Monk Business

Presumably, there was a time when the Drepung Loseling Monastery could have assembled a debate team to put Princeton's to shame. Presumably, because, at its zenith, the Tibetan monastery attracted about 10,000 scholars, making it the largest in the world. And most of those monks, according to Geshe Yeshe of the Atlanta-based Loseling Institute, were committed to a rigorous program of study, one that included six hours of metaphysical debate every day -- for 20 years.

When Communist Chinese forces conquered Tibet in 1959, just 250 of the monastery's adherents escaped imprisonment and execution. Exiled in India, they restored their numbers to today's 2,500. They also began to promote "planetary peace and healing," expounding their message not from podiums, but through demonstrations of sacred dance and music. This week, they're doing it in Scottsdale.

Drepung Loseling monks will perform "Sacred Music Sacred Dance" for World Healing twice, on Friday and again on Saturday, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. (The second performance is a last-minute addition to the program, prompted by strong advance ticket sales.) The Loseling Institute, which was conceived after the first "Sacred Music Sacred Dance" world tour in 1989, boasts that the monks have appeared with such performers as Paul Simon and the Beastie Boys, and on the soundtrack for Seven Years in Tibet. But other promotional information is less glitzy. For example, the monks are renowned for their multiphonic chanting, in which they simultaneously intone three notes of a chord. This neat trick won them a billing at Carnegie Hall.

While the modern-day Loseling monks are still committed to the same program of study -- and the same debate schedule -- as their forebears, not all of them can pull off the multiphonic magic, Yeshe says.

"This type of chanting is a gift that comes from their spirit lives," he explains. "It's 10, no, 5 percent of our monks who can do it. I've tried many times, but I can't do it."

Performers are selected, on the basis of talent, from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Exile in India. According to Yeshe, most of the nine monks who will appear in Scottsdale have been in the monastery for at least 16 years; they began to develop their chanting skills as teenagers.

"Sacred Music Sacred Dance" lasts about two hours, including a 20-minute intermission. Besides chanting, the program includes a short debate session, which, Yeshe says, audiences always seem to enjoy.

"People cannot understand what they are debating," he says, "but they like it anyway. We tried simultaneous translation, but it didn't work. So people respond to the movement, the gestures."

This may account not only for the popularity of the Loseling monks, but for the persistence of political commentary shows, too.

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Elan Head
Contact: Elan Head