Ven. Robina Courtin sings buddhist prayers on new CD.
"It was March 2013 at a retreat in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, at Kunsang Yeshe, a Tibetan Buddhist center that is part of the worldwide community that Robina’s been involved with since her ordination in 1978 (the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition).
When Yantra awoke at dawn, she had the “the very clear realization that I wanted to help get these ancient Tibetan prayers and mantras out to the world.”
Brought up in Melbourne, Robina did indeed study singing, with her mother, Agnes Bliss, a classical singer and pianist. “She taught the piano to most of her children – there were seven of us – but for some reason she taught me singing,” Robina remembers.
“We’d have lessons on Saturday, when the rest of the family were at the football cheering for the South Melbourne Swans. I didn’t go because I couldn’t stand all the shouting, so Saturdays were heaven for me.”
“Mainly we would sing the lieder of Schubert and Brahms, my mother’s favorites, but also some of the soaring Italian arias. Often I found the very act of singing itself quite blissful. My mind was always happy during our times together. And I think it was a very wonderful experience for my mother, who’d virtually given up her flourishing career once she started to have babies.”
She had great hopes that Robina would pursue her career, so sent her to London in 1968. “I auditioned at a school of music – I can’t remember the name of it – but it was a disaster. I liked to sing but my heart just wasn’t in it.” I became a political activist instead!
The first session with Yantra, a few months after the retreat, was in Yantra’s studio in Avoca Beach, on the coast north of Sydney. Because Robina was always travelling, they managed to meet for just a few days – that year and the next three, finally finishing in 2016.
Robina selected some of her favorite verses from traditional prayers, such as Lama Chöpa. “I chose the prayers with two listeners in mind: one, Tibetan Buddhists who would recognize the prayers and the logic of the order; and, two, people who knew nothing about them, so for them I made sure that the actual melodies from one prayer to the next were pleasing to the ear.”
The order is according to a practice called “The Seven-Limbed Prayer,” with some extra verses thrown in. Even though there might be no understanding in the minds of some of the listeners, it seems there is still some benefit in merely hearing the prayers. According to the Buddhist view of the mind, everything any sentient being experiences through their senses – and the ear is particularly powerful – gets stored in the mind; nothing goes astray. Then, if we were to hear these words again, they would resonate, we’d recognize them.
From day one Robina called the compilation “Devotion.” The melodies are from Lama Zopa Rinpoche, her teacher, which he, in turn, would have received from his teachers – and, who knows, maybe even the buddhas! – and are likely from Sera Je Monastic University, Rinpoche’s monastery.
The music is not written down; it’s passed on orally. “I did my best to replicate the melodies – quite hard sometimes; Rinpoche’s voice is unusual.”
For Yantra, the level of intimacy they developed during the hours they worked together did not stop in the studio. “Our many meals together became a place of discovery. This Tibetan Buddhist tradition-bearer passed on her knowledge to me in the informal setting of my dining room table. These intimate moments imbued the work with qualities that created what I like to describe as the Artistic Moment – a place of trust, listening and respect.”
“I had never worked intimately with a Tibetan Buddhist nun before, indeed I hardly knew Robina at all, other than from attending her retreats. I have learnt many things from her, amongst them a clearer understanding of my mind and emotions.”
Even though Yantra often saw Robina in her role as teacher, “ultimately it was a balanced relationship, with me reciprocating with my wealth of experience about production.”
It was this balance of field knowledge, she feels, that they both brought to the table, “in an atmosphere of inclusion and with a prayer for the benefit of both of us” – and hopefully, anyone else who would listen to these prayers.
Initially they talked about Yantra creating music using instruments. Over the years Yantra has developed a way of working where she uses the recording studio as a tool of composition, influenced by the likes of Brian Eno and Lisa Gerard.
“Devotion was to take this method to another level,” she says. Previously she had created vocal works that had some kind of instrumental backing tracks, but soon they both agreed that only voice, a capella – “in the manner of the chapel” – was most fitting. “This is the Tibetan style, anyway,” Robina says.
Robina was very clear that they should avoid “the clichéd floaty sounds of flutes and such instruments that Westerners commonly associate with Buddhism.” They were both moved by the liturgical songs of the twelfth-century German abbess Hildegarde of Bingen. “Her soaring melodies pushed the boundaries of traditional Gregorian chant,” Yantra feels.
They’d start their sessions with a motivation “to make our work together as beneficial as possible,” Robina says. “And I’d always wear my traditional saffron robe, reminding us that it was something special.”