One night in 1433, the Tibetan lama Je Tzong Sherab Senge awoke from a startling dream. In it he had heard a voice unlike any voice that had ever sounded on the planet. It was a low voice, unbelievably deep, sounding more like the growl of a wild bull than anything human. Combined with this first voice, there was a second. This voice was high and pure, like the sound of a child singing. These two voices, so totally different, had come from the same source and that source was Je Tzong Sherab Senge himself.
In this dream, Je Tzong Sherab Senge had been instructed to take this special voice and use it for a new chanting style that would embody both the masculine and feminine aspects of divine energy. It was a tantric voice, a sound that could unite those chanting it in a web of universal consciousness.
The next morning, Je Tzong Sherab Senge began to chant his daily prayers. The sounds that came out of him were the sounds he had heard in his dream — unearthly sounds, tantric sounds — and he gathered his fellow monks together to tell them of his dream.
That year, more than 500 years ago, the Gyume Tantric Monastery began in Lhasa , Tibet . The monks of this monastery learned to chant in the same voice which Je Tzong Sherab Senge had heard in his dream. It was a voice that enabled each monk to chant three notes at the same time, creating ‘One Voice Chords’. Within that same century, another monastery in Lhasa , the Gyuto Tantric College , was founded. The monks at this fellow Tantric College also incorporated this chanting technique in their sacred rituals.
In 1950 China invaded Tibet . Certain monks escaped to India , where they continued their tantric rituals. Their spiritual activities remained esoteric, but certain teachers of religion and ethnomusicology were finding their tantric rituals somewhat more accessible. These scientists and scholars would come back to the West with reports of a remarkable chanting technique utilized by the Gyume and Gyuto monks.
One of the most startling descriptions of Tibetan chanting came from Dr Huston Smith, a Tibetan scholar, who reported in the film Requiem for a Faith:
They discovered ways, we still don’t know how, of shapmg their vocal cavities to resonate overtones to the point where these became audible as distinct tones in their own right. So each lama thus trained could sing chords by themselves. They are singing D, F~ and A simultaneously. The religious significance of this phenomenon derives from the fact that overtones awaken numenous fields, sensed without being explicitly heard. They stand in exactly the same relationship to our hearing as the sacred stands to our ordinary mundane lives. Since the object of worship is to shift the sacred from peripheral to focal awareness, the vocal capacity to elevate overtones from subliminal to focal awareness carries symbolic power. For the object of the spiritual quest is precisely this; to experience life as replete with overtones that tell of a reality that can be sensed but not seen, sensed but not said, heard but not explicit.
The tantric chanting Dr Smith is describing cannot adequately be described in words; it must be experienced in order to be understood. To hear the monks chant in their growling voices, with the seemingly falsetto overtones accompanying, is one of the most powerful sonic experiences imaginable.
Musicologists later determined that the bass note which the Gyuto monks chant is two octaves below middle C, vibrating at an astounding 75.5 cycles per second. The deepest range of an opera singer is closer to 150 cycles per second, nearly twice as high as the extraordinary bass of these monks. This first note seems to be a sub-harmonic or an undertone of a note that is an octave below the fundamental tone. The monks also create another very distinct note, a harmonic which is two octaves and a third higher than that bass note, making a D#. The 5th and the 10th harmonics are also pronounced but less distinct. The Gyume monks create a different distinct ‘second voice’ in their chanting, a harmonic which is two octaves and a fifth higher than their lowest note, making an F#.
The Gyuto monks practise the ‘mdzo skad’ or ‘voice of the hybrid yak-bull’. This enables soloists to sing in parallel thirds. The Gyume monks practise the ‘gshin rje’i ngar skad’ or ‘roaring voice of the Slayer of the Lord of Death’. Solo chanters can sing by themselves in parallel fifths using this voice.
In Tibetan tantric chanting the goal of the chanting is to invoke and then unite with a particular deity or being. The monks literally become the gods and goddesses to whom they are praying. It may be that the overtones which are pronounced by the different Tantric Colleges are specific invocations to particular entities.
The exact reason why the monks of the Gyume and Gyuto monasteries use the voice given to Je Tzong Sherab Senge remains a mystery. But there are a number of theories. As Dr Huston Smith suggested, the monks may use this voice to shift their awareness from the mundane to the spiritual. The Abbot of the Gyuto Monastery indicated that the voice was utilized in order to represent the masculine and feminine aspects of Yama, the Slayer of Death. Another source claims that the voice was created in order to disguise the words of the sacred text being chanted. Dr Alfred Tomatis, an otolaryngologist from France who has studied chanting throughout the world, believes that due to the high altitude of Tibet it was necessary to chant in the extremely deep voice in order to create higher overtones. Ethnomusicologist Peter Michael Hamel suggests that the voices are utilized to affect the chakras of the monks.
Terry Jay Ellingson has done extensive research into Tibetan chanting styles. In The Mandala of Sound he writes of the Gyume Tantric College:
All monks are required to learn and use this special voice; perhaps somewhere over sixty percent were able to do so (it was said that those who couldn’t just ‘sang quietly’). Several reasons are given for its use: First, it masks the words of the text from uninitiated listeners. Second, the simultaneous presence of several pitches in the sound creates the acoustic effect of transforming words into the three ritually important mantras Om Ah Hum, an explanation lent credency by Western acoustic analysis. Third, the special breathing technique, requiring conscious coordination of abdominal and diaphragm muscles and the resonating cavities of throat and head, may relate to Tantric meditation and yoga, which emphasizes coordination of ‘wheels’ or chakras in these body areas via breath related energies. Fourth, this style of voice produced is symbolically associated with ‘Rdo rje ‘Jigs byed’, the special Yi dam deity of the Lower Tantric College. Since he represents Buddhist teaching and practice in the form in which it ‘slays’ Death and since Tantric practice aims at realizing the presence of the deity in one’s own self, chanting with ‘his’ voice helps to develop qualities that allow one to overcome death. On a more phenomenal level, since he is visualized with a bull’s head (the South Asian water buffalo), the sound of the chanting is ‘like a bull’.
Comparisons are often made between the ‘One Voice Chord’ of Tibetan chanting and the hoomi or throat-singing style found in the Tuvic region of Mongolia. This is natural since these two traditions are foremost in their use of harmonics as an integral part of their sacred sounding.
The ‘Kargiraa’ style of Mongolian overtone chanting is characterized by an extremely low fundamental pitch sung with much resonance deep in the chest. Using vowel sounds, singers produce the low pitch and create harmonics two and a half to three and a half octaves above that note. The major difference between the Tibetan chanting style and Mongolian overtone singing is that the Tibetans incorporate the use of sacred text in their chanting while the Mongolians create wordless melodies with their harmonics.
There is conjecture by some researches that the ‘One Voice Chord’ may have developed from the Mongolian style of harmonic chanting. Tibetan Buddhist monks and monasteries were present in Mongolia until the late 1920s. There is also other research to suggest that the Tibetan chanting style may have developed from the Bon tradition.
Before Buddhism became the religion of Tibet, the religion of the country was an animistic shamanic practice known as ‘Bon’ (a Tibetan word meaning ‘to chant’). Little information exists about the exact nature of the Bon chanting techniques, but there are indications that it was similar to chanting styles utilized by Mongolian shamans in which open vowels were used to create harmonics.
According to Terry Jay Ellingson, in The Mandala of Sound, the Bon chanting style ‘seems to have made use of sound modification based upon vowel changes in sequence of meaningless syllables — that is, it may have included tone— colour elements similar to those found in modern Buddhist chants’.
Padmasambhava, the Tibetan spiritual figure who initiated Buddhism into Tibet in the ninth century, wrote in one of his sacred Buddhist texts: ‘Vocalize with the chanting style of the earlier Holy Ones, the Bon, the clear high voice that is produced in a low place, like the black dog’s barking.’
This sounds like a description of a chanting style in which high overtones are created from a deep fundamental. Padmasambhava warned that chanting in the ‘One Voice Chord’ without creating words invoked the voice and energies of the Bon. He gave instructions to the Tibetan followers of the Tantric tradition that the chanting style of the Bon was accessible as long as the purity of the holy words was not lost. Without chanting of the sacred scriptures, the sound degenerated into the wordless, melodic chant of the Bon magical tradition.
When the Gyuto monks were touring the United States in 1985, I talked with the head Abbot of the Gyuto Monastery and played a recording of the Harmonic Choir for him. This New York-based group sings wordless melodies created by emphasizing the harmonics found in the vowels they chant. As he listened to the recording, the abbot seemed amused. After the recording was over, he said: ‘Very interesting, but where are the words?’ It was later that I realized that the sounds he had heard may have seemed much like the meaningless chanting of Bon shamans to him.
Tibetan chanting employs mantric formulas which make up their sacred texts. These are mantras which are fundamental to their spiritual practices. Each sacred scripture is an invocation to a specific deity or a collection of deities. The chanters visualize these deities while creating a mandala, a circular cosmological painting which they inwardly visualize in archetypal symbols. These mandalas may involve over 150 deities and entities, all in specific placement. This combination of vocalization and visualization allows the monks to become the embodiment of the energies they are invoking.
The Tibetan Buddhist path to self-realization involves the understanding of the Three Mysteries. These are the Mysteries of Body, Speech and Mind, whose experience has been condensed into the mantric formula OM-AH- HUM . Speech is the interconnector between the Mind and the Body. Speech is the understanding of sound as the creative force and incorporates the knowledge of using mantra as a sacred tool for summoning up the appearance of gods and the forces of the universe. Through the creation of several tones at the same time, the ‘One Voice Chord’ may be a further condensation of the Three Mysteries into an expression of Body, Speech and Mind as pure tone.
How the Gyuto and Gyume monks create the remarkable sound of the ‘One Voice Chord’ remains a mystery. As I have described, I had the opportunity of spending time with monks from both the Gyuto and Gyume Tantric universities when they separately toured the United States in 1985 and 1986. Despite my best efforts, the monks would not divulge information about their chanting techniques. I had not been initiated into their teaching and was therefore unable to receive this information.
Sometimes when the knowledge is not known, the theories become extreme. A guide who was travelling with the Gyuto monks told an interested group of people at a performance that the monks were able to develop their technique by attaching a piece of meat to a string and swallowing it. The monks would then practise chanting with the meat in their throats. A year later someone who had heard the story asked the abbot of the Gyume Monastery about this. Hearing the question from the interpreter, the monks burst into laughter. The abbot replied that it was not a matter of swallowing meat. It was a matter of practice.
Practice was something I had tried for some time in order to gain the Tibetan ‘One Voice Chord’, but it had not seemed to work. I had been fascinated by the extraordinary sound since I had first heard it years before, but nothing I had tried seemed to be effective in allowing me to create the same sounds. I had strained my vocal cords attempting to learn the technique, but to no avail. I had even tried whistling while toning a deep sound. The ‘One Voice Chord’ would not come no matter what I did.
One night, it was my privilege to record the Gyume monks in a recording studio for the first time in history. I went home that night with a cassette of these sacred chants. After listening to these ‘Tantric Harmonics’ for some time in my meditation room, I fell asleep.
The next morning when I awoke, the sounds of the monks were reverberating within me. As I often did, I attempted to duplicate this sound. This time, however, instead of a halfhearted sound, the ‘One Voice Chord’ emerged from my throat. It has been with me ever since, but though I can create it, I cannot tell you exactly how I am able to make this sound. Peter Michael Hamel, in Through Music to the Self writes of the Tibetan ‘One Voice Chord’:
It should be stressed that this remarkable sound is in no sense vocal acrobatics; rather, the chords are produced when the structural connection of sound, breathing and mind is transformed by the performance of the sadhana. (Sadhana’ is the recitation of a meditation during which the adepts uniie with during with the deity they are invoking.)
In The Mandala of Sound, Terry Jay Ellingson writes of the Tibetan chanting technique:
It seems to be produced by a special method of tensing some throat muscles while relaxing others to allow very low frequency, high amplitude vibrations of the vocal cords when strong breath pressure is applied by special coordination and effort of upper and lower body muscles.
While I am adept at giving instruction on other methods of harmonic chanting, the Tibetan ‘One Voice Chord’ is not something I have thus far taught via technique. I create a growl-like sound at the back of my throat, as deep and as low as possible without strain. My vocal cords are very relaxed. If there is any constriction in the throat, the sound stops there. In order to properly create the Tibetan voice, I next project the sound as deeply as I can into my diaphragm and lung area. It sometimes feels like the sound is reaching all the way to my stomach. I believe this is how the sub-harmonic, that tone an octave below the fundamental, is created. The sound comes up from the deepest part of my diaphragm and reaches my throat again. I then tense my cheeks and purse my lips as the voice comes out of my mouth.
The voice appears to be a gift I received by being with the monks. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said to be the result of making an offering to the Buddha on a conch shell in a past life. I do not know. In my own dreams, I recall a meeting with the monks in which I was given the voice. During this dreamtime experience, I was told never to misuse the voice for ego or attention. It is perhaps an extraordinary example of ‘Harmonic Transmission’, a musical power that is transferred directly to a student due to being in the vibratory presence of an expert.
Later I discovered that the way the Tibetan monks learned to create this voice was by being in the presence of other monks who already had the voice. Perhaps this is the way the voice has been passed down since Je Tzong Sherab Senge first heard it in a dream 500 years ago.
Part of the methodology in the Tantric Colleges for teaching the ‘One Voice Chord’ is to have the younger monks chant with the older monks who have developed this voice.
Through association, they are able to learn to project sound to the deepest part of the lungs and the diaphragm. Then, if their throat chakras are sufficiently opened, they can begin to establish this sound.
As Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University has stated:
The young monks sing with a master, learning to imitate his sound. However, it is not considered possible to achieve the technique mechanically. They train simultaneously in all aspects of the dharma. The particular realization which makes multi-phonic singing possible is the meditation on selflessness. Only those who have reached a certain stage in this meditation can become open enough to be vessels of this sound. The sound is produced by persons, who while present, are aware on a level in which they are not present. The sound is coming through them and not from them.
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