Eerie beauty: Tibetan Chants for World Peace

When 60 monks escaped the desecration of their temple in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1959, little was known about their rituals, beliefs, or music.

The confluence now of digital technology and Western supporters (both from the Free Tibet movement and from the growing worldwide population of practitioners of Buddhism) has begun to change the quiet privacy of their Tantric arts.

Gyuto Tantric University flourished in Lhasa from 1475 until the year their country was invaded and their population of 900 monks killed or scattered. The complex chants of their sacred rituals might have been lost to history but for the fascination of a religious scholar, a musicologist, and a drummer for the Grateful Dead.

NPR recently ran a story about Huston Smith, the scholar, who in 1964 woke at 3 a.m. in a monastery in the Himalayas to “the holiest sound I have ever heard.” In 1967 he decided to record the chanting of the monks and eventually brought the tape back to the US.

The recording blew the mind of an ethnomusicologist at MIT, and eventually made its way to Mickey Hart, a former Grateful Dead drummer. Last year Hart released a CD featuring this quiet but somehow awesome music.

Tibetan Chants for World Peace is a dusty name for the recording, which is both complex and eerily thrilling. There are so few Gyuto monks left in the world to do the chant that Hart had to digitally layer his 10 musicians to achieve the effect of the original 100-voice choir.

Although these chants are evidently “among the most secret and sacred of Tibetan Buddhism,” the Dalai Lama has given his blessing to recordings and public performances. The monks, after all, need the financial support that their popularity brings, and the mysticism is so hidden by the overtone singing that the average person would never be able to perceive the spiritual practice behind the chants.

Spiritual chanting of any kind isn’t for everyone. But I recommend you go at least to the NPR story, which has links to music samples. Like traveling to a completely foreign place, the chanting opens a bit of a mental window to some other perceptual dimension. Or at least, for me, makes a change from The Beatles and Bach for Babies.

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