I think there are a lot of misconceptions in society in general about what actually brings happiness, we’re caught up in all these ideas that having a lot of money or having somebody beautiful to have sex with or having some cool objects, having a cool car, cool stereo or whatever is gonna make us happy. And those things actually don’t bring us happiness. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about how compassion or altruism actually brings a person happiness and I think that’s a lot of what’s trying to be put forward through the concerts and it seems like the optimum way to put those ideas forward is through helping the Tibetans gain their freedom because those values are so inherent within Tibetan culture.
—Adam Yauch (1964-2012), MCA of the Beastie Boys, from the Frontline report “Dreams of Tibet”
Yauch, best known by his rap moniker MCA of the Beastie Boys and his activism for Tibetan freedom, died yesterday from a three-year battle with cancer. Jaweed Kaleem offers a fine round-up for The Huffington Post on how Buddhist spirituality permeated his life and music, noting that he was “born in Brooklyn, New York to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, [and] had practiced Buddhism since 1994.”
In the photo to the right, Yauch speaks at a press conference on June 13, 1998 prior to the Tibet Freedom concert at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images)
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Thich Nhat Hanh, Tornadoes, and Being Present in the Moment
by Joe DePlasco, guest contributor
This past Sunday, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to Mary Emeny at a dinner in Amarillo, Texas where we were showing highlights of Ken Burns’ upcoming film, The Dust Bowl. Mary, I later learned, is prominent in the arts and environmental communities in Amarillo. When I asked someone else at the table what Mary did, she responded, “She makes Amarillo worth living in for the rest of us.”
During our chat, Mary spoke about her trips to Vietnam as a young woman and, specifically, her work with Buddhist monks there on behalf of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. (Vietnam came up because Ken Burns is working on a film about the war in Vietnam.)
Suzuki Roshi used to say that what was needed most in the monastery were people who were good at cleaning out the corners. The most perverting ideas are the ones that lie for years and years in the dark corners of our mind. Like spiders, they creep out while we are sleeping and spin their webs of illusion. Only when the mind is clean, in order, and uncluttered can the present moment be fully realized. If we hang onto past memories, trophies of our good-old-days, in time our mind and our home will be a museum instead of a place to encounter the present reality. The relationship between house cleaning, garden cleaning, and mental caretaking is not just symbolic. It is very direct.
Amida Buddha is the heart of Shin Buddhist faith and practice. First revealed by the historical Buddha over 2,600 years ago, the name Amida is Japanese which is derived from Amitabha or Amitayus of the ancient Sanskrit language, which means ‘Immeasurable Life and Light’ or Oneness. The word Amida is a personification or symbol for the transcendent reality and mystery, which is “unborn, uncreated and formless” which is also known as dharmakaya, nirvana, shunyata (emptiness).
Amida Buddha is a personification expressing that which is incomprehensible. This inconceivable transcendent realm is called Dharmakaya, which is Sanskrit meaning ‘the body of truth.’ This word points to the non-conceptual ultimate dimension and the true nature of things including ourselves. Amida Buddha in turned is the sambhogakaya or the compassionate expression of this formless transcendent realm. She gives us a concrete image that helps us to understand that which is beyond understanding. Amida is also synonymous with the terms One Life, the Great Compassion and Buddha Nature.
Buddha is a term meaning a few things: firstly, it is any life form that has awakened to boundlessness; secondly, it is the deepest nature of all things, which is undifferentiated and selfless; and thirdly, it is our inner potential, reality and destiny to live a life of pure compassion and wisdom.
Read more about Amida Buddha
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I picked up Sylvia Boorstein’s lovely book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, years ago and loved it. Then, several years later, I found myself on a panel discussion with her and loved her in person.
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
“(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of people with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sakes.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that, as she puts it, she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
Meredith Monk’s Voice: A Sensory Experience That Reaches Beyond Anything in Print
by Krista Tippett, host
The singer and composer Meredith Monk is a kind of archeologist of the human voice. She’s also an archeologist of the human soul, with a long-time Buddhist practice. Through music and meditation, she reaches to places in human experience where words get in the way — and she shared with me what she has learned about mercy and meaning, about spirit and play.
For years we here at On Being have meant to, planned to, interview more musicians. Then in the last months, for varying reasons, conversations with Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, and now Meredith Monk fell into place. What joy.
After this experience with Meredith Monk, I’m shying away from describing her with the label “performance artist.” Her music is avant-garde, but it also feels primal, ancient. She’s called herself an archeologist of the human voice. The woman we meet in this conversation is also an archeologist of the human spirit. She has a long-time Buddhist practice. Playfully, and reflectively, she mines life and art for meaning.
As listeners to On Being know, I begin every conversation, however accomplished or erudite my guest, by learning something about his or her childhood. We can all trace interesting and substantive lines between our origins and our essence, wherever we are in life. These can be joyful. They can painful. But they are raw materials that have formed us. In Meredith Monk’s case, a life in music was almost inevitable; three generations of musicians preceded her. She struggled with eyesight problems and issues with bodily coordination. Her mother — a singer in the golden age of radio — found a program called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which uses music to create physical alignment. Later on, as a young artist, Meredith Monk describes a moment of “revelation” that the voice could be flexible like the body — fluid like the spine — something that could dance and not merely sing.
She sang before she could speak in any case, as she tells it, and after experimenting with classical musical education in college, she gave herself over to her own distinctive voice, her own art, which is rich with songs that use words sparingly or not at all. As our show with her opens, you hear her singing a hauntingly beautiful piece, “Gotham Lullaby.” It is a demonstration of one of the things she talks about, eloquently, in this conversation — the power of music to reach where words can get in the way. This can be unfamiliar, even uncomfortable for the listener, as for the performer. But it is a deeply human experience, essentially contemplative and yet infused with the emotion that music can convey like no other form of human expression.
There is so much I carry with me out of this interview. It simply enlivens the world, and deepens its hues a bit. “The human voice is the original instrument,” she says, “so you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance. In a way it’s like the memory of being a human being.”My teenagers stretch me to appreciate that this is the redemptive effect even of music that is strange and unfamiliar to my ears and my body. Meredith Monk brings this home to me as well, but differently.
I’m also challenged by her insistence that in our media-saturated world, we must, for the sake of our souls, continue to seek out direct experiences like live artistic performance. The very point of art, she says, like the very goal of spiritual life as the Buddha saw it, is to wake us up. The sense of transcendence we sometimes feel in these settings is not a separate experience but an effect of being awake, of being fully alive.
But this is too many words. Meredith Monk’s voice, and the radio we’ve crafted from it, is a sensory experience that reaches beyond anything I could print on this page. Listen. And enjoy.
And, if you have some time, I highly recommend listening to our playlist of Meredith Monk’s most meaningful songs from across the years, which she personally selected for us while doing research for my interview. Stream all eleven tracks and listen at your leisure.
Meredith Monk: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Last Wednesday, the artist Meredith Monk joined our host Krista Tippett for a 90-minute conversation via ISDN. We live-tweeted highlights of this interview and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with her in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
For those not familiar with Ms. Monk, she is an American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer who has been creating multi-disciplinary works since the 1960s. She is best known for her vocal innovations, including a wide range of extended techniques.
Also a practicing Buddhist, she is a member of the Shambala sangha. Her most recent album, Songs of Ascension, is inspired by a Zen abbot who described Songs of Ascents — songs which Jews were believed to have sung in biblical times on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to the top of Mount Zion.
- For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with composer/vocalist/performer/ Meredith Monk —@meredith_monk 1:02 PM 11 Jan
- “Singing was a natural kind of language for me. I read music before I read words.” —@meredith_monk 1:10 PM 11 Jan
- “I think of the voice as a very kinetic instrument. I think of the body and the voice as one.” —@meredith_monk 1:12 PM 11 Jan
- “Auditions are hard on the human level…I was looking for people who could sing well, and had a radiant generosity to them.” —@meredith_monk 1:14 PM 11 Jan
- “Auditions are hard at the human level. I like to give back to people.” —@meredith_monk 1:15 PM 11 Jan
- “I’m really trying to do something that makes the voice universal and transcendent.” —@meredith_monk 1:16 PM 11 Jan
- “I had the revelation that the voice could be like the body. Like the spine, it could turn, it could fall…” —@meredith_monk 1:20 PM 11 Jan
- “I had the sensation of something ancient, primal, visceral, preverbal expression.” —@meredith_monk 1:21 PM 11 Jan
- “As an artist so interested in uncovering the invisible, mysterious, inexplicable, things we can’t label.” —@meredith_monk 1:24 PM 11 Jan
- “I was thinking of the voice as the messenger of my soul.” —@meredith_monk 1:24 PM 11 Jan
- “Performing is such an amazing template of human behavior: of generosity, sensitive to the environment and to other people.” —@meredith_monk 1:28 PM 11 Jan
- “We’re taught to be distracted and diverted from feeling the good pain as in open-heartedness of the moment.” —@meredith_monk 1:30 PM 11 Jan
- “I wanted to spend the rest of my life making pieces about things you can’t make pieces about.” —@meredith_monk 1:34 PM 11 Jan
- “The act of making artwork was the act of contemplating something.” —@meredith_monk 1:35 PM 11 Jan
- “How do we spend time on this planet? How do you do work that’s of benefit?” —@meredith_monk 1:35 PM 11 Jan
- “Why does worship always go up? There’s this idea of heaven going up.” —@meredith_monk 1:38 PM 11 Jan
- “In the Buddhist tradition there’s circumambulation, that’s a different form, going around.” —@meredith_monk 1:39 PM 11 Jan
- “I love the idea of working with strings, the bowing arm is so much like the breath.” —@meredith_monk 1:40 PM 11 Jan
- “Maybe I should’ve called it ‘Songs of Going Up and Down’” —@meredith_monk on her new work “Songs of Ascension” 1:43 PM 11 Jan
- “Play is something to really think about. That sense of playfulness is another aspect of being alive, awake.” —@meredith_monk 1:45 PM 11 Jan
- “When it comes down to it, you leave love behind…the Beatles had it right.” —@meredith_monk 1: 48 PM 11 Jan
- “If I do use words, they’re used more abstractly…The word dissolves into pure sound.” —@meredith_monk on song writing 1:55 PM 11 Jan
- “The older I get, the simpler the work gets…the most essential is what reaches people the most.” —@meredith_monk 2:00 PM 11 Jan
- “Curiosity is a great antidote to fear.” —@meredith_monk 2:00 PM 11 Jan
- “All of us as human beings are part of the world vocal family.” —@meredith_monk 2:04 PM 11 Jan
- “The human voice is the original instrument. You’re going back to the beginnings of utterance…The memory of being a human being.” —@meredith_monk 2:04 PM 11 Jan
- “Most of my songs deal with emotion…between the cracks of emotion.” —@meredith_monk 2:10 PM 11 Jan
- “It was like two young children just loving each other so much” —@meredith_monk on singing for the Dalai Lama 2:16 PM 11 Jan
- @rosannecash - Meredith Monk (@meredith_monk) loved your interview with Krista and would love to meet you! 2:19 PM 11 Jan
Photo of Meredith Monk by Jesse Frohman.
The Echoing Silence of Your Mind
by Hudson Gardner, guest contributor
Separating oneself from the natural, real world is like uprooting a plant,
putting it in sandy soil,
watering it only to keep it alive:
you may find yourself growing,
but there will always be something beyond,
another sort of subtleness,
The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others
by Krista Tippett, host
A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.
The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.
And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”
A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.
There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.