Whatever was the Dalai Lama thinking of?
One of the many problems of being a great spiritual leader is that people are scared of telling you when you get it wrong. As in the case with the Dalai Lama's first album 'Inner World', which is released to mark his His Holiness' 85th birthday. The new super-cool Dalai Lama made his Glastonbury debut in 2015, and his latest venture into rock stardom combines Buddhist teachings with chill-out music*. Typical of the inability of Tibetan Buddhist camp followers to call a dog a dog is the review by the authoritative Tricycle online Buddhist magazine which buries mild reservations underneath the usual respectful platitudes: such as "His Holiness’s wisdom and compassion through this recording can bring inner transformation". This time the Independent gets it right in a 2 star review which judges that "...there is little to distinguish the shapeless instrumentation from any you’d find in a luxury spa".
His Holiness once famously explained "I always tell my Western friends that it is best to keep your own tradition. Changing religion is not easy and sometimes causes confusion. You must value your tradition and honor your own religion". Very wise advice the Dalai Lama puzzlingly ignores for his debut album, which lards his recitation of traditional Buddhist sagacity with the worst kind of Western New Age musical syrup. (Anoushka Shankar has the dubious honour of contributing one of the better - least worse? - tracks of this distinctly unenlightened project.)
When I traveled with my wife to attend the 2014 Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama in remote Ladakh I had a close encounter with His Holiness, which I chronicled in my photo essay The Paradox of the Dalai Lama. During that trip I was able to quiz the gurupies surrounding His Holiness about some of his more puzzling judgements. These include his 1997 pronouncement that gay sex is wrong for Buddhists but not for society; or as the Telegraph more succinctly reported him as saying in a subsequent interview "Using the other two holes is wrong". (Since then the spiritual leader has tactfully changed his views on this topic.) One of the standard justifications offered by His Holiness' followers for his occasionally dubious wisdom is that he is sometimes badly advised by his private office. But the PR for 'Inner Worlds' stresses the Dalai Lama's personal enthusiasm for the project. So much as I admire his boundless spiritual wisdom, I have to conclude that my music is not the Dalai Lama's music.
Just as it is very easy to embrace Buddhism-lite in the name of accessibility, so it is very easy to make snarky comments about truly great human beings. So in conclusion I will highlight two albums that communicate the truly remarkable power of Vajrayana Buddhism without dragging it into a luxury spa. If you want your Tibetan Buddhism straight with no Western chasers, the sequence of albums recorded by the Tashi Lhunpo monks is my recommendation. It was monks from the Tashi Lhunpo monastery who hosted my visit to the Kalachakra empowerment. Three albums recorded at their monastery-in-exile in southern India capture the monks voices and instruments in stunning sound. 'Time of the Skeleton Lords' is featured here because of its equally stunning artwork, which brings back memories of my attendance at the tantric masked dances at Hemis monastery in Ladakh.
For those who have wisely realised that great spiritual revelations can only be experienced outside cultural comfort zones, I recommend 'Songs from the Bardo' masterminded by iconoclast Laurie Anderson, which takes the listener on a guided journey through the transcendent text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In my post about this album earlier this year I quoted the great Tibetan Lama Govinda describing the vital importance of "the readiness to cross the horizons of the known and the familiar, the readiness to accept people and new environments as parts of our destiny". For me at least, the Dalai Lama's 'Inner World' album fails because it balks at leading the seeker across that horizon towards the challenging yet immensely rewarding spiritual realm of of Vajrayana Buddhismn.
* It is important to make clear that proceeds from 'Inner World' go to Social, Emotional, and Ethical (SEE) Learning, an international education program founded by the Dalai Lama and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and to the Mind and Life Institute, an organization that encourages conversation between contemplative thinkers and scientists.
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