BG 123: Dharma Music Can Sound Like Anything

Episode Description:

This week we speak to the Buddhist-inspired musician Ravenna Michalsen. She explains why dharma music need not sound the way we think it should (think monks chanting in Asian in a cave). Instead, Ravenna’s music crosses musical genres and stretches our notion of what dharma music is. We also discuss the life and teachings of Machig Labdron, one of Tibet’s most famous female masters and the inventor of the Chöd lineage of practice. At the end of the interview we end with a song from Ravenna’s album Dharma Song called “Ki Ki So So.”

Episode Links:


Ryan: Hello Buddhist Geeks, coming at you again from Boulder, Colorado and we’re in my studio tonight… today how bout; what day is this, what time is this right now, I don’t know, but Vince Horn is here with me and that makes everything OK.

Vince: [laughter] Yeah and we’re also joined today by someone who’s calling in from New Haven, Connecticut. And we’re on the phone today with Ravenna Michelson. Hi Ravenna.

Ravenna: Hi. Hi, guys.

Vince: It’s good to have you with us. We heard a lot about you from our mutual friend Danny Fisher, and we saw that you recently wrote an article in Tricycle Magazine about your music, called “Mindful Music.” So, we thought it would be cool to catch up with you and talk to you about your music.

Ravenna: Thanks, well I’m a big fan, especially of your little icon with the glasses.

Ryan: [laughter]

Vince: Thank you. And just a little bit of background on Ravenna. She is a singer / song-writer; she was actually classically trained as a cello musician. What do you call it, a cellist?

Ravenna: A cellist.

Vince: There we go. Recently early 2000’s turned singer / song writer and now you’re producing; you’ve produced a couple albums, the first was call Dharma Song and the second which recently released is called Bloom. And you’re also a Shambhala practitioner and you study with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. So, he’s well known here around Boulder…

Ryan: Yeah.

Vince: …and definitely appreciated around here. And jumping in a little bit to you’re actual music, I was struck when I went to you’re website,, the tag line is “Dharma Music Can Sound Like Anything” and when I listened to the 3rd album Bloom…

Ravenna: [laughter]

Vince: …I was really struck by that, that there was a lot of lyrics and a lot of meaning behind the songs which seemed Dharmic, and related to Dharma teachers and Dharma themes, and yet the genre or the type of song really reminded me of Folk and Bluegrass and different type of genres. So, I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about why Dharma music can sound like anything and what that means.

Ravenna: You know what at the risk of kind of moving into translation issues. I think it’s a little bit important that as a convert community we recognize that Dharma doesn’t just mean what comes out of our chosen teacher’s mouth, or that Buddhism doesn’t just refer to a very small set of rituals and beliefs.

That actually when you step back Dharma’s been translated as everything from, that which holds us back from non-virtuous actions to the truth, the truth of reality, the teaching’s of the truth, and then Buddhism kind of refers to a whole mess of things, that if you step back and; if someone gave you the opportunity to travel all around the Buddhist world, over the last 2,500 years, I think we would all be shocked at what’s been included under the rubric of “Buddhism”, and so when I said “oh Dharma music can sound like anything” it was kind of me being a little bit playful and kind of trying to poke people and say “So you thought it would sound like this, well guess what it can also sound like this a little bit.” And that’s part why I did two versions of the song Mipham Rinpoche asked me to set to music, Just A Seed Waiting To Grow I did this thing like dreamy and sun drenched version with cellos and voices and reverb up the wazoo, and then I did just a straight up pop version that sounds like maybe Early Breeders, if in my wildest dreams.

I think it’s important that we don’t get too attached to whatever our idea of Dharma is or whatever our idea of music is. I’m sure you’re parents at a certain point maybe said “You’re music these days” or “That’s not music.” How many time have we heard in the last maybe; maybe it was more in the 80’s early 90’s that people would say, “Rap isn’t music,” and today of course we accept hip-hop and rap as completely part of the musical landscape of the United States. So, this is just kind of poking people a little bit to say “Well, can it sound like anything” or is it supposed to sound a certain way, I’m not talking about content, but just in terms of sound.

One of the movements that I’m really interested in, and I love watching documentaries about, and listening to is gospel music. And there was so much struggle with a lot of earlier gospel musicians about whether they could do secular music but still bring that kind of devotional, gospel feel to it. And, I don’t know if that question has necessarily been resolved since we still have this genre that’s called gospel and than we have non-gospel music, but this question has been around forever I think.

Vince: Yeah, and then there’s the whole thing of Christian rock becoming really popular, which is connected with that.

Ravenna: [laughter] Right. I will admit that I don’t think I ever heard Christian rock that I was aware of. I mean, as a classically trained musician, holy mackerel, you know, we play a whole bunch of Mozart, requiems, and Vivaldi Glorias and that’s some of the most, to me, beautiful music in the world, or Bach Cantatas. Those are all, you know, in praise of God and the Lord and Jesus Christ. I mean, if that’s not kind of religious music… But, today, we don’t necessarily identify it very overtly as Christian music. We identify it as classical music.

Ryan: Yeah, one thing I love that you’re doing is you’re a Tibetan practitioner and you are aware of the art integration with the teachings, you know, the paintings and music. It’s a very big part of practice and the path. And so, I think it’s great that a musician like yourself, you’re creating music in the western context, cause we don’t that much of it actually so far. That’s the one thing that’s kind of, for me, been lacking as a musician myself that I want to hear…

Ravenna: Right.

Ryan: …more expressions that are taking roots from the Tibetan culture but are uniquely our own.

Ravenna: Or not even Tibetan culture but just overall any Buddhist culture cause I’m…

Ryan: Yeah, right, right.

Ravenna: ….you know, all these places are our convert places although they converted, you know, thousand years ago, two thousand years ago…

Vince: Right.

Ravenna: But, I felt very strongly when I met Mipham Rinpoche, I mean I totally fell in love. But one of the reasons I fell in love is that he spoke English in a way that I speak English. He made jokes the way I make jokes. There was so much identification that I felt that a lot of the exoticism that I had seen in other Buddhist situations dropped away, cause I had spent time in Bodh Gaya, you know, trying to learn about the origins of Buddhism. It was years before I met Mipham Rinpoche and so I’d seen a lot of, kind of: “Oh my God, it’s a human being draped in like saffron cloth. I must go, like, look at his feet…”

All: [laughter]

Ravenna: …without any understanding of: “Well, was it virtue… is that just happens to be what he’s wearing today? Like, what’s going on?” And then to meet Mipham Rinpoche was this combination of incredible practitioner but also, you know, he spent his life in the West. And, so, when I set out to do music… Well, when he actually kind of like, nudged me or kind of punched in the kidneys to go do music, this type of music, it didn’t really occur to me to be like: “Okay, now I’ve got to learn some crazy Asian languages… ”

Ryan: [laughter]

Ravenna: “…because that’s what Buddhism is, you know, to me, no not so much.”

Ryan: Right.

Ravenna: For the record, I wish I did know… I wish I were fluent in all those languages but not that I’d write music in them.

Ryan: Right. So, a few of your songs directly relate to some famous Tibetan women and practitioners and teachers, like Machig Labdron and Yeshe Tsogyal. So, could you say a little bit about the songs that you wrote, and about these women?

Ravenna: Sure, Machig Labdron is just incredible Tibetan female practitioner and she lived around… She’s actually a contemporary of Milarepa, she’s a little bit younger so that’s 11th and 12th century in Tibet. And some consider her to be the founder of the Mahamudra Chöd lineage, which is this particular lineage of practice that deals with cutting through these particular four demons, kind of the biggest and most scariest demon being that of ego. And, I mean, you’ve talked to… already, you’ve talked to some of the great western experts on Machig and Chöd, and in Sarah Harding, and then Tsultrim Allione is the one that really brought Machig’s story to the west in her book: Women of Wisdom where she translated her namtar or sacred biography.

And, I just became pretty much obsessed with Machig. There was something about her story. The fact that, you know, she had this miraculous birth, you know, “Yawn, I can’t relate to that.” But then she went on and through her own achievement became this really remarkable practitioner. She goes on and she develops this system of teachings and she ends up debating with 500 punditas sent from Bodh Gaya ’cause they say, “Well, listen. At this point all the Buddha’s dharma has come from India and now you’re saying that there’s Buddhadharma coming from Tibet. We don’t know if we buy this.” Then she beats them and wins them all over, and she has a consort and she has three kids and then she takes off to do a retreat, and her story is just ridiculous. And she lived to be 99 years old.

And Machig sang a lot. I have no idea how well her story or her songs were preserved. I’m not sure that’s knowable, but we have songs that are purported to be sung by Machig Labdron. So I’ve written a couple of songs about her. One is called “Machig” and that’s on Bloom. And that’s just this really, like I was really heartbroken… My fiancee had left me. I was a puddle of tears and dismay and I had just dropped out of my graduate program. And so I was just wondering, “Machig, did you every have any regrets?” Basically, did you ever regret leaving your husband and kids to go do retreat? Did you ever regret, you know, whatever, whatever… That’s the refrain: “Machig Labdron, did you ever have any regrets?”

And then the other song’s called “A-Drön” and that’s kind of reciting her name. She was called
many different names throughout her life. And then interspersed with the kind of calling out of her names, which is very devotional, calling the guru from afar activity, I use a kind of an adapted refrain from her final song where she talks about the supreme view, supreme meditation, supreme activity.

Every time I do a concert and I sing those songs – I don’t do them at every concert – I always talk about her and talk about her life story and try to get people enthusiastic about learning about some of our great female practitioners, some of our lineage mothers.

Vince: Yeah, that seems like something that is really necessary and needed, considering that so many women that are interested in Buddhism don’t have a ton of people like that to look to and say, “hey, what does this look like when a woman wakes up and is, during the awakening process?” Like how does that actually manifest. So I think that’s just beautiful.

Ravenna: And I think the more we study, we find that actually there are a whole bunch of these women but their stories weren’t a), recorded as well or thoroughly, or their stories were only passed down to, maybe their female descendents and so you have to end up at that particular tiny monastery, Nunnery X, Y, and Z and to discover the story.

And also, frankly, in our culture, it’s almost considered a sin to be a single woman who doesn’t have children. And so there’s something in Machig choosing to leave her married state, or her confort state, with Topabhadra, who was her chosen consort/partner and choosing to leave her kids. That is just so completely conception breaking and mind blowing, ’cause today we consider that almost like a crime to leave your kids and family. And she choose to go off and do retreat.

Vince: Right, similar to the…

Ravenna: Machig was a tough cookie [laughter]

Vince: Yeah, similar to the Buddha, who did essentially the…

Ravenna: Yes!

Vince: …we’re told, the same thing.

Ravenna: Exactly. And you know you still hear people who really get fired up, “The Buddha left his infant child and his wife and…”, and people ask me that. I’m like, “You know, I can’t answer that.” But theoretically there are things that are, dare I say it, more important than family.

Vince: Interesting. Well, we’ll see if we get a lot of… we’ll get some interesting emails about that, I hope.

All: [laughter]

Ravenna: Yeah. And not even – I don’t know if I – I guess I believe that. I guess I do. I mean, I’m not married. I don’t have kids and part of me is terrified of that idea because I love being able to pick up and go on retreat.

Vince: So, we wanted to end this conversation… it seemed like it’d be a shame not to let people hear a bit of your music. So we wanted to end with this beautiful song from Dharmasong called “Ki Ki So So”. And before we go into that, I was wondering if you could say a little bit about the song and of what’s the significance of it for you.

Ravenna: It’s based on the chant that’s done both in parts of Tibetan culture and particularly in Shambhala Buddhism, [chants]. And this is a chant that’s done, in short, to raise your wind horse or your lung-ta. And I guess the way I tend to explain it in concerts is, this is confidence in your true nature. This is confidence utterly beyond any sense of aggression. This is confidence not based on how thin you are, or how rich you are, or how much you adore your boyfriend, or your boyfriend adores you, or blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s completely missing the point. This is confidence based, on that completely stainless, birthless, deathless nature that we all get, or have. And I did it… because normally it’s done [singing]. But I set this mark as kind of like a galloping horse rhythm. [singing], and then I layered it on up. So I think there are seven voices. And then… I am a little obsessed, you can tell, with calling the guru’s name from afar. So, Gahway Dorje is one of the names Mipham Rinpoche I guess, he’s called as a child. So that’s the name that I’m calling. [singing]

And then it shifts into the second part of the song, which is the refrain, “I ride on your wind.” And that’s based on the idea that whenever you study with a qualified teacher you’re, in part, riding on the wind of their blessing. I don’t know if you guys have ever had the experience where you go and you receive a teaching from somebody and you’re like, “Yeah, yeah. Okay. I get that.” And then like 15 minutes later, when it’s all over, you’re like, “Wait a minute! What am I supposed to do? What? I’m confused!” And part of that they say is the blessings coming through, their understanding kind of extended to you.

And then on top of that, I just sang what was on my mind, which was my continual issue, which is “that I didn’t listen to what you had to say. I didn’t listen. I will try.” I’ve never felt like I actually have been able ever to listen or follow the Buddha’s teachings. Although I try. Trying failure. So that’s sort of what the whole song is about. It’s like a confidence, heartbreak, falling in love, failure / trying song.

[Ki Ki So So – Song Plays]


Ravenna Michalsen