Singing Dharma with Lama Yeshe Jinpa
February 10, 2013

Good evening! Happy Losar Eve!

People should know we’ll be doing a more formal Losar ceremony at Gedatsu Church tomorrow.

We had a nice opportunity tonight, because Deb led us in Qi Gong. If we’re going to do highest yoga tantra, we have to be in good shape – tantrikas have to be athletes. This doesn’t mean we have to run marathons –but we need our full body to do meditation.

One of the things to remember when we’re reciting or singing mantras is it’s our full body making sounds – not just our core, not just our vocal chords. We have to do mantras and singing to help us connect to our breath, to our full body.

Lately, people have been asking about taking refuge and when I tell them the requirements they ask, “Why can’t I have a glass of wine? Why do I have to stop drinking entirely?”

I guess it would be okay if they were just doing ordinary householder practice. Maybe then it wouldn’t make a difference. In that case, you’d be a passenger versus say, a crew member or a pilot. But how many people want to see the pilot take a drink before flying the airplane? If your thinking is, I have no responsibilities for sentient beings, okay lubricate. But if you want to be a bodhisattva, if you want to save all beings, you have an obligation to your parents, to your skandhas, to take care of yourself. That’s it.

In highest yoga tantra, it’s possible to wake up and benefit others. Of course we’re getting older, and things are creaky. If you have an older car, you need to maintain it. And it’s actually possible to have a long run of good health and then die. So it’s good to do Qi Gong, eat well and take care of yourself, to be healthy.

And sing.

In the last sentence of the Heart Sutra, it mentions gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas. Gods are devas. Humans are us. Asuras are titans, demigods. Who are gandharvas?

Answer: Celestial musicians.

Lama Jinpa: Exactly.

There are celestial beings in Buddhist cosmology, they’re divine beings who make beautiful noises, and since we’re here tonight to sing, I thought I’d talk a little about gandharvas.

Talking about gandharvas might seem a little woo woo, but it makes perfect sense from the Vajrayana or Mahayana point of view. The gandharvas’ whole thing is singing – that’s what they do. They’re a big part of one’s practice because there’s lots of singing in Buddhist cosmology.

In the West, we have choirs of angels. The West has angels singing praises to God.

Even before the dawn of Christianity, the ancient Greeks had an idea of planets that made beautiful songs. When I was growing up, in prep school they taught us about the ‘music of the spheres’ – it’s an ancient Greek – really, Pythagorean- doctrine that says there’s harmonious relationships among the planets that are governed by their speeds of revolution in proportion to each other, and their fixed distance from the Earth.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the stars and moon were deities that made harmonies. From a yogic point of view, this makes sense scientifically but it is yet to be proved.

Question: So they’re like vibrations?

Lama Jinpa: Yes, like vibrations.

One of Buddha’s insights is that the clear light mind’s emptiness manifests as a rhythmic pulsating.

Things are not on or off – actually, they’re pulsating (opens and closes hand, palm outwards). This makes sound. It’s like our breathing or our heart beating making sound. Even our brain waves make sound.

Tonight, I don’t want to focus on the outside, outward aspect of singing mantra. Tonight I want to go inside.

In Buddhist cosmology, there are many realms. In deep meditation, there are 10 steps, one is shamatha, and you’re creating a more stable realm. After that, form and then the formless is a very deep subtle meditative state.

And in these different states, we pick up the beautiful singing of gandharvas.

Most people don’t take time for deep meditation; if you do, you can begin to hear the universe, these different realms. These different heavenly realms must be cultivated. We cultivate deep meditation over time, over training. We add vipashyana, then emptiness meditation and that’s when we broaden out. We can appreciate a quality of aliveness in everything. I think it’s important that we talk about it.

It sounds fantastic.

Many times hearing these sounds is sort of the flip side of a schizophrenic experience. Connecting with these eternal gandharvas feels like the universe is singing.

Most of the time, in samsara, sounds are annoying, they can throw us off balance. But gradually, when doing mantras, Buddha deva mantras, it feels like the entire universe is singing. Buddha devas will arise out of the seed syllables in the mantras – it’s a beautiful aliveness.

If you see the universe as junky and dead, where do seed syllables come from?

Question: Do mantra seed syllables connect with gandharvas?

Lama Jinpa: The whole universe has a vibratory structure which includes sound. But it’s not like everything is OM. That’s too simplistic. (Intones ommmm)

We say the gandharvas are arising out of emptiness. Gandharvas could be enlightened beings if they practiced.

It’s a joyful playful sound, a singing going on all the time that is vibrating. (rings bell)

When we’re approaching mantra practice, just like with every meditation it’s important to work with the right attitude, the correct motivation, in a group like this it’s like bells all ringing on same level and tone. Hearing that tone, most of the time we have gross hearing and aren’t able to hear the sound after it fades, but it’s still vibrating.

Actually, everything is manifesting as sound.

And to do this with attention, it’s not like we have to find a special soundproof room – we have to cut down on our own mental constructs. We have to train and practice, to cultivate deeper shamatha. I want to encourage people to do a deep meditation retreat because we usually think we have no time. But it’s important.

That vibratory quality – this is our own song; we’re part of it, the wonderful, joyful singing gandharvas of the universe. Lots of times, after Buddha spoke truth, flowers would fall all around. In monasteries, they have brocades that look like petals of flowers falling.

It’s universal music and vibration. Of course in India, Indians imagined Indian instruments. In China, they imagined Chinese instruments and in Tibet they imagined Tibetan instruments. But with heightened awareness, we hear the universe singing. That is the proper view.

Question: So it makes sense on a physics level, the vibration of sound?

Comment: At Stanford and other universities, they do record the sounds of universe. It is not like they don’t investigate.

Comment: Sounds can be used to produce different mental states, at least that’s my own experience.

Lama Jinpa: I have an annoying habit that my wife Sabrina points out. When I do vajra recitation (om ah hung) I do it with the breath, so lots of times when doing the mantra, it sounds like humming. From the outside, it might look like I’m going crazy, or already there. (Laughter) Sabrina will ask me, “What are you doing?!?”

Many people find it helpful in their training and practice to connect with the floor of the universe, very stable, very grounded, and one reason to do mantras is it’s like a foundation.

Our energy state is always fluctuating. Usually people have no floor for when negativity arises, so they just sink. But mantra is like a net or like a trampoline.

It’s like when we’re in a vehicle, driving, and we hit a pothole and down we go. Mantras are our shock absorber. With a mantra as a foundation, we have some bounce.

Mantras are like what a mat is for people practicing martial arts. They have a mat instead of a cement floor so they don’t fall on hard concrete and injure themselves. We want padding.

Question: Wouldn’t breath do the same thing?

Lama Jinpa: Well, our attention isn’t always steady on our breath. Mantras are a sacred under-flooring to our practice.

Mantras have momentum. Lots of times when we’re doing breathing meditation we stop breathing or our mind wanders. Mantra is like a keel in a sail boat that helps us keep going with direction and momentum. Mantra has power to help us keep going. Some other traditions don’t do mantras. I’m glad ours does.

Comment: I’m getting there.

Lama Jinpa: I like ravens (referring to the questioner’s inquisitive nature).

Let’s sing Guru Rinpoche.

The Seven Line Prayer of Guru Rinpoche

Hung orgyen yul gyi nub jang tsham
Hung! On the northwest border of the country of Orgyen
pema Gesar dong po la
In the pollen heart of a lotus
ya tshen chhok gi ngo drup nyey
you attained marvelous, most excellent siddhi.
pema jyung nay zhey su drak
renound as the Lotus Born,
khor du khan dro mang po kor
You are surrounded by a vast retinue of dakinis
khye kyi jey su dak drub kyi
As I practice, following in your footsteps,
Jyin gyiy lob chhir shek su sol
I pray you approach to confer your blessings.

I hope you heard gandharvas. Whenever we evoke a great being, the gandharvas rejoice.