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Ravenna Michalsen

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Listening to Mantra Music

Posted: 06/02/11 12:59 PM ET

There are a tremendous number of mantra-based songs in the American Buddhist soundscape, particularly the mantra for the bodhisattva Ārya Tārā. For now, let's set aside who or what bodhisattva Tārā (Sanskrit. "star") is except to say that she arose as a bodhisattva with 21 different forms in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and as a tantric meditational deity in Vajrayāna Buddhism. The most common Tārā mantra set to music is that of Green Tārā (Oṃ Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā), who (broadly) holds the mantle for compassionate action and protection from fear and suffering.

Given that the vast majority of American Buddhists are converts and spend years circling around the concept and meaning represented by meditational deities such as Tārā, how do we listen to songs written with her mantra as the lyrics? Do we appreciate them as relaxing and beautiful, but repetitive (since the mantra is the only words used) background music? Or, is it possible to gain some sense, if not deepening of a preexisting understanding, of what Tārā represents through music using her mantra?

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure detailed the theory of the signifier-signified. The signifier is the word itself, its sound and the actual sequence of its letters. What it signifies is the mental concept or object that appears in the mind when we read, hear or see the signifier. So what happens when the signifier either does not have a signified or, at best, a very fuzzy one? In other words, you hear a sung version of the Tārā mantra and it is moving, but you have no idea why it is moving or what the mantra means. If there is no associated meaning, can mantra music be anything other than music?

Both of these songs are the Tārā mantra set to music. The arrangements are minimalistic and the emphasis is clearly on the mantra itself. This first song, "Om Tare," by the Hindu-leaning artist Angelika, is a rather enchanting vocal performance resting atop an autoharp, very light piano and the drone tamboura. ("Om Tare" from the 2005 album Deeksha.)

This second version is a longer mantra specific to White Tārā, performed by a combination of two well-known artists within the mantra music scene: Deva Premal and the Gyuto monks of Dharamsala, India. It is again a track with minimal background, but rhythmically intriguing with lovely, intentional sibilance. ("White Tara" from the 2011 album Tibetan Mantras for Turbulent Times.)

When you listen to these tracks, ask yourself what, if anything, from the musical arrangement and the performance is being signified? I would argue that what we learn is actually not arising from the realm of the symbolic, but from the semiotic. This concept again comes from the field of linguistics, specifically from the work of Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva. In Kristeva's imagining of the semiotic, meaning is communicated not through grammar or syntax, but through how language is spoken, inflected or performed. Broadly, perhaps, in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism, devotion is often expressed through the semiotic. It is not necessarily that one sings the mantra of Tārā; it is how it is sung.

This last song, "Dölma" (Sanskrit: Tārā; Tibetan: sgrol ma, approximately: "She who takes beings across the ocean of samsara"), is another imagining of devotional music. It is a track based on a Tārā meditation practice (Sanskrit: sādhanā), I learned at Tara Mandala (sensing a theme?), a Buddhist retreat center in southern Colorado dedicated to the reemergence of the sacred feminine, from the American Buddhist teacher Tsultrim Allione. It uses words from the sādhanā; my favorite lyrics are "I have no other hope but you!" which conveys the urgency underlying much devotional practice. ("Dolma" from the 2008 album Bloom.)

So, tell me what you think! What are these songs communicating? Is it symbolic or semiotic? Is it relaxing background music or perhaps a useful method for deepening one's personal understanding of the outer and inner forms of compassion and emptiness?