Singing a Dharma Talk, Writing a Song

Joseph  Emet On June 8, 2002 during the Hand of the Buddha retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh shared an experience of music: “When the Sangha comes together, the silence, the deep mindful breathing, is music. We enjoy that music very much. There are times when we sit together and we don’t do anything. We don’t work hard at all. We just produce our being, our full presence, and become aware of the Sangha. That is enough to nourish us and heal us. If you know how to allow yourself to be embraced by the Sangha, to become the Sangha, to be penetrated by the music of the Sangha, then transformation and healing can take place. Music sometimes can be silent. It can create harmony. It can calm things down. It can heal.”

Our mindfulness songs are healing songs. They sing of the wholeness of the self, the wholeness of the family and the community, and the wholeness of nature. They point to this wholeness for a brief moment, remind us of yesterday’s insights and vows, and turn the silence that follows into practice.

Each of the songs in the Basket of Plums collection at the time I discovered it or wrote it, expressed for me the essence of my current practice and of my emerging insight. Dharma songs can be Dharma talks in miniature. After a Dharma talk, what stays with me is a feeling of dedication, or a particular Dharma door that it opens. I remember that feeling of openness, and a phrase or two stays in my mind to haunt me. One can expand a gatha into a Dharma talk, or contract a Dharma talk into a gatha. Dharma talks are given by nature also: by rivers, meadows, mountains, flowers, and birds. People are no exception. Sometimes they give Dharma talks just by their presence. This kind of Dharma talk creates the same feelings in me as a verbal one, and offers the same haunting memories. As I walk under the spell of such a feeling, phrases suggest themselves.   These phrases are struggling to express truly the essence of my experience. As I hold on to the feeling of the experience, I compare the words that come to the experience, to see how closely they reflect it. Sometimes the words are true to the experience from the beginning. At other times, I find that my mind is latching on to clichés, or other verbal habits I have, and it is trying to fit the experience into words, instead of the other way around.

I usually decide from the outset whether what I am working on is going to be a song or a poem. If it is to be a song and no melody comes humming along with the words, I make up a simple tune and fit the different verses as they come into that melody. I just hum the simple tune to myself, and sing verses with it. The advantage of this method is that even if I change the melody later, the verses all have the same rhythm, and will all fit the same melody, whatever that turns out to be.

I’m fortunate that soon afterwards, usually while I’m asleep or engaged in some other activity, the right tune will come. The music for the “Gatha for Planting a Tree” was put together in my sleep. We were staying at the Gao Minh temple in China with Thay, and the plan for the next day was to each plant a tree in the courtyard of the temple as a memento of our trip. So Thay gave a talk in the lecture room on this theme, repeating the gatha several times. As I was heading towards my room afterwards, I decided to stop by the main temple. There, a monk with a lovely voice was singing a traditional Chinese gatha over and over, and striking the enormous bell of the temple with each repetition. The bell was about the size of a Montreal city bus! I stayed there for several hours under the spell of his singing and of the sound of that bell, and at some point, noted the melody in my notebook. I went to bed around eleven o’clock.

I woke up abruptly at about three thirty in the morning. In my sleep, I was singing the monk’s Chinese melody with the words of Thay’s gatha, and I had made them fit! The singing got louder and louder until it woke me up. All the necessary adjustments and the scanning were already done, and all I had to do was to write it down.

I think we have to use the whole mind. So much of our life goes on in the so-called unconscious mind, while the conscious mind is the steward and caretaker. The conscious mind has to listen as well as talk to the unconscious mind. I enjoy always having a question of some kind for my unconscious mind to work on. It could be a simple question like: How can I make these words fit this melody? Or it could be a more complicated question like: What does this Dharma talk really mean? If I offer my unconscious mind a song to write, when I come back to it later, I usually see things in a different light, and the song goes through another version. I always marvel that each new version of a song feels final to me until the next day!

Joseph Emet, Peaceful Concentration, lives with his partner Suzanne in suburban Pointe-Claire, in the Montréal area in Canada, and is a founding member of the Mindfulness Meditation Center. He was ordained as a Dharma teacher in January, 2003. He enjoys discovering and sharing new raw food recipes.

Basket of Plums is a collection of songs available through Parallax Press. A new version is available with twelve pages of new songs by Sr. Annabel, T.B., Irene d’Auria, Sr. Trung Nghiem, Joseph Emet and others.

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