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The Gyuto Monks of Tibet
A new documentary sheds light into the lives of Tibetan Buddhist monks from a sacred monastery in Northern India.


A new documentary sheds light into the lives of Tibetan Buddhist monks from a sacred monastery in Northern India.

In particular, it explores the ancient and fascinating ritual of harmonic chanting.

Kate Arnott spoke to some of the monks during their visit to Australia.
Transcript
JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: The Gyuto Monastry in Dharamsala in northern India is one of Buddhism's most sacred institutions .

Now a new documentary gives a rare insight into the lives of the Tibetan monks who live there in exile.

And in particular, it explores the ancient and fascinating ritual of harmonic chanting.

Kate Arnott spoke to some of the monks during their tour of Australia.

(Footage of Gyuto monks performing plays)

(Translation): This tradition of chanting has a number of varieties, underpinned by harmonic overtone chanting in which three octaves resonate simultaneously.

TASHI, GYUTO MONK (Translation): There are many times in a year where you're required to chant or perform a ritual lasting a whole week. Each day it takes about 18 hours to complete a chant.

(Footage of Gyuto monks performing plays)

KATE ARNOTT, REPORTER: It is a fascinating practice and the Gyuto monks of Tibet are the unique masters of it. A recording of their chanting was nominated for a Grammy award last year. The monks perform across the world.

But at its heart, this ancient ritual is more than just a performance, the monks say it is a deep recitation of the teachings of Buddha.

(Footage from ‘Pure Sound-The Gyuto Monks of Tibet’, Dir John Doggett-Williams, plays)

To get a rare insight into the harmonic chanting, director and journalist John Doggett Williams and his team travelled to the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India for the inauguration of a new Gyuto monastery. They were given open access to the monks and their rituals.

JOHN DOGGETT-WILLIAMS, DIRECTOR: We were literally in the middle of them while they were chanting. Which was, it was amazing. To be in the room, you physically felt your hair standing on end literally. At one point I touched the top of my hair and it was tingling.

(Footage from ‘Pure Sound – the Gyuto Monks of Tibet’ of young monks learning to chant plays)

KATE ARNOTT: Learning to chant in three octaves at once takes time and patience. Most Gyuto monks start preparing as students before the age of 10.

(Excerpt from ‘Pure Sound – The Gyuto Monks of Tibet’ plays)

GEN LAMA (Subtitled translation): Monks go to extraordinary lengths to get that sound, such as swallowing a piece of raw meat tied to string and yanking it out to change their vocal chords.

(End excerpt)

TASHI (Translation): It almost disfigures your vocal chords or voice box to make that booming sound. Please do not try this at home without supervision. It is very dangerous. One of my friends did try that in desperation and he nearly died.

KATE ARNOTT: When the monks first took their chanting to the West in the early 70s, they faced a lot of suspicion. People didn't think it was humanly possible to make such an extraordinary sound.

(Excerpt from ‘Pure Sound – The Gyuto Monks of Tibet’ plays)

JAMPA TASHI, GYUTO MONK (Subtitled translation): Some men came to check us out thinking that we were hiding some sort of device in our mouths. So they shone torches in them to make sure there was nothing there.

(End excerpt)


KATE ARNOTT: The practice of harmonic overtone chanting dates back to 1475, when the Gyuto order was established. And it’s said to have a transformative affect on the physical and emotional body.

TASHI (Translation): When you're engaged in that chanting for 18 hours a day, five days a week, it’s not just chanting, you're changing your reality, your perceptions. It feels like a very short time, even though outside it’s 18 hours. Having said that, when I come back to my room, I do feel a bit worse for wear.

KATE ARNOTT: The documentary also explores the lives of students at the Gyuto monastery.

(Excerpt ‘Pure Sound – The Gyuto Monks of Tibet’ plays)

MONK (Subtitled translation): The kids have different backgrounds, some are orphans, some are poor and others are from well off families.

(End excerpt)

(Footage from ‘Pure Sound – the Gyuto Monks of Tibet’ of young monks hard at work memorising text plays)

KATE ARNOTT: Huge memory power is a basic requirement for Gyuto monks. So for seven days a week, the students' main focus is memorisation.

GEN LAMA (Translation): A primary task for a young monk when he joins the monastery is to memorise a minimum of 2,500 pages of text. It’s text that relates to the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism and other monastery chantings. Until a late stage of their teenage years, memorisation consumes most of their time.
(Footage from ‘Pure Sound – the Gyuto Monks of Tibet’ of young monks washing plays)

KATE ARNOTT: There is some time for playing on Sundays, though, and the monks say life is nowhere near as gruelling as it used to be. That is mainly to make sure students keep coming to the monastery to preserve the ancient rituals.

JOHN DOGGETT-WILLIAMS: They dedicate themselves literally to improving the lives of others and it is quite inspiring. And I’m a strong believer that anyone who watches the program will come away being impressed by this simplicity but also the courage and dedication of their practice.

(Footage of Gyuto Monastry, Tibet is shown)
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