Tibetan Heavy Metal

May 14, 2009

posted by caroline picard


Last week I heard a story on the radio about Tibetan heavy metal and I kept returning to it in my mind. Mostly I was trying to figure out why I was so intrigued. I gathered a list of impressions about Tibet, recalling stories and consequent notions. I told one of these stories a while back, about Tibetans and sabres in Lhasa. But there are others.

After I graduated from college, I got a fellowship to study Tibetan Thangkha painting with a former Tibetan monk in San Francisco. For the next three months I spent about six hours every day drawing out a grid using careful, relative measurements, in order to sketch an accurate face of the Buddha. According to my teacher, he spent the first ten years of his life that way: taking a straw from the ground, dividing it into thirds, sixths and ninths. He then used that straw to construct a grid, on which he tried to perfectly reproduce the Bhuddha’s face.


According to the tradition, the Thankghas are accurate depictions of deities–as accurate as any photograph. In the case of the Buddha who walked the earth, the measurement of his face was recorded by a living monk. In all other cases a monk  managed to ascend to heaven, where he copied the likenesses of gods. He could not gaze directly at them, and thus had to look into the water to copy their reflections. I think, if I remember correctly, the paintings are consequently mirror images of the deities…(can that be true?)

In another story my teacher told me about a sculptor in a small village worked to fashion a foot-tall sculpture of Ganesh–in clay. The sculptor was constantly frustrated and kept destroying his attempts, in order to try again. The sculptor did this for many years, until it became a village joke. Nevertheless, ten years later, his sculpture was so perfect that it actually came alive with the living god. People came from miles away to witness the phenomena.


My teacher also told me about zombies–what I suppose is another way of talking about one of the Bardo states gone awry. He said that in Nepal all the entry doors to houses are short. He says that Westerners have concluded the doors are short because the Nepalese are short. My teacher said this was a misunderstanding. In fact, the doors are short because of zombies. Zombies cannot bend their backs. They are completely inflexible. Therefore if your house is guarded by a short entryway, no zombie will ever be able to get inside.

He told me also about how he had performed death rituals with his teacher as a child in Tibet. He had been an assistant, about nine years old. He went with his teacher to a house where a man had just died. According to belief, it takes several days before the spirit finally leaves the body. It is therefore essential to call a monk to bless the body and say prayers, in order to encourage the spirit to leave. My teacher said when they got there, the dead body was lying on a table. As his teacher started saying prayers, the body rose and stood up, all by itself. It remained standing. My teacher was told to get under a table.

There are amazing stories about Tibet and its culture. And yet it seems to be in the midst of a massive transition. As is evidenced by the heavy metal. Or even the influx and popularity of Tibetan artifacts here in America. The tides of culture reaching out and mixing up. Of recent speculation, the radio talked about how Tibetans worry the Chinese will influence the selection of the next Dali Lhama. By positioning their own people in the heierarchy of power, “their people” (whatever that means, of course) will have some control over the next leader. Here too, it seems like culture and belief is being appropriated. The Tibetan belief of reincarnation and continuity of leadership can be used by other bodies of power. Whether or not that is actually what will happen, I’ve no idea.

I did think it was interesting though, listening to an interview with one of the Tibetan metal musicians. He mentioned a) how its hard for them to please an audience of herdsman, but that they are reaching the younger generation, b) how he likes what they do because they are able to appropriate a wide range of culture, borrowing old traditional instruments, along with bhuddhist principles, along with Western genres and c) how he doesn’t feel like he belongs to any culture in particular because he embraces all that he has grown up in and represents.

That last point I find particulary amazing, as it speaks to the shifting world.


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