09/15/2011 07:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Buddhist Music: Songs About Cho and Machik Labdron (AUDIO)

I recently received a copy of composer and guitarist Steve Tibbetts' newly re-mastered three CD set, Compilation: Acoustibbetts / Elektrobitts / Exotibbetts and was absolutely arrested by the song "Kangyi Tengi," originally from the 1997 album Chö. Chö is an unusual collaboration album between Tibbetts and the Tibetan Buddhist nun Chöying Drolma, as well as other nuns from the Nepal-based nunnery Nagi Gompa. Despite my efforts asking various translators, Tibbetts himself and sending an email to Chöying Drolma, no one has been able to translate the title of the song for me (due to the phonetic spelling of the song title), which is most likely part of a longer phrase.

The songs from the album Chö are a series of invocations, praises, supplications and other practices taken from a cycle of Chö teachings developed by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), head of one of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, the Kagyü. Chö as a tantric practice was developed by the 11th century female master Machik Labdrön (1055-1149), and, as a system of teachings and rituals dealing with cutting through the neurosis of self-clinging, it spread far and wide across Tibet. It is said to be the only lineage of teachings that went from Tibet to India, instead of the other way around.

Tibbetts first encountered these Chö songs while living in Nepal and hearing the nuns at Nagi Gompa sing them from afar. He eventually recorded the nuns singing this particular Chö cycle between 1994 and 1996, although it is the vocal presence of Chöying Drolma that effortlessly dominates the entire album and "Kangyi Tengi," in particular. Chöying Drolma has gone on to record several more albums, one with Tibbetts (Selwa) and others as solo projects, all proceeds going to benefit her Ani Foundation, created to aid Tibetan and Nepali nuns, women, children and the underprivileged in Nepal.

LISTEN "Kangyi Tengi":

"Kangyi Tengi" began to take its current shape when Tibbetts took the raw vocal recordings home to Minnesota and spent three months experimenting with various accompaniments for the songs, all the while intending the project to be a gift for the nuns of Nagi Gompa. The temporal space he gave the project is reflected in the musical space of the piece; the vocal performances are simply supported with understated instrumentation and occasional small earthquakes of percussion. The track opens with Tibbetts' acoustic guitar lightly foreshadowing the main melody and the chorus of nuns begins singing around two minutes, 15 seconds. The first two minutes are just the rise and fall of Chöying Drolma's deep alto voice as she travels through her own, impossible-to-imitate melismas of phrasing. When the choir of other nuns enters, along with a slightly heavier guitar line and percussion by both Tibbetts and Marc Anderson, the result is surprisingly catchy. The piece continues in this vein for about one minute, and then the beat drops again around three minutes and 32 seconds. This percussive moment is very aurally satisfying, although musically short-lived, as Chöying Drolma then resumes her solo with acoustic guitar accompaniment.

Machik Labdrön and the practice of Chö is an area of particular interest for many people, myself included, not only because it has been preserved in song but also because she may have been the first Tibetan Buddhist woman to found her own lineage of teachings, which is not only extant today, but flourishing. While in Nepal this summer, I witnessed a Chö practice in a packed shrineroom, and visited a living Chö master, Lama Wangdu, whose visiting rooms were filled with supplicants and whose monastery was filled with Chö practitioners -- ordained, lay, Tibetan, Nepali and Western.

Machik Labdrön's lifestory is also extremely compelling. It has been variously translated by Lama Tsultrim Allione, herself considered a living emanation of Machik, Lama Sarah Harding, Jérôme Edou and others. When I first came across the narration of her early brilliance, long retreats, marriage, children and the development of the Chöd practice based on her understanding of the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra ("The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra") and connection with the Indian Mahasiddha Phadampa Sangye, I was completely captivated. Here was a missing voice and story from among the myriad of male masters of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. In my fervor, I wrote songs to and about her: "Machig" being a series of questions posed to her and other Tibetan yoginis (Yeshe Tsogyal and Jomo Menmo), and "A-drön" being a calling of her various names with the chorus an excerpt from her own final teaching song at the age of 99:

"Supreme view is beyond duality of subject / object;

Supreme meditation is without distraction;

Supreme activity is action without effort;

Supreme realization is beyond both hope and hear!"

I hope you enjoy all the songs! (The full albums are available on iTunes.)