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On a Sunday night a few weeks ago, on a section of 18th Street between the Mission and the Castro, 10 people remove their shoes in the foyer of artist Karma Moffett's studio. The performance space/art gallery looks like a shaman's workshop -- richly colored overlapping carpets cover the floor; the amber glow of candlelight is reflected in a decorative crystal chandelier hanging from the rafters; and we are surrounded by yak bells and tattered Sherpa prayer flags. On the walls hang Moffett's psychedelic oil paintings of clouds and ocean waves, spiraling around orbs of light. And on the floor sit seven gleaming golden bowls. Or, as Karma Moffett calls them, "Tibetan Tupperware."
Moffett, 57, greets people at the door with a warm smile, directing them toward a set of couches covered with rugs and woven blankets. A broad-shouldered hippie with a gray ponytail and goatee, Moffett is dressed entirely in white, his feet bare. When everybody has settled in -- one man adopts the lotus position, as if meditating; another wraps a fuzzy blanket around his head to keep warm -- Moffett sits in front of us. "I'm going to show you the moment," he promises. "That crack between yesterday and tomorrow. At that moment, there is a vibration. It's the vibration of the moment. It's only when you discover the moment that you can let go and forgive."
"This is so cool," enthuses a thirtysomething man sitting on the ground. "Or -- I should say warm." Moffett smiles at him beatifically.
Over the last eight years, Moffett has been showing people the vibration of the moment through what he calls the Tibetan Bell Experience. For 90 minutes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, and for a donation of $15 cash (checks reluctantly accepted), Moffett rings antique Tibetan hand bells, knocks Tibetan metal bowls, and employs other exotic instruments to produce a resonant, mysterious musical composition. Part New Age concert, part Buddhist meditation session, the Tibetan Bell Experience is, Moffett tells the group, a "ceremony," not a "performance."
Sitting cross-legged, Moffett blows prettily on a long, black Native American flute, which he begins with "in recognition of an eagle I used to ring bells for." He then moves to a pair of Tibetan cymbals, waving his arms like a bird flapping its wings in slow motion. As he rubs the cymbals together, then bangs them, he creates surprising plopping noises -- like stones being thrown into a creek. When he begins hitting his Tibetan bowls, they make an ominous hum -- resonating at different frequencies Dog Bites can feel in our solar plexus, as if a plane had created a sonic boom while taking off from SFO. Despite the loudness of the instruments, they are somehow soothing. A large man in an oxford shirt places his head on a pillow on the couch and falls asleep, breathing loudly.
Moffett, whose birth name is Richard Bruce Moffett, hasn't always been a bell-ringer. He hitchhiked from Maryland to San Francisco in 1973 and sat out in front of Macy's with a sign that said "Artist needs glasses," trying to sell his surrealistic pencil drawings. (He had lost his glasses on the trip cross-country.) When somebody gave him a Tibetan bell, he broke it, hitting it with a stick at Baker Beach. Then he was given an antique bell by an older woman who desired his young form. He rejected the woman but kept the bell, and began collecting others, along with Tibetan bowls. "I used to walk to the beach. And I asked the Great Spirit, 'What do I do with this adventure?'" says Moffett of his early days in San Francisco. "And the bells came. I became a bell-ringer."
He befriended Tibetan exiles in San Francisco and discovered Tibetan Buddhism, helping to build both the now-defunct Jewel of Tibet shop on Polk Street and the still-extant Tibet Shop at 19th and Castro. Moffett has never visited Tibet, however, in part because he is afraid he "looks too much like Richard Gere." (Gere's film Red Corner, which was critical of the Chinese justice system, made him unpopular with the Chinese authorities.) Rather, Moffett lets Tibet come to him. In 1976, a visiting Tibetan Buddhist lama bestowed on him the name Karma Sherab Dhonden ("possessor of meaningful wisdom"), after Moffett vowed to surrender his ego.
"I was a bit arrogant," admits Moffett.
In some ways, Moffett's karma has been quite good. He is a Vietnam vet, who -- amazingly -- describes his 1969 tour of duty as an "incredibly pleasant" year of snorkeling on the beach and hanging out with a Vietnamese girlfriend. In other ways, it's been less so: When he opened up his studio, it was as a gallery that would sell his cloud paintings; they never took off. It was only when he created the Tibetan Bell Experience that people began to pay, often forking over extra cash at the end for one of his CDs. Occasionally, somebody will also hire him to perform a sort of musical exorcism, in which bowls are laid on the person's body and rung. But mostly, they come for the show.