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Gyuto Monks bring Buddhist traditions to Laxson

By Maxwell Rowe, The Orion, Feb 28, 2007

Laxton, CA (USA) -- It is 1959. The Chinese have recently invaded Tibet, and Buddhism is being threatened for the first time since 779, when it became the state religion of Tibet. Gyuto, a large monastery of 900 monks founded in 1474, is in jeopardy.

Only 90 monks are able to follow the 14th Dalai Lama into exile. The Gyuto form a new home in Northern India. Refugees swarm to the location, and a new monastery is built in Dharamsala, India, housing 370 monks.

A daily tribute to the dali lama through chant and hymn, which can only be achieved by someone who has realized selfless wisdom, developed hundreds of years before the Chinese crackdown at the Gyuto Monastery. The tradition remains a daily ritual for Gyuto monks, but the origins of the highly developed chanting are a mystery.

Every day, morning to night, each monk would have different practices, tests and prayers, said Thupten Donyo, director of the Gyuto Center in San Jose and organizer of the Gyuto monks tour.

The monks sing an entire chord rather than a single note, and hidden under the notes is the sacred Tantric text, Donyo said.

In Buddhist tradition, if people are not initiated or empowered, they are not supposed to practice the Tantric text. The monks decided they would have to hide the words using different techniques, Donyo said.

"You don't know the words, but there are words - it's a technique of hiding words through this special vocal chanting," he said.

The group tours to promote the Tantric text and is raising money for the Gyuto Monastery in India and the building of a traditional monastery in the Bay Area. The monks spend three to four months in the United States before returning to the monastery.

A Harvard University professor first discovered the Gyuto monks' distinctive vocal style more than 25 years ago, Donyo said. The professor found that the monks could chant one or two notes at a time, and he recorded the exiled Tibetans.

He brought the recordings back to Harvard and played them for a committee, and the members could not believe that the recordings were of a human voice, Donyo said. Later the professor went back to India, did more recordings and shot photos, and showed them to Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead.

Hart was interested in the monks for their vocal capabilities and introduced them to the United States in the 1980s with a tour of eight monks. The tour has grown in scale and popularity, but the show remains the same.

"We never came here to show something new," Donyo said. "If people come or not, we're always doing the same thing in the monastery."

Donyo came to America in 1988 as a monk and has felt welcomed ever since, he said. The purpose of the tour is to provide insight on the monks' daily lives and to enlighten the audience.

"There is no way we can show all, but we want to show our 400 to 500-year-old history in a short piece," Donyo said.

The dali lama is the essence of the show and is highly revered by Tibetans, but he is not mystical.

"He is a Buddha of compassion in human form, not in a magical way - a regular person," Donyo said. "He is like you and me in our ordinary lives. As for Tibetans, he is very special."

Despite the average person not knowing the chants, the feeling of the various chords and hymns can be a positive experience for anyone, Donyo said.

"When we do these concerts and prayers, even though the audience doesn't know these prayers, we believe that if they even just hear the words they will benefit because it is not a new technique," he said. "These prayers are in benefit for all. It's not 'I wish I could be rich' - it's for the sake of all beings."


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