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The Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir

This is the story of Tibetan Chants for World Peace (White Swan Records; U.S. release: September 23, 2008), a collection of The Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir’s transcendent chants, some of which have never been heard outside the walls of the Gyuto Tantric Monastic University, until they were recorded by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

Shimmering above a tone so low it seems to boom from the earth itself, the overtone chants of Gyuto monks create what ethnomusicologist Dr. Fredric Lieberman terms “a musical halo.” This otherworldly sound, based on one of the lowest fundamental pitches of any of the world’s throat-singing traditions, is a sacred offering to the Tibetan Buddhist deities and enlightened beings, and, in the case of the chants featured on the new release, is rarely performed outside of the 600-year-old Tibetan monastery now located in Dharamsala, India.

Ven. Thupten Donyo, the founder of the Gyuto Vajrayana Center in San Jose, California, says “We are not really musicians, and we’re not singing songs. We make these sounds to please the holy beings, the Buddhas, using different tones and different instruments.” Instruments in the Gyuto tradition serve to keep time and punctuate the extended chants, with everything from delicate cymbal-taps to blasts from the yards-long dungchen, an alpenhorn-like instrument played in pairs representing the calls of one male and one female elephant (a royal symbol in Tibet). Ven. Donyo says the singing style itself invokes “the voice of the yaks.”

This sonic offering, while transforming the performers’ mind and body with its demanding technique, serves a broader purpose. “They are not chanting for themselves and salvation. They are chanting for every living thing,” says Mickey Hart, “for China, Chinese people, Tibetan people, American people, every being.” This, Lieberman explains, is the essence of Tibetan Buddhism, the call for the enlightenment and salvation of all beings. This essence has been distilled in the Gyuto monks’ unique chants over hundreds of years. Monks cannot perform the chants aloud until they have sufficient initiations and empowerments, a learning process of many years. The style evolved to keep the sacred words restricted to initiates who can handle their power, says Ven. Donyo. “If you were to sing just my name, ‘Thupten Donyo,’ using this form, it would take ten minutes!”

Tibetan Buddhist teachings are like family trees: Wisdom is passed down from teacher to student, growing new branches while sustaining ancient roots. It’s a rare thing for an album to have a traceable lineage--its own branch on the tree--but the story of the chants on Tibetan Chants for World Peace goes back six centuries, to a wise lama wandering in Eastern Tibet.

Gyuto was founded by Jetsun Kunga Dondrub, whose teacher learned directly from Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Dalai Lama’s lineage, the Gelugpa. A precocious student of logic and tantric practices, Jetsun Kunga Dondrub soon began wandering through Eastern Tibet, sharing his wisdom. “On the way to another monastery, he met 31 monks on the road,” Donyo recounts. “He asked, ‘Where are you gentlemen going?’ They replied, ‘We’re going to join the Gyuto Monastery.’ But Dondrub knew that such a monastery didn’t exist. So he replied, ‘I’m going, too.’”

The 32 monks established the Gyuto monastery in 1474. Dondrub began to write the texts that form the basis of Gyuto’s instruction today, and the founding monk became well-respected in Tibet. Once, facing a serious flood and lacking any tactics for diverting the rising waters, government officials called for a lama to perform a miracle. When they sent for Dondrub, the waters receded. As a show of gratitude, he was rewarded with the Ramoche Temple for his monastery in Lhasa, Tibet.

Fast forward five centuries to the 1960s, when scholar of world religions and MIT professor Huston Smith woke up one morning in his room at a Tibetan monastery. When Tibet’s Buddhism was forced into exile in 1959, the monks re-established their monastery and university—which is the equivalent of a post-doctoral institution—in Dharamsala, India. “Huston woke up at four in the morning hearing a hundred monks in the courtyard chanting” says Hart. “At one point the group stopped chanting, and the sound was carried on by a single monk, whose voice contained all the notes that the choir had been singing. He dropped to his knees and knew why he was there. He had to record it.”

Professor Smith’s recording eventually reached an American audience eager for new sounds and experiences. “He played the recording on the radio here in Berkeley. And then Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead taped it, and gave me the cassette. That was in 1969,” Hart muses.

The tape had a profound effect on Hart, though at first he didn’t realize he was hearing human voices rather than some cutting-edge electronic composition. “Nothing had ever touched my ear or affected me like that,” Hart remarks. “In the world of rhythm and noise and the Grateful Dead, this was the opposite; something totally different.” Before long, Hart discovered the true source of the sounds that had moved him so: a group of Tibetan monks in Indian exile whose chants had echoed outside of their monastery’s walls for the first time.

Hart’s deep connection to the Gyuto monks’ chants led him decades later to bring them to the Bay Area for a sold-out performance, and eventually to get fourteen monks into the studio. While working together, Hart introduced the monks to American culture, from Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana to Star Wars, from basketball to skateboarding.

Open minded and easy going, the monks responded favorably to Hart’s suggestion during their fourth recording in 2001 that they try multi-tracking their voices to recreate the sound of a large chorus of chanting monks as usually heard at Gyuto. “I have always dreamed of Huston’s magical moment, when he first heard them chant as it was meant to be, using the walls as a reflector of sound,” Hart explains. “Remember: these are quiet voices. The only way to achieve that massive sound is with a hundred or more chanters.”

While seemingly innovative, this approach revealed an intimate side of chants never before heard, as the monks explained to Hart. “The monks thought multi-tracking was the right approach because it replicated the sound of the full choir,” Hart muses. “Perhaps they hear it internally as it sounds on the recording.”

Yet Hart has a larger goal in mind than simply recreating the stunning sonic experience of Gyuto’s chants. His aim, one he shares with Tibetan Buddhist teachers and thinkers, is peace and an end to suffering. Practitioners like Gyuto’s chanting monks can, according to the Dalai Lama, “unfold energies which can serve the benefit of the entire country…and uplift the spirit of the times.”

As Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman has argued in his recent book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters, these energies lie at the basis of true social change and are a real roadmap to peace, not only in Tibet but across the globe. “Thurman’s new book is why we released this now,” Hart states. “He’s written a template, not just for peace in Tibet and China, but for Palestine and Israel, for anywhere in trouble.” In this spirit, all royalties will go to support Gyuto Tantric Monastic University, while White Swan will make additional donations to Tibet House, a non-profit organization founded by Thurman and dedicated to Tibetan cultural preservation.

When the monks chant, Hart notes, “They’re creating a mandala of sound, a perfect universe, a house of many rooms." When the chants stop, the sounds move from the ear to the soul, as the sand mandalas painstakingly crafted grain by grain, only to be swept away upon completion. “Both live on as spiritual reverberations,” Hart concludes.