By Mark Guarino
They do not perform for your pleasure. They will not perform the entirety of their repertoire. They do not understand how they do what they do.
These are the inevitabilities when the performers are Buddhist monks performing an ancient form of prayer in front of a Western audience. Although the sacred chanting of the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir has been in practice since the 15th century, it only reached western ears in the mid-1980’s thanks in large part to Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead who hosted their first U.S. performances and enabled their earliest recordings. On this recent concert tour, which arrives at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park Saturday and is sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music, the choir will perform liturgical chants rarely heard in the West and in a style that is mysterious even to the individuals practicing it.
“Sometimes we don’t know how to explain ourselves. (The chanting) is not easy. The tradition comes from years and years back. Sometimes the West can explain ourselves better,” said Thupten Donyo, a monk of the Gyuto order and the tour organizer.
On tour, the monks work as an ensemble of twelve. The chants are a form of meditation, which becomes obvious upon first listen. Emanating from the lowest of registers (women do not chant for physical reasons), the choir imbues deep bass notes in a steady rhythm and in unison. In time, their voices interweave into variations, swelling to create the impression they are singing entire chords at once. Depending on the devotion, there can be the accompaniment of horns and cymbals, breaking through the voices like a thunderclap. The music is solemn but otherworldly.
It is also purposely mysterious. Although they are chanting words, the monks transform them into tones as is customary when performing them in public, Donyo said. “It is secret chanting,” he said. “You don’t hear the meanings, you only hear the voice. The words are deep and the Tantric practice is sacred. We’re not supposed to show or tell them.”
The Gyuto order comes from the Gyuto Tantric Monastic University, founded in 1474 in Tibet. When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, the monasteries were dismantled and one-tenth of the 900 monks fled to India where they re-established their monastery. Due to the flood of evacuees from their former country, the monastery outgrew its facilities. Today, with the Chinese continuing to claim sovereignty over Tibet and the Dalai Lama in permanent exile, the Gyuto’s university is located in Dharamsala, in northern India.
The chanting is an oral tradition that requires the discipline of throat manipulation and the memorization of 1,400 pages of liturgical text. The calling starts young and not many finish. Donyo, 46, grew up in Nepal. When he was 12, he told his parents he wanted to attend the monastery. Despite his efforts, he soon realized he was not suited physically for the regimen.
“I’m not good,” he said with a laugh. “I may not have the right karma even though I try hard.”
Donyo spoke no English when he arrived in the U.S. in 1988 as a part of a contingent of monks invited here by Hart, who heard recordings of the choir a few years earlier and insisted on giving them exposure in the West. They recorded chants in L.A. that were used in the Brad Pitt film “Seven Years in Tibet.” Donyo then attended a monastery in Australia where he learned English. He returned to the U.S. to help set up the Gyuto Vajrayana Center in San Jose, Ca.
The monks are well aware of the unusual circumstances of performing sacred texts to secular audiences. Before the Chinese invasion, public performances were prohibited, so these recent tours have been modified so as to not fully replicate how the chants are performed in private.
The tours are seen as a new way to promote the Tibetan cause and to raise money for the San Jose monastery — the only one of the Gyuto tradition in the U.S. — that will include a temple and classrooms. On May 6, the choir will return to Chicago accompanying a visit by the Dali Lama. Donyo, who has never stepped on Tibetan soil, said the cultural preservation is urgently needed, especially at a time when there is difficulty recruiting a younger generation of monks.
“We are happy to perform around the world. The world cannot see what the Tibetan culture and traditions are there because there are no places for tourists to go other than India,” he said. “We represent who we are.”