Krag Krag, Sound of Crows

  1. The universe has a billion worlds centered by a holy mountain and ringed with wild oceans of teal— swooshing and crashing with the primordial pull of myriad moons. A trichiliocosm, with clusters of thousands of worlds.
  2. “Vibrating and vibrating—shig shig, quaking and quaking—yom yom, the vessel of the inanimate universe is shaking from all sides.” [1]
  3. In the Jungle of Nool, an elephant named Horton hears a wee noise, and finds a speck of dust that turns out to be a tiny planet with tiny people on it. Trying to prove their existence to outsiders, the people of miniscule Whoville make a ruckus, and “great gusts of loud racket rang high through the air. They rattled and shook the whole sky!” [2]
  4. According to Bön Buddhism, the indigenous religion of Tibet, there are spirits everywhere. They live in rocks and trees and waters, amongst the sounds of wind and the grumbling thunder. Uttering their names beckons the spirits near. But I cannot hear them. And I am not in Tibet. I am far from the eighty springs of turquoise where the spirits are appeased with smoke offerings of juniper and cedar. I am in my home office in Utica, NY, watching the Naga (sea creatures) ritual on a webinar streamed live by Chaphur Rinpoche (2019) from a Bön temple in San Francisco[3]. Thirty other people on the webinar send greetings and prayer emojis by chat from many time zones. A bell rings to summon the nagas, who politely breeze in when invited: “Bswo! Ha! Traveling spirits gather! Bswo! Ha! I invoke white lioness with the very big turquoise mane… I invoke the flying birds khro lo lo.”[4]
  5. My college-aged son is home visiting and he walks by my open door. What will he think , I think about me spending a Saturday mornings listening to religious chants? We are not religious people. I imagine that Terrin knows my thieving ways; I am searching for resonant lines, jarring translations, fragments of Himalayan mountain songs. While I dig through 11th century Tibetan ritual texts in my office, I can hear Terrin in his room next door editing beats from shavings of found sounds. I have missed his symphony of sounds: the drums in the basement, his marching band mellophone, his podcasts and movies and guitars. It is so quiet in my house these days that I can hear the cat jumping out of the litter box upstairs, and clumping down the steps one by one. I only realize that I talk to myself when he is home and asks me what I’ve said.
  6. Back on the live webinar, we learn that the nagas are half-human, half-fish. Chaphur Rinpoche reports that some nagas are formless. “If they had forms, there would not be enough room for them in our universe.” He laughs from his belly. The nagas are everywhere. Big, powerful nagas live in clouds. And there are tiny little nagas that live on the dew drops on the tips of blades of grass, maybe holding on and swaying in the wind. Nagas mostly sleep in winter but they are very active in summertime. He claps. “Don’t give them meat though. The nagas are vegetarian, I am sure,” Chaphur Rinpoche says. “They like milk mixed with water, or yogurt.”

Rinpoche rings the flat bell (sil nyen) and chants in Tibetan to the multitudes of naga— to the white, blue, maroon, yellow, and green nagas— a smoke offering. Rinpoche places the bell face up on the table, the Bön way, and invites us to offer smoke to the nagas of all the planets. To the nagas on every side of the mountain, in the water, rocks, and winds— a smoke offering. May all diseases of humans, cattle, horses, and sheep be resolved. Chant 108 times, or twenty-one times, or seven times. Blow across the top of the jewelled vase, add the pellets, cover the ritual vase with red fabric, and address the nagas: “O! All ye Nagas great and small I come not to harm you but to ask rain for the good of the world, and especially for this place… And if you do not [obey], then by my mantra spells I will break your heads to atoms” [5] May the spirits rain ambrosia, flowers, and soft healing rain down upon the worshippers.

Rinpoche tells us that late afternoon is a good time to offer milk tea to the nagas, by throwing the tea in the air towards the west. “O! O! We turn towards the western sun, to the celestial mansion where the sky is of turquoise…to the master of the sky.”[6] I look out my window and imagine throwing a cup of milk at my neighbor Ray’s house, with its old brown shingles and crumpled March leaves around it. I start daydreaming but am drawn back to the podcast when I hear Rinpoche laughing and saying that people pray for their yaks, “we need to change that.” I watch the recording back four times and still do not understand why it is a joke, and why it is funny. Rinpoche finishes chanting prayers to the 360 naga treasures and then sits in silence, hands clasped gently in front of his heart. Next, there is a technical problem and the webinar cuts out. I try to reconnect and it doesn’t work. I can see Rinpoche frozen in prayer, saying nothing.

  1. Listen! Listen carefully to me with the ears on the top of your head![7] In Tibet, sounds can challenge or appease, defile or purify, and sounds can liberate.[8]
  2. On recent trip to New York City, I meet a Tibetan woman on a train. I am going to an opera, which I don’t do. But it’s a special Tibetan opera and it has just enough Bön Buddhism in it to make me buy a ticket. I have been learning about Bön for my memoir, not sure yet how it will fit but confident that I can find a way to make it fit. We are just past the Albany/Rensselaer station, in an overheated train car, but the sun feels good flickering in and out of my eyes. An Asian woman about my age has been sleeping against her window on the other side of the aisle from me since I got on the train in Utica. There are no springs of turquoise, but there is the mighty Hudson River on our right. The trees rush by and I lose sight of the river, and its chunks of grey ice bouncing along, and then I see the water again. I am watching a YouTube video on my laptop about a Bön lama (priest) traveling across the mountains to India, but the wifi signal on the train keeps dropping. I close my eyes for a rest. When I open them again, the train lurches left and I see the woman across from me has spilled part of a hamburger out of her cardboard lunch tray and onto the floor. “Thank God the hot coffee didn’t burn anyone,” she says.

We start to talk and she asks me what I am doing in New York. “I am going to see a Tibetan opera.” I say.

“What? I am Tibetan! What will you see?” she asks.

“The Story of Milarepa. You want to come?” I tell her I have an extra ticket.

“I would like to, but I have work when I get back. I am a massage therapist and I already took my vacation going to Syracuse” she pouts, playfully.

She tells me her story of coming to the United States from Tibet as a refugee, and how hard it was to find herself in Queens as a teenager after growing up in a Boudhanath, a section of Kathmandu where Tibetan refugees have been living in exile for many decades. She tells me about a relationship with a wonderful man, her new apartment in Manhattan, her elderly mother, and her family’s hopes for her future. All she wants is peace for herself and all sentient beings.

The train stops to let people on and a man asks to sit next to her. She hesitates for a moment and then says comes across the aisle to sit next to me, apologizing to the man for moving. Once settled, she shows me a black cell phone that she found on her seat. She can’t open the phone because she doesn’t know the code, and so far no one has called. Eventually, the phone owner texts and gives an address in Utica. I tell my new friend that I can bring the phone back when I go home and she is so happy. “I like my small acts to be simple. Not a lot of strings attached. You don’t tire yourself out that way.” She is quiet for a minute, then picks up again. “I was so worried about the person whose phone it is. It’s terrible to lose your phone.”

Kunchuck tells me her name. She asks me if I like Nepali food. I say yes, that I love Nepali food. “You must come to my home tonight. Where are you staying?” I give her the name of my hotel and she says, “I can see that hotel from my window. It’s next door to me!” Not one to shy away from awkward social situations, I agree to go to her house for dinner. It’s a simple studio with a view of city rooftops and the light tan walls of my aging hotel. She has made a Nepali feast of fresh steaming rice and curried yellow lentils (dhal bhat), string beans with chicken, and a spicy pickled cucumber (achaar). We sit on the couch next to each other and eat with spoons. I try to think of something to say but then remind myself that it’s not necessary. She asks me if I am happy. I don’t know if she means right this minute or in an existential sense. Today I would say yes to both. I yawn, still tired from sitting on the hot train for five hours today. I give her a hug and thank her for the hospitality. She says, “I am not good at texting but when I am with someone, they have my all. Thank you for coming. I know we will meet again…” As I put on my coat, she says, “If you ever forget my name, just ask any Tibetan. It is Kunchuk, it means God.”

  1. Listen! The sound of the nostrils of the swift horses! [9]
  2. My one-mile walk over to the Tibetan Opera at the Prototype Festival is cold. New York City is so windy in January, and reminds me of the Belgian/French explorer Alexandra David-Neel and how cold she would have been traipsing across the frigid Tibetan plateau in the 1920s, seeking knowledge and adventure in the forbidden land. She often dressed as a local, and sometimes as a man, in a coat of animal skins and yak wool. I know how locals dress in New York— black— but on this trip I don’t bother. A hardy Central New Yorker, I have on my warmest fleece, an Irish wool hat that was a gift from my mother, and a leopard print scarf with flat white tufts of the finest quality cat hair buried in it. I buy some cough drops at a CVS across the street from the theater, just in case I need them, and then I find my seat, and take out a tissue. The man next to me, and well-known opera director named David, tells me he hasn’t had heat in his apartment since Thanksgiving, and now it’s mid January. He sniffles and borrows a tissue. “What is the sound of enlightenment?” asks the composer. The opera, “Mila, Great Sorcerer,”[10] warms us up immediately, with fiery sounds, passionate swirling backgrounds, and an audience of admirers of the opera, the Himalayas, Buddhism, and Milarepa. Mila, the bard. Mila, the sorcerer. Mila, the murderer. Mila, the repentant. Mila, the builder. Mila, the listener. Mila, the teacher. Mila, the poet. Mila, the saint. Mila, the beloved.

As a youth, Milarepa was called “Delightful to Hear,” and grew up singing. In the opera, Mila’s words in English are projected above the stage in soft, white letters. Mila’s father died and he had a horrible childhood, hurt by the greed of his extended family. The scene where Mila is losing a sense of himself and sings that his body has forgotten him is excruciating to watch, beautiful and tragic. I look up when he is singing, “Who is my enemy?” and see the response above is, “You will know your enemy by his putrid smell.” He knew he was trying to kill someone but can barely remember why. Unfortunately, he was convinced by his furious mother to take revenge upon his greedy family members by mercilessly killing 36 of them at a wedding. A humble barley farmer by origins, Mila was struck so heavily with remorse over what he had done that he went half crazy with guilt and sorrow. He heard about teacher on a high mountain who may be willing to teach him. He went there to the frozen and windy land clad in his thin cotton cloth from Nepal, and begs for teachings. Marpa, the Great Translator (1012-1097) did not let him off easily. Like Sisyphus and the massive rock he had to push uphill for eternity, Mila must build and rebuild and rebuild a new house by hand for Marpa. Every time it was complete, Marpa changed his mind and forced him to redo it. When his spirit was almost broken and his repentance clear, Marpa takes Mila as his disciple and teaches him how to follow the dharma teaching of the Buddha, and how to listen. I wonder if there is anything I have ever done that is unforgivable. If so, would I tell the Santa Ana Review about it? Has anyone done anything to me that is unforgivable? I am learning that it is the same thing.

  1. In many traditions, crows’ calls foretell the future: crows call out “lhong lhong” for luck, “krag krag” is for speed, “krog krog” brings a surprise friend, and trouble is predicted by “i’u i’u”.[11] Would only that had I listened to the crows. Would they have warned me of the dangers, illnesses, and loss that marked my middle age? Would they tell me what is going to happen next? After raising two stepchildren and a child of my own, I am so tired. For dozens of years, I danced in the laughter and talking, crying and singing, of those children, I celebrated the drumsets and the parties. And now, with none living in the house, silence soothes and heals. I watch the crows in my backyard trees in Utica. Should I be listening more carefully to their kaws and gaws?
  2. “Ha! I invoke the black yaks with the deep resonant sound. Ha! I invoke the lha [spirits] of the horses…I invoke the hundred thousand territory protector singers.”[12]
  3. There is a room in Minnesota that is silent, the quietest in the world. In fact, it measures negative for background noise. No one has been able to sit in the anechoic chamber in the dark for more than 45 minutes because it so unsettling to hear their own blood rushing through their bodies, and the sound of bones and tissue crunching and grinding together. “You become the sound.”[13] I wonder if the room can hear the parts of the body that have suffered, and what the pain of stillbirth sounds like, reverberating for decades and lifetimes.
  4. In March 2019, Nasa released the first sounds on Mars. At first, the recording was too low to be audible to the human ear. When the sounds were adjusted for humans, it was wind. “All songs in the world are in water, and only wind can bring them out”[14] said Palzang, the Wanderer.
  5. Lose a stallion, gain a dozen wild horses. Good luck, bad luck, who knows? Non-duality tells us not to judge anything too quickly. Like all things, chanting can be good or bad. In the past, people looked down on the Bön because of the magical power of their chants. Some said the Bönpos’ tongues became black or brown from chanting so many mantras. Tibetans still stick out their tongues to show respect and their innocent pink tongues.
  6. Listen! Do not set in motion idle talk and gossip! [15]
  7. When Bön lamas wanted to keep their teachings secret, the lamas hid the sacred books in caves, whispered them to the disciple, or transferred them directly from mind to mind. When I want to keep a secret, I bury it deep inside my body where no treasure revealer can unlock it. Where do you keep your secrets so that no one can hear? The early Bönpos had no paper so they used oxhide to take notes about founder Buddha Tenpa Shenrab’s teachings. Once during a fierce snowstorm, they had to cook and eat their books in order to stay alive. Now, the descendants still keep that knowledge in their stomachs. “When they are called upon to perform a ceremony they usually get drunk, which makes the knowledge in their stomachs rise to their heads, thus enabling them to chant the necessary texts which had been lost or otherwise forgotten.”[16] I picture these men lying on rocks and singing to the dakinis (sky-goers).
  8. “Your skull is an ear” tells the story about the patient who heard music in his head during an eye operation. His question was where did the sounds come from. The vibrations from the surgeons’ cutting of his eye’s vitreous gel were perceived by the patient as the most beautiful music he had ever heard. Constantly being tuned by the rest of the brain, the ear sometimes make sounds by triggering nerves by accident. Popping and buzzing sounds bounced off his skull. The patient recalled, “I become part of the sound.” We don’t think of this much but the body itself creates a murmur, a low-level hum. “We like to think that sound is ethereal, that it comes from some higher place, more refined dimension. Here for one trembling moment and gone the next. No, sound is meat. It’s flesh and blood and bone.” [17]
  9. In summertime, I impulsively buy a cello. And a beautiful wooden stand. They look so good in my living room. I reach page 4 in the practice book. In wintertime, my house is dry and the cello falls out of tune, the strings slipping. It sounds bad. Worse than my neighbor’s son on his trumpet.
  10. Celestial Grandmother Queen of the Heavens, your eyes are like the great star at dawn and you play the most lovely sounds on your drums, bells, and thigh bone trumpet. The sounds of a summer thunder anticipated across the dusty plain. Your body is decorated with beautiful ornaments and you are circled by one hundred thousand fairies. You ride a white lioness around the heavens and you are followed by a blue dragon. Are you the sound of the queen of winter?

I think about my grandmother, after whom I was named. Her children called her mother, and we called her, “Grandmother.” A formal type, she liked to drink tea and read at the table. I mostly knew her when I was a young child. Her green eyes were like a great star at dawn, and her admirers were many. I have a gift from her that is on my office wall at work. It’s a rubbing on cream colored paper that she brought back from a cruise to Thailand. It shows a Thai dancer naked but for a small skirt. I imagine Grandmother buying it from a mostly Thai-speaker vendor during a Laem Chabang port of call in Bangkok. I’ve seen pictures of my celestial grandmother dining and dancing while on that 70’s cruise, and she is laughing and surrounded by men. I remember visiting Grandmother at the cottage off the Long Island Sound, where she hurried me and my cousins out onto the porch to read, or better yet down the road to the beach where we would be quieter, less of a bother. She was legend in these parts because she feared little. When a huge wooden sign was erected on “her beach”, she tried to cut the sign down with a hand saw. Before the police came, she tucked the saw into her nightgown and walked gracefully down the path back home. When she was in her eighties, she and her 90-year old neighbor fought about their shared hedge, arguing and threatening each other without ceasing until one of them died. Does it matter if she was the cutter or the cuttee? They were both cut. They both died. I wasn’t there but I can hear the sound of the saw and the police sirens, and I can see it too— the saw, the nightgown, the cottage and the waters rising in the marsh out back, soft waves lapping against the crabgrass. Did I get any of this story right?

  1. Listen carefully, and incline the ear of your heart.[18]
  2. Grandmother would have adored the Milarepa opera. The New Yorkers with their black outfits, thick coats, high heels and perfumes. The bassoon and the violins. The culture. The gongs and the instruments handmade to sound like Nepal and Tibet. The deep voices and costumes, the conch shell signaling the beginning of the ritual. The thick wildness of it all, neither Tibetan nor classical, and both. I loved the long horns, the drums, and even the farting horns taunting Mila. On stage at the opera, Tsering Sherpa’s thangka scroll paintings in the background mesmerize me as the clouds and flames swirl around, coming ever so slowly to life. They take me back to my time in Nepal as an exchange student, and my longing to understand all that was bewildering. On stage, the handsome librettists sing back and forth to each other, “Listen to the stillness all around”.[19]
  3. My mom told me that she and her sisters called their mother, “Mother.” Once, my mother wrote her parents a letter from college that was addressed, “Hi, Folks.” Her mother wrote back and said, “We are not folks, and we do not address each other with Hi.” It is almost sixty years later and my mother still remembers that rebuke screeching off the page decades after her mother’s death. What must “Hi, Folks” have sounded like to her Grandmother?
  4. Everything is in motion, even our memories of events that we believe are true records of what was, hardly noticing the sneaky way memories themselves are in motion, forever moving away from what may have happened. [20]
  5. The five warrior seed syllables were the very first sounds in the universe: A, Om, Hung, Ram, and Dza. A is white and illustrates the clear desert sky with no clouds. Om is sunlight and is red, acting as flesh, the body. Hung mirrors sunlight and is blue, the likeness of the mind. Ram is red, virtuous, and ripening. Dza is green, representing the actions of enlightenment and effortless confidence. In addition to being healing, these sounds are the essence of enlightenment.[21]
  6. On the train on the way back from New York City, I run into my next-door neighbor Craig, who is a friend and fellow Phish fan. I offer Craig a ride home, because my son is picking me up at the station. On the way home, we drop by the house of the cell phone owner. There is no one home so I drop the phone off in the mailbox, sticking the phone out a bit so they will see it. The phone battery is dead and the karma cycle is complete, the way Kunchok likes it, with no loose ends.

 


Kathryn Stam is a professor of cultural anthropology at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY. She likes to write about the people she has known in Thailand, Nepal, and Central New York, and the joys of getting to know the resettled refugees who are our newest neighbors and friends. 


[1] Forgues (2011), 191. Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices: A dissertation.

[2] Suess (1954). Horton Hears a Who. New York: Random House.

[3] Chaphur Rinpoche (2019). “Live Webinar about Naga Ritual.” San Francisco, CA: Gyalshen Institute.

[4] Ancient Bön invocation translated by Bellezza (2015), 31. “The Voice of the Gods in Upper Tibet.” in Czaja & Hazod, The Illuminating Mirror. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.

[5] Waddell (1895), 499. Lamaism, or The Buddhism of Tibet. London: W.H. Allen & Co., Ltd.

[6] Waddell (1895), 519. Lamaism, or The Buddhism of Tibet. London: W.H. Allen & Co., Ltd.

[7] Bellezza (2015), 24. In Czaja & Hazod.

[8] Diemberger & Ramble, 2017. Tibetan Vibratory Connections: The effects of sound on living things and the environment. http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/16423 ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.16423.

[9] Ancient Bön invocation translated by Bellezza (2015), 34, In Czaja & Hazod.

[10]Clearwater, Andrea (2019), http://prototypefestival.org/shows/mila-great-sorcerer/.

[11] Nishida (2014), 322. “Bird Divination in Old Tibetan Texts.” Kobe, Japan: Research Institute of Foreign Studies.

[12] Bellezza (2015), 29. “The Voice of the Gods in Upper Tibet.” In Czaja & Hazod.

[13] Eveleth (2013). “Earth’s Quietest Place Will Drive You Crazy in 45 Minutes.” Smithsonian.com.

[14] Diemberger & Ramble (2017). “Tibetan Vibratory Connections: The effects of sound on living things and the environment.” http://journals.openedition.org/terrain/16423 ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.16423

[15] Forgues (2011), 224. Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices: A dissertation. Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna.

[16] Rock (1937), 174. Studies in Na-khi Literature. Bulletin de L’Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient. Hanoi, Vietnam.

[17] Rosenthal (2018). “Your skull is an ear.” Transom. https://transom.org/2018/your-skull-is-an-ear/.

[18] Neal (2017). “Listen carefully… And Include the Ear of your Heart.” https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/listen-carefullyand-incline-the-ear-of-your-heart-rule-of-st-benedict/.

[19] Abrahams (2019). “A Milarepa Opera Offers an Ode to Stillness.” Tricycle. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/milarepa-opera/.

[20] Corrigan, 2017. “Memory and Impermanence” in Insights by James Corrigan. http://levekunst.com/memory-and-impermanence/.

[21] Wangyal (2011). Tibetan Sound Healing. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

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