Friday, April 6, 2007
Article: Nawang Khechog
The Spirit of the Tibetan Flute
I met Nawang Khechog for the first time on a hot August day while attending the Tibet Festival in Seattle. But this was not my first encounter with the Tibetan musician because I experienced his spiritual teachings through listening to several of his universal music recordings and a lot can be conveyed through heartfelt music. I had also been informed of Khechog's travels with the Dalai Lama, his 11 years spent as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, in which several of those years, he spent as a hermit in a cave on the foot of the Himalayas.
Nor is the story of the plight of Tibet new to me. Since I am on a spiritual path myself, I often heard the wisdom of the 14th Dalai Lama. In the past, I saw a concert of Tibetan Buddhist monk choir and I had interviewed the Tibetan "Goddess of Song," Yungchen Lhamo as well as, listened to her compassionate music. Certainly my heart had already been opened to the Tibetan people, to the possibility of kindness in the world and the power of peace which might not have occurred if events had turned out differently. Meaning, what most of us see as a tragedy could in its own way, be a blessing for all humankind.
Nonetheless, 1959 proved a devastating year for the Tibetan people, when the Chinese government took control of and occupied the mountainous country. While some 80,000 Tibetans, including the Tibetan government with the 14th Dalai Lama escaped Chinese-occupied Tibet and found refuge in Dharamsala, India, millions of Tibetans were left behind. While some Tibetans live in exile, others suffered forced labor, loss of their spiritual practice, imprisonment and torture. But as the Dalai Lama's popularity rises internationally, we can hope that people seeking messages of peace from the Dalai Lama will also support the Tibetan people's quest for peace in their homeland. And liberation of all sentient beings on this planet.
Nawang Khechog and his family fled Tibet before the Chinese invasion occurred. At the age of 3, Nawang and his family traveled a treacherous journey on yaks that took 3 years to complete. Unfortunately, many of the members of Nawang's family perished in the heat of India. Inspired by the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama, Nawang devoted 11 years of his youth as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The Dalai Lama granted Nawang permission to spread universal peace, love and compassion through music.
Today, this former Tibetan Buddhist monk is married to his second wife, Tsering Youdon and he resides in Colorado. His music, which appears on several solo and collaborative albums acts as a prayer for peace. While Nawang has collaborated with the who's who of the international music community, was nominated for a Grammy for his collaboration, with R. Carlos Nakai, William Eaton and Will Clipman, (In A Distant Place, Canyon Records, 2001), and has appeared on stages all over the world, his greatest achievement is his role as an ambassador of kindness.
On the day of the Tibet Festival in Seattle, we experienced a scarcity of shade in front of the small outdoor stage where Nawang performed. Yet, crowds gathered, standing on both sides of the stage, people and trees swaying to the soft pulse of Nawang's flute. I chose to sit in the 84 degree sun remembering the healing power of Nawang's universal music. Gulls flew overhead and a breeze kicked up offering some relief from the summer heat.
Before Nawang began his set, Ex-TIPA Artists presented a Good luck dance called Tashi Shoelpa. The atmosphere charged with an electrifying energy often associated with shamanic rituals as a masked dancer followed the frenzied beat of a traditional drum and percussion. By the time Nawang took to the stage, the audience had been prepared for a sacred musical experience, not to mention a few moments of tranquility away from the usual daily grind.
In his short set of music, Nawang began with a prayer and performed on various instruments including a Tibetan longhorn, a Tibetan flute and a Native American flute. He also sang overtone chants, which are quite common in Tuva and Central Asia or with nomadic people in general. When he brought out the Native American flute, he explained that he adopted the flute because "I now live in this country," and the Native American flute represents his new home. Certainly he played the flute with as much spirit as Native American flutists. Besides, the Native American and the Tibetan people have much in common.
After Nawang finished his set of music, we headed over to a shady spot under a canopy of a large and generous tree. My interview with Nawang began with the basics, what are peace, kindness, compassion and understanding? After thoughtful silence, Nawang responded in a gentle voice.
"For this question, I will quote the Dalai Lama. What is peace? Peace is not just the absence of war. It is more than that. So I feel that is so true. It's about inside our heart, how the state of the human being's heart is. That is where peace really resides. Peace really lives in our heart. That is even if we are not making war outside, but if our heart is filled with jealousy, arrogance and hateful feelings then even war is not in active and the possibility for war is always there, the potential is always there.
So we need to transform the state of that--transforming with the mess we have in our heart, the hatred, anger, greed, jealousy, arrogance and fear. All these different things we have in our human heart. We need to transcend that we need to work with it through love, through compassion, through, and it matters too that they are from different religious traditions, spiritual traditions, how to transcend that, how to overcome that. How to really cultivate love and compassion."
Nawang isn't the only Tibetan musician in exile representing the teachings of the Dalai Lama, however, he has toured around the world with the Tibetan leader. So I asked Nawang about his friendship bond with the 14th Dalai Lama.
"The Dalai Lama is my sunshine, my inspiration, whatever all the good things I have achieved in my life is through the grace and kindness and wisdom of him. So I have such a great affinity with the Dalai Lama. And it's not just me, it's 6 million Tibetans. For us, he's the Pope, he's the sunshine, he's everything for us.
And I don't only see Tibetans, now it's like all over the world. When I go to South America, Europe, Asia, the United States or Canada, Australia, everywhere, people flock to see him. And I will be opening for the 14th Dalai Lama in Denver and also in Upstate New York. And I've done that many times before. So I get to see the crowd. (In one location), there was almost 100,000 people there. And most of them are not Tibetan. They're not even Buddhist. Mostly they are people looking for some message of peace, something spiritual for love and compassion. Those people come so I feel that the Dalai Lama is so important for the world, to really, truly inspire many people for peace."
During times of great turmoil on the planet, of changes and upheaval, war and uncertainty, what role can musicians play in bringing peace to the planet? How can musicians bring healing to places such as Lebanon or Iraq? And is it the musician's role to bring healing and peace?
"I feel that a musician has a great role to play in making peace because of simply, two reasons. Music already has a creative power. Creative energy is the most powerful because truth is there to transform anything and music is one of them. And the other is music is being a universal language for everybody. So therefore if you can utilize music as a truth to bring peace, to bring the message of love and compassion to the world. That is what John Lennon did. That kind of message of peace or like Bob Marley, what he did. So mainly the two big reasons are, first, music has creative power and second, music is a universal language. So we have this chance to spread the message to the people of all backgrounds."
Certainly, I can attest to the healing powers of Nawang's own music. However, how many musicians have spiritual training under their belt? How many have experienced the sacred or deep compassion welling in their hearts? How many musicians are conscious of the power of music, spiritual chants or otherwise?
Of course, one doesn't have to be a Buddhist or even Tibetan to feel the healing effects of Nawang's music. Through fate, Nawang has been embraced by popular culture having worked along with Brad Pitt on Seven Years in Tibet, appeared on albums by diverse artists as Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe, Laurie Anderson, Kitaro and R. Carlos Nakai, just to name a few. And those of us on a spiritual path have greatly benefited from Nawang's healing flutes as have large audiences around the world. Folksinger Joan Baez was deeply impressed after seeing Nawang performed that she penned a poem that appears on Nawang's Rhythms of Peace recording.
"I have known this through my own life experiences. I don't only have a Tibetan audience. I have a Tibetan audience, I have an American audience, I have a European audience, an African American and a Native American audience. And also the people that come to hear because it doesn't matter that I am a Tibetan. My music has the ability to talk to every kind of people. So therefore, definitely, musicians and artists have a great role to play."
I asked, "how for example can music play a role in healing say in the situation with the Lebanese and the Israeli war, the Americans in Iraq? How can we use music to heal these areas around the world with conflict? A lot of people think you have to protest and carry signs and things like that. They don't believe that meditation, prayer and music can make a difference."
"Well, I think that it is a lack of understanding of the power of religion, meditation, spirituality and how much it can truly bring to humanity. Unfortunately, people who have a lack of an understanding of that will say that this element has no power, but it has the power as I just mentioned the power of religion has the power to bring peace and it's the same thing through music, we can heal each other.
Again, great American musicians can go to Iraq and play and people will come and listen. Iraqi people can come here and great artists can play music. I know in Boulder when Iraqi and Iranian musicians play, people go to hear them so it transcends the fear so therefore it helps the feeling of closeness because of the breaking the cultural barriers. It helps to bridge the gap as well as, different music has a different element to heal to many people. Like sudden joyful music to heal the sadness and the wounds in people. And certain music can make people more calm and peaceful. They can find silence and centered-ness. So that is healing.
Music can also bring to the mind the elements of love and compassion. When people are reminded of love and compassion and this takes them through a journey of love and compassion through listening to that one song or 10 minute song or one-hour album or whatever that it is, it helps heal them. So definitely, they say that music has the power to heal humanity."
And if musicians have a responsibility to bring harmony to the planet, does this role begin in the studio? What sort of atmosphere does Nawang set in the studio when he records? Does he meditate or pray before recording his music?
"For me, when I am recording or doing a concert, I always manage to sit down in a quiet place and try to center myself, try to make my moderation correct so that I'm not just playing to inflame or enlarge my ego. We all have our own share of ego, everybody has. So I think that it's really important to not do it for your ego or yourself because by using good moderation you can do a spiritual performance where you can share something positive with the people, something hopefully that will make some difference, that will touch somebody's heart, so that they will feel more peaceful when they leave so there is something they are bringing through. So you know, moderate and also ask for a blessing the higher process."
This sounds like Saint Francis' prayer, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly."
Many Indigenous peoples from around the world have also suffered various types of oppression, lost their homeland and were forbidden to practice their religions. Is it a coincidence that Nawang would meet and befriend many indigenous people on his own musical and spiritual journey?
"When you record your albums, you have a very global sound. Someone might expect it to be just traditional Tibetan, but your sound is universal. You have all these connections with indigenous people. From Australia, don't you have a didgeridoo? You have an ocarina from Latin America. So you have all of these influences so what is your connection with all of these indigenous people?"
"When I lived in Australia, I met those Australian aborigines and I saw the aborigine culture and their sacred places there. I always felt very close to them. What I like the most about indigenous culture is their infinite respect towards the nature. They believe that they are not above nature, but part of the nature. I think if humanity could learn that wisdom from them, I think that we would all be much better. And we will be much better at taking care of our Mother Earth and nature. So I have a great respect in that way. And they are very peaceful, peace-loving communities. Unfortunately, other mobile forces came in and destroyed their culture and their livelihood.
It is the same thing happening in Tibet with the government of China. It's not the Chinese people, but the People's Republic of China that is doing that. Not all, but with some indigenous people, the government is doing the same thing, (that the Chinese government is doing), in Tibet… So this led me to meet certain indigenous artists, especially in the United States like R. Carlos Nakai. We have collaborated on several albums as well as, many concerts so I feel very close with him."
A gull hung out close behind Nawang so this brought up the question about the musical effect on the natural world. "I don't know if you are aware, but your music attracts nature."
Nawang laughed heartily.
So I continued discussing the connection between nature and music. "When I play indigenous music or your music, birds appear in my yard and they'll be singing then they will stop singing and they will listen. I believe it is the connection between humans and nature through music."
After Nawang finished laughing at my observation, he responded, "if there is a dog, human being or bird, all species appreciate peace, a peaceful feeling and if they can find that the peaceful feeling from any source, I think that they would appreciate it, I would say."
"And they give it to us too. I think of the peaceful feeling of singing birds."
"It is because of them that we are able to nurture our well-being. Without them, we would be in big trouble."
"I wouldn't say that the creatures are superior to us, but equal to us. They are wiser than they get credit and in the end, they possess much wisdom."
"Absolutely, we don't credit them enough. We do not appreciate nature enough, these other species around us who also help us nurture. One lady, I had at least an hour long chat who was an expert on worms. She told me about how much the worms are important in the agriculture because they make the soil very soft so that the plants grow properly. So I love and feel for worms, always, but then my respect grew and shot through the roof when I heard that. Because we never think about that."
Later that day, Nawang performed his music inside the Seattle Center House where the chatter and din of tourists and festival attendees created a drone behind, Nawang's flutes and longhorn. I enjoyed the performance and the peaceful feeling that filled my heart, but I much preferred Nawang's performance in the outdoor setting where people were more attentive to his message of kindness. In fact, I felt slightly annoyed at people for talking during a sacred musical performance. I realize that we were not sitting in a temple or cathedral, but I strongly felt that the attendees were ignoring Nawang's spiritual message. And yet, kindness seemed absent from my own heart.
Fortunately, Nawang gave a short kindness workshop to end a long day of activity. He brought up the story of the woman and her love of worms again. I was reminded of the mystic saint, Francesco of Assisi who would pick worms off of the road so that they would not get trampled upon. These small acts of kindness inspire us.
I reached the conclusion through reading the works of the great mystics and the 14th Dalai Lama as well as, listening to healing music, that consciousness does require connecting to all species and even connecting with music on the deepest level possible. Listening to Nawang Khechog's recordings takes us on that long journey straight to our hearts. I believe this is a journey we must take.
PLH (Written the summer of 2006)