The Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York, New York. June 10, 2018
For the concluding celebration of this Ninth North American Kagyu Monlam, the venue was shifted from an outlying area of New York City to its very center, Madison Square Gardens. Not only is this complex the location of major sports events and concerts by world famous performers, it is also an important transportation hub through which a million travelers pass each day. It is a perfect place from which to send the light of love and compassion into the world.
Prior to the event, the performers had rehearsed in New York’s famous Studio 37 where the Karmapa fine-tuned the acts, as the groups had a chance to dance and sing together. Coming from all over the US, the Tibetan dancers had only three sessions to perfect their presentations, however, they were all seasoned performers, trained at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamshala, India. For many years, they had performed as an ensemble, so they came together as the consummate professionals they are, perfectly in tune and radiating their delight.
Part of their special feeling might have been due to the fact that for the first time, they were united in the same program with performers from Tibet itself. Three beloved singers two female and one male, traveled from the other side of the planet to offer their music to the Karmapa. They joined artists from several other countries, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and England among them, to make the event truly international.
As he did during the Monlam, inviting three nuns to be the chant leaders, the Karmapa continued to use this prayer festival as a way to support and promote women. Instead of three monks taking the role of the MC, this year three beautiful young women made the announcements in Tibetan, English, and Chinese. In addition, three female singers from Tibet represented their country along with Tibetans who reside abroad. A lovely woman from China sang the mantra of Green Tara, and Nicola Roberts from England also performed. The nuns from Bhutan returned to the stage three times to represent the traditional ordained sangha and practitioners throughout the program.
During the actual performance, the Karmapa kept his role as director and instead of taking his usual seat, he went straight to the control area set in middle of the audience, and sat down in front of a monitor. The evening opened with the clear melodies of birdsong, which were gradually drowned out by the noise of the city–people talking, cars moving around, the static of busy lives. Powerful Tibetan voices rose in song, and then gradually, the sound of Chenrezik’s mantra came in and grew louder as the nuns filed in holding lamps near their hearts. Western music made a brief appearance and then a bell rang, silence, and the nuns began to chant the practice of Chenrezik, the embodiment of compassion, setting the tone for the entire evening. Two long lines of young children carrying lamps made two circles through the audience, their lights forming rings around the multicolored lotuses held by everyone.
The three young women MCs then appeared to introduce the evening in three languages. After welcoming everyone, they recited a poem:
The power of our merit and karma
Has brought us together in the bustle of New York City.
This time, when the sound of dharma reverberates on earth and in the sky
And together the blessings well up, is a true wonder.
The MCs laid out how the program would unfold in five acts. Act I, called the Connections of True Dharma, began with the singing of the Heart Sutra, perhaps the most famous Buddhist text on emptiness, performed by a mixed choir of forty lay women and men of all ages and race. The emptiness here and the compassion, embodied by Chenrezik at the very beginning of the evening, form the heart of the mahayana teachings. The translation of the text at the bottom of the two screens on either side of the stage brought a clear reminder of the Dharma that moves through this and all events.
As it would throughout the program, the screen at the back of the stage displayed stunning images during the performances. These videos included beautiful photography of nature, images of clouds and abstract shapes forming and dispersing, and stylized designs that transformed as they shifted shapes and colors.
The next performance shifted to a spare platform in front of the stage where the spotlight found Nitin Sawhney, the famous British-Indian fusion artist, sitting on a stool with his guitar. He performed his well-known piece “Prophesy,” which he had spoken about a year earlier in an interview with a Kagyu Monlam reporter:
When you are playing music and you’re in the right space, there’s the sense that, even if it’s for a short time, you can transcend all those feelings of fear, worry and anxiety and be genuinely in tune with something much bigger, much larger. It’s those moments that are very valuable.
There’s one piece I play called Prophesy. I wrote it originally as an homage to the land that I am in. It’s about listening to the drone of the insects and the sounds around you. You gradually evolve a piece of music that speeds up in the Sufi way, as the whirling dervishes do. They spin faster and faster and it’s the same concept with the music. There’s something about celebrating the universal power. Sometimes when you’re playing, it’s like the charging of a battery. You feel that you’re becoming more and more charged by a universal spirit that flows through you. It’s really an amazing thing.
And so it was. His virtuoso guitar brought forth the resonant fullness of life and, as the music opened into fleeting moments of silence, the reminder of its universal source.
The nuns returned to the stage to sing and perform their mudras in motion to Milarepa’s Song of Meaningful Connections, which relates how we and the world survive through the myriad connections that nourish us. In this second appearance, the nuns wore over their robes the clothing of a vajrayana practitioner: wrapped around their shoulders was the white cloth of the repas or mountain yogis, who practice tummo (the yoga of generating heat), and slung across their torso was a bright red meditation belt, which supports the body through long sessions of practice. The nuns ended with the offering of long white scarves to His Holiness, who holds this mountain Dharma lineage of Milarepa.
Act II was titled, An Exchange of Love and Affection, and began with the famous English singer Nicola Roberts, accompanied by Nitin Sawhney on piano. The lyrics to “What About Us,” which she sung with deep feeling, seemed particularly apt for our difficult times:
We are searchlights, we can see in the dark
We are rockets, pointed up at the stars
We are billions of beautiful hearts
And you sold us down the river too far
What about us?
What about all the times you said you had the answers?
What about us?
What about all the broken happy ever afters?
What about us?
What about all the plans that ended in disaster?
What about love? What about trust?
What about us?
The haunting refrain of the last two lines speaks to the situation of the younger generation, faced with the destruction of the environment, the super-wealthy whose greed knows no limits, and a world of politics that feeds on itself.
Possible solutions came with the next two presentations. The Chinese singer Jing Shanyuan from China, a popular artist in her home country, sung the mantra of Green Tara, who embodies compassion, especially as it manifests in action. In her iconic depiction, she represents two worlds: one leg extends out ready to act in the world and one hand holds the mudra of generosity; the other leg is held in for meditation and the other hand holds a fully blossomed lotus flower symbolizing the ultimate truth.
For a third time, the nuns from Bhutan return to perform the practice of Chö or Cutting through Ego, which was created and taught by the famous woman master of Tibet, Macik Labdrön. As all forms of Buddhism teach, ego-fixation is the main reason for suffering in this world, both for ourselves and others. Based on compassion for all living beings, the practice of Chö cuts through our attachment to a fictitious self by mentally offering to a variety of guests the feast of what we hold most dear, our own body. A core motivation of the practice is the wish that all beings be imbued with the wish to benefit others, both with temporary benefits such as long life and good health, and the ultimately benefit, full realization.
ACT III was titled, A Reunion of Home and Abroad, and focused on Tibet, and featured performers from Tibet itself and the diaspora, such as artists from the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts. They began with an energetic dance from the Tibetan Opera tradition with male dancers in stylized masks calling out to each other while cymbals and drums punctuated their movements. A main dancer spoke of the Karmapa and the Monlam, as His Holiness stood watching from the control area. The men were then joined by women wearing rainbow headdresses and singing in their high voices as their arms flowed through graceful movement. This piece ended with the Tibetan New Year custom of offering tsampa (roasted barley flour), tossing it into the air with “Ki ki so so lha gyal lo!” (All victory to the divine!)
The following two acts presented female singers from Tibet, who were warmly welcomed by the audience with shouts and applause. The first performed a song evocative of Tibet as images of the Himalayas and the broad Brahmaputra River played across the screen. The second singer offered a joyful song and the background images were those of hope, such as a flight of pure white birds.
The next offering was another dance from TIPA. Its theme was the unity of all the Tibetans, and pairs of dancers were dressed in the regional costumes of the three main areas of Tibet. Each of these has strong traditions, their own dialects, and sense of history. For the benefit of all Tibetans, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Karmapa have been encouraging them to unite and see themselves as one nation. The dance presented this idea visually, as the three pairs of dancers introduced themselves individually and then moving together, sang that they were united as one people.
Another lovely Tibetan singer, Yangchuk Tso, who now lives in England, dressed in the traditional chupa for women, took center stage and performed a delicate duo with her recorded voice. The TIPA artists followed again as the men dressed in black and bright red satin, played Tibet’s dranyen, its version of a guitar and danced, using their black boots to make the percussive rhythm. On the central platform, next came a Tibetan couple who sang with soaring voices that could have been heard from mountain to mountain in Tibet. As her voice in a cappella moved higher and higher, the audience supported her with applause.
The final session of this Act III was a group of instrumentalists and singers from Tibet and China who performed together a Tibetan folk song. Two of the Tibetan singers joined and at the end, after wishes for auspiciousness, the Tibetan dranyen player changed his instrument to play the Chinese erhu with four-strings. This created a perfect transition into Act IV, entitled, the Power of Nature, which featured Chinese performers and the topic of the environment, so close to the Karmapa’s heart. With lotuses of all sizes and colors blooming on the back screen, Lui Lui offered her song. She was followed by the well-known actor and singer from Hong Kong, Lam Lei, also a long-time Kagyu practitioner who sang to music with a big band feel. The final performance was a piece called the Great Earth, performed on a western harp, set alone in the center of the stage. The spotlight opened to find the female musician dressed in flowing white, seated at her instrument. Her gentle, rippled playing was a lovely conclusion to these musical offerings.
Act V was entitled, The Radiant Light of Activity and began with singer Asam from Tibet who sang “A Teacher for this Age” in praise of His Holiness. Asam took the platform in front of the stage, bringing him close to the audience, and for a while as he sang “Karmapa Khyenno” (“Karmapa, know me”), the audience responded with “Karmapa Khyenno.” Asam spoke of how famous the Karmapa is in the entire world and stated “Khyap su chi,” “I go to him for refuge.” The spotlights now sweep over the audience bringing them into the performance as Asam sings.
For the final event, the Karmapa comes to the center of the stage, facing out to the world as he holds a lamp at his heart and leads the singing of Lord Atishas’ Marme Prayer in Tibetan and Chinese. The Karmapa is surrounded by the fourteen nuns, behind whom are the women from TIPA and then the men. The lights on the stage and the images on the screen are cosmic as everyone repeats the beginning lines after the Karmapa, as f her were giving an empowerment:
May the bowl of this lamp become equal to the outer ring of this world realm multiplied myriad times. May its stem be the size of the king of mountains, Mount Meru. May its oil fill the surrounding oceans, and in number, may a hundred million appear before each and every buddha. May this light dispel all the darkness of ignorance.
This was followed by the full-hearted chanting of the mantra of the lamp as multicolored confetti floated down from the ceiling.
Finally, the three young women reappeared to give the closing remarks and make the dedication:
This now concludes all of the activities of the 9th North American Kagyu Monlam. By the power of this vast merit, may the teachings of Buddhism, the wellspring of benefit and happiness, spread and flourish in all times and all regions. May the teachers who uphold these teachings, with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Gyalwang Karmapa foremost among them, live long and may their activities thrive. In all the regions of this vast world, may the rains fall in season, may crops always be excellent, may illness, famine, and war be pacified, and may we all enjoy the glory of an Age of Perfection. Tashi Delek and our best wishes to all!