In a nation where political and religious leaders draw the line between good and the "axis of evil," it can be tough to grasp the central tenets of Buddhism: non-duality (the fundamental interconnectedness of everything), compassion (kindness toward all sentient beings), and emptiness (the elimination of longing). But Americans are ultimately a curious lot, willing to consider and occasionally embrace spiritual ideas that catch their fancy.
In the 1950s and '60s, the Beats, the Beatles, and the hippies turned American pop culture on to the Buddhist beliefs and meditation approaches of India and Japan. Since the mid-'80s, the religion has moved into the spotlight via celebrity endorsements and "Free Tibet" work from the likes of Hollywood heartthrob Richard Gere and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart; the average stateside path-seeker now knows about Tibet's half-century struggle to safeguard its ancient traditions from ongoing Chinese persecution. In this same period, the country's exiled Gyuto Monks, who practice a rare form of sacred tantric chant, have been courting Western audiences with acclaimed national tours and a handful of notable CDs.
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Though cymbals, bells, hand drums, and trumpets occasionally augment the mix, the monks' prayer-songs are chiefly powered by the human voice. Similar to the popular throat-singers of Tuva, a single Tibetan monk can create two or three notes at once: a primary tone in the lowest imaginable register topped by higher-pitched overtones. A room full of singers chanting a sober melody creates a mesmerizing resonance capable of transporting even the most die-hard heathen. Despite the foreignness of the choir's vocalizations, the music evokes feelings of warmth, peace, and unity. In fact, the liturgical celebrations aim to summon benevolent spirits to ease the world community onto the road of enlightenment. When the Gyuto Monks sing, the walls come crashing down.