Estrel Convention Center,Berlin
7th June, 2014
The programme this evening included a reflection on developing inner peace by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa and three performances from very different musical genres.
The evening began with a performance of four pieces by the celebrated Chinese dissident, Liao Yiwu. He spent four years in prison, where he was tortured and physically abused. He was finally able to escape to the West in 2011 and now lives in Berlin.
Liao used a combination of vocals, bamboo flute, wooden abacus and metal bowl-shaped temple bells to improvise. The first and last pieces were interpretations of the 17th Karmapa’s ‘Sweet Melody of Joyful Aspiration’, a long poem which His Holiness composed during his escape from Tibet to India. The first piece was a wordless composition called ‘The Song of Hope’. Liao combined the chanting and howling of ‘Ho’ associated with Chinese religious ritual, while strumming the beads of a wooden abacus, which he held like a guitar, and was accompanied by Marcus Hagerman on the cello. The second piece, called ‘The Seesaw of Breathing’ began with a melodious solo on the bamboo flute and cello accompaniment. This was followed by ritual ‘howling’ of the words ‘was a slogan’. The title for the piece comes from a novel by Herta Müller, the Romanian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. The book tells the story of the German-Romanians transported under the Russian Communists to Soviet work camps.
The third piece was an impressionistic and fascinating cacophony. Liao moved easily from one instrument to another, in a combination of tones, disharmonies and rhythms.
Called ‘Yellow River’, the final piece was an improvisation using flute, abacus and bowls on music written by His Holiness.
Having thanked Liao and Marcus, His Holiness joked, “I don’t know how to play any music, and I don’t know how to sing, so I have nothing to do. Perhaps I can hoo, hoo, ho,” he laughed, singing a couple of bars of music in imitation of Liao Yiwu’s genre.
The topic for His Holiness’ address was to be “Developing Inner Peace”.
Historically, in Tibet, the Karmapas are renowned for their artistic talent. They have composed liturgies with music, produced beautiful calligraphies, crafted Buddhist images, and even founded a school of painting known as the Karma Gadri. The 17th Karmapa stands firmly in this artistic tradition. He began by describing his own interest in various art forms: calligraphy, drawing and painting, composing music, playing musical instruments, and theatre. Then, speaking very frankly ,he related how through these arts, he derived strength and peace of mind during troubled times. Sharing his personal experiences once again, he afforded his audience an insight into his own inner life and the struggles he has faced.
His Holiness spoke of how he calmed his own mind when he faced obstacles: “If I can draw or paint, I can see the result, bring something to completion”. Thus, when difficulties arose, he had discovered a way to lift his spirits and calm his mind by completing an achievable task.
Whatever we do, he advised, should be natural and spontaneous, uninhibited like a young child. This is especially true when we want to help others; our compassion and loving kindness should arise naturally and spontaneously, even though this might mean that sometimes we will face rejection when we were only trying to help. On the other hand, too much thinking and conceptualisation can interfere when we try to help people; natural spontaneity is very important in expressing our innate love and compassion.
Now it was His Holiness’ turn to perform as part of the programme of cultural events.
He announced that he would recite the Seven Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche, and instructed the audience to meditate during the chanting. Those who didn’t know how to meditate, should simply breathe and let their minds relax.
There followed the most moving and extraordinary performance of them all, as His Holiness the 17th Karmapa extemporised to produce a new melody for chanting both the Seven Line Prayer and Guru Rinpoche’s mantra ‘OM AH HUM BENZE GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUM’. His rich baritone filled the auditorium, increasing in power as the melody formed. There was total stillness in the hall as the Karmapa’s voice rose and fell—one of the most profound moments in his European tour. Within hours, it was posted on YouTube and had gone viral on Facebook.
Buddhism for the 21st century has been one of the themes of this tour, and the next performer meets this need in a rather different way. Dechen Shag Dagsey, a Tibetan who has lived in Switzerland since 1963, wore a fashionable Khampa-style chuba, with the sleeves tucked into a wide brocade belt, and traditional Tibetan jewellery – two necklaces, one of huge beads of amber, one of turquoise.
“My heart is filled with joy and happiness that His Holiness the 17th Karmapa is here in Europe and that I am able to perform these mantras for him,” she said.
The first song was her own version of OM AH HUM BENZE GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUM, sung in traditional Tibetan style. Her clear, plangent voice filled the auditorium in a haunting melody evocative of the vast plains and Snow Mountains of Tibet.
Dechen is known for transforming traditional mantras into new settings, especially using electronic music in the backing. She sang her next piece, the ‘Hundred Syllable Mantra to Vajrasattva’, in a mix of contemporary styles. Strongly committed to preserving Tibetan culture in the West, she has tried to make it more accessible to the younger generation by using modern, up-beat melodies, in a fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions.
Her third contribution was a rendition of the Refuge Prayer, which switched between Sanskrit and Tibetan, with varying melody and rhythm.
The final performer was Jan Blumenroth. Kneeling on the stage, his knees splayed like a rock star, and hugging the microphone tightly to his chest, he sang his own version of ‘Karmapa Khyenno’. With a strong beat and elements of rap and rock, this was a very unusual rendition, but also the one most appreciated by younger people in the audience.
They are the future, so it was appropriate that the concert finished with a musical form they could relate to.