Chant & Yogic Song
a teaching given in March 2000
Dön-pa (’don pa) in Tibetan means chant or liturgical recitation – the repetition of texts and practices. This can be performed almost as a monotone or with melody, according to tradition. With dön-pa the words are important and we are paying attention to the words whilst we are chanting them. There are two types of dön-pa: Sutric and Tantric. In Sutric dön-pa it is the meaning of the words which is the focus. In Tantric dön-pa the words are used as a guide to visualisation. The melody is employed in order to give power to the words – to animate them.
Yang (dByangs) or Dzogchen Gardang (rDzogs chen sGar gDangs) are terms we usually translate as yogic song. There is no translation in English for these words as they do not equate to anything within Western religions or spiritual traditions. We have to say ‘yogic song’, because the word ‘song’ on its own would relate to the word ‘lu’ (gLu) which describes a song such as a folk song. With yang the meaning of the words which are sung are not conceptually followed. With yang there is no concept – it is a Dzogchen practice. The primary function is finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of the sound. For this transmission is required, both for the method and for the vajra melody of the yang.
There tends to be an assumption that any vocal practice which is melodic is yang and everything less tuneful is dön-pa. This is not necessarily true. For instance, the Lama’i Naljor of Machig Labdrön is tuneful, but it is Tantric dön-pa; whereas the fast recitation of Vajra Guru mantra is almost monotone in form, yet it is regarded as yang. It is not the melody or lack of it that is central to whether a practice is dön-pa or yang, it is whether one follows the meaning of the words conceptually or whether one finds the presence of awareness in the dimension of the sound.
It is important to let the voice flow naturally when singing yang – to be open and relaxed, and to allow the voice its natural boldness and freedom. Quite apart from the value of yang – singing in itself is an invigorating, expansive practice which is important in all cultures.
Some forms of yang are accompanied by vajra instruments and some are not. When talking about yang, the instruments are as much a part of the development of the sound as is the voice and one finds the presence of one’s awareness in the dimension of the sound of voice and instruments. The sounds of the instruments enhance and develop awareness of the dimension of sound.
There should be no straining or forcing during yang. Although yang is a Dzogchen practice and therefore group singing is not traditional – group practice has been found to be helpful as an introduction to yang in terms of developing the ability to perform yang correctly. In order to progress in one’s practice of yang, therefore – one should follow the umdzé (chant leader) closely in order to maintain awareness of pitch, timbre, rhythm, phrasing, crescendo, and diminuendo.
Some of the practices we sing involve sustaining notes for an entire extended breath. If your capacity to sustain a note is not as great as the umdzé’s, do not snatch breaths in order to sustain the note, as this can disrupt the flow of energy and disturb the functioning of the yang. Take a natural breath and either simply wait for the umdzé to conclude, or continue to sing the note until the umdzé finishes. It is important to conclude when the umdzé concludes rather than entering into competition with the umdzé as to who can maintain the longest note. Do not worry about the quivering or faltering notes – these are all an aspect of your vocal energy, and as such are part of the practice. The principle is not to be a perfect part of a perfect choir – but to enter into the dimension of sound.
Some of the yang we sing are quite complicated in the variance of quality of sound. Try to be aware of these changes and complications, even if you cannot perform them all straight away. Try to avoid evening out the melody in order to make it easier to sing. For instance, there can be a tendency to let a trill of five notes slip into three because it is easier. Western people—apart from those with training in serious music (classical / jazz etcetera)—are used to the modalities of pop music and folk music in which the tempo and volume are quite even and there is therefore often a tendency to flatten or homogenise yang according to a modality which seems more familiar.
The Aro practices are mainly short and simple. They can be learned relatively quickly and easily so that we can always have practice at our disposal. This simplicity, however, can be deceptive. The subtlety of the variations in yang need to be practised. The core practices of the Aro gTér are: the Seven Line Song of Padmasambhava (Dorje Tsig-dun) to various tunes; the mantras of Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel; the Lama’i Naljor of Machig Labdrön; the long life mantra of Padmasambhava and Mandarava; and long-life wish-paths.
Dorje Tsig Dun – Seven-Line SongThe seven thunderbolt phrases
Seven phrases expressing our indestructible essential enlightened nature
The Tibetan text – with word-by-word, literal, and inner translations
Hung. Ögyen yul gi nub chang tsam
Pema késar dongpo la
Yatsen chögi ngödrüp nyé
Pema jung-né shé-su drag
Khordu khandro mangpo khor
Kyé-kyi jésu dagdrüp kyi
Ching-gyi lob-chir sheg-su sol
Guru Pema Siddhi Hung
CommentaryThe last line ‘Guru Pema Siddhi Hung’ is an eighth line that encompasses the mantra of Padmasambhava which in full is
Om A’a: Hung Bendzra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.
This inspirational song can be viewed in three ways:
In line four there is an exoteric and esoteric meaning for being born from a lotus. In the exoteric meaning Padmasambhava is actually said to be born from a lotus flower. He is so special that he has an extraordinary birth. However, the esoteric meaning is that the lotus is actually a woman’s lotus, her womb and vagina. So that Padmasambhava was born in an entirely ordinary way. From the Sutric and inspirational viewpoint we need Padmasambhava to be special because we cannot view ourselves as inspirational. However Vajrayana turns this inside out and reveals the inspirational fact that Padmasambhava was lotus born – born from the secret lotus. Because of this we can be inspired that we too can attain the qualities of Padmasambhava.
In line five khandro refers to khandros and pawos. It is not gender specific in this context. The female form is khandroma (mKha’gro ma) but khandro without the female suffix means both female and male ‘sky goers’ or ‘sky dancers’.
Om A’a: Hung Bendzra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung:
This is the mantra of Padmasambhava. In terms of the mantra of Padmasambhava being yang, the primary function is to find the presence of awareness in the dimension of sound – but there is also a secondary function with this mantra: that of massaging the rTsa rLung. The song is a ‘psychic massage’ of the rTsa rLung system at the level of energy via sound and breath control. rTsa are the spatial nerves and rLung is the spatial wind or energy that flows according to their patterns.
We sing the mantra of Padmasambhava in three different ways for differing reasons vis-à-vis their effect on the rTsa rLung system. Four contrasting qualities of sound are used in the singing: hard and soft; loud and quiet; fast and slow; high and low. Once the subtlety of the changes in quality of the sound are mastered, the singing of the mantra becomes a powerful experience and a valuable tool in terms of practising with the different characteristics of our own energy.
Om A’a: Hung Bendzra Guru Jnana Sagara Bam Ha Ri Ni Sa Siddhi Hung:
This is the mantra of Yeshé
Tsogyel, the female Tantric Buddha and consort of Padmasambhava.
Om A’a: Hung Bendzra Guru Pema Siddhi Ayu-shé Hung Niri Dza
This is the long-life mantra of Padmasambhava and Mandarava yab-yum. Mandarava was an Indian princess—daughter of the King of Zahor—and the first consort of Padmasambhava.
The Lama’i Naljor of Machig Labdrön
The text – with word-by-word translation, full translation, and visualisation
Om Machig ma la solwa deb
A’a: Machig ma la solwa deb
Hung Ma gÇig ma la solwa deb
Karpo Om gyi jingyi lob
Marpo A’a: gyi jingyi lob
Ngönpo hung gyi jingyi lob
Ku sung thug gyi jing chen phob
Ma yum chen go phang tob par shog
Om A’a: Hung Om A’a: Hung Om A’a: Hung
Phat: Phat: Phat:
Machig Labdrön is a famous Tibetan female Master and the incarnation of Yeshé Tsogyel. She is noted for practising chöd – an extremely powerful and wrathful practice. The melody of this Lama’i Naljor has been given to us through Ngak’chang Rinpoche from the lineage of Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche. Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche in a previous incarnation was Machig Labdrön’s son Gyalwa Thöndrüp. As Gyalwa Thöndrüp, he requested a simple Lama’i Naljor which used his mother as the focus. Machig Labdrön taught Gyalwa Thöndrüp this practice with the melody with which you are familiar. Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche used to say that he could still remember Machig Labdrön’s voice as she chanted it to him.
This practice is a Tantric dön-pa. Machig Labdrön can be seen as an external figure from whom we receive transmission and inspiration. We aspire to attain her qualities. Then we can visualise merging with Machig Labdrön through receiving transmission of her qualities of mind, speech, and body through receiving the light rays from her forehead, throat, and heart. The syllables of Om A’a: and Hung are visualised at her forehead, throat, and heart and appear reciprocally at our forehead, throat, and heart as we receive transmission of three coloured lights. Then we may arise spontaneously as Machig Labdrön.
The verse is chanted three times. Then the visualisation is cut with the wrathful syllable Phat: The chant is accompanied by bell and chöd drum. The instruments should be played in unison throughout. It is especially important that the drums remain in time with each other when they are played faster at the end. Always take your lead from the umdzé.
After chanting the verses three times Om A’a: Hung is chanted over and over again. This is practised individually with everyone chanting at their own pace and pitch. When the leader starts to play the chöd drum a little faster, this is the signal to stop the Om A’a: Hung. Then the kangling (rKang gLing – femur trumpet) is sounded.
The final part of the practice is the Dzogchen aspect of the Lama’i Naljor while the drum and bell continue to be played. Explode the visualisation into space and arise again as Machig Labdrön several times through sounding the syllable Phat. Finally the white A is sounded together at the end of the song, after the instruments have been put down. We should remain in the space we find ourselves without thought or referentiality.
These are inspirational wishes for the long life and health of our Lamas. We wish this because of our devotion to our Lamas and our hope that they will be healthy and live long in order to serve the needs of beings. It is for our own benefit that we chant these inspirational wishes – in order that we are able to be with our teachers for a long time and receive many teachings and empowerments – and that we are able to have them reside amongst us as a continual source of inspiration.
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