Prayers to the Protector
by Thom Jurek, All Music Guide
It seems fashionable these days to create a recording session that combines Tibetan Buddhist voices (either solo or in a choir) chanting or singing their prayers with Western electronic music and clunky attempts at using Tibetan instruments. The result has always been the same: A CD of Tibetan singing and Western musical accompaniment sitting side by side yet never connect. In their sound, there isn't any evidence that extends our culture's generosity enough to make room – inside it – for the voices of one of the world's greatest spiritual traditions The Tibetans don't need our music, they've been making they're own for thousands of years without any help from anyone, thank you, but they've been curious about it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Tibetan Buddhists found a way to collaborate with Western musicians in a manner that didn't dilute or diminish the power of the very prayers they've been asked to share with us?
PRAYERS TO THE PROTECTOR is the first recording to accomplish both feats. The very Buddhist irony is that this disc, while created in the same room by these collaborators, was done separately, with a nearly four-year time span between sessions.
Thupten Pema Lama (a lama is the officially recognized reincarnation of another holy personage) is a Tibetan monk, from the Gelugpa Tradition (the same lineage as the Dalai Lama, Lama Kyabje Gelek Rinpoche and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso). He sat in the Timeroom studio of the prolific multi-instrumentalist, improviser, and composer Steve Roach in 1996, and said his daily three-tiered practice: taking refuge, the Ganden Lhagya and the tantric practice of homage to the guru and protectors, the Guru Puja/Lama Chopa. The latter two contain the entire Lam Rim, or the 64 stages on the path to enlightenment as organized by Je Tsongkapa founder of the Gelugpa sect. They are said daily not only by monks and nuns, but Tibetan Buddhist practitioners who have received tantric initiation (required for the Lama Chopa). The Guru, or teacher in Tibetan theology, is, quite literally everything; he or she is inseparable from the buddhas, the protectors, the yiddams (deities), all enlightened beings, and even from the seed of Buddha nature within oneself. The excellent liner notes come in two parts: there are the translated texts of the prayers themselves and a guide to Tibetan phonetics, as a wonderful, well researched set of notes by writer Linda Kohanov. She offers personal anecdotes about the making of the recording – she is married to Roach and knew Lama years before – as well as historical facts about Tibetan Buddhism, practice, and the specific prayers Lama sings. Why her notes or this recording weren't nominated for Grammys is why I refuse to be in the Academy.
Roach's part of this, recorded from Dec. 31, 1999 through January 18, 2000, was to create a sonic world, a sacred space, from which these ancient prayers could speak their wisdom and devotion and in their sincerity and grace, reach out to the listener. His subtlety and respect for the tradition is apparent in every note. His ability to engage a listener in hearing a monk say his daily devotions is paramount; aurally it seems that the music itself is praying along with the monk, and is indeed, a part of his prayers.
A recording couldn't ask to be anything more than this, but somehow it is. As the disc begins, Thupten sings his refuge vows alone. He takes his refuge in the Buddha (the one who has attained enlightenment and knows we can too), the dharma (the instructions given by him through our teacher in order to attain enlightenment), and the sangha (those who are on this path with us). These are called in Buddhist practice, the three jewels. Refuge is taken for the sake of all sentient beings that they might find happiness and enlightenment.
It's on track two that Roach begins his most magical and wondrous journey yet, into the heart of prayer itself. There is the quietest sound – and it cannot be determined if it is actual or a synthesizer – of the Tibetan singing bowl being played before Lama begins to sing. It is the sound that brings all concentration to a single point, and it obviously focuses Roach, too. From this very place, Roach opens himself up as an instrumentalist to embrace the prayers of Lama, the center of the world of sound, and its ability to whisper truths so great the untrained ear cannot hear them. He whispers along the prayers' texts and folds his accompaniment into Lama's voice. As the prayer progresses, he adds more depth, more texture, and more dimensions for these words to be experienced – and more silence. Roach is so un-intrusive, so skilful, so seemingly invisible, it's as if all the sounds coming from the speaker were one chant, one prayer, one heart embracing all hearts, broken, beaten, willing to heal and be healed. But then, that's the ability he's displayed in so many collaborations. His only motivation here seems to be that the Lama Chopa be prayed and heard and he goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure there are no seams between he and Lama.
When Roach gets the opportunity to play alone, as he does on the instrumental title track, he doesn't dazzle with his considerable musical prowess. Instead, he widens the cavern, making it ever more inclusive of each sound that crosses his eclectic, timeworn path. It is a shaman's journey, traveling through foreign worlds in order to bring back truths. And Roach proves that music can carry them as well as anything else.
As Lama's prayer's draw to a close and he begins to dedicate his merit, Roach begins, once again to ascend to the surface with him, coming from the hall of meditation in the heart (in Buddhist psychology, the mind exists is the center of the chest) toward the center of all things, and becomes inseparable with Lama's text. His accomplishment in this, to dissolve himself, a considerable identity into emptiness as evoked by the prayer, becoming inseparable from all things is a place he has never gone before. As a result his music can never be the same. He has turned back on himself and taken the prayer of the Guru Puja into his own place of silence and creation, and allowed it to take root in his method of creating sonic architectures that reach into places spoken language can't.
Advice to those interested: play it at very low volume every evening before bed. Let it play all night, and then all day for a week in your home whether you're there or not. Watch what happens.