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States of Transcendence in the Everyday World

In visits to the Southland, three groups of Buddhist monks demonstrate the lives of discipline that enable them to execute martial-arts feats and Tantric chants.


The low, growling chants are otherworldly, eerie yet soothing, punctuated by bells, drums and cymbals.

These are the sounds of Tibetan Buddhist monks, the sounds of religious ritual, but in the U.S., they reverberate from a stage, or a CD player, not from a sanctuary or a monastery.

"We're just doing part of the ritual[s], as a show, mainly vocalizing," says Thupten Donyo, who performs with the touring Tibetan Tantric Choir. "Most of the time, life is devoted to spiritual practice instead of worldly activity, [but] as long as one has faith and devotion, it's OK to offer a show to the West [about] the monks' lifestyle."

This month, in a coincidence of bookings, Los Angeles will be able to compare and contrast three sets of performing Buddhist monks. Each has added theatricality to ritual and created touring shows that bring Eastern traditions to Western audiences.

Donyo and 13 of his brethren from Gyuto monastery, headquartered in Dharamsala, India, make up the Tibetan Tantric Choir. They will perform at UCLA's Royce Hall Saturday and at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts later in the month, and starting today, they will also be in residence at the Hammer Museum, creating an intricate sand mandala meant as a blessing as the museum embarks on a redesign later this year.

Then, in two separate productions, some 40 Shaolin monks from China--practitioners of kung fu--will perform martial arts demonstrations, choreographed, costumed and staged, in Cerritos and at the Universal Amphitheatre.

The Gyuto monks, performing under the auspices of the Dalai Lama and to benefit the monastery in India, have toured the world. Their music has proven so popular that the group has recorded a handful of CDs, joined on some tracks by such luminaries as composer Philip Glass and Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart, who also produces the discs. A new CD is slated for release next month.

What makes their sound so distinctive is that each of the monks vocalizes a chord--that is, each can sing two or three tones simultaneously. In Tibetan Buddhism, such sounds are thought to arise only from the throat of a person who has realized "selfless wisdom," which emanates from the trancelike state of pure consciousness, Samadhi.

Donyo, 40, acts as a translator and spokesman for the choir. Shortly before the tour began, he talked by phone from San Jose, where he lives with three other monks in an offshoot of the Gyuto monastery that opened last year.

"In 1974, when I was 12, my parents sent me to India from Nepal to become a monk," Donyo recalled. "Whenever we chant or do prayers in the monastery, we're not supposed to use normal voice. All the monks have to use the deeper voice. You have to practice, try very hard. For me, it took a long time."

Donyo is well aware that Buddhist monks are a little out of the ordinary as touring musicians in the West. They follow strict disciplines and diets, and after the tour, they will return to a relatively cloistered world. Still, the culture clash is negotiable.

"We are easygoing," he says, laughing. Consider food. "Most of us are not vegetarians, although we're not allowed to have 'black' foods--meat, alcohol, garlic, onions. On the road, I eat whatever is possible. This morning, I bought bagels from Costco. With cheese cream. We never had something like that in [India]."

Donyo even admits to trading his traditional robes for blue jeans from time to time, for tasks like driving. "They're not very comfortable, though," he says, laughing.

However adaptable the monks may try to be, Donyo says their staged rituals are little changed from what goes on in the monastery. The primary difference is time. If they were done at the usual length, people would get bored. "There is nothing to see, nothing exciting," he says.

But the intention is the same:

"Our goal is to achieve enlightenment, to reach the Buddhist state," Donyo says. "If I was enlightened, I wouldn't be like this, talking with you. I wish I achieved enlightenment, but I think it'll take another couple of lifetimes."

The 1,500-year-old Shaolin tradition, now carried on by a temple in China's central Henan province, expresses spirituality on a decidedly more physical plane. By meditating on movements of animals, the first Shaolin monks developed kung fu, a system of self-defense. While Buddhism is generally nonviolent, Shaolin monks continue to be trained in the use of 18 types of weaponry. Isn't that at odds with their own philosophy?

No, says Xiugin Wang, an English-speaking promoter from Beijing, who is handling the 28-city tour of the Shaolin Warriors, a group of monks contracted from the main temple and sponsored by the Chinese government. Their appearance next week in Cerritos is already sold out.

"By practicing martial arts," Wang explains by phone from a tour stop in Iowa, "they learn to concentrate. That kind of concentration purifies your mind [and] makes it peaceful."

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