The Dalai Lama’s View

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, is a strong attracter, a spiritual magnet, for music. It seems to accompany him everywhere. His teachings such as the Kalachakra Initiation--a series of instructions handed down from the Buddha to enhance compassionate consciousness, which he is leading on this sticky Indiana Saturday--begin with the sonorous, calming chants of monks. While the audience stretches during breaks in his daylong address in an air-conditioned tent that holds 5,000, the Dalai Lama remains seated on his throne, chanting. On festive occasions, Tibetan ritual orchestras include cymbals, drums, reedy shawms, bells and those extraordinary 8-foot trumpets.

Western musicians flock to the Dalai Lama as well. Philip Glass has written an organ processional in his honor, and Glass’ music contributes significantly to the spiritual aura of “Kundun,” Martin Scorsese’s film about the Dalai Lama’s early years in Tibet. American modernist composer Peter Lieberson often turns to Tibetan Buddhism as an inspiration for his works. Benefit concerts for the cause of Tibetan freedom have featured Sean Lennon, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys, Patti Smith and Herbie Hancock. As Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama has benefited from music’s ability to wield a political and spiritual message, as well as from its ability to bring people together and to inspire them to action.

Giving his imprimatur to the World Festival of Sacred Music and agreeing to speak at its opening ceremonies in the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 10 would seem a further indication of the Dalai Lama’s regard for the worth of music. He did, after all, call music “perhaps the most universal” of all “the many forms in which human spirit has tried to express its innermost yearnings and perceptions” in his message about the festival.


Yet this is a rare statement from the Dalai Lama. He seldom mentions music in his writings or interviews. In his most recent book, “Ethics for the New Millennium,” he warns against expecting too much from aesthetic experiences such as music. They may offer the potential for deeper levels of happiness than merely acquiring material objects, but he believes that elation derived from the senses is brief and transient. It “may not be very different from what the drug addict feels when indulging his or her habit,” he writes.

So the occasion of the World Festival of Sacred Music seemed like a good opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama a few questions about music.

Although he consented to an interview, as I wait to speak with him at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, his assistant warns that the Dalai Lama may have little to say about music. I am advised to ask questions about the teachings earlier in the day, during which the Dalai Lama elucidated the nature of suffering and compassion.

I decide to stick to music.

The Dalai Lama has a reputation for friendliness, and he acts genuinely pleased to sit down to a conversation, despite having already spoken in public for several hours. The Kalachakra Initiation begins at 7 each morning, and it is now late afternoon. Still, the Dalai Lama appears fresh and composed, comfortable in his monk’s maroon and saffron robe, and rubber flip-flops. He expects no ceremony. We shake hands, sit on chairs and sofas. A translator joins us--the Dalai Lama speaks English but occasionally asks for help. Security personnel hover. There are others in the foyer in line for an audience, but the Dalai Lama seems unconcerned about scheduling and awaits each question patiently.

But, as advertised, he seems downright bemused by the nature of the interview. He says disarming things, and he laughs a lot.

Most striking, perhaps, is the Dalai Lama’s hesitation to put too much emphasis on a spiritual response to music and on its potential for engendering the kind of compassion that is at the heart of the Dalai Lama’s own worldview.


So why, if His Holiness is not particularly interested in music, a World Festival of Sacred Music?

“Music and songs, and of course different forms of art, including modern painting, I feel, are one sort of channel or medium to carry a message,” he concedes. “It is one way to deliver the message of peace to the public. And in the past the Tibet House in New Delhi has organized programs of spiritual music and dance that appeared to be of benefit. So this experience was the basis for the idea of a World Festival of Sacred Music. But still I don’t know exactly what kind of things will happen; I have no clear idea.”

But given his own participation in chanting, to say nothing of his own fond memories of the elaborate Tibetan holy festivities with music and dance from his youth (let alone a fascination with a music box that played Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”), might not His Holiness credit music with a more profound spiritual value as well? As one Indian philosopher put it, music calms the mind and makes it susceptible to divine influence. Would he agree?

“Broadly speaking, yes,” he answers. “Even though the words and meanings remain the same whether we chant prayers or not, a tune sometimes makes them more effective. Buddha himself noticed this, and that is why a Buddhist recites some prayers with chanting. So it is possible that there is a kind of psychological factor. And in other religious cultures, of course, there are close links between God or the divine and chanting or song.

“I remember on one occasion, I had an informal discussion with some Christian spiritual brothers. Then they started their prayers by singing a sort of hymn with a guitar. Some of the practitioners then began to weep. The feelings were so powerful that they were completely unable to control their tears.” An expressive speaker whose rich baritone voice is, dare we say, quite musical, he relates this anecdote with a real operatic display of astonishment.

Even so, the Dalai Lama is leery of our expectations for music. “I think there can be too much attachment to music as there can be to any other field, even religious faith,” he cautions. “Now, I’m Buddhist, but if I look toward Buddhism with attachment, that is wrong. Attachment means one is biased. You may think that if you attach yourself to a particular field that is good, it will become a positive thing for you. But too much attachment means that you reject something else, and then you have developed a negative attitude.


“Once during a meeting I had over many days with scientists from many disciplines, a great physicist mentioned in his talk that if a scientist develops attachment toward his field of science, then it becomes destructive. That was his explanation, and it stuck in my mind.”

While religion and science can clearly benefit from the objectivity of an unbiased mind, the Dalai Lama’s argument is one that few music lovers may want to acknowledge. But it brings us to the subject of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which opens the World Festival of Sacred Music. It is exalted music with a message of universal brotherhood. Yet the Nazis have been among those deeply devoted to the symphony, and they insisted it represented the holy nature of their cause. Could this be what His Holiness means about the danger of attachment?

“I’ve noticed this danger in martial music, too, with its heroic spirit,” the Dalai Lama replies. “If good kinds of emotions arise from music, that by itself is all right. But, yes, once somebody becomes too attached to the music, this negative aspect may also arise.”

Nevertheless, His Holiness has gone on record crediting music with the ability to accomplish nothing less than bringing together different cultures and increasing mutual understanding.

“That’s right, that’s right,” he acknowledges. “I feel the message of peace, the message of tolerance, the message of dialogue, the message of nonviolence, is very crucial and urgent. And if various artists through their own professions promote human values, that is very important. I think my own way of making a contribution through a public talk or, like today, through Buddhist texts is one way to do it, but this is very limited. Singers singing songs reach a much larger audience, so I always admire and respect their contribution and the powers of the media.”

Still, the Dalai Lama remains blissfully removed from the singers and their songs.

“In a hotel in Geneva,” he replies to a question about whether he hears much music at all, “I had just come out of my room, where I found a TV crew waiting to ask me about a famous singer who was also at the hotel--the name slips me. I have no interest in music, so there was no reason for me to know the singer. Then later they showed me on television saying I that I didn’t know who the singer was, even though there was a French Christian monk who actually visited the singer.”


The Dalai Lama laughs richly at this anecdote, but he also indicates that it disturbed him to seen as, in his word, crude. He does not want to appear indifferent to the efforts of others. “Through music or through songs, an awareness of the Tibet issue has reached thousands of people. So I certainly appreciate this.”

But the Dalai Lama also wants us to remember that the music will not make us better people or change the world. We must do that ourselves. We can learn from Beethoven’s Ninth, but will the experience at the Hollywood Bowl be transient or lasting?

Perhaps an inspirational address by the Dalai Lama, and music from different world sacred traditions that will precede the Ninth, can help free us from Beethovenian attachments--say, that the symphony must have this or that tempo or phrasing or balance--and can open us more directly to its potentially positive message.

And the Hollywood Bowl could be the ideal venue in which to prove it--that is, if the glow of brotherly and sisterly love withstand the parking lot.*