Music is Tantra
Notes on the Cosmic Symphony
Sanskrit: tantra, meaning “continuum”, related to the verb “to weave”.
And what is music but the vibrational weaving of the cosmic tapestry, using the basic elements of sound, body, heart, and soul?
I want to briefly explore the idea that music played with intention, love, and wisdom is tantra.
Music viewed and experienced in this way is beheld and participated in as a divine appearance — both miraculously empty and yet shining with all the luminous beauty of worldly form.
As Tibetan Lama Je Tsong Khapa outlined in the 1300s, there are 3 basic elements to the Sutra path which precedes and creates a psychological foundation for tantric practice, and thus also for the view of music I’m exploring here. These elements are:
- Renunciation / emerging: waking up to and from the painful unconscious processes that dominate our lives.
- Bodhicitta, or awakened heart-mind: living consciously and intentionally for the benefit and awakening of all living beings.
- Wisdom: realisation of the emptiness of everything.
Thanks to Rob Preece for making this so clear in his excellent talk, Entering the Path of Tantra.
If we apply these elements to music, we pave the way for a tantric relationship to music as a divine, imaginal, magical appearance, or mandala.
So let’s do exactly that:
- Renunciation. Emerging from the egocentric slumber of listening to, making and performing music “for me” or “for my benefit”. This includes using music as a plug for holes in the ego: insecurities, negative self-views, desires for approval and attention and power. Renouncing the fruits of musical success and skill; giving them away for the benefit of all. Offering the fruits of our music to the whole.
- Bodhicitta. Offering ourselves — body, voice, mind, heart and soul — to others. To the world. To all beings, who are themselves divine buddha deities (such is the Tantric view). Offering our music for the healing of the world, a flowering of compassion that sees and feels the pain of the world and offers the beauty of music as a soothing balm and energising tonic, so the weary souls of this world might once more find their inner fire; the flame that will propel them to ecstatic individuation, blissful awakening, and of course, to their own musical blossoming.
- Wisdom. Insight into the emptiness of all music. Nothing exists externally or independently, and music is no exception. It appears, miraculously, dependent on view, way of looking. Seeing music as empty liberates us from our deepset attachments and limiting perspectives, all of which constrict our experience of music, and indeed our conceptions of what music actually is (and isn’t). To see music as impermanent (ever-flowing, ever-transforming, evanescent) prevents us from clinging to any music as anything fixed or reliable that will provide a lasting satisfaction. To see music as “not me” and “not mine”, even when it is flowing through us, opens us to a far vaster and more mystical view of music, as well as its source and direction.
These liberating perspectives create the ground for conceiving and perceiving music tantrically. Another way to put this would be imaginally. For sensing music with soul. And thus for listening, writing, playing, performing music soulfully. For where does it come from, but from the imaginal realm? The realm of Gods, spirits, angels, ancestors and daimons… a realm we commune with when we open to the stream of creative imagination unfolding in our depths — a stream which can be concentrated, directed and channelled into the composition and performance of music in this material realm.
You see, the tantric view of the world of appearances / form / matter revolves around a conception of all of these appearances as thoroughly empty, and thus also as utterly miraculous, magical, divine, and unfathomable.
Taken thus, the Buddha’s middle way invites us to conceive of music as neither real nor unreal (nor both, nor neither), and it is in this infinitely open field of incomprehensibility, unspeakability and inexpressibility that we open to the unfathomable divine beauty and limitless mystical depths that music invites us not only to behold, but to creatively participate in, with every fibre of our light-woven souls.
Tantra operates on the basis that “everything is transforming, and everything can be transformed” (Rob Preece). Music is a very clear expression of this truth, for if any element of music ultimately refused to transform, this would prevent the natural evolution of the piece/symphony/song.
Because we know it is empty, we are freed from the grasping of the insecure ego, which is prone to contracting around music — especially my music — as a potential source of reliable satisfaction and security. Music brings no such security, for it is always transforming, always in flux. And so are we. And so we can relate to music in a new way: as an emanation of the divine buddha mind (or heart), a perfect expression of that heart-mind’s fervent love of all beings, and its natural wish to demonstrate to all beings their innate perfection, their freedom, and their miraculous creative capacities as poetic and musical co-creators of the ever-unfolding cosmos.
We stop holding on, wishing for something solid and fixed and instead let go, surrendering to the flow and the unifying telos of the cosmic symphony as it searches for ever-greater harmony between all living beings.
And that telos is no other than love.
Music is love.
Music can become for us a force and face of the universal compassion that seeks to touch and permeate every being and body, inviting us all into our unvanquishable belonging within the Great Symphony of Birth, Life, Death and In-Between. It seeks to bring all suffering into its embrace, bathing it in its healing harmonic ocean until all the disparate and discordant elements are once again in communion, conversation — and chorus.
Music is continually initiating us unto the underlying/overarching/interwoven cosmic order — an order that is never fixed or rigid but fluid, organic and entirely natural. Perfectly balanced at the edge of chaos, this order evolves into ever-greater and more sublime beauty. It is both the most ordinary and extraordinary thing in the world. Music comes alive at the edge of chaos — and so do we.
To embrace the emptiness of music is to embrace our own emptiness — which is no other than our freedom, our limitlessness, our infinite perceptual openness and un-boundedness to any specific form, body or identity.
We can open to viewing music as an empty and imaginal offering, or gift, from one buddha deity to another.
Angel singing to angel.
Another way to put this is that we can relate to music as image, in the specific sense that Rob Burbea describes it.
Knowing that music is thoroughly empty, we are freed to open to soulful perceptions of music as meaningful, divine and even autonomous. As something both created and discovered. It can be received as grace. Particpated in with humility as a sacred duty. Engaged in with the passionate fire of Eros (loving desire). Through music we both express and share love, as well as receive it (from a divine source). Unfathomable beyonds beckon to us in every chord, rhythm and harmony. The emotional energetic body is activated and energised, joyously aligning itself within the multidimensional vibrational mandala that is the musical cosmos. We “find our place”, “find our voice”, and respond to our calling, to the invitation to create and express the music that only we can create and express. That is the music of the soul, and it is expressed through every sense and every perception, not only sound. The music of the body, the music of personality, the music of friendship and relationship — all of it is engulfed in the experience of divine musical beauty, harmony and perfection.
We can come to see all difficulty and darkness as disharmony that is seeking resolution in a higher or greater harmony. We can personally participate in seeking and manifesting this harmony, for the benefit of all living beings. The tantric view that “all will be transformed” gives us faith and conviction that all wounds will be healed, all suffering will be redeemed, all darkness will be illuminated.
Our entire life — the music of our soul — can become an offering and contribution to this healing, awakening and liberation of our limitless creative (or musical) capacities.
Taken deep enough, we can actually open to the view that everything is music. To the lived experience of the entire cosmos as a music unfolding. To an experience of oneself and one’s life as music. To other beings as ever-transforming elements in a divine symphony of unimaginable proportions.
The ambition, and passion of the divine creative intelligence is truly unspeakable. It cannot be expressed in words. But perhaps it can be sung.
Perhaps, in the depths of a midnight serenade, or a lilting ode soft on the lips of a boatman out at sea, we may sense that the world is a flower in the psyche. That this thing we call Life is the song of the angels. That all phenomena are the mandala of the buddhas, and are thoroughly permeated by the harmonies of love emanating from the infinite expanse of the eternally awakened heart.