Dalai Lama's personal choir on tour in North America

Posted: Friday, April 12, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Tibetan Buddhist monks stand over their just-completed artwork -- a gorgeous sand mural, painstakingly arranged color-by-color and grain-by-grain over three days.

Among their tools are old implements brought from their Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala, India -- and dust masks from an American hardware store.

''You don't want to sneeze without one when you're doing this kind of work,'' one of the monks, Thupten Donyo, says with a chuckle.

The contrast between established traditions (the mural, called a sand mandala, is made on special occasions) and modern life pop up again and again for the monks.

The Dalai Lama's personal choir, the monks are trying to familiarize American audiences with their faith through prayers, chants and rituals that have been performed for hundreds of years.

But they're doing it via a concert tour of the United States along with CDs and a Web site.


A monk puts his hand on a sand mandala, a sand mural blessing the Gyuto monks of India on their North American concert tour, on display at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles March 8. 2002. The intricately crafted work of art, built by arranging different colored sands grain by grain, took the 13 monks three days to construct. The mural was then destroyed to show the impermanence of the human condition.

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

''I think we are very far behind the Western countries' thinking. We wanted mainly to focus on the spiritual side,'' says Donyo, explaining that only since the 1980s have the Gyuto monks, whose monastery was founded in 1474, learned that they could use recordings and occasional concert tours to bring attention to Tibetan Buddhism.

''The political side (was always) very difficult for us. And I think that's mainly why we lost the country,'' he says. The monks and their leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India when the Chinese took control of Tibet in 1959.

But if they were once behind the modern world, the monks seem to be making up for lost time. They have toured Australia and Europe, and have traveled to the United States several times. Recently, they established a small branch of the Gyuto monastery in San Jose, Calif.

They are currently making a swing through the Pacific Northwest, before coming to the East Coast -- a trip that includes a performance May 4 at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Among their other stops: Seattle, on Tuesday; Eugene, Ore., on Thursday; Chapel Hill, N.C., on April 25; Boston, on April 27; and a nearly week-long stay in Northampton, Mass., starting at the end of the month.

At the concerts, the monks don colorful ritual robes and headdresses and recite their prayers. These age-old chants take center stage, captivating audiences with a vocal style largely unheard of in the West: Each choir member holds three notes simultaneously, forming a chord.

''I don't know how to explain that,'' Donyo says, smiling modestly. ''The monks from my monastery, we don't feel that we have a very special voice.''

All they are doing, he says, is reciting their prayers, which is what they do at home for the Dalai Lama when he prays with them. The purpose is more to enlighten than entertain.

''We just meditate, we just visualize the holy beings around us, and we just listen for the voice of the holy beings in order to receive the blessings and support of the holy beings,'' he continues.

To do so is nothing special for a monk, he says, adding the Dalai Lama is not impressed. Or if he is, he doesn't let on.

''He never comes to see our shows,'' Donyo says with a laugh. ''For him it's just the usual.''

But others are in awe of the monks' music.

''It was the holiest sound I had ever heard,'' says Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who has been helping put together the monks' U.S. tours since their first one in the mid-1980s and who has recorded CDs of their chants.

He first came across the sound when Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter gave him a tape of a program he'd heard on a San Francisco radio station years ago.

''I've heard most kinds of music but this was something I'd never dreamed of,'' says Hart, a student of world music who has written several books on the subject. ''It was from another place. It touched my soul and I didn't know why.''

Years later, he learned of the monks' history and eventually met them.

Every few years since then, Hart and Danny Rifkin, the former road manager for the Grateful Dead, which broke up in 1995, have booked the monks on a U.S. tour.

Hart marvels at how successful each one has been.

''It's not Britney Spears,'' he says, laughing. ''It's certainly not entertainment like that.''

Then he adds more solemnly: ''This is the real deal. This is at the heart of sacred music.''


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