The Mystic Arts of Tibet–Sacred Music and Sacred Dance for World Healing

1.   Introduction

On October 19, 2013, the Nathan Manilow theater at Freedom Hall in Park Forest, IL, sponsored an performance by the Tibetan monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery.   The monastery was established near Lhasa, Tibet in 1916 as a spiritual institution dedicated to preserving and transmitting ancient Buddhist scholarly and contemplative traditions.

When the Chinese took over Tibet in the 1950s and destroyed the monastery, the monks fled to Southern India and reformed their community.    Since then, the Drepung Loseling Monastery has devoted itself to spreading the word about these ancient Buddhist traditions to all parts of the world.

My first encounter with the Tibetan monks of the monastery was through an appearance of a video showing one of their outdoor performances of their ceremonies in the Power of Myth, a series of six hour-long programs containing interviews between the journalist Bill Moyer and the mythologist Joseph Campbell.    As an illustration of the difference between the personal conception of God, which is common to the Western religious traditions stemming from the three Abrahamic faiths, and an impersonal or transpersonal conception of God, which is common to the Eastern religious traditions stemming from Hinduism and Buddhism, Joseph Campbell said that the ceremonial dance and music as performed by the Tibetan monks illustrated in a visceral way the power that the conception of an impersonal or transpersonal God could have for people.    He described the Tibetan conception of God as more “elemental”, i.e., tied to the power of the elements that form the universe.

2.  Multiphonic technique

Then the video showed the monks chanting in the multiphonic way that seems strange or eerie to Western ears at first, and you could almost feel the energy of the universe vibrating behind the vibrating vocal cords that produced the chants.   In multiphonic singing, the monks shape their vocal cavities to create overtones which are heard over the deep bass rumbling of their chants.     When I saw the Tibetan monks in person at the concert, it was literally mindblowing.  The resulting sound reminded me of winds blowing through canyons and creating echoes as they funnel through the vast complex stonescapes surrounding them.

After the concert, I started to muse about the difference that this chanting had on me as compared to the effect of traditional Western music.

3.  The Beautiful

To get a clue to the power behind the Tibetan monks’ performance, I turned back to Joseph Campbell, who talks about the two philosophical concepts associated with the field of aesthetics, that of the beautiful, and that of the sublime.    Now we have a pretty good idea of what is meant by the beautiful in every day–or at least we should have a good idea.    In his lectures on James Joyce, Joseph Campbell talks about the experience of beautiful as described by Stephen Dedalus’ character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.    The three terms the character uses to describe the experience of beauty when contemplating a work of art come from Aristotle’s work The Poetics, and they are (in the Latin version of the terms from Greek)

  • Integritas
  • Consonantia
  • Claritas

Integritas is taking a frame and putting it around the work of art.    A pile of bricks is just a pile of bricks.   Put it in the corner of an art gallery and put a rope around it or put it in a glass case, with a note by the side labeling and giving the name of the artist and voila!    It is now a work of art.     The integritas component of a work of art consists of the rules and formalisms of the artistic medium.

Consonantia is the relationship between the parts and the other parts, and the parts to the whole of the work of art.   Once a fortunate relationship has been struck that creates a resonance within the viewer, then the final magic of art happens, namely …

Claritas, or the radiance of the work of art which “speaks” to the person who is viewing it.    The consonantia is what is created within the art work, but the claritas is what leaps out from the art work and connects with those viewing it.

The Western tradition of art, with its emphasis on the aesthetics of the beautiful, is very congruent with the Western conception of a personal God, where man relates to God, for example, in Christianity, through the symbol of a person (Jesus) with whom one can relate.

4.   The Sublime

What happens if God is not conceived as a person, but almost like a force of nature?   Then you get the experience of the sublime, the fundamental awe in front of the mystery of being.     The word “awe” is onomatopoetic if you think about it.   If you are in “awe” of something, you will have an open-mouthed expression on your face that mimics the position of the mouth you have when you are saying the word “awe.”

Very little in Western Art, according to Joseph Campbell, is in the mode of the Sublime as opposed to the Beautiful.   There are some passages in the book of Job where it describes the voice of Yahweh coming out of the whirlwind, where the sense of the Sublime is reached.    In fact, one of the points of the book of Job is that mankind will always fail when he tries to describe the creator in human terms because of the tremendously unbalanced nature of the relationship.

In Tibetan art, the notion of God is not that of a personal God, but more of the impersonal of transpersonal mystery of Being.    There you cannot relate to it as an equal, or do as we do in the West, and pray to God expecting the deity to intervene in our personal affairs.    There the conception of God is more elemental, as Joseph Campbell says, so rather than praying to it, it’s as if the ceremonies of the Tibetan monks are getting you to relate to get in tune with that mystery.

You can speak in conceptual terms about these things, but if you listen to the chanting the monks do, together with the crashing of cymbals and sounding of the deep bass long horns, you will experience what it is like to ride on a wave of acoustical energy.

When I saw that video years ago, I never imagined I would experience it in person.    I am glad that the Nathan Manilow Theater at Freedom Hall in Park Forest took the bold and adventurous step of introducing the people of the south Suburbs of Chicago to this thrilling event!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: