Listening in the Bardo: Hearing Beyond Sound


Ludwig van Beethoven was struck with deafness at the height of his career in Vienna. In his later years, Beethoven composed music “in his head” and painstakingly revised each piece of music until he was satisfied with the result. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is also said to have heard music internally, as if he were tuned into a channel that directly linked him to the harmony of the spheres. All of Mozart’s musical manuscripts are original copies that show no sign of revisions of any kind. His copious body of works, which include operas, symphonies, chamber and religious music, is mythic as well. Both of the examples just given are completely different, yet each shares a common denominator: the ability to hear music beyond the physical phenomenon of sound.

Ethnomusicologist Guy Beck relates this kind of internal (or imaginal) hearing to non-linguistic sound, which is characterized as “sounds of objects employed in worship, interior sounds heard in meditation, and especially musical sounds in both categories” (Beck 6). Linguistic sound, according to Beck, corresponds to language sounds that occur in the mantras and chants used during meditation, as well as in the reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead at the time of death. In mythomusicological and psychological terms, both non-linguistic and linguistic sounds function as psychopomps, guiding the psyche into deeper levels of the unconscious during meditation and transporting the soul through the bardo when life has left the body.

The word bardo translates as “gap,” and as “a sort of landmark which stands between two things” (Freemantle 10); the bardo is both a gap of emptiness and a place within a gap, it is the image representing the experience of luminous consciousness. Musical intervals and rhythmic patterns in music, for example, are created and measured by the amount of “gap” or space between individual notes––they are microcosmic expressions of meditative, dreamlike states of being. The macrocosm in which the phenomena of music and sound exist would be similar to a universal womb. The womblike, vacuous space in which music and sound travels to the ear and to the soul is called dharmadhatu, “the idea of the all-encompassing matrix in which all phenomena arise and cease” (Freemantle 107). In his commentary about the Bardo Thotrol, Chogyam Trungpa describes the visions experienced in the dharmata bardo:
…the brilliant colours and sounds that come along with the visions, are not made out of any kind of substance which needs maintenance from the point of view of the perceiver, but they just happen, as expression of silence and expression of emptiness. (Freemantle 12)

The link of mystical music to chthonic deities, myth and ritual in Tibetan Buddhism is audible in the chanting of Buddhist monks and visible in the sacred text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The musical technique used by the Buddhist Tibetan monks of Gyume Tantric Monastery and Gyuto Tantric University in Lhasa to create the low, resonant, growling sound is called the “one voice chord.” How these monks created this chanting style has been attributed to internal hearing in a dream:

One night in 1433 AD, the Tibetan Lama Je Tzong Sherab Senge awoke from a startling dream. He had heard a voice in the dream unlike any voice he knew. It was a low voice, unbelievably deep, sounding more like the growl of a wild bull than anything human. (Hightower 2000)

According to the legend, the lama was instructed by the dream to create a new tantric chanting style that would “embody both the masculine and the feminine aspects of the divine energy” (Hightower 2000). Alexander Berzin connects the genesis of the one voice chord with another lama, Tsongkhapa, a guru of Je Tzong Sherab Senge.

Tsongkhapa had two styles of chanting at different times in his life, based on visions he had, in which protectors chanted to him in these ways. The two are called the mountain-cracking voice ( ri-bo rags-pa’i skad ) and the waterfall-crashing voice ( chu-der sgrogs-pa’i skad ). Both styles are with an extremely base voice, with the former being a flat monotone and the later undulating and producing overtones. (Berzin 2003)

Musicologists and musicians have studied the technique employed by the chanting monks and have found it astoundingly difficult to reproduce the sound themselves. One musician in particular, Jonathon Goldman, tried to teach himself the one voice chord after spending many hours in the studio recording the monks of both the Gyuto and Gyume Tantric Universities. He had been unable to recreate the sound until he had been listening to a recording in his meditation studio and fell asleep. Upon awakening he tried vocalizing the one voice chord again and it seemed to effortlessly drift out of his throat.
The voice appears to be a gift I received by being with the monks. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is said to be the result of making an offering to the Buddha on a conch shell in a past life. I do not know. In my own dreams, I recall a meeting with the monks in which I was given the voice. During this dreamtime experience, I was told never to misuse the voice for ego or attention. It is perhaps an extraordinary example of ‘Harmonic Transmission’, a musical power that is transferred directly to a student due to being in the vibratory presence of an expert. (Hightower 2000)

The monks chant the low bass note that is two octaves below middle C, which in effect vibrates at a frequency that resonates harmonics above it to create multiple notes coming from one voice––and for the most part the human ear isn’t sensitive enough to hear all of the resulting harmonics. The harmonics are implied, but not explicitly heard, transmitting the mystical and archetypal images and energies to and from the psyche. The “deep voice chant” (an alternate name for the “one voice chord”) transmits sacred tantric knowledge from the guru to the student, and more importantly, from the student and guru to the world as a way to expand enlightenment to all beings living in all realms.

According to tantric philosophy, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six bardos: the bardo of life, the bardo of dying, the bardo of dharmata, the bardo of becoming, the bardo of dream, and the bardo of meditation (class lecture notes). Life itself is a bardo state and while we are alive we also experience the bardos of dream and meditation; the one voice chord chanting technique seems to have come to the lamas while in the dream bardo. In order to prepare for entry into the bardo of death, the monks chant and meditate on the prayers and mandalas from The Tibetan Book of the Dead during the bardo of life––as if each of these bardo states are different psychological and imaginal spaces in the tantric web of existence. However, during the bardo of life, meditation on death and non-being is believed to be of the highest importance. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha says,

Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.

The state of mind that occurs in musicians while performing and composing is analogous to the bardo of meditation. For a musician to play from their soul, they must step away from technique, transcending the rules they are taught and allow for the music to play itself through their instrument. Only through being an open channel of mindfulness can a musician express the most sublime music to guide the souls and psyches of their audience––transporting them, the Tibetan monks, into the higher spheres of enlightenment.

In the life story of Gautama Buddha, Old Path White Clouds, written by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha meets a group of well-to-do young men who are hell bent on finding a young dancing girl that has stolen their jewels. The Buddha teaches them the concept of mindfulness, turning their need to find and harm the girl towards inner peace and finding themselves. He explains to the young men that they can only find their true selves by being present in the moment, acutely aware of all the colors and sounds around them. The Buddha transmits the lesson of mindfulness through a flute playing demonstration:

The sound was as delicate as a thin strand of smoke curling gently from the roof of a simple dwelling…Slowly the thin strand expanded across space like a gathering of clouds which in turn transformed into a thousand-petalled lotus, each petal a different shimmering color. (Hanh 164)

Even though the Buddha hasn’t physically practiced the flute for many years, the power of the music comes through his playing because he can “look deeply into the heart” (Hanh 121) of everything and see how all things are interconnected.

Playing the flute does not depend solely on practicing the flute. I now play better than in the past because I have found my true self. You cannot reach lofty heights in art if you do not first discover the unsurpassable beauty in your own heart. (Hanh 165)

The three young men, and in fact all of nature surrounding them, are guided toward higher consciousness through the music of the Buddha and his practice of mindfulness meditation.

Arthur Schopenhauer, credited with introducing Indian thought into German philosophy (Schirmacher ix) in the mid-1800’s, also wrote about the power of music in his essay “On The Metaphysics of Music.” He understood music to be the only art form that directly represented the human will in all of its aspects: its suffering, joy, ambivalence, striving. From a tantric point of view, the will isn’t in isolation, it is a part of a mandala that contains the entire universe. The mind must be highly conditioned through meditation and contemplation to truly discern the numinous revelation behind the phenomena of music, and of life.

As the sun needs an eye in order to shine, and music an ear in order to sound, so the worth of every masterpiece in art and science is conditioned by the mind related and equal to it to which it speaks. Only such a mind possesses the incantation to arouse the spirits imprisoned in such a work and make them show themselves. (Hollingdale 225)

Music is revelatory of what lies hidden in the soul of the world and in the soul of each individual being. All other arts were ranked according to a Platonic hierarchy as far as how each art form was a copy, or repetition of something in nature, in the world. Schopenhauer says that music,
is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence. (Alperson 157)

From a Jungian perspective, Schopenhauer’s concept of music as mimetic of the will is closely related to the psyche’s process of individuation. In a letter to Pastor Walter Bernet in June of 1955, Jung writes:

The whole course of individuation is dialectical, and the so called “end” is the confrontation with the “emptiness” of the centre. Here the limit of possible experience is reached: the ego dissolves as the reference point of cognition.
(Edinger 129)

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, hearing is one of many vehicles in which the soul is moved through the bardo; during each state that the psyche encounters in the journey, the ego’s projections are dissolved one by one (in a strangely logical sequence) until the “end,” the Great Perfection, is reached. The person who has died is listening to the voice of their guru read the text for seven or more days, despite the fact they no longer possess the physical apparatus they once used for hearing. The sound of liberation in the bardo is the non-linguistic, imaginal version of the “one voice chord” transforming into the insight of linguistic sound:

when the sound of dharmata roars like a thousand thunders,
may it be transformed into the sound of mahayana teachings.
(Freemantle 103)

The experiences illustrated in The Tibetan Book of the Dead are universal and at the same time, each person also has unique projections to work through in their lifetime and in the bardo of death. The unconscious contents are both collective and individual, frightening and peaceful. As ego identification dissolves with the death of the body, the mind is free to expand into empty, luminous space. Once the Great Perfection is attained, the mind liberated from projections, and the will liberated from striving, the only sound heard is earth shaking silence.

Works Cited
Alperson, Philip. “Schopenhauer and Musical Revelation.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism. Dec 81, Vol. 40. Issue 2. 155-167.

Beck, Guy L. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia: U of SC Press,

Berzin, Alexander. “A Brief History of Gyumay and Gyuto, Lower and Upper Tantric
Colleges.” The Berzin Archives. September 2003. 14 April 2004.

Edinger, Edward F. Eds. Dianne D. Cordic and Charles Yates. The New God-Image:
A Study of Jung’s Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-
Image. Wilmette: Chiron Publications, 1996.

Freemantle, Francesca and Chogyam Trungpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The
Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.

Hightower, Thomas. “The One Voice Chord.” November 2000.10 April 2004.

Hollingdale, R.J. Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms. London: Penguin
Group, 1970.

Schirmacher, Wolfgang. Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosophical Writings. New York: Continuum, 1994.