The monks’ droning was music to my ears
Of all the words there are to describe the guttural, other-worldly sound of the Gyuto monks’ chant, beautiful is not one of them. Pure, yes. Transportative and uplifting, absolutely. But it’s far from beautiful. At least, not immediately. That part comes later.
Musical experts have described the Gyuto chant as multiphonic. The sound, three octaves resonating in one note, was once thought humanly impossible, and the effect is just as complex.
At first listen it’s almost unpleasant. But keep your eyes closed and persevere, because the sensation is acute and entirely unique. You can feel your thoughts moving from your feet, up through the bridge of your nose, before spreading to the very edges of your forehead. When you finally open your eyes, you feel an incredible sense of clearing.
The refreshing sensation offers some explanation for the genuine serenity on the vital faces of all six monks gathered in the Bondi Pavilion, Sydney this week.
Dressed in deep red and mustard yellow robes, with shaved heads, muscular arms, and an occasional pair of reading glasses, these men are representatives of the Gyuto monks. A 700-year-old lineage of the Buddhist religion, the same sect the Dalai Lama was born into, and the first group of Tibetan monks to have ever traveled the world. Every year, for the past 18 years, six Gyuto monks from their monastery in Dharamsala, India are chosen to visit Australia.
“If they were a band, it’d be an impressive tour,” said Maureen Fallon. A Scottish-Australian, ex-bureaucrat from South Australia, who has devoted the best part of the last 18 years to managing, largely self- funding and marketing the Gyuto monks’ visits to Australia.
Challenging, humbling and mind-blowing is how Fallon describes her unique way of life. One that she shares with Tibetan-born Sonam Rigzin, who translates for the visiting monks.
The Gyuto lineage is among the strictest and most disciplined form of Buddhism because of its strict adherence to standards and rituals, including their distinctive chanting. On some days the monks are known to chant for up to 18 hours and often by request, at the home of the Dalai Lama.
Mick Hart, lead singer of American rock band, The Grateful Dead, and one of the first Westerners to bring the Gyuto sound to our part of the world, called it “a vocal miracle”. It’s a description the monks themselves would find hard to understand. Apparently they experience something of an out-of-body experience. The chant is said to relax their muscles so much many believe they are just a conduit for the sound.
The six monks gathered at Bondi this week range in age from 38 to 68. At their home in exile, a monastery in Dharamsala India, the age gap is much bigger. Children as young as six are given by their families to the monastery of 500 monks. It’s all part of the Tibetans religious devotion to the ancient practice of Buddhism that their ancestors adopted in the 7th century.
According to Sonam Rigzin, the monks’ translator, Tibet before this time resembled the America of today. A “strong and menacing empire” that inspired warriors like Genghis Khan. But when the Tibetans realised that violence and degradation of the environment was unsustainable, they began a “revolution of peace” inspired by the Buddhists of India.
If only the story ended there. But life in Tibet is far from a fairytale. The country known fondly as the “roof of the world” has been under full Chinese control since 1953. Thousands of Tibetans have fled their home country to India, following their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Rigzin, on behalf of the monks is reluctant to weigh in on the political situation in Tibet. He says the monks’ philosophy of peace and sharing is more important when visiting Australia, but he concedes the Tibetans exist under a repressive regime in grave and often desperate conditions.
Deadly is another word. In the past 12 months, 19 people have self-immolated in Tibet. Thousands of others have lost their lives trying to escape to India over the precarious escarpments and mountain ranges of the Himalayas.
This loss of life and the self-harm should be seen within the context of Buddhism. The Tibetan philosophy is one of non-violence and kindness to others, so their only recourse for public protest, in the name of their cause, is to take their own lives.
This dark desperation contrasts powerfully with the delightful sense of freedom, lightness and acceptance of change and whim, that also exists within their ancient belief system.
Rigzin said that on his first trip to the monastery in India, he questioned why the gate leading out was so intricate and beautiful. He was told that the design was created on purpose, so the monks would easily remember how to leave. Nobody is beholden to Buddhism. And monks who decide to leave the monastery are accepted, without prejudice, back into the community where they often revered for their experience.
The Gyuto philosophy regarding happiness is also worth a ponder. Kindness, peace and being good to others are the fundamental tenets of this religion, but at the same time, the monks do not condone or judge others for their choices. They must also give with open hearts, without expecting anything in return.
“By expecting nothing in return or being turned away or ignored, that is a bigger gift. You are even more free, even more a part of the beauty of life. The monks don’t consider themselves to be holy men. If they did the operation would not work and their purpose would be redundant,” said Rigzin.
Maureen Fallon is manning the stall selling incense, Tibetan prayer flags, books and CDs in the lobby of the Bondi Pavilion. It’s one of her few methods of fundraising. Despite many grand promises, Fallon tells me they’ve never secured a consistent, long-term corporate sponsor for the Gyuto monks here in Australia. The rest, she says, comes from the incredible generosity of the Australian communities they visit.
“No matter where we go, we always seem to be offered food and accommodation,” she said.
Luck that Fallon attributes to the gentle, yet enduring impact the monks’ have on people’s lives. And there seems no end to her incredible stories of watching the the interactions of these very special men on all different types of people, all throughout Australia.
The most inspiring are the stories of the monks’ interactions with children suffering from behavioural issues or developmental problems. Particularly as most monks can not speak English.
“We’ve been to schools and teachers have warned us off visiting their classrooms for the aggression of the children, but the monks have a very special presence.
“Time and time again, we’ve gone to these schools and the monks have made a difference, just by sitting with the children and making craft, or just offering them a hug and a smile,” said Fallon.
These are simple gestures that many would find easy to dismiss with cynicism or disregard. But these monks are worthy of curiosity. From the way each holds their face throughout the intense chant, to the sandals on their feet. There’s something so vulnerable about being that open to the world, that is so at odds with the Western state of mind.
Imagine life without judging others. Or spending entire days cross-legged and chanting for the good of the universe. It’s a philosophy that remains out of sync with what we understand of modern life. Perhaps that’s what makes it so comforting.
Follow me on Twitter: @lucyjk
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