Why We Sing: Three Spiritual Music Masters on the “Sounds of Liberation”

More than four years after Nepal was struck by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that left nearly 9,000 people dead and another 900,000 homeless, the country continues to rebuild. Following the quake in 2015, Grammy-nominated kirtan [Hindu chant] master Krishna Das and other spiritual singers performed at a benefit concert in New York City to raise money to help with the reconstruction efforts. That concert, Sounds of Liberation, has become an annual event and returns to New York and Boston on October 3 and October 5.

This year’s performance will help raise funds to repair the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery, home of the beloved Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. The monastery was established by his father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in 1976 , and will feature performances by his students and supporters, including Krishna Das, the monastery’s chant leader Lama Tenzin Sangpo, and the “rock star nun” Ani Choying Drolma

The proceeds will go toward a number of projects, including rebuilding the main temple, or lhakhang, at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, which was deemed unfit for use due to structural damage from the quake and needs to be torn down. A portion of the monks quarters also were condemned in 2015 and are being reconstructed to accommodate a spike in residents, many of whom sought refuge in the wake of the disaster. The funds will go toward supporting the lineage’s monks and nuns as well.

Tricycle spoke with Ani Choying Drolma, Krishna Das, and Lama Tenzin Sangpo about the concert and about the role that music plays in their spiritual lives.

Why might someone who mainly practices meditation want to include a musical component, like chanting, in their spiritual practice?

Lama Tenzin Sangpo (LTS): Meditation does not necessarily mean being totally silent. When chanting, you focus one-pointedly, so you are actually in meditation. That’s because meditation is not done by body, meditation is done by mind. If meditation were done by body, then you would not be able to move or chant. But since it is done by the mind, you can meditate while talking, walking, eating, sleeping, and so on.

Regardless of what instrument or method you use, if you approach it with kindness, love, and compassion, you create a spiritual performance, and a spiritual performance means we can transmit hope, peace, and love. 

Ani Choying Drolma (ACD): Different individuals are different, but whatever helps them to be in a state of meditation is good. Music itself is just a tool or a method in order to enhance the calmness or the clarity of the meditation and make the practice more effective. For some of us in the Himalayas with this tradition, whenever we perform the ritual ceremony, we perform them within the melody, which helps people to really feel calm. We also practice supplication prayers or the songs of the realization from masters like Milarepa

Some people might not like the music. But it also depends on what kind of music and what kind of attitude and motivation is carried. The music that Lama Tenzin, Krishna Das, and I perform is all devotional music, which carries a very soothing and surrendering feeling. With devotion, you really get rid of the doubt, and you feel that there is someone whom I can really rely on. It’s a complete trust like with the embrace of a mother, so warm and so loving. In the modern world, every day you have to doubt—constantly doubt, doubt, doubt, and then fear, fear, fear. It’s very stressful. 

Ani Choying Drolma | Photo by Linda J. Hirsch

Krishna Das (KD): A few years ago, Tsoknyi Rinpoche [one of Chökyi Nyima’s three brothers, along with Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche] invited me to come to one of his retreats to chant. He was giving a retreat on devotion, which is usually not taught as a separate subject. He recognized that many Westerners tried to practice compassion for all beings but didn’t include themselves. He was trying to teach that devotion, in the sense of open-heartedness and expansiveness of heart that includes everyone, has to include yourself. And you can’t actually love all beings until you can learn to take care of and love yourself.

Related: Meditating with Beethoven

He felt that the chanting would help people step out of their mental tightness about spiritual practice. The chanting practice kind of opens the heart to life, to all of life. And it allows us to experience different opening states and inclusiveness of other people in our lives, not just our own state of mind that minute. 

Music is a wonderful way of calming the mind and learning to pay attention. But if music itself was enough, every musician would be happy, and it’s actually the opposite. However, the mantras are not just any sound. They carry tremendous power and depth, and they come from a deeper place within us. By chanting those mantras, we’re moving our minds deeper into our true nature, little by little. That’s what makes it a practice as opposed to a concert or an entertainment. With all these things, the intention that we’re bringing to it is vital—how we’re singing, why we’re singing, how people are participating, and what they’re looking for. 

What does the Sounds of Liberation concert series mean to you?

ACD: Our teachers monastery was damaged in the earthquake that took place in 2015. But our teacher was always helping others, so he always considered this issue [his own home] to be the least important thing. He was trying to fix the rest of the country and always gave away the money. That’s very hard very hard for us. It’s such a beautiful monastery—such a precious monastery—so I and my friends were wanted to do something about it. We wanted to raise some funds. I think it’s time for all the disciples of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche to come together and work on keeping that monastery strong.

The way we are trying to generate the resources to rebuild the monastery is by sharing a moment together, through music—and generating collective good karma. I also think it’s important that we bring people together to spend a couple hours in state of mind that is free from any unnecessary stress problems and, through spiritual music, share in a moment of calm that is very much needed in the modern world. 

LTS: The funds are partly to rebuild the main temple, where there are some incredible statues of the Buddha and Padmasambhava that Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche created by hand. But we also hope to build some new living quarters because we have more and more students at the monastery, more than before the earthquake, and we’re quite crowded. Before we had around 160 monks and around 80 nuns. And now we have almost close to 400 monks and 180 nuns. Many of them needed a place to stay but after the earthquake, but ended up staying at the monastery. They came because of their circumstances, but now they want to learn more about the spiritual path.

Lama Tenzin Sangpo | Photo by Anna Bak

KD: For me, it’s about supporting Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche’s dharma work.  I haven’t been to Nepal. At one point, I had a ticket to visit Tulku Urgyen, but I couldn’t make it. As a result, I’ve been spending time with his sons. I first met Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche in the airport in Denmark. 

How did that happen? 

KD: I had wanted to meet him for a long time and my friend was with him at his Gomde center in Denmark. So while I was passing through Denmark on my way somewhere else, we arranged a meeting at the airport. I saw Rinpoche and said, “Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, how are you?” I didn’t think he knew me, so I started explaining that a friend was arranging for us to meet. He said, “I know you. Yeah, come on,” and he grabs my arm. We start walking through the airport. He says, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I chant.” “Really, what do you chant? What do you chant?” I said, “You know, Durham, Jayrahm, Hare Krishna.” “Hare Krishna? I love Hare Krishna.” He’s dragging me by my arm through the fanciest part of the shopping area, and he’s singing “Hare Krishna” at the top of his lungs, and he’s elbowing me. “Come on, sing along, you’ve got to sing, too.” So the two of us are walking through the airport going “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” 

I’m curious, since it came up, is there a relationship between the Hare Krishna mantra and Buddhism? 

KD: Not exactly. But my guru used to say, “Many names, many forms, all one.” For me, all the different paths, they lead to the same place, which is that place within us, which is truth, reality, being. It all depends on how a practice is done and what your intention is. It all feeds into the same generosity of spirit and open heartedness and compassion and kindness.

Krishna Das | Photo by Anna Ba

LTS: We are all human beings. We all want to be happy and don’t want to suffer. So when we meet each other and start open communication, we feel they are not complex, but when we don’t talk, we sometimes think, “That’s the Hindu, that’s the Buddhist, that’s the Christian, this is the Muslim.” Once get together, we feel very comfortable and, like Krishna Das mentioned, we feel that everything is the same path—whether we are singing Buddhist chants, Hindu chants, or hymns in the church. 

ACD: We all share the same confusion and frustration. What helps me is being in a natural state of mind with the help of spiritual songs. So what I’m sharing all over the world, wherever I go, is something that has been helping me in my life—the meditation through music and the aspiration to benefit all sentient beings. 

Music is inherently more social and shareable than silent meditation practice. Is that something you considered when you do these performances?

KD: For me, this is my spiritual practice. I’m not really trying to do anything for anybody else. This is what I do to help myself, and I just share that with people. Music helps us a little bit in the first place, and when you add the spiritual aspect to it, it really reinforces that opportunity to step out of our story line and be present. Our bodies might move with the rhythms and people around us are singing, and all that keeps bringing us back to the present moment. It’s all part of that practice. When a large group of people singing together, it generates a lot of that wonderful energy.

LTS: If you practice alone, you will have the result of one person’s meditation. But if you practice with a hundred people, you get the result of a hundred people, which is of benefit for everybody. This is what the tantric tradition says. Music really shows us what happens when people gather together in this way. It’s much more powerful than meditating alone in a room. 

ACD: When I first approached Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche about collaborating on an album with Steve Tibbetts, he said, “You go ahead. Do it. It’s good. Whoever gets to listen to this, whether they’re believers or non believers, they all will benefit.” 

Today, I find that what he said is exactly what is happening. Believers or non believers are benefitting. My singing is becoming successful in reaching more hearts of people and benefiting more and more people who are feeling lost, confused, or stressed. At least for a moment, they can feel calm or feel good. And that has included the previous and current prime ministers of Nepal and beggars on the street. Even the crown prince of Abu Dhabi was listening and appreciating it. They all come to me and say, your music has helped me a lot.

It makes me feel really blessed. So I tell them that it’s not me, it’s my teachers blessing that is touching everyone—people can feel the sweetness in this blessing. So I feel really blessed.

Is if there is anything that you would like to add?

KD: I’m just happy to be a part of this. Real happiness is not so easy for us to enter into. We get stuck in many temporary joys and pains, and these practices really, the only thing that can lead us to real happiness, real joy. So, it’s a great honor to be a part of this and to just be helping myself and others to find something real in life. That’s all.

ACD: Sometimes when people don’t understand what I mean by spiritual music, I explain it like this: One that really brings your mind out of yourself and makes you jump and fly. Then my kind of music brings your mind home. The sense of home means where you can be natural, without any hesitation. You can take off your mask and be free from the fear of being judged. This music creates an atmosphere where you feel relaxed and free.

I’m very confident that people would not regret spending their time and money and their energy with us and all the other wonderful musicians for this experience and because of our purpose. That’s something so beautiful to see and experienced. So that’s what I cherish in this coming event.

[This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Original author: Matthew Abrahams
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