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Global Music, Connecting Cultures Stories from the Rajasthani Road... from world music ensemble LIBANA

Deep Peace

USA | Monday, 4 April 2011 | Views [967]

Where we met with the Karmapa   (photo: Allison Coleman)

Where we met with the Karmapa (photo: Allison Coleman)

It was six weeks ago today. I am still not sure what led the ten of us to a private audience with His Holiness the Karmapa. It certainly was a total surprise, arranged by our guide Kunsang in Dharamsala. And it certainly was a gift.   

We found out about it the evening before we were to fly north to this mountain town. After having returned to Delhi just that afternoon from Gujarat for an overnight regrouping and repacking, I checked my email. We were all taken aback and somewhat stunned by this amazing email news. I mean, what an honor! That night, I sent out a blog entry called “Great News!”, so that our friends, family and followers back home could be with us in their hearts and spirit as we met with him. 

After the Kingfisher propeller plane landed on that cool, grey, almost misty afternoon at the small rural, lowkey airport in the foothills of the Himalayas, we found out that the Dalai Lama had just landed two hours before us on that same quiet airstrip. Earlier that week, when we arrived at Barefoot College in Rajasthan, we were told that the Dalai Lama had just visited there two days before us (all the welcome signs and special decorations were still up) and he had been in Jaipur just two days before we arrived there as well. We were unknowingly following in the path he was traveling, all the way through Rajasthan, across the north of India, and then up the twenty-mile-long, narrow, twisty mountain road that ascends from the airport to Dharamsala. The Chonor House (the Tibetan Guest House where we were staying) was a stone’s throw away from his residence and his Namgyal Temple. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if the Dalai Lama ever went out for a walk. Maybe I would see him out my window… 

After we settled into our gorgeous rooms with views out to the mountains and down to the surrounding valley, we met Kunsang for the first time to talk through how we were to spend our time together in Dharamsala. He welcomed each of us with a white scarf—aTibetan tradition. Since the first thing on the next morning’s schedule was our audience with the Karmapa, we dove right into what it would be like and what we should do and what to expect. We had so many questions—after all, none of us had ever met a Karmapa before! What would we wear? Who talks first? Not wanting to make a faux pas in any way, we tried to get the concept and Kunsang patiently answered all our questions. We then got a lesson in how to prostrate ourselves (what Tibetans and Buddhists traditionally do). It looked so fluid when Kunsang did it. And so respectful. And so Tibetan. I remembered a scene in the beautiful film Himalaya (which I have seen about six times and highly, highly recommend) in which the Tibetan nomads—while on their breathtaking and life-threatening annual trek with their yaks through the mountains to gather salt—cross paths with a group of Buddhist pilgrims who were also crossing the mountains on foot—prostrating every eight steps or so as part of their spiritual practice (I have read that the act of prostration reminds the Buddhist that she is not the most significant being in all of reality).

We all kind of surreptitiously glanced around, each of us sizing up who we thought would be physically able to do that at this stage in our lives. Having not grown up Tibetan, and no longer being 25 like Kunsang was (except for our extended family’s 15 year old and 23 year old traveling with us), my assessment was that even if we could make it down to the floor, none of our muscles were going to be quick and agile like they should be for a proper prostration!!! After we voiced this concern, Kunsang mulled it over and then said that he thought it would probably be fine if we just did the series of hand movements that preceded getting down on the floor on our stomachs…..His Holiness would probably be OK with that. 

Phew. Lucky thing. I sure didn’t want the ability or lack thereof to fluidly move from an upright position to flat on your stomach on the floor and quickly back up again in five seconds to make or break the opportunity for this special audience….. 

Over our first traditional Tibetan dinner (so different than Indian food) at a great local restaurant --complete with our first momo’s--we learned more. Kunsang had bought us the necessary ten special quality white scarves (each one of us would offer a scarf to the Karmapa upon entering the room, after whatever version of the hand movements or full floor dip we could manage). He thought there would likely be a translator. We were coached that one never turn’s one back on the Karmapa, so when we left the room we were to back out, with an honoring bow. By that time, we had all figured out what we were going to wear, and all that was left was to get a good night’s sleep. 

That didn’t happen for me. I was awake and asleep, awake and asleep all night. It felt appropriate to me, and to all of us, that as the founder and artistic director, I would be the one to speak and introduce Libana’s music and deeper mission. Even though it resulted in a restless night, it was a deep and illuminating inner process for me up there in the Himalayan mountains that night. The challenge of how I would succinctly verbalize to the third highest Lama in Tibetan Buddhism just what it is that Libana tries to offer the world was an opportunity worth losing sleep over. 

Morning came, and it was absolutely stunningly brilliant outside. The mist from the day before had cleared and it was as if the sun was shining extra light for us on this auspicious day. After driving in two vehicles for quite some time, we pulled off the main road into the Gyuto Ramoche Tantric University—temporary home to the Karmapa. Our breath was taken away by the beauty of the Temple building against the snow-covered mountain peaks—everything was sparkling in that clear light. I stepped out of the vehicle into this illuminated, rarified air. The vast, silent, sacred presence of those mountains was broken only by the sound of some young monks chanting above on a second floor balcony. After several moments taking in this sensory, spiritual energetic experience, several of us immediately climbed up the many steps to the Temple entrance. We had just been told that the monks had gathered to hold a special chanting meditation to disperse the negative energy that had built up due to the recent controversies and misreporting about the Karmapa. 

Inside the Temple   photo: Allison Coleman

We sat outside the open Temple entrance that had a green cloth sash across it, indicating that we should not enter. It was just us, except for a Tibetan woman offering her respect and reverence in the form of ongoing prostrations—up and down in front of the entranceway. Emanating from the Temple were the chants and drumming of the monks inside which we could glimpse only through a narrow space under the green sash. 

I was transfixed. I felt so honored to be sitting there. I could have sat there for the rest of time. 

But Kunsang had quietly come up the steps to gather us to go register for our audience. So down the steps we went, wrapped in the energy of what we had just experienced, and around to a side entrance where we entered a reception room filled with a mix of visiting Buddhist crimson-robed monks, a few Westerners, and the bustle of officials gathering passports, xeroxes of Indian visas, and our signatures on documents. Trays of Masala Tea and treats were brought in for everyone while we waited for the registration process to be completed. It was very convivial and friendly, and everyone was filled with a sense of anticipation. We were then asked to go outside and get into a security line. Once through, we climbed up four or five flights of stairs to a top floor outdoor balcony, where everyone stood in line waiting for their moment with the Karmapa. 

The line was moving pretty quickly, and most people were only spending a minute in the Karmapa’s special room—being ushered in and out by the attending monks. It seemed that we still had a ways to go when all of a sudden Kunsang and his ten American companions were summoned into the room.  Again, we were taken by surprise. It felt a little like we were cutting in line, but we were being asked to go, so in we went—with me at the head of the line. 

I expected that he would be seated, but instead he walked towards me with an air of seriousness and depth, and yet welcoming. My hands moved as they had been taught, palms pressed together with thumbs tucked in, from my crown chakra to my third eye to my throat chakra and then to my heart center. He smiled and gave a subtle gesture communicating that it was totally unnecessary to end up on the floor. I offered him my white scarf which he ritualistically took and then placed it back around my neck. I moved on into the room, and turned to witness everyone else’s moment of blessing with the Karmapa. It was all so spacious and kind. Cheryl and Alan’s son Jared had brought some prayer beads, hoping that the Karmapa would bless them—which he graciously did. Eventually we were all seated, graced with a blessed white scarf around our necks. 

We had talked about it earlier, and we knew that we wanted to offer him a song after I spoke. Which song to sing would be spontaneously chosen by me, as I assessed the energy of the moment. The Karmapa never spoke. His presence was strong and clear and focused and kind, and after a moment of shared silence, I spoke to him about Libana. 

The translator never needed to speak a word. The Karmapa seemed to understand all levels of what I was saying. When I was done, I said that we would like to sing him a song, and asked if that would be welcomed. He gave a nod, and in that peaceful room with my singing sisters and extended families, in the presence of such a being, surrounded by the still power of those mountains illuminated by the full strength of the sun, the only song that felt appropriate to sing was Deep Peace—a beautiful setting by Boulder, CO composer Bill Douglas of an ancient Gaelic blessing. A song we have ended many a concert with over the years. 

Deep peace of the running wave to you,

Deep peace of the flowing air to you,

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,

Deep peace of the shining stars to you,

Deep peace of the gentle night to you,

Moon and stars pour their healing light on you,

Deep peace to you. 

As we sang, we all felt him receive it increasingly deeply; his eyes were closed and his breathing was deep, centered, and peaceful. In that moment, we were singing it for him, for our community of Libana, for the Earth, for our world, for our shared humanity. This song we have offered to so many in concerts across the United States was now vibrating out into the Himalayas and beyond, as we offered it in the enlightened spiritual presence of the Karmapa. 

In the silence that followed, it was clear that there was nothing more that needed to be said or done. He eventually stood up, and we followed suit. We were pulling our personal bags together, when one of us remembered that you could request a photo be taken, so we gathered with him in the front of the room for our memorable photo opportunity. 

Then, as we began walking towards the door, we all simultaneously remembered Kunsang’s coaching—never turn your back towards the Karmapa. Of course Kunsang glided gracefully backwards with all the practiced finesse of his ancestors within him. But the rest of us spun around in an abrupt, awkward 180 degree turn and started backing up across the room towards the door, the ten of us attempting to funnel into one small doorway—all juggling our bags and bowing and glancing over our shoulders and bumbling and bumping into each other. It was very comical, and he clearly thought so too. The smiling and nearly chuckling Karmapa motioned for this group of Americans to dispense with the formality and just be on our way. 

After our audience with the Karmapa  photo: Jared Weber Mattes

I am still not sure why it all happened. But it lives within me every day. 

Sue

 

 

 

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