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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Monday, January 30, 2012

What does it mean to be a rural Tibetan youth in modern India?

The picture many of us have of what it means to be part of a rural community is fast changing in India. As the picture above shows, it is no longer necessarily incongruous to be a farmer living an essentially ancient lifestyle while also using a smart phone on India's incredibly widespread 3G network.

How has this affected the community in Bylakuppe? As the existence of the Protected Area Permit attests (any person wanting to stay in Bylakuppe for more than a day trip is required to get what amounts to another visa specific to the place), the Tibetan community there is purposely protecting themselves from the negative effects of globalization. However, the Dalai Lama is nothing if not forward thinking, as much as he cherishes the rich traditions and religion of Tibet. His encouragement for all Tibetans to become fluent in English, the training of Tibetans in new technologies for text preservation, and the emphasis on updating government to a more democratic model all support this modernization.

The funny thing about kids, I think, is that, for the most part, they/we (I'm not stuck up enough to think I'm more than "one of those dumb kids!") don't care too much about preservation efforts. Depending on access of the youth to internet, I would not be surprised to find Tibetan kids with MP3 players rockin' and hip-hoppin' to everything kids in the states listen to, and thinking of Tibetan music as "stuff for old people and monks."

The thing is, though, that I am also not stuck up enough to assume that all kids all over the world have the same self-centered worldview that plagues and empowers my generation in the US. Perhaps, as is the case in Bali, there is no problem in maintaining musical heritage while still venturing into new, primarily Western territory. Or perhaps there is a stigma against Western forms of musical expression.

Though I doubt there are very many "rich kids," such as those described in this week's annotated source, I wonder to what degree the Bangalori attitude of the Third World being the "other" and the Western world being the "inside" has affected the Tibetan kids. Where do the Tibetan kids in Bylakuppe identify themselves? Do many live in a translocal paradigm that is perpetually and adamantly "the in-between," or is there a close identification with Tibetan tradition? How do kids define "Tibetan-ness?" Perhaps the question "what does it mean to you to be Tibetan" could be slipped into conversation here and there with people of all the strata found in Bylakuppe.
I love these pictures!

Annotated Source

Arun Saldanha
Nightlife in Bangalore. Notice the conspicuous absence of anything appearing Indian!

Saldanha explores just what the title implies - how youth culture utilizes music to define space and identity in Bangalore. This is particularly interesting because Bangalore is the closest major city to Bylakuppe, and to what degree Bangalori youth culture is reflected in Bylakuppean youth culture will be important to watch. Saldanha studied, specifically, the "rich kids," as he calls them - the wealthy elite that are able to make full use of the globalization found in Bangalore's shopping malls, car dealerships, and record stores. 
An interesting question is asked, and a succinct answer is given - why youth? Because youth are most involved in translating tradition in the face of globalization, and youth are they who must most fully come to terms with the presence of the West. Bangalori youth, as is typical of youth in many places, are most conversant with the technologies that bring other cultures home. MP3s and music videos are consumed in large amounts, and much (perhaps most) of what is being consumed is strictly western. Notable to me as a musician is that hybrid styles, such as bhangramuffin, which is a combination of dancehall reggae (raggamuffin) and Bhangra music, (http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/The+Best+Of+Apache+Indian/4112865), are almost completely ignored by the communities from which part of the hybrid came. 
This stuff is popular all over the world, but not so much in India
Saldanha concludes with three remarks. First, Bangalori youth's consumption of and identification with the Western world's popular culture is geographically contingent - that is, the way Bangalori youth take on the West is a specifically Bangalori way, and produces an entirely new sense of place that may be termed translocal, rather than global or local. Second,  this consumption has a distinctly political dimension - for the youth, Third World India becomes the "other" and the Western world becomes the "inside." Wealthy Bangalori youth, in particular, are able to separate themselves from "locals" through their ability to consume and understand in a greater way the things the West has brought, from expensive jeans to pop music. Third, studying music, space, and identity requires turning to "the actual sites where music attains its meaning," rather than isolating it in purely musicological, political, local, or other spatial paradigms. An integrative approach which considers the contributions of each of these paradigms and searches for other useful realms of thought for analysis will be most effective.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The World is Sound?

The World Is Sound? Geography, Musicology and British-Asian Soundscapes
Author(s): Tariq Jazeel
Source: Area, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Sep., 2005), pp. 233-241
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20004456 .
Accessed: 25/01/2012 19:44

Musical geography, while quickly growing as a field of study, hasn't made much foray into treating the production of and pure sonic qualities of music as they relate to place, nor have the politics of music vs. music and politics been adequately treated. This journal article by Tariq Jazeel seeks to begin to address this deficiency. The article has three main sections, and I describe the points that stuck with me from a first reading:

Reappraising the critique of exotica
     Exotica has been, by many scholars, dismissed as not truly representing any of the cultures from which it draws, and is criticized for catering to a middle-class white demographic by "sanitizing" itself. It becomes, in their eyes, artificial and superficial. Jazeel counters these arguments with the recognition that just because something is made for middle class consumption (as is the case for much British-Asian music, which fills the acoustic space of popular British dance clubs), it is not automatically shallow, and that tip-toeing, crisscrossing, and redefining cultural boundaries is something worth seriously examining. Also, British-Asian music, such as that made by Talvin Singh, deals seriously with post-colonial issues, syncretism, and racial dynamics. Artists like Singh, born and raised in Britain but steeped in their South Asian ancestry, float in limbo between being British and being Indian, their identity contested by internal conflict, by assertions of some Britons that people like Singh are "too brown to be British" and by counter assertions by some Indians that people like Singh are "too white to be Indian," using color literally and as a metaphor for cultural norms and boundaries.

Production and expression
     Musical analysis of several songs is undertaken in a qualitative way, detailing the mixing and cohesion of Western and Indian elements. It is interesting to me that not only are West and East mixed, but that Indian musics from different parts of the subcontinent are layered as well. This detail would not be noticed by most Western listeners, but to those with a knowledge of Indian classical music would be most salient.

Consumption and performativity
     The reaction of consumers to the music, particularly in a dance club setting, are explored and problematized. When dancing to a raga in a time signature unfamiliar to the club-goers, for example, the immediacy of expression through dance is challenged. At first, the dancers, used to a four-on-the-floor club rhythm, stutter and struggle to find the rhythm. The ways in which consumers and performers of British-Asian music negotiate and purposefully challenge cultural divides are instructive and tell more of the full story than even demographic survey information can.

VERY useful stuff. Thanks, Tariq.

Intercultural Music, or a New Music Culture?

Put this song on while you read this: http://grooveshark.com/s/Ever+So+Lonely/2vKkRL?src=5

Consider Sheila Chandra's 1982 top ten hit 'Ever
So Lonely' with the band 'Monsoon'. At a time
when positive representations of Asians in the
media were few and far between, not only was it
remarkable that a top ten hit should emerge whose

vocals were sung over a classical Indian drone
carried along by a sitar and tabla raga, all of which
was augmented by a pop riff played on synthesizers
and electric guitars. As Chandra herself remembers
the song was remarkable for other reasons:

I mean the amazing thing about that record is that in
the middle all the other synth instruments are pulled
out and in the middle eight, people on the dance floor
are essentially dancing to a classical raga, and they've
got so used to the cross rhythms that that's what
they're dancing to and they don't think twice about
it. And that was the really subversive thing. (Sheila
Chandra in The Southbank Show)

Certainly Sheila Chandra never regarded 'Ever So
Lonely's' chart success as 'success' in itself. For
her, the real success was the song's ability to get
listeners dancing to what was essentially a basic
Indian raga. If British-Asian dance music is able to
renegotiate the colour-coded reifications that pervade
British popular culture, then this type of dance is
certainly a form of postmodern resistance: all the
more canny because dancers are unaware of how
their dance blurs boundaries, of how they dance
to the tune of the snake charmer's un-namable
pastiche. That Sheila Chandra's audience, and many
of those at Talvin Singh's 'Anokha', may have been
white and middle class only adds to the sweetness
of that 'success'.

From "The World Is Sound? Geography, Musicology and British-Asian Soundscapes" by Tariq Jazeel, Source: Area, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Sep., 2005), pp. 233-241 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)

Sometimes, if you want to introduce someone to something that to you is precious, it needs to be packaged in a way that is precious to the someone you are introducing it to.

I wonder what it would feel like if I were dropped into an alien culture with ideas of music radically different from what I grew up with. I wonder what it would feel like if, all of a sudden, I was able to write a song with one of the alien culture's music groups where I was able to inject some good ol' blues or rock into their popular music of the day. Is this kind of thing going on in the Tibetan diaspora? Are aspects of Tibetan music making their way into pop music production in the refugee community? And would it constitute simply intercultural music, or would it evolve as a new kind of music altogether?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Going Native

I did some "serious research" on this particular bit of terminology, and I found some good things in journals, books, etc., but I found this and like it too.

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on September 03, 2007
In Reply to: Re: Going native posted by Bob on September 03, 2007
: : I am looking for the origin of the phrase "going native". It is often used to describe anthropologists' or travellers' growing immersion in new cultures they are engaged with (and has a racist note in it). But I can't find a source and would be grateful for information
: Not an origin, but another, perhaps older, use. In the (U.S.) State Department, diplomats and other embassy personnel are rotated to differenet countries at intervals, at least partly to avoid the problem of them "going native," meaning that they become so acculturated and familiar that they begin to identify with and sympathize with the locals, to the point of not representing our own national interests. It's a delicate balance: diplomacy requires experience and understanding of the host country, but too much experience, and one can forget who's signing the pay checks.
In British English it dates from the 19th century. The British felt it very important to their collective prestige in the Colonies to maintain their identity as "sahibs", as distinct from the black or brown "natives", so much anxiety was caused if any member of the British community showed signs of "going native" in his habits, e.g. by adopting the local dress and socialising with the locals. This anxiety lasted as long as the Empire itself did; in Kenya in the 1940s my father, aged 19, used to take off his shoes to save them getting dusty when riding his motorbike across the open savannah. When this was reported to his family he was taken to task by his elders for "going barefoot in public like an African". (VSD) 
Boy howdy, do I like blogs - I can say "to hell with academic sources" whenever I feel like it. It's liberating. 

Anywho, the phrase "going native" is darn close to a dirty phrase in most anthropological circles. The idea is that, to maintain objectivity and scientific accuracy, a certain distance must be kept from the "subject material" (what a terrible way to talk about human beings!). The thing is, I'm not an anthropologist (at least by name - everybody does anthropology work whether or not they write it down and publish it) and I never plan to be one. I'm a musician. Most of the time, I feel that throwing "-ologist" on the end of something beautiful robs it of its warmth and relegates it to the realm of soggy textbooks in dank library-dungeons.  

My reason in going to and vision for being in Bylakuppe relates to what Bela Fleck did in his recent exploration of the origins of the banjo in Africa. There are definitely some of what could be called "ethnomusicological points of contact" made by what Bela did, through making high quality recordings and re-exposing people to an instrument that left their country and evolved in a different way in a different place, by comparing the modern American banjo to its analogues in various regions, and by interviewing the musicians who play these instruments at both virtuoso/professional and casual levels (if those terms may be very loosely applied - music doesn't mean the same thing everywhere). But his purpose in Africa - and, to a musician, this purpose is a sacred one - was to find some great musicians and make some great music. He didn't only play the banjo, the instrument for which he is famous, but he spent time learning instruments local to the areas. In the second picture, you can see that he traded instruments with the master musician he was visiting.

This is the kind of "going native" I'm into. Diehl, who wrote the book that was a large inspiration for going to a Tibetan community in India, was inducted into and played keyboard in a Tibetan rock and blues band - if that doesn't require some going native, I don't know what does. Playing that kind of music simply can't be done well whilst one is "detached." Rock and blues music don't work without mutual understanding and intense connection.

For the sake of music, and for the sake of the people who make it, Bela Fleck learned historical material along the way, and no doubt researched some of the areas of scholarship important to anthropologists that touched his journey (though I doubt he spent a bunch of time with JSTOR - hey, maybe). The wonderful thing is that that kind of learning is natural, completely owned by the learner, and takes none of what might be called "effort." Frustrations and troubles come up - the plane tickets might be expensive and the van might break down in the middle of the route and it might be easy to mistake the mosquitoes for birds of prey - but these problems are swallowed up in the joy of love for what one is doing.

When asked about the perfect humanity (zhi ren 至仁), Zhuangzi replies, “Perfect humanity is without affection for parents,” and further explains,
The ultimate humanity is supreme and so filial piety is not enough to describe it. . . . It is easy to be filial by being reverent, but it is difficult to be filial with love; it is easy to be filial with love, but it is difficult to forget one’s parents; it is easy to forget one’s parents, but it is difficult to make parents forget me; it is easy to make parents forget me, but it is difficult to forget the whole world; it is easy to forget the whole world, but it is difficult to make the world forget me. (Zhuangzi 14.497–99) 

Here, perfect humanity as that without affection for parents does not mean that parents are obstacles to perfect humanity. It simply means to forget your parents. It is more difficult to forget your parents than to love them, because as long as you know that you should love them, you can at least make some effort to do so. Here, to forget your parents does not mean to not love them; rather, it is to love them without knowing that you ought to love them and that you are loving them. When you love your parents so naturally, spontaneously, and effortlessly, you have forgotten your parents, which is certainly something more difficult to accomplish. So it is easy to love with effort, but more difficult to love effortlessly. It sounds paradoxical, but conveys a profound message: sages can do things effortlessly, but one cannot become a sage without making great effort. 
From: Respecting Different Ways of Life: A Daoist Ethics of Virtue in the Zhuangzi by Yong Huang

How tragic when people get so caught up in research and discourse that they forget why they got into the focus in the first place! Happiness flitters away.

My faculty mentor, Dr. Grimshaw, he has expressed sadness and frustration at the ethnomusicology world's continual shifting of paradigms from participatory observation to cold, purposely outsider observation and back again. I vibed with his view of how to do in-field research - by golly, be in-the-field! Participate in the culture as well as the subject of study, whatever it is, insomuch as it doesn't interfere with personal moral beliefs (and it's not a bad idea, especially for a Latter-day Saint, to evaluate whether or not a cultural practice is at odds with core doctrine or if it is really just at odds with Mormon/American/Utahn/Whatever culture). So what if you lose some objectivity? You gain some life. Then, when back in the office, sitting in front of the computer, be fully there as well and do some scholarly justice to the material.

So, to tie it together, I want to (need to) "go native" as much as possible if I want to understand and be able to make this music from the inside out, and if I want to effortlessly (using Zuangzi's definition) take part in the music and culture, understanding that no matter what I do I will have 23 years (is that really how old I am?!) of background that is unavoidable and inexpugnable. Heck, I might seem as strange to the Tibetans as these guys would have to the Londoners:

These guys from Vanuatu visited London as part of a British television series. They wore British clothes most of the time, in case you're wondering. Everybody's got to adapt a little! It was probably too darn cold anyway.

but that's just part of life and intercultural interaction. I'm cool with that. We are going to learn from each other, not because I'm American and have something to teach them, or because their culture is so much better and richer than mine (these being the two polar sides that plague many views of world culture), but because we are all human beings with something to give and room to take something in return.

We're going to make some great music, and make some great friends. And, damn the torpedoes, ain't no-one gonna stop it.

This is pretty funny.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Milarepa, bones, and other things

"Like bubbles is
This life, transient and fleeting -
In it no assurance can be found."
A layman's life is like a thief
Who sneaks into an empty house.
Know you not the folly of it?

Youth is like a summer flower -
Suddenly it fades away.
Old age is like a fire spreading
Through the fields - suddenly 'tis at your heels.
The Buddha once said, "Birth and death
Are like sunrise and sunset -
Now come, now go."
Sickness is like a little bird
Wounded by a sling.
Know you not, health and strength
Will in time desert you?
Death is like an oil-dry lamp
(After its last flicker).
Nothing, I assure you,
In this world is permanent.
 - Milarepa

Milarepa is a way cool dude. The beginning of his life was no good, and he ended up turning to black magic and murdering nearly 40 of his cousins in a vengeful act upon his aunt and uncle who had taken his inheritance after his father's death. Later on he realized what heavy karma he had incurred through his hatred, and turned to the dharma for peace. He went on to study with Marpa, one of the great teachers of the Tibetan tradition, who gave Milarepa crazy tasks to do and refused to teach him the dharma. Marpa also beat and ridiculed Milarepa with some regularity, and made Milarepa build a tower three times and tear it down, all without explanation or apparent remorse. One day everything changed and Marpa became the epitome of loving father figures, going on to explain that all of the harshness was simply to help Milarepa burn off the effects of his negative deeds. Milarepa then was initiated into some high-level meditation methods, and went happily on his way to be a hermit and a yogi for the rest of his life. His teaching method usually took the form of songs, such as the one above.

Here's a typical depiction of Milarepa:

He's holding a skull cap begging bowl, a continual reminder of the transiency of life and the interdependence of all beings, and he has his hand to his ear so he can better hear the whisperings of the dharma.

Tibetan bone-work is incredible stuff, and the anatomist in me really wants to get one of these one day:

The use of bones in ritual and religious symbolism reminds me of the "ossuary churches" spread throughout the world, mostly in Europe. The monks of one of the ossuary churches (I can't remember which) volunteered their remains for the decoration of these churches as a physical assertion of the reality of the resurrection and their trust in a God who would eventually make all things whole. These churches also serve as a reminder that "to dust we return."

I like that. Maybe I'm a little morbid (who in my family isn't, at least a little), but I think constant reminders that death is a-comin' help me to be happier and kinder and more in the moment. I'm-a-wastin' away, and there's no time to waste! Things are also put in perspective - why worry and struggle so much when all the material I'm leaving behind is a bag o' bones? Why not focus on more enduring legacies than houses, cars, etc., when the only things that really last are love, peace, compassion, faith, and all of those other warm-squishy-feel-goods? It occured to me the other day while on the phone with my Mama (don't mamas have a way of bringing out the best in their chillens?) that once something is over, it's over and done. The biggest things that we plan and slave for - wedding receptions come particularly to mind - are finished in a few hours, and they don't affect us much afterward unless we really want them to. Why not enjoy the planning and the working as part of the event and by-golly-let-it-go when it's done? AND why not see where some of those worries and cares over things that don't really make us happy live, and let them die off peacefully?

Anywho, like I said, Milarepa is a cool guy. I want to find some Kagyu monks and/or nuns who can tell me more while I'm in Little Tibet, because monastics from this guy's lineage are probably cool too.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Effects of Place on Music, and Vice Versa

Lori and I were looking at places to visit while in India, and boy are there a lot to look at. The state of Karnataka, which houses our little refugee community, is a tropical and cultural paradise. The place is incredibly green, and incredibly full of temples, shrines, and people (though, thankfully, Bylakuppe is spared from the denseness of population of, say, another refugee settlement like Dharamshala.). Nothing could be more different from the place the refugees have come from - the cold, expansive desert of the "roof of the world."

Hampi, in Karnataka


The interrelationship of environment and music has just recently become a topic of serious inquiry in scholarly circles, particularly among those who call themselves "human" or "cultural" geographers. Topics as wide as the use of music to forward industry in failing communities to the musical habits of geriatric groups in small towns have produced in-depth studies, and the cultural geography community, as well as those who benefit from their research, are taking a closer listen to the human family. Looking at these pictures of different landscapes got me thinking - how has the transition from the Tibetan highlands to the Indian lowlands affected the production of music in Bylakuppe? Tibetan monastic music, as well as folk music (particularly shepherd song), is definitely a product of the acoustic phenomena present in the Himalaya, just as much as Gregorian chant is a product of the long reverberation times of large cathedrals (but, after the genesis of the chant, the interplay between music and cathedral building is hard to follow - did the cathedrals get bigger so reverb times could grow, or did the composers write in response to increased church size?). The huge horns, loud cymbals, and large drums of Tibet are instruments designed to travel across the vast plains and echo off the never-ending white-capped walls of the eternal mountains. On the folk side, the plaintive song of the shepherd immediately directs the imagination in the direction of the lone protector of the flock leading his livelihood through mountain passes. What happens to these songs when translated into the densely attenuated echo-space produced by thick forests and tropical rain?

Looking at music this way, perhaps singing the traditional songs of the homeland is a way to travel there for a few moments, to relive and recapture the freedom of wide-open spaces and the safety of living nestled between mountain-sentinels. And perhaps the new musics being produced by youth represent not only the shrinking world village and crosstalk of cultures enabled by internet and a new physical location, but also reflect the polarity of the green environment they have grown up in compared with their parents' white ancestral home. In a conversation with a classmate who has lived in a Tibetan community, I found that the longer a Tibetan family has been in India, the more they shift their culinary preferences toward ingredients readily found in India, and drink less butter-tea and eat less tsampa. Are the Himalayan horns and cacophonous drums being traded for nagaswaram and mridangam? Or for drum sets and electric guitars? And what of Tibetan music is persistent, responding little or not at all to the changed physical and cultural climate? 

These questions, I insist in accord with a main premise of ethnomusicology, are important for not only artistic purposes but for the wider and grander purpose of coming to a greater understanding of identity, for it is in the artistic expression of a people that the finer ineffable points of what it means to be human, and what it means to be a human in a particular time and place, begin to surface.

There is, of course, the problem of defining what exactly "Tibetan-ness" is, but that remains for another time.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gamelan and the beginning of field work

"Once the performance began in the village community center, it struck me that gamelan was just a tiny fragment of the cultural mosaic, as my focus flitted from one image and sound and smell to the next, feeling a wonderful sense of confusion at being surrounded by the unknown. Over the course of the year, as I became immersed deeper and deeper into this world, closely living and working with performers, Bali became less 'exotic' while every ceremony seemed richer in heartfelt beauty than the last. At the same time, the more I learned, the more I realized how little I understood. Admitting this is the first step toward allowing a place to be real." Lisa Gold

 I'm finally beginning to understand the theoretical framework for my project. I've gotten myself partially categorized - it's called "participatory action research," to use the words of folks who know much more about field research than I do. I will also be doing exploration research, or "blank slate" research. This sounds much less prepared than it actually is. Before the field work in Bylakuppe can start I have to finish quite a large list of readings I have prepared for myself, have many meetings with more knowledgeable researchers, etc. I want to know the biggest, most important things about the field of ethnomusicology, and the biggest, most important things about Tibetan music and the diaspora. I'm in the stage of determining what exactly the "biggest, most important things" are, and which of those things are actually big and important to me. To get to this point I have to read, read, read and listen, listen, listen, keeping in mind that I know "not a damn, damn thing at all" (to quote K'Naan).

The realization has started to materialize, however, that I have been doing this kind of research my whole life. From playing what I disdainfully call "white-boy drummer-music" to spending hours and hours woodshedding with masters of funk, r&b, jazz, afro-cuban, and so on, the focus of my musical career has been hearing something funky and trying to get at it from the inside out. Gamelan has been my most recent foray, and it is something very funky indeed. I mean, just listen to the music on this video. It's amazing stuff.

The biggest realization within this realization is that understanding music and creating it properly relies on a deep understanding of the religious and cultural context and motivations for its creation. The nutso mercurial interlocking patterns of gamelan just don't happen if the group doesn't understand, in at least a small way, Balinese social patterns and the importance of community and family. The correct playing of any part is pointless without the correct playing of all the other parts, so each member of the group is responsible for what everybody else does, and for fitting themselves into the whole. There is no room for ego if the piece is going to sound right. Once this concept clicks in the gamelan, incredible things start to happen, and it snowballs.

And so, I wonder what underlying social patterns I will have to understand to be able to get at Tibetan music from the inside out. There is so much written on Tibetan religion - do these values translate, and how? What about unwritten values, things that have to be experienced to be understood? Perhaps I will plan to spend a week or two in the beginning of the field study just trying to get my head and heart into what it means to be Tibetan, before I even worry about the rest of the details. Then again, maybe jumping into the ethnographic research is the best way to "get at it from the inside out." I don't know.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tibetan Monasticism - some thoughts

Togden - a very cool type of Tibetan monk
So, the plan is to hang out with monks, right? I figured I might as well learn a thing or two about Tibetan monasticism. A few months back I caught wind of a book called "Cave in the Snow," about one Tenzin Palmo, an English woman who became an influential Tibetan Buddhist nun. I read it over the long weekend.The book is a great look at the ins and outs of monastic life, as well as a good overview of issues currently being dealt with in the Tibetan Buddhist community. It is written from a faithful perspective, which increases its value immeasurably. I can dig on scholastic, detached methods, and they definitely have their place, but learning about a religion and religious community from a person who is invested in it just feels better. Scholarly skepticism tends to remove all talk of the miraculous, except to ridicule it, and relegates spiritual awakening to psychological imbalance or wishful thinking. Anywho, I'm off topic.

I'll share, for now, one topic I found interesting, and the way it tied in with my own religious background.This is from a talk given by Tenzin Palmo, after she had come out of 12 years of meditation in a cave in the Himalayas and began touring the world raising funds for building a nunnery.

Cave in the Snow 171
The reason we are not Enlightened is because we are lazy. There's no other reason. We do not bother to bring ourselves back to the present because we're too fascinated by the games the mind is playing. If one genuinely thinks about Renunciation it is not a giving up of external things like money, leaving home or one's family. That's easy. Genuine renunciation is giving up our fond thoughts, all our delight in memories, hopes and daydreams, our mental chatter. To renounce that and stay naked in the present, that is renunciation.

I really dig the whole "stay naked in the present" thing. We come naked into the world, humble and free, and we tend to leave it the same way. In between we accumulate a bunch of junk, in the mind and in the garage, and if we want to get to where we want to go we have to leave it all behind.

Ecclesiastes 5:12-16
The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep. There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt. But those riches perish by evil travail: and he begetteth a son, and there is nothing in his hand.
As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath laboured for the wind?

It seems like most labor is "for the wind." The monastic life is appealing to me because there is a conscious decision to break from the worldly, to refuse to labor any more for the wind than is necessary for sustenance. Some monks and nuns, from the Jain tradition (for example), remove themselves from all striving after the wind, depending entirely on the generosity of the faithful in a bold statement affirming the ability of the human race to be kind and charitable. In a world so obsessed with getting more, the sentiments of Tenzin Palmo and the Preacher of Ecclesiastes teach the value of being honest and transparent, focusing on the spiritual and eternal, eschewing"riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt." From my own experience as an itinerant monk, under a vow of chastity and scarcity, living out of two suitcases and wearing the same clothing every day while depending on members of the church for food and housing, I came to cherish the simple life.

The Buddhist strives to take this to the next level. Not only is outward simplicity maintained, but the more important, inward parts of the human are streamlined and focused. When people ask Tenzin Palmo what she gained from those twelve years in the cave, she tells them that she didn't gain anything - the value of the experience was in what she lost. Dr. Keller (World Religions, BYU) always refers to the "monkey mind," and that's accurate. My personal spaces are pretty clean and organized, and the desktop on my computer is perpetually cleared of everything - I hate, hate, hate clutter. But if the state of my mind could manifest itself in the physical world, I would be a prime case for that Hoarders show I hear everyone talk about. There is so much stuff up there, and most of it is useless. Concentration becomes difficult because there are so many things for the monkey to jump around on - it's a friggin' junkyard playground. I wish there was a way to burn that mother down, start over, but there isn't. In Tibetan Buddhism, the long hours of meditation are spent removing the junk, bit by bit, until the spacious, green field that we started with is back. There are occasions, talked about by Zen practitioners and Alma and Paul, when a blaze of white light obliterates most of the stuff in the yard, but that is rare. I'm not counting on it.

The challenge, then, is to begin living in the moment, presently, truthfully, nakedly. Start removing myself from all the things I have around me, start removing myself from all the things I have in me, and arrive back at cultivating compassion, love, relationships, charity, truth - as Old Gregg would say, "All things that are good." Then maybe I'll be able to learn a thing or two from the monastics we meet, and be able to relate on a personal level.

Lori and I decided that we are going to India with the smallest amount of stuff possible - a backpack and a small suitcase for each, maybe. I'm hoping I can come back with even less.
There is a point to this picture! This is a Japanese Onsen, filled with Japanese Macaques. The Japanese Onsen, or hot bath/spring, is famous for many reasons. One of these reasons is that many important business deals are struck in the onsen - think of it as the Japanese equivalent of an American golf-course deal. Why do business in the onsen? The traditional dress of the onsen is the birthday suit. Take a business man out of his $10,000 suit and panda leather shoes, put him in a bunch of steamy water with a bunch of other naked men, and you've got yourself an honest transaction. This sums up about 3/4 of my life philosophy - pretenses are stupid, so drop them. As an imperialist American with cow leather shoes, I'm sure I have plenty of pretenses left to drop. Why the monkeys? Because a picture of that bunch of sweaty, naked men might have freaked out the censors.

P.S. Don't worry, friends - I'll still bring you your saris and Ganesh statues.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Write Yourself a Manual

Inspiration comes from unexpected places.

I went to BYU's Acoustics Research Group (ARG) meeting this morning. For those of you who aren't familiar with all the weird things I'm into, I spent a large portion of last year conducting acoustics research on the Nigerian Udu clay pot drum, culminating in a presentation at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego in the fall. We are still working on finishing the paper and publishing it (look in all your upcoming acoustics journals for "Equivalent circuit modeling and vibrometry analysis of the Udu Utar Nigerian drum!"), though progress has slowed a bit due to my professor taking a post at Los Alamos National Laboratory and me having, as always, a rather busy schedule. Anywho, I like to go to the meetings for the free food and the friends I have made, as well as to look for more opportunities for research on weird and obscure instruments. Hopefully I will get to do an analysis of Gamelan instrument tuning, but that probably won't happen until after India comes and goes.

The meeting focused on proper and thorough documentation of one's work. A big problem, especially at university labs, is the high turnover rate of researchers. People graduate, switch majors, get married, etc., etc. Large and small projects often have to be set aside for months or years. When new folks come along and see a half-completed project, they jump on board only to find that they basically have to start from ground zero because all the last researcher left behind were results of experiments without any notation as to how the experiment was set up, what the 239th line of code does, what the names of their files mean (ttl2Version1.8? What is that?! The person who wrote the file name probably forgot too.), ad nauseum. This problem also occurs when time comes for thesis defenses, dissertations, or graduation boards.

"What protocol did you use to obtain these results?"
Trying to remember, thinking back four years...
"Umm... Seven?"

To avoid problems like this in the future, the presenter said, it's a good idea - a great idea - to write yourself a manual as you go along. Include things like:

Research methods
Purchase orders
Equipment and settings

I can't tell you how many times I've worked through half of a math or physics problem, set it down to get a drink of water, and come back wondering, "now why in the heck did I do that? I'm sure I was going somewhere with that derivation..." and had to start over. There's a mindset that occurs when in the middle of hard work that has to be recaptured when work is resumed, and methinks something like a manual would help with speedifying the recapture process. The idea is to not trust your brain, and to leave notes detailed enough so that someone else could easily pick up where you left off.

I don't know about you, but I don't trust my brain. My plan is to keep more detailed notes, including the items above and probably adding in more things as trial and error works its magic. This will help with the field study. It will probably also help with whatever else I end up doing with my life.

On a closing note, there is also a bit of sick pleasure I get from knowing I will leave behind notebooks upon notebooks of mostly useless information for my great-grandkids to dig through when they're doing family history. Buahaha. Beau Hilton VII, you just try to find the touching anecdotes. I dare you.

25 Questions Activity

To get ready for more in-depth research, our teachers asked us to think of 25 questions we would like to explore. Several of these can probably be answered, at least superficially, through reading, but many will have to be addressed in the field.

1. What is the relationship between the laypeople and the monastics in Bylakuppe?
2. What functions does music assume in the lives of the laypeople?

3. Ditto for monastics?
4. What kind of importance is placed on sacred music by the laypeople?

5. Is there a stigma against folk music/secular music, and does such a thing as secular music even exist?
6. What are some reasons given by the monastics for entering monastic life?
7. What, if any, religious principles undergird the sound and arrangement of sacred music?
8. Do these principles have any bearing on folk or secular music?
9. Do any Tibetan instruments depend on Tibet-specific materials (woods, metals, etc.), and if so, are the materials imported from Tibet or have substitutions been made for South Indian materials?
10. Is sacred music thought to have an effect on those who hear and make it, apart from spiritual nourishment (physical healing, mood change, garnering blessings)?
11. Do most Tibetan youth tend to cherish their culture, or is there a tendency towards sloughing off yesteryear and forgetting about the past? Is there a trend, or is it too individual to say?
12. What is being done to educate youth in traditional Tibetan music and art? What pedagogical methods are used?
13. How is this teaching translating into preservation of culture? Is there a feeling that what it means to be Tibetan is changing?
14. To what extent have preservation efforts invented "Tibetan-ness," and is it even possible to ascertain the extent of invention?
15. How do the elderly feel about new musics?
16. What musics are popular among Tibetan youth?
17. What musics are being performed by Tibetan youth?
18. Are western instruments readily available in the settlements?
19. What are some of the mixtures of music taking place in Bylakuppe? I've heard Tibetan techno, Tibetan soft rock, and Tibetan blues, but is there anything else happening there? Hip-hop, metal, latin, show-tunes a-la bollywood?
20. How does the Tibetan landscape affect music/instrument construction? Is the South Indian physical context problematic?
21. Do laypeople participate in sacred music? If so, how?
22. How do most people obtain music for consumption? Do music stores exist close enough, or is the internet the primary source? What effect, if any, does the internet have on the musical culture in Bylakuppe?
23. Is there any written form of Tibetan music?

24. How is Tibetan music learned by those who want to learn it? Is it learned by ear, or is whatever written form that may exist a primary teaching tool?
25. Is there a traditional order for learning traditional music, or does the teacher determine a course individual to each student?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I am slightly repurposing this blog, partly because I don't want to make a new one, partly because the few people out there who have read what is on here already will probably dig what's coming down the chute.

For the field studies prep class, we are required to have a blog to keep track of and share what we've learned, what we're thinking, etc. So, as Lori and I prepare to go to Bylakuppe, India, come here to stay updated on what I'm up to. Check out Lori's blog too: http://lorisindiablog.blogspot.com/

To the folks in the ISP program who will read this, feel free to check out any older posts. They're mostly my papers from the graduate world religions course I was allowed/privileged to take in the fall of '11, and several have direct relevance to my study in India.

The picture above is of Techung, a wonderful Tibetan musician who has been kind enough to assist me in making contacts in India. Give him a listen at www.techung.com.