons, signifying their status as married. As the time for His Holiness’ arrival neared, they unfurled long, white silk scarves, called “khatas”, to offer to His Holiness, clasping them between their hands folded in prayer position. In the tradition, His Holiness accepts the scarf, and then puts it over the head of the person who offered it. Usually, he can’t take the time to do more than a few, but all are hopeful.
A second cluster of people had staked their positions out by the large prayer wheel in a shrine down the hill. The winds picked up. In the distance, sirens, wailing in the distance, seemed to approach. “Here he comes”, I said. The dancers took positions. Finally, following a squad car, a black sedan edged slowly through the gate. The musicians struck up and the dancers began dancing backward, waving their arms in oversize sleeves, yipping feisty Shamanic cries.
These girls began dancing backward down the road in front of the car, without being able to see where they were going, in huge, oversize masks. It couldn’t have been easy. As the car passed me, I felt a palpable blast of energy, enlivening and peaceful at the same time. All pranamed to His Holiness, as the car came to a rest at the prayer wheel shrine.
He got out of the car to applause, and greeted people while secret service moved him through the crowd, as he took a sacred circle around the shrine. Only two or three minutes later, he was whisked away back into the car, and headed down the hill for his last stop of the day at the Center. By now the girls had removed their masks, and hung the offered khatas on special handles mounted on the shrine. One stood with tears streaming down her face. Dancing for His Holiness is an honor of a lifetime.
We returned to the tent and set up before our 7 PM deadline. Back-breaking work isn’t so bad when you get to see the Dalai Lama on your lunch break!
Day 2 began with foreboding red dawn skies and a mob of raucous Starlings shrieking from the trees outside the hotel. As predicted, the rains came down hard, pounding against the tent all morning, providing an effective deterrent to customers. The rain on the tent did remind me of the monsoons in Maharashtra, India, during a meditation intensive I attended at the Syda Foundation in Ganeshpuri. We were in a similarly large, white tent at the top of a hill outside the Ashram, all dressed in our Shaivite whites, and practicing Mauna – in which we refrained from all speech except for the mantra. All that could be heard, almost the entire day except for the teachings, was the drone of hundreds of voices repeating the mantra – and, rain pounding on our tent like fingers on a drum.
By mid-afternoon, the sun came out, and attendees of the teachings started to find their way up the hill and through the aisles. Local and University TV crews were fascinated with the bowls, and our singing bowls made the news on Indianapolis’s Channel 13 that night. We worked from 7 AM to 10 PM that night, and were quite busy all day. As the crowds thinned out in the evening, we had the opportunity to work one-on-one with two different physicians – one a hand surgeon and the other, an oncologist specializing in Stomach and Pancreatic Cancer. I was excited to recommend Dr. Mitchell Gaynor’s book The Healing Power of Sound to the oncologist, and hope that the bowls find their way into his practice eventually.
Rain and I were able to share a ticket for the final session of His Holiness’ teachings. The morning Q & A session related to Emptiness, or the Buddhist principle of dependent origination. Buddhist philosophy holds that all phenomena are connected as an infinite process of cause and effect. The origin of all phenomena depends on sets of circumstances which created it, which, in turn, were created by other sets of circumstances, etc. So nothing exists independently of anything else, and therefore, is said to be devoid of intrinsic existence.
During this session, His Holiness spoke at length about Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, which refers to the middle ground between nihilism, school of Buddhist thought which rejected the objective reality of any phenomena, vs. our experience of daily life as an objective reality. For example, I always wondered why Buddhism rejected the existence of God. Until one morning, at the teachings in Pasadena, California, I went to a Starbucks determined to have two shots of espresso before the teachings so I would be able to stay awake. (His Holiness’s voice is resonant and melodic, and sometimes can put me into a deep sleep). When I got to the Starbucks, I knew I was on to something! The entire store was ablaze with red monk’s robes! Sure enough, that morning, His Holiness discussed God in the context of dependent origination, so then it made sense that what Buddhism rejected was the concept of God as Absolute Creator, apart from Creation itself. I was really happy I stayed awake for that point.
The final day was only a half day, so we spent the rest of that day breaking down and preparing to go up to the public talk at the Conseco Field House in Indianapolis. It’s fitting to close with a prayer for the long life of His Holiness, some form of which is always said at the teachings:
In the Land encircled by snow white mountains,
The source of all happiness and benefit.
Flows in your person, Chenresig, Tenzin Gyatso
Remain until Samsara ends.
Om Mani Padme Hum!