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Continued from part two.


The composer, Peter Lieberson and I have been close friends for thirty years. We are both students of Trungpa Rinpoche and share many other interests. For a long time we had often talked about collaborating and indeed I wrote two texts for him to set. The first was from a novella by Marguerite Yourcenar; she wrote expressing little enthusiasm for the project and urging me to look more into oriental themes and models. The second was based on a life of Tilopa. Trungpa Rinpoche found exactly one line interesting, and in truth neither Peter nor I felt that we had found a proper meeting ground.

Prince Shotoku, painted by Kogan Zenji in1800, courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Trungpa Rinpoche

In 1990, Hans Werner Henze asked Peter to write an hour-long piece based on the Gesar epic for narrator and small ensemble for the 1992 Munich Biennale. Peter asked me for a text, but I found that it was necessary to make a new rendition of a large section of the Gesar epic before I could provide him with a coherent shorter text. Out of this collaboration, we decided that we would like to make musical-theater pieces about the lives of all four ancestral sovereigns. So when Peter was approached by the Santa Fe Opera, we began work on a full-length operatic work based on Ashoka’s life. Currently, we are working on a cantata for the NY Philharmonic, chorus and orchestra on Shotoku Taishi.

Our collaboration has been made possible by shared inspiration, passion, curiosity, and almost equally by the concrete circumstances that have been provided in the commissions. Out of all these factors, and regardless of the actual scale allowed for by the specific performing conditions, we have been drawn into exploring the possibilities of quasi-epic music-narrative. In this regard, the examples of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine have been especially important.

The stories and legends presented in the Shambhala tradition are not myths as such since we only refer to such material as myth when they no longer have any accepted credence. Rather, the stories of the four ancestral sovereigns are closer to the epic tradition.

The epic is a warrior form, and the focus of an epic is the hero or heroes and the struggles by which they become the exemplars for their culture. But the hero’s social, spiritual and ethical terrains are also paradigmatic. Some epic cycles, such as the Homeric epics or Beowulf, are grounded in the conflict between cultures; others, such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, take place in a milieu of profound ethical and spiritual crisis. The two are often intermingled as in the Gesar cycle. In any case, epic cycles provide a vision of personal and social possibilities and delineate as well the kind of strengths and virtues necessary to overcome those obstacles which arise in bringing such goals to fruition.

Thus this ancient form continually invites us to renew our engagement with the world in a larger, more intimate and more courageous way.
The epic form allows for the widest range of heroic and lyrical episodes, encompassing not just great events but subtle personal moments as well. Performances, whether as recitation, dance, spiritual practice or theater, have thus been a powerful factor in inspiring and binding together the cultures in which they flourish. One need only look at the many forms and elaborations throughout South East Asia which have derived from the two great Indian epics to see this possibility made real.
Though this has been something of a surprise, it is not unfair to say that in our work together, Peter and I have sought to explore and present this epic sensibility as a gateway in the Kingdom of Shambhala.


In talking about the impact of the Shambhala tradition on his music, Peter Lieberson said:
My sole inspiration in composing a cycle of works based on the four ancestral sovereigns of Shambhala has been a feeling of devotion and dedication to Trungpa Rinpoche’s inspiration. I hoped that by creating these pieces, I would expand my understanding of these sovereigns and of their place in Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision. And equally, I wanted to create musical/theatrical enactments which would bring a vision of enlightened society to others.

Battle scene from Mahabharata

After I received the libretto for King Gesar from Douglas, I had a dream that seemed to confirm our project. In the dream, Trungpa Rinpoche asked me if I wanted to see the original manuscript of The Golden Sun of the Great East, a major text of the Shambhala terma he discovered. I felt overwhelmed and said yes. He handed me the text. Each page of his manuscript had his text on one side and the story of Gesar of Ling on the other. In this way, I understood that the two were deeply related.

As far as any musical techniques were concerned, I began composing King Gesar using the technique that had served me for twenty years. However, one morning as I was driving home, I saw and heard the music in my mind. I was halfway through composing King Gesar at that point. Afterwards, my whole sense of technique collapsed. I had to trust my intuition and whatever techniques that had become part of me. I began to compose in a much freer way. Whether the music was better than before, I can’t really say, but this is how I compose now.


When one attended any of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings, one had the feeling, regardless of subject matter, that he was opening a door on a new landscape. His teachings were an invitation to walk through that door, and to discover for oneself a new world and new possibilities. He encouraged, by word and deed, that these teachings be used as vehicles of exploration. He scrupulously avoided identifying any goal or attainment beyond some kind of basic sanity or fundamental decency. “Good luck,” was his frequent cheery reply to earnest questions about practice.

Exploring the lives of the ancestral sovereigns has been and continues to be one such voyage. It is not an accident that Peter and I have not wanted to use the mode of academic history to present the stories of their lives. A definitive representation is neither possible nor, from this point of view, fruitful. The stories of the ancestral sovereigns can manifest in innumerable permutations and renditions as epic, as fiction, as song, music and drama. Our hope in exploring and presenting the stories of these rulers is that they open a further and deeper sense of life. Could it then not be, as is said, that:

As a kingdom on this earth,
As a Pure Land ,
As eternal in the human heart,
Shambhala opens
In the unchanging heart-light
To which you return.

-The Razor of Kalapa

E quietate ciascuna in suo loco
La testa e ‘l collo d’un aguglia vidi
Rappresentare e quell distinto fuoco.

Quel che dipinge li, non ha chi ‘l guidi
Ma esso guida, e da lui sai rammenta
Quella virtu ch’e forma per li nidi.

– Dante, Paradiso

Each sparkling flame came to rest in space
And I saw the head and neck of a great eagle
Present itself in waves of shimmering sparks.

Whoever guides the making of this form has no guide.
This is the self-arisen guide, and we recognize in him
The power that is the paradigm of all community.

Dante’s journey begins of course with his love for Beatrice and, as that love becomes increasingly deep, it becomes ever more refined, expanding to encompass the entire cosmos. As Dante journeys upwards through the celestial realms, love unfolds as an all-inclusive vision. But it is a hallmark of this great spiritual epic that it consists of innumerable specific moments which are rendered with such clarity and music that they are all immediately alive for us.
In the marvelous passage above, Dante watches as the souls of thousands just rulers, both christian and pagan, appear as ruby sparks which spontaneously coalesce to form a single imperial image, the innate principle of just rulership. When, in the following two cantos Dante asks the eagle how non-christian rulers could attain such glory, the eagle proclaims that the ‘Supreme Goodness’ is not confined to the doctrines of the church and can be apprehended in any place and time. Thus the eagle sings”

Lume non e, se non vien del sereno
Che non si turba mai
Light does not exist that does not come from the clear sky
That is never clouded

About the Author
Douglas J. Penick

Douglas J. Penick

Douglas Penick utilizes historical research with a solid understanding of Chinese culture and Buddhism to make stories accessible, beautiful and enlightening. In his words, "I contribute to the mischief, longing, satisfaction, lust, sorrow and fascination which make our presence in this world a discovery of true love." The Website of Douglas. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Thumbnail painting of Dante and Beatrice on the banks of Lethe, by the Venezuelan artist Cristóbal Rojas, 1889.
Photo from Wikipedia and photo of Trungpa Rinpoche belongs to the collection of the Shambhala Archives.

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