The chants in Sacred Chants are beautiful for some of the same reasons that so much great religious music is beautiful. They are direct and clear, elegant in their repetitions. They are free of clutter. You could say the same thing about lullabies and nursery rhymes, which leaves me wondering if, secretly, in our hearts of hearts, we worry that whatever inhabits the Great Beyond is a bit dumb, and if we don’t engage with it as simply as possible then it won’t understand what we’re saying.
Bokar Rimpoche was born in western Tibet in 1940. Four years later he was recognised as the reincarnation of an important Kagyu religious figure. ‘Rimpoche’, or ‘precious one’, is an honourific title given to a tulku—in other words, a lama who has decided to be repeatedly reborn until every sentient being has been delivered into a perfect state of nirvana. In Buddhist terms, the tulku is a self-sacrificing figure, a spiritually-designated nice guy and natural leader.
When he was 20, Rimpoche moved to India to escape the Chinese occupation of his native country. Arriving in West Bengal, he settled in an area called Mirik where he established first a meditation centre and then a monastery, the same one that appears in the title of this album. Later, he reached out to practitioners of Kagyu Buddhism overseas, helping them to find ways in which they could incorporate Buddhist practice into their daily lives, publishing books with titles like Day of Buddhist Practitioner, and Meditation Advice to Beginners.
He had some influence in the US and also in France. In 2006, two years after his death, the French filmmaker Guy Maezelle released a documentary film about him called Bokar Rimpoche: Maître de Meditation. This CD is an addendum to that film. It’s a soundtrack album without any of the things that soundtrack albums usually have. There is no incidental music, nothing that suggests title sequences or action. Instead, we have stretches of live chanting and prayers from Rimpoche and other Kagyu devotees, followed by a recording of a mass ceremony in honour of a protective dharmapala divinity named Mahakala. The ceremony starts with bells and horns and moves into more chanting. This track continues unbroken for almost half an hour. The purring groan of the enormous horns and the glittering chimes of the bells are intensely eerie, and then there is the gradual, heaving singing of the massed monks, an august sound.
The liner notes are trim, respectful, and concise, telling us what each track is about and giving us an idea of the history behind some of the chants. There’s an additional booklet as well, with photographs of Rimpoche and a full translation of a speech that we hear excerpted in the CD. “Not knowing what is true, ignorant of reality, we cling to a notion of ‘self’ and then cherish this ‘self’ egocentrically,” the translation states. “From such error comes attachment to oneself, loathing of others, pride, jealousy …” and so forth.
On the disc it sounds like a peaceful mumble. In fact, the whole album, aside from the horns and bells, is soothing and beautiful. In a four-part song called “Calling the Lama from Afar”, the voices of the four participants wash gradually forward and back like sluggish waves. Followers of Tibetan Buddhism should be pleased by this album, especially considering the regard in which Rimpoche is still held, but non-practitioners shouldn’t cut themselves off from it. It’s impressive, even if you don’t understand a word.