The Gyuto Monks of Tibet

by lnna and Paul Segal

Living Now Magazine - Dec 2002 Issue:47

The chant-master leads three monks in a deep harmonic chant for peace. Everyone in the room is enthralled by the incredible sounds. The energy in the room becomes peaceful, soothing and soulful. It was as if we had been invited to participate in a timeless, sacred ceremony.

After the chanting ceases, we are warmly and respectfully introduced to all the monks. Even this simple greeting feels like a ritual. Our first question, as is customary, is directed to the Chief Abbot, who willingly explains his reasons for becoming a monk. "Tibet is a Buddhist country, which emphasizes the virtue of spiritual qualities and people who become monks or nuns. Therefore, a lot of my childhood heroes were the spiritual, learned monks. The primary reason was that in choosing the life of a monk I could study, meditate, forego my own personal comfort and work for the benefit of not only human beings but all living things.

Acknowledging the challenging nature of this task, the Abbot continues, "Whether this is realistically possible to achieve remains to be seen. Nevertheless the idea that I could rise above my personal needs and do something for others has always fascinated, intrigued and driven me. The monks' way of fife impressed me and has now become my own natural way of life.

The Gyuto Monks of Tibet believe that, whether a person is a monk or not, we can all progress along the path to enlightenment. As the Abbot explains, "what is enlightenment? It is a word or concept that is open to interpretation. Living an ordinary life with a family and children, contributing to society can be the essence of what enlightenment is all about. Fundamentally, whatever situation one finds oneself in, by being mindful and having the right motivation that benefits others and minimises harm, a person can progress."

Thupten Sherab, the second senior monk after the Abbot, is keen to point out there are many aspects to life in a Western country that match the principles of Buddhism. "If we let go of the preconceptions about the Western lifestyle and the lifestyle of a monk, what I have discovered in Western societies is that you have a good work ethic and you like to go out and help other people. As a youngster, coming out of Tibet, I and many other monks were in deep trouble. Many people from Western Countries came to our rescue, fed us, clothed us, and educated us. That is what spirituality is all about. You have the notion of egalitarianism you have the notion of democracy, you have human rights and value non-violence." He elaborates: "These are the real values that are the essence of Buddhism; so I find no difficulty at all when I come to Western countries such as Australia. I see my own spiritual ideals reflected in a different light."

The Gyuto Monks exhibit loving-kindness and compassion for the benefit of all. They do this by practising the tantric arts, including harmonic chanting, butter sculpture and the creation of sand mandalas. The Abbot tells us that "Buddhism does not distinguish between the spirit and the flesh nor does it differentiate between sensuality and spirituality. Music is something that moves our heart. Therefore, employing the harmonic chanting can quiet, excite and charm our minds - then one can contemplate and reflect on the meaning and the content of the chanting, which are the teachings of Buddha."

The type of harmonics the Gyuto Monks employs is unique to them. "It is linked to the moving of the energy of the body and the mind and can be highly intoxicating, removing impurities in a physical and psychological sense, paving the path to finding enlightenment, which is within all of us." The Abbot continues, "This links with the practice of the mandala, which is a symbol of something that is perfect already - right here, now, within us. The highest form of teaching that the Gyuto Monks practise states,'All suffering has a feeling of realness because one fails, through an ignorant mind, to see the beauty that exists within us already.'Therefore, mandalas, chanting, meditation, breathing, mantras and visualising can become a metaphor, a tool that encourages us to go inside and discover our innate beauty - here, right now "

The mandala of Yamantaka jigsaw puzzle

The Gyuto Monks use the mandala as a symbol of a perfect world, in which you as an individual are already perfect. "Mandalas become highly spiritual, psychological objects because, when you begin to believe that you are perfect, kind and wholesome, it shapes your outlook about yourself into something good and positive. Then you can begin to relate and perceive everything else as an extension of that positive, sacred outlook. You will treat and relate to others more positively, kindly and compassionately and in return they will do the same to you. Therefore, you find the definable purpose of life - happiness," the Abbot concludes.

The Gyuto Monks have recently helped to produce an authentic 500-piece mandala jigsaw. They are intrigued with this Western interpretation of their ancient tantric practice and can also see that it will enable many people to gain benefit while enjoying playing the game of happiness. The monks think the jigsaw is a good example of mandala creation in that it is a symbol for finding perfect order within the puzzle of life and death. They point out that the healing benefits of creating a mandala can be received by the act of mindfully completing the jigsaw. This unique game can be played as a meditation to calm the mind and relax the body, to help one experience inner peace, or as a positive mental exercise for all ages.

This is the monks' approach to life: "A sense of humour is very important at the beginning when you are pursuing enlightenment. It is even more important while you are in the process of finding enlightenment and especially important when you become fully enlightened. Once you become fully enlightened you have to deal with others' countless sufferings; so if you don't have a sense of humour you would become unenlightened and go mad," the Abbot laughs.

The Gyuto Monks work very closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who provides them with great inspiration. The Abbot says, "The Dalai Lama provokes different reactions in different people. In my case, he is the embodiment of compassion and in our culture he is the living Buddha, the Buddha of compassion. On a more human level, he is the benchmark of our human achievement in realising our own potential, which is compassion. Also, I was ordained and made fully a monk by him. I received all his teachings and secret teachings. I was also appointed to the position of Abbot of the Gyuto Monastery by the Dalai Lama. I have a deep relationship with him."

Thupten Sherab (second senior monk) finds it disappointing that at present the Dalai Lama is performing an important ceremony promoting world peace in Europe and yet it receives no coverage in the media. "There is so much glorification of violence and aggression in the news. What we need to do is to focus on people and ideas that encourage us and focus on non-violence and peace. If you could lift the profile and value of those things in the world, in the way that violence and aggression has been reported in the world, it would be better. if the violence is covered less then the people that do it may have less incentive."

The Gyuto Monks of Tibet have created an uplifting CD called Sounds of Global Harmony, on which they collaborated with talented Australian musicians: Sarah Hopkins (cello), Anne Norman (shakuhachi) and Chris Neville (didgeridoo). $5.00 from the sale of each CD will help achieve the dream of 500 refugee monks of the Gyuto Tantric University, who are building new monastery accommodation in Dharamsala so they can be closer to the Dalai Lama's spiritual centre in India.

Tenzin Karma, the chantmaster and lead singer, explains the history and role of chanting in health and enlightenment

While there were 6,000 monasteries in Tibet, pre-1959, they all had their own style of chanting. As far as the harmonic chanting goes, it is unique to the Gyuto Monks. It is a type of growling which is likened to the sound of a female yak. To be a Gyuto Monk you have to start by memorising 2,500 pages of the tantras, the teachings of the Buddha. This is what we recite from a very young age.

The origin of music in Buddhism is believed to have occurred about 2,500 years ago when Buddha passed away. Some of his 500 students sang a song extolling the virtues of Buddha. As far as the unique musical tradition of the Gyuto Monks is concerned, when the founder of Gyuto Monastery, Je Tsun Kunga Dhundup, built a new monastery in 1374, he had a dream where a goddess told him about this particular three octave chanting with which one can recite all the tantric teachings of the Buddha.

Some monks are very good and some have difficulty producing this sound, yet they all have to do it. I can't explain how we do it because you have to experience it.

Tibetan Tantric Buddhism teaches that there are lots more energy systems to the body than can be detected under the microscope. All the disease and un-wellness one experiences is due to ignorance - not knowing and not understanding. When this occurs there are disturbances of the harmony of the energy flow in the chakras. When you listen to the chanting it enchants and relaxes your body and mind and a sense of clarity occurs. The ignorance is removed or cancelled out. When this occurs the result of disease also gets removed and healing can take place.

Khen Rinpoche Topgyal Lama (the Abbot) explains the history of the Gyuto Monks and a fundamental aspect of Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism has been going for the last 1300 years. It began in the seventh century. There was the early phase and what is called the second phase. From the seventh century until about the middle of the eleventh century is what is called the first phase. Then for about 100 years Buddhism was banned in Tibet. The Buddhism we practise today stems from the second phase of development.

Remnants of Gyuto Monastery still remain in Tibet. In 1959, when Tibet was taken over by China, of the 900 Gyuto Monks in Tibet, only 60 survived, with 30 of the monks escaping to India. They have worked over the 40 years since to safeguard the ancient teachings and tantric rituals and to rebuild Gyuto Monastery in India. There are currently almost 500 monks but they live in a very remote, far away area and the monks want to move to the area where the Dalai Lama resides. Through the tours we are doing we are raising donations to enable this to happen.

Fundamentally, Buddhism says that human suffering leads to wanting happiness and wanting to get rid of unhappiness. Our experience is often contradictory to those desires. Those contradictions occur as a result of not being able to deal with the fundamental dilemma of, 'to hurt or not to hurt'. The fact that we exist, we naturally hurt others whether we like it or not. To find our shelter, find our food and make our clothes, we can't escape the fact that it involves hurting others. Because of that we are unhappy as well. If we didn't need all those things for survival, we would not have to worry about it. We have to find a way to understand the 'cause and effect', the dependent interconnectedness of all life.

To solve the problem of wanting happiness and avoiding unhappiness we need to adopt a mode of behaviour that minimises hurting others, because if you hurt others you naturally will get hurt too, due to the interconnectedness of everything. It is important to understand this and to minimise the behaviour that hurts others. This solves our basic moral dilemma.

The nature of all human beings is good. We do not want to hurt. Even heinous criminals do not want to hurt others; they just do so because they are unhappy. Karma, faith and everything else involve these two simple factors: try not to harm others, and due to cause and effect you will he happier.

Jampa Tsering, the youngest member of the group and the newest escapee from Tibet, explains what has recently happened and is currently happening in Tibet

Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 1.6 million Tibetan people have been killed, a figure that has even been agreed on by the Chinese themselves. There has been the destruction of over 6,000 monasteries, and the turning over of 2,000 years of culture, the dispossession of families, and starvation. The balance of the ecology has also been turned upside down due to the imposition of foreign agricultural ideas that do not work and cause problems.

Tibetans, as a race, are on the verge of becoming extinct. The more pressing problem is also that the Chinese people who have entered Tibet are now outnumbering the Tibetans, three to one. Tibetans are pushed to the outer, with all the good land sold to the Chinese. Even though they talk about religious freedom, it is all just a show. Even in the monasteries in Tibet, the abbots are not in control but Chinese officials make all the decisions. Even mentioning the Dalai Lama can lead to a death sentence or life imprisonment. So many refugees are still escaping from Tibet into India. The problems in Tibet are enormous and there is no end in sight. It is a serious issue.

The Abbot's parting words

The Abbot has some final words of to the people of Australia for their support of the monks. "In the last month having been in Australia, I have discovered the Australian people to be very easy-going, very kind and generous by nature. They are quite accommodating to different cultures and ways of life. This is an amazing feature of a nation."

He smiles and continues, "As a Tibetan refugee who lives in India, we regard Australia as a country that is pro-Tibet although it has its own problem of fully coming on the side of Tibet, due to the issue of its relationship with China. We consider Australia to be highly supportive of the Tibetan cause. Thank you to all the Australian people."

"in the context of Gyuto Monastery, Australia has been even kinder to our monks who are very grateful for the generosity of the Australian people. They are helping to enable us to materialise our 10-year dream of relocating ourselves from a very difficult inaccessible area to a more open and civilised area of India, near the Dalai Lama. As Abbot, on behalf of the Gyuto Monastery, on behalf of the 500 monks and on behalf of Maureen Fallon our director, and the monks here, thank you very much for the immense generosity of the Australian people. We say, may there be peace in Australia and peace in the world."

Inna Segal is the creator of Inner Kiss Healing, a professional speaker and author. Paul Segal is a photojournalist, stand-up comedian and author.

Our thanks to the monks who contributed their knowledge and wisdom to this article: Khen Rinpoche - Topgyal Lama (Chief Abbot), Thupten Sherab (second senior monk), Tenzin Karma (chantmaster - lead singer), and Jampa Tsering (the youngest member of the group, who recently escaped from Tibet).

The Gyuto Monks of Tibet are the unique masters of a deep harmonic overtone chanting. Trained over many years, each monk has the amazing capacity to chant in three octaves at once. They are in Australia until the end of May on the 'Wisdom Tour 2003'.

Following a Mount Martha appearance Jan 2 - 5 on the Mornington Peninsula, the monks may be seen as far afield as Brisbane, Darwin, Sydney, Adelaide, Port Fairy, Noosa and Byron Bay.

Itinerary details on their award winning website