Commentary on the vijnana bhairava tantra Sutra 18 The rapture of music By Dr. Lorin Roche
Music is one of the few ecstasies we can surrender to and not be punished. In a song, in the space of a few minutes, we can let go, lose ourselves, and then return, refreshed, with a deeper sense of self. In music, we ride our passions into the vibrating core of energy from which they arise.
On the surface, one would think that rocking out and meditation are opposites. Totally incompatible. Fortunately we are yogis, and Yoga is the art of making harmony between opposites, developing union between body and soul, sound and silence, individuality and universality, passion and serenity.
The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra sings of the interplay of song and silence, again and again calling our attention to the musical qualities of pranashakti flowing in our nerves. This is Sutra 18, Verse 43, a dharana on nada:
Immerse yourself in the rapture of music, You know what you love. Go there. Tend to each note, each chord, Rising up from silence and dissolving again.
Vibrating strings draw us Into the spacious resonance of the heart.
The body becomes light as the sky And you, one with the Great Musician, Who is even now singing us Into existence.
Some people find it easier to read if we put in word boundaries and remove the diacriticals:
tantri adi vadya shabdesu dirghesu krama samsthiteh ananya chetah pratyante para vyoma vapuh bhavet
Creating an approximate glossary, we see: tantri - musical stringed instruments; vadya - aloud, to be played or spoken aloud, also, music instrument or instrumental music; shabdeshu - sounds of the instruments. dirghesu - prolonged (continuous), krama – gradually; samsthiteh - is established; ananya - single focus, without deviation; chetah – awareness; pratyante - in the end; para vyoma - the transcendental sky (associated in tantra with parabrahman and Shiva); vapuh - the body, the incarnation; bhavet - becomes.
The text is clearly inviting us to begin by listening to external music, and then follow the impulses to the inner. People who love music already know the truth of this sutra, and they are surprised and delighted to see it affirmed in a classic yoga text.
Any form through which we can hear music is wonderful, but live music is especially powerful for this dharana. Go to that concert, listen to that band. Find the kind of music that strikes a chord in you, and immerse yourself in it. When a song ends, the silence throbs, and we can follow that throbbing into a silence louder than the music.
In the late 60’s and much of the 70’s, I missed out on the full power of this dharana because I didn’t go to concerts and missed all those legendary performances. I was spending every penny on meditation teacher training, and one concert ticket was the same cost as two days on retreat. Also, I didn’t do drugs or smoke pot, and in those days, the group would be offended if you did not pass the joint. Also, concerts started around the time I usually went to sleep. I got up each day around 4, did yoga, meditated, did my homework, then drove to the beach to be in the ocean by first light, and catch a few waves before the day began. To do that, I had to be in bed by 9.
One evening in 1976 I went to a great concert, and realized what a fool I had been, what I had been missing. Some friends called me up and said, “Come on Lorin, let’s go to the Hollywood Bowl and hear Leonard somebody conducting the something orchestra, playing the something concerto. We have tickets.” I was so utterly into all things from India that I had not been paying attention to Western culture at all, except for science. I’d never heard of these people. So I had no idea what was about to happen to me.
The conductor walked out, raised his arms, and then the first notes hit the silence and sent a wave of thrill through the air. In a moment, I was transported into deep meditation, similar to where I would get after maybe a month of a silent retreat, but combined with awareness of the outer world. The texture of sound woven was so divinely intelligent and evocative that I was able to hear an ocean of silence and simultaneously witness each note arising, playing around, and then dissolving. After about an hour, the thought came to me, “Oh, if this brilliance is happening, there must be a current of revelation, a tradition of wisdom in Western culture.” This was news to me. The conductor was Leonard Bernstein, the band was the New York Philharmonic, and Yehudi Menuhin was on lead violin. These were masters at work, and they were playing the Brandenburg Concertos. This was one of the great performances, and I am and remain permanently changed. The world is a larger, and better place for me because of attending this event.
I am one of those people who require a yoga practice in order to stay tuned enough to fully appreciate music and enter the rapture with every cell of my body. I need to approach music from both sides – from silence coming to music, and from outer music leading me toward silence. If I don’t meditate every day, engage in some pranayama, and do some asanas, I slowly lose my “attunement” and after awhile music does not touch me so deeply. What a sin that would be.
What methods tune your body and nerves so that you are able to enter music with the mind of a yogi? What is the music you love so much you want to dissolve into it? What music is so ravishing that it leaves you in a stunned and pulsating silence, the “aesthetic arrest” James Joyce talked about, in which your mind goes silent in awe at the presence of such beauty?