A Monk’s Song

14 02 2007

Tibetan Monks

By Jill Ettinger
Somewhere between ancient history and the future lies now. We move quickly through our lives, often without a second thought, without considering our connection to  ancestors, or grandchildren. Like slow motion as the days creep up on us, we question where the time went, what our life has amounted to. It’s this lesson I keep learning when I let the race with time get the best of me. I’m reminded that there is no place to go but here, this long inhale, eternal. Regret can only survive in wasted breaths. Yet still so many questions on this journey exist. Like this timely one a curious friend raised last Sunday evening: What are the obstacles to peace? Pondering this after experiencing the graceful Tibetan Gyuto Monks at NYC’s Town Hall, one answer kept surfacing.

Our external environment is a mirror to the one inside. This world of complications the result of a struggle we define simply as “the human condition.” Like Gandhi suggested, we must be the change we wish to see in the world – though it is surely easier said than done. As our nature is curious, seeking to explore the limitless possibilities of what it means to be human, we so often fall into distractions. Each day can become more or less challenging than the next to be the best we can be. On one hand the world is full of grim tragedies, crumbling communities, terrified people filled with intolerance and hatred; on the other incredible availability, beauty, wisdom and opportunity. Like the Gyuto monks, who harmonize in their unique meditative multiphonic technique, the practice is what vivifies the journey, both together as community and alone as consciousness explorers. Though most of us face a much different environment than one of solitude, their simple lesson of applied focusing remains relevant. When we tune into ourselves and move towards that deep, yet often elusive, place of peace, we inevitably harmonize with those around us. Hard it may be – for going deep within is a journey one can only ever take alone – but the simple wisdom of Mick Jagger comes to mind: “If you try, sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” Difficulty is only a state of mind.

Taking in prayers like a voyeur, few words describe the experience of sitting with the monks. The sounds that came through them was somewhere between a dijeridoo and a dolphin’s cry, but not quite either. Surely one of the intended effects of the meditation perfected over millennia, their subtle sonic gestures resonated in every cell of my body. I wasn’t just listening; I was becoming one with the sound currents, like a final destination of each note.

As I sat with eyes closed, heart open, I drifted into the library of Tibetan images in my head. Though I’ve yet to breathe its majesty, the culture fills me with a beautiful familiarity. In the distance, snow covered Everest (Chomolungma to Tibetans, meaning Mother Goddess of the Universe), vast expansive landscapes, rich, rolling hills, quiet, docile animals, aromatic incense and teas brewing – monastic institutions of compassion and dedication. With their nation focused on spiritual development since 779 CE, the throat churning shows clearly its function as a simple, yet highly advanced technique for tuning in. A gentle reminder of the important role nature plays in our understanding and acceptance of the world around and within us.

One of the rituals shared by the monks during their performance is in praise of Mahakala (pictured above), who represents the transcendence of all form. The superhuman powers he possesses enable the ability to demolish inner and outer obstacles to meditation. Of such great significance, he is often considered the embodiment of compassion of the Buddha. The monks tune in to this panoply singing the peaceful praise of compassion, reminding us that we become that which we invoke – a simple truth best hidden in plain sight. This age-old message highly regarded by our ancestors and of course a significant gift to pass on to our grandchildren, but the most consequential contemplation belongs to the ones living in between.

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