28.6.20

Eastern Philosophy and the Cosmic Sound in the Counterculture

“I don’t reside in the hearts of yogis but with those who sing their devotion to me.” Lord Krishna in the words of Pandit Pran Nath.

Music critics look at their subject through a variety of prisms: often literary or socio-cultural, less commonly, and more sympathetic to musicians’ interests, in relation to composition or music technology. It is rare to read studies which consider the nebulous, intangible concepts which cluster around spirituality: ritual, trance, invocation, channeling, vibrations, atmospheres, the existence of higher orders of consciousness and transpersonal entities. It’s hard to talk about these concepts with any degree of precision. From my own library I can only think of David Toop's Ocean of Sound (1997) and perhaps elliptically Greil Marcus’ writings on Dylan like Invisible Republic (1997) where he addresses Bob Dylan’s coterie of phantasmal, invented characters. And yet, as we know as fans, that is all many musicians think about. In the grandest scheme of things music is contiguous with, and conjoined to, spirituality. From Bach to The Beatles, at its most sublime and eternal music always concerns itself with the metaphysical.

Before I started research on my book Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness I had mainly experienced music as a sealed universe. I could perhaps compare myself to an acolyte following the “only” path. I think my instincts were basically correct but what I learnt in the course of research about the Vedanta, Taoism, and Buddhism; from studying Freud, Jung and Reich; and exploring the worlds of sensory deprivation and psychedelics immeasurably deepened and enriched my understanding of music.

Bhagavan Das (1972)

The critical turning point came on a retreat in Northern California in the Mount Shasta National Park in June 2018. Mount Shasta is a stratovolcano and is tipped year-round with snow and surrounded by virgin pine forests. I had travelled there to meet the sixties guru Bhagavan Das to talk about his role in the counterculture and hear his views on meditation. Bhagavan Das introduced Timothy Leary’s side-kick Richard Alpert to the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba and was responsible for coining the phrase “Be Here Now.” Towards the end of the interview I mentioned a sufi quote from the minimalist composer La Monte Young which I thought related well to Bhagavan Das’s Vedic, Kirtan music. Baba, as he is affectionately known, froze. “I know La Monte Young. Yes, I do know him. I was very close to La Monte Young in New York City when I came back from India in 1971.”

Neem Karoli Baba (1972)

In my own little cosmology, La Monte Young sits atop a pinnacle of Western music which emanates downwards through The Velvet Underground alumni John Cale, Tony Conrad and Angus Maclise, and through them to every conceivable permutation of avant-garde rock. To travel halfway round the world to bark up what I assumed to be a totally different tree and discover the same owl sitting in it was surprising. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bhagavan Das belongs firmly in the world of music. In the seventies he had performed in support of The Grateful Dead, had been Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffrey’s new protegee – his potential high-flying career cut short by Jeffrey’s death in 1973. At the dawn of the seventies in New York City the two Vedantists, he and La Monte, would have kept each other in perfect company.
 


Pandit Pran Nath India’s Master Vocalist (1972)

Das also remembered La Monte’s mentor Pandit Pran Nath: “Yes. I knew Pandit Pran Nath very well. And he was a master musician. A master musician. And he came to one of my concerts once in San Francisco. Ram Dass and I did a special event and it was, like, the biggest thing we ever did together. I think it was 1974 or 1973. Pran Nath came. And I sang. It was an all-night event. Everyone was on LSD. There was like 20,000 people there and Pran Nath came up to me in the morning and saluted each other and he looked at me and he said, “Perfectly in tune.””


Ann Riley, Terry Riley, Pandit Pran Nath, Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young in the Himalayas (1972)

Such a compliment would have carried tremendous weight. Pran Nath and the Kirana school he came from placed the highest emphasis upon tuning with an attention to the microtonal details of Just Intonation – a far cry from the uneven intervals evident in the West’s standard tuning Equal Temperament. Just Intonation itself, based upon the correct mathematical structure of waveforms of sound, is freighted with a spiritual dimension too. Its premise suggests the existence of a higher, divine order manifest in correctly executed tuning. Pran Nath, as much as he is recognized a musician, is in essence a guru – La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, and Jon Hassell his shishyas. Interestingly, Timothy Leary’s colleague Ralph Metzner, co-author with him of The Psychedelic Experience (1964), played a key role in hooking La Monte up with the Indian singer. The wonderful documentary In Between The Notes: A Portrait of Pran Nath (1986) shows Pran Nath returning to the Tapkeshwar Caves where, covered only in ashes, he had spent five years singing to the sound of a nearby stream.

The connection between music and the spiritual is as old as time. However, against a backdrop of widespread experimentation with LSD and the vogueish currents of psychoanalysis which came to the fore in the countercultural era, the bond was more prominent than it has ever been. The late sixties and early seventies set a cosmic high watermark. Although there are many discourses around this nexus, in the countercultural era three antecedents stand out: Sufism, the Vedas and the music of Gurdjieff.

The La Monte Young quote which had pricked up Bhagavan Das’ ears came from an interview with La Monte and Marian Zazeela in the short lived Halana zine: “You know the Sufi story that when God created the body, the soul didn't want to go inside. The soul could see that this was going to be a trap, it was going to be in this cumbersome thing and that it was a life of hardship from there on. So God used music to lure the soul into the body. And the reason God did this is that the soul did not understand why it had to take the body and come to earth. The reason the soul had to enter the body and come to earth is so that it could study music…” The mystical Islamic sect of Sufi has an unusually pronounced affection for music and especially its own Qawwali. Islam itself has an ambivalent attitude towards music, instrumental music is often “haram”, but this is ignored in Sufism which contributes to its heretical status in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists.


Inayat Khan Mysticism of Sound (1923)

The philosopher-musician Inayat Khan’s pocket-sized book The Mysticism of Sound (1923) is the fountainhead of Sufi thought as it enters Western music. Inayat Khan himself founded the Sufi Order in the West in London in 1914. The book takes the neo-platonic concept of emanationism which dominates Vedic philosophy and articulates it within a theory of sound. “In the plane of sound, vibration causes diversity of tone, and in the world of atoms, diversity of color. It is by massing together that the vibrations become audible, but at each step towards the surface they multiply, and as they advance they materialize.” Structurally this is the same conception as the Vedic view which imagines consciousness as a deep body of water wherein an imperceptibly small bubble at the bottom will balloon and erupt on the surface. Music’s role here is to establish a harmony on this plane in accord with the divine order and “he who gradually progresses along the path of music, in the end attains to the highest perfection.”

Khan brings to these ideas a refreshingly practical dimension; “All things being derived from and formed of vibrations have sound hidden within them, as fire is in flint; and each atom of the universe confesses by its tone “My sole origin is but sound.” If any solid or sonorous body is struck it will answer back, “I am sound.”” I remember a story the eccentric Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal told of him and Airto Moreira striking objects to hear them release their spirit; also the “talking” drums of Nigeria’s Juju music.

Khan describes Hu as the most sacred of sounds, “This sound Hu is the beginning and end of all sounds…” This sound is god itself: “The Supreme Being has been called by various names in different languages, but the Mystics have known him as Hu the natural name, not man made, the only name of the Nameless, which all nature constantly proclaims. The sound Hu is most sacred; the mystics of all ages called it Ism-azam, the name of the most High, for it is the origin and end of every sound as well as the background of each word. The word Hu is the spirit of all sounds and of all words, and is hidden under them all, as the spirit in the body.”

Aum

We are familiar with the idea of the sacred sound from the Hindu Om, or as it correctly expressed in the Vedas Aum. In Vivekananda’s commentary on Patanjali he breaks it down: “The first letter, A, is the root sound, the key, pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by the closed lip, and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding board of the mouth. Thus [Aum] represents the whole phenomena of sound producing.”

Inayat Khan explains how Hu, which represents the first two letters of Aum, differs: “The sound Hu becomes limited in the word Hum, for the letter m closes the lips. This word in Hindustani expresses limitation, Hum means I or We, both of which signify the ego. The word [Aum] is the sacred word of the Yogis which illumines the ego with the light of reality.” Use of these heavenly sounds in the course of meditation, often in fact sung rather than just intoned as mantras, is key to the attainment of bliss consciousness, as Khan puts it, “This is the Heavenly Wine, to which all Sufi Poets refer, and is totally unlike the momentary intoxications of the mortal plane.”


Raga (1971)


Ravi Shankar India's Master Musician (1959) 

The ideas of Vedic philosophy are connected with the Sufi mysticism of sound in the same way that the spectrum of eastern philosophy embodied by Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism forms an unbroken continuum. On a talkshow with Dick Cavett and George Harrison in 1971 Ravi Shankar explains to the audience: “I request my listeners to be clear-mind. I like to put them [gestures] … make them high with music. I feel rather cheated when they are already high.” Cavett shows footage of Shankar in an informal musical gathering on the lawn at Esalen, a setting replicated at the end of Mad Men, which is lifted from the Apple Records documentary Raga (1971).
 

A Musical Anthology of the Orient: India 1 (1962)


Alain Daniélou Yoga: The Method of Re-integration (1949)

Hindustani classical music is the key waystation when examining the confluence of music and spirituality in the countercultural era. In the west we listen to this as secular music. However, it’s more accurate to understand the musicians as spiritualists whose end product is accidentally familiar to us in our different cultural context. The French historian and musicologist Alain Daniélou was unusual in the West for grasping this. Daniélou was not only advisor for the UNESCO Music Anthologies of India but also authored classic texts explaining the Hindu traditions such as Yoga: The Method of Re-integration (1949).

Indian classical musicians like Ravi Shankar subscribed to the ideas of Nāda yoga. Nāda yoga (nāda meaning “sound” in Sanskrit) should be understood beside other forms of yoga – all of them time-honoured Hindu techniques for connecting to the spirit and inducing the high of samadhi or “bliss consciousness.” The other paths include Raja Yoga (mind control), Karma Yoga (selfless actions), Bhakti Yoga (spiritual devotion), Jnana Yoga (philosophical study), and Hatha Yoga (the use of postural asanas). A student would inevitably use a combination of these techniques to achieve union with godhead – the word yoga itself is often explained as meaning “yoke” in Sanskrit. As in “the hookup.”

In the Nadabindu Upanishad, the key text of Nāda yoga, the subject is instructed to meditate upon the Hamsa (the Aum sound): “Being indifferent towards all objects, the Yogin having controlled his passions, should by continual practice concentrate his attention upon the sound which destroys the mind… The sound proceeding from Pranava which is Brahman is of the nature of effulgence; the mind becomes absorbed in it; that is the supreme seat of Vishnu.” In the documentary Raga Shankar says “Music is the only language I really know. For I believe in Nāda Brahma. The sound is god.”


G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963)

Besides the influence of Sufi and Indian thought with regards to sound the other key influence on the counterculture’s engagement with music was the then ubiquitous influence of hippie favourite G.I. Gurdjieff’s ideas of music. Gurdjieff was a colossal figure in spirituality, akin in stature to the Theosophist Madame Helena Blavatsky, and his ideas were as significant as Aleister Crowley’s in the seething occulture of the late sixties. Gurdjieff counted among his fans Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Colin Wilson, Henry Miller and Robert De Ropp. Gurdjieff bestowed upon history the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and the concept of the enneagram.


Meetings with Remarkabnle Men (1979)

The unmissable climax of Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men, based on the spiritualist’s autobiography, has Terence Stamp show Gurdjieff, played by Dragan Maksimovic, the men and women of the monastery performing “the movements.” These are remarkable, synchronized almost clockwork dances designed by Gurdjieff himself which occasionally resemble the spinning of sufi dervishes but which are more finely orchestrated. They suggest people’s movement as though they were formations of sand distorted by the pitch of audio from a loudspeaker. Gurdjieff worked with the Russian Composer Thomas de Hartmann, one of his pupils, to dictate over three hundred pieces of music to him in the 1920s at his “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” headquarters near Fontainebleu outside Paris. This is exceptionally fine contemplative piano music, like a Eurasian Erik Satie. De Hartmann’s own tapes of him performing it were recently re-released on vinyl by the Light in the Attic organisation.

Gurdjieff believed that what he called “objective music,” carefully attuned to the mathematical laws which govern the vibration of sounds and the relationships of tone, could produce precise effects. The film music composer Laurence Rosenthal describes in Gurdjieff’s book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950), “a remarkable old dervish repeatedly striking a certain series of notes on an ordinary grand piano which has been tuned according to a special system. These notes soon produce a boil on the leg of one of the listeners on the exact spot the master had predicted. Shortly thereafter, a different series of notes quickly makes the boil disappear.”

The countercultural musicians who drew on Eastern philosophy were legion. To have a guru was literally de rigeur for many years. However, a few scenes and performers deserve special mention for the manner in which they were either trailblazers or “deep in the game.” It’s important not to give too much credence to music which used eastern instruments as window-dressing. The often-enchanting "curried" rock of Norwegian Wood, Paint it Black, See My Friends, and Paper Sun doesn’t really connect to the ideas of the east. However, as soon as musicians took structural cues from Indian music, as for instance in the modal Jazz of John Coltrane’s India (1963) then the principles of eastern thought, and its concept of higher orders establishing the structure of the lower, become relevant.


Todi. Todi Ragini, second Wife of Hindol Raga, Ragamala Raghugarh, India ca. 1775-1800.

Modal Jazz was most clearly articulated in 1963 by the composer George Russell. The standard Western model of music is organized through progressions of chords which move towards resolution in a tonic chord. Modal Jazz, in contrast, holds that all the chords are equal, there is no chord progression, and chord changes are relatively rare. The minimalist composer Steve Reich noted approvingly of Coltrane’s modal Africa (1961): “basically a half-an-hour in E. Jazz musicians say, ‘Hey man, what's the changes?’ ‘E.’ ‘No! E for half-an-hour!’” This gives a soloist greater freedom and choice when improvising.

It is remarkably close to, and is clearly influenced by, the Hindustani raga which establishes the parameters of an improvisation within the limitations of a defined scale marked by the time of day. So, for instance Pran Nath’s favourite Raga Todi should only be performed in the late morning. In India the symbolism is pursued to its logical conclusion, Pran Nath says “Raga is living souls,” and Todi is usually shown as a gentle, beautiful woman, holding a veena (a plucked string instrument) and standing in a lovely green forest. The implication being that the raga is an emanation of this higher being.
 

According to composer and jazz scholar Bill Bauer, Coltrane based the lead melody for 1961’s India on a Vedic chant lifted from this LP Religious Music of India (1952). 

The Byrds Eight Miles High (1966), with Roger McGuinn rendering his version of Trane’s India solo on a 12-string electric guitar, in eschewing ethnic trappings cut closer to the heart of the matter. Although The Byrds often appeared to dip into India as an influence they never once had a sitar on one of their records. For example, their Moog Raga (1968) was an early electronic piece. There were other rock musicians who avoided the accusation of using eastern music merely for colour. Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead concedes that Dark Star (1969) is “very much like a raga” without the ethnic filigree. The song is an improvisation within a set scale and is quite like an extended alaap – the introduction to Hindustani music’s ragas which most of the musicians prefer to the rhythmic conclusion.


The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)

As keen as George Harrison was on the colour of Indian instruments The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) is perhaps more authentically vedic in spirit than anything else they recorded. In his book Revolution in the Head (1994) Ian MacDonald explains that for the second half of the song “Lennon wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top.” MacDonald concluded of the song that “only the fringe experimentalist La Monte Young was ahead of The Beatles in embracing the drone with reference to its original context: a cosmic keynote resounding through space – the reverberation of the universe-engendering voice of Brahma the creator.”


D.T. Suzuki An Introduction to Buddhism (1934)


John Cage with DT. Suzuki. 


John Cage (1978)

One of the earliest musical explorers into the possibilities of Eastern philosophy was the composer John Cage. Cage was wrapped up in what Alan Watts jokingly described the Beat Zen boom of the fifties. The influence of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both enamored by the ideas of Buddhism, drew interest around Japanese emigres like D.T. Suzuki to fever pitch. Cage was profoundly affected by the Zen seminars held by Suzuki at Columbia University. Cage, then thirty-eight, attended for two years, and was “confused… both in my personal life and in my understanding of what the function of art in society could be.” His friends had recommended he undergo psychoanalysis, but he found that Suzuki’s seminars served the purpose just as well. Cage would frequently fall asleep in class but apparently Suzuki didn’t notice or care. This in turn inspired his Lecture on Nothing (1961) with its 14-time repeated refrain “If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.” Zen Buddhist and Taoist ideas lay behind his prepared piano pieces, with their eastern tonalities, as well as avant-garde works such as 4’33” (1952) and Indeterminacy (1959).



John Coltrane Meditations (1966) and Om (1967)

Perhaps owing to its deep roots in the Beat appropriation of the East, many Jazz musicians were devoted spiritualists. John Coltrane, brought up in a devout Methodist family with two grandfathers who were preachers, had experienced a religious awakening in the process of kicking junk in 1957. In the era of Martin Luther King the example of Gandhi’s nonviolent overthrowal of the Raj was important to Trane. Despite reading The Gospel of Ramakrishna, Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi and the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God) he didn’t ascribe his satori to any one creed. Trane declared in the liner-notes for Meditations (1966) “I believe in all religions.” However, the Vedas is notable in its non-exclusive position. As Vivekananda put it to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

Coltrane was a student of Ravi Shankar’s, after whom he named his son, but as early as India from Impressions (1961) was already finding his way to a synthesis of the raga in the modal jazz he participated in with Miles Davis. Trane’s A Love Supreme (1965) struck a particular chord with the counterculture – Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead recalling “That’s one of the records I would hear walking through the Haight on a spring night, all over town.” And Om (1965), mooted to have been recorded under the influence of LSD, with its long, quoted intro from Bhagavad-Gita made clear his attachment to Hindu thought.


Alice Coltrane Journey in Satchidananda (1970)

John’s wife Alice Coltrane was yet more explicit about her passion for spirituality and eastern philosophy. Her Journey in Satchidananda (1970) with its pronounced use of the tamboura, was named after her guru whose name means “being-consciousness-bliss” and who is well-known for his opening the Woodstock festival. When the swami spoke to the crowds, a tactic designed by the promotors to calm everyone down, he referred to the festival as an opportunity for “all of our actions and all of our arts to express yoga through the sacred path of music.” Alice’s passion for the Vedas, evident in song titles like Mantra from Ptah the El Daoud (1970), echoed her husband’s. After John’s death Alice moved to California and established her Vedantic Centre in 1975 before changing her name to Turiyasangitananda. Her later music was re-released by Luaka Bop in 2017 as World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda and received rave reviews. She is quoted in the liner notes: “I do get very deeply engaged spiritually in the music, because it's a spiritual language for me, it's not a musical language. I'm expressing, articulating deep feeling and deep experience in life, in spiritual life, in God.”

Satchidananda was only one of the gurus to whom musicians of the countercultural era flocked. Sri Chimnoy, a Bengali spiritual leader who grew up in Sri Aurobindo’s ashram moved to New York in 1964, spread his message by giving lectures at universities across the US and attracted disciples like John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Carlos Santana. The fruits of the two guitarists’ engagement came in the infinite noodling of Love Devotion Surrender LP of 1963 versions of Coltrane’s music which was dedicated to their guru. There was also the influence of the juggernaut of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness which led to the appearance of the Hare Krishna mantra in I am the Walrus and Give Peace a Chance. However, the greatest influence of the Vedas on music came from the giggling guru himself, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Science of Being and Art of Living (1963)


Paul Horn in Kashmir (1968)

It was no surprise that musicians gravitated to Mahesh because sound played a central part in the Transcendental Meditation pioneer’s cosmology. Prudence Farrow Bruns, immortalised as Dear Prudence in The Beatles song informed me of the TM use of the mantra, “The mantra is merely an aid, or tool, that the conscious mind uses to access the deepest transcendental part of the mind. Mantra means sound in Sanskrit...” In his 1963 book Science of Being and Art of Living Mahesh writes, “Thinking, in itself, is the subtle state of speech. When we speak, our words are audible to the ears, but if we do not speak, the words do not become perceptible to the organ of hearing. Thus, we find that thought is a subtle form of sound. Experience shows that the process of thinking starts from the deepest, most refined level of consciousness and becomes grosser as it develops. Eventually it becomes gross enough to be perceived on the surface level of the ocean of consciousness, on the common level of thinking. An analogy will clarify the principle. A thought starts from the deepest level of consciousness, from the deepest level of the ocean of mind, as a bubble starts at the bottom of the sea. As the bubble rises, it gradually becomes bigger. When it comes to the surface of the water it is perceived as a bubble. Mind is like an ocean, and as in an ocean, the surface layers are active in waves and the deeper levels are silent. The surface layers of the mind are actively functioning while the deep layers are silent.”

The jazz flautist Paul Horn had form with eastern philosophy recording the polite Zen: The Music of Fred Katz with Katz and Chico Hamilton in 1957. Horn took part in a teacher-training programme at Rishikesh and became a TM initiator. Towards the end of the course he had the opportunity to play with some Kashmiri musicians which resulted in the Liberty Records LP In Kashmir – Cosmic Consciousness (1968). Mahesh can be seen on the cover. This was before The Beatles had arrived at the compound and Horn reflected, “In early 1967 there were only 50 people at the Ashram. I was always thinking how great it would be to have a documentary of those special days for all the world to see. I returned to Los Angeles in June and by the end of that year my wish became a realization… So that was already in motion, and I had a film crew and everything going over there. And it just happened to coincide that The Beatles were there.”


Paramhansa Yogananda Autobiography of a Yogi (1946)


Vivekananda Raja Yoga (1896)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney had seen Mahesh on a small black and white TV in Liverpool years before and John had been enchanted by his giggling. The group’s relationship with him was predated by George Harrison’s involvement with Ravi Shankar. This led to George and Patti Boyd embarking on a visit to meet Shankar in India in September 1966. Harrison told The Times of India: “I am not here as a Beatle. I have come here just as plain George Harrison to learn the sitar and something of Indian classical music.” Ravi and his brother Raju introduced George to two fundamental books: the wonderful Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of Yogi (1946) and Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (1896). Before encountering Mahesh, George and Patti met Shankar’s guru Tat Wale Baba who explained the laws of karma to them.



Donovan: a gift from a flower to a garden (1968) Front cover and rear.

The Beatles had been initiated in TM in London, and had gone on a retreat to Bangor in Wales with Mahesh but it was the descent of the entire horde of The Beatles and partners, Donovan and Mike Love of The Beach Boys to Rishikesh in February 1968 that signaled their commitment to the yogi. While Lennon and the Maharishi had a famous bust-up over the sexy sadhu’s wandering hands, Donovan and The Beach Boys remained close. Mahesh clutches a flower in a photo affixed to the rear of Donovan’s a gift from a flower to a garden (1968) LP and the yogi supported The Beach Boys on their doomed 1968 US Tour.


Chögyam Trungpa

While the Vedas dominated musicians’ conception of sound the example of Buddhism had an impact on some of the more thoughtful countercultural musicians. When I interviewed Bhagavan Das he remembered his times with the notorious Tibetan Lama Chögyam Trungpa at his foundation the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, “he just encouraged my, basically you could say, my hedonism. He said, “Well do it! That’s what you want to do. That’s what you need to do.” Do it and see through it and go out the other end. So, I was pretty crazy for three years, I was very reckless and I was just lucky that I didn’t kill myself.” Trungpa, like Rajneesh, the subject of Netflix Wild Wild Country (2018) documentary, believed in the value of the Tantric path. That’s to say the strategy of reaching enlightenment by passing through attachment rather than through renunciation. Trungpa called this “Crazy Wisdom” and we shouldn’t be surprised that the hedonistic rock counterculture gravitated to him.

In Paul Trynka’s book Starman, “face” and underground DJ Jeff Dexter describes how: “When I first went to Samye Ling [Trungpa’s Scottish Retreat], [Bowie] had already made an impression with the head monk Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.” Bowie went as far as nearly joining the order as a monk, admitting in 1969, “I was a terribly earnest Buddhist at the time... I had stayed in their monastery and was going through all their exams... another month and my head would have been shaved.” Bowie’s love with Buddhism stayed with him his whole life as he remained in contact with the Tulku, Chime Rinpoche. The evidence doesn’t often appear on record, but Bowie’s Silly Boy Blue (1967) centres on a description of life in Lhasa inspired by Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet.

Bhagavan Das’ friend Allen Ginsberg was another of Trungpa’s close circle. He writes his liner notes for Bob Dylan’s Desire (1976) in his capacity as Co-Director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. This was the literature department established by Trungpa at the Naropa Institute. However, Ginsberg’s close friend, the Buddhist Arthur Russell was less impressed by Trungpa’s alcoholism, LSD use and revolving door of sexual partners telling Allen, “What is this shit?” and advising him to steer clear of the lama. This did not stop Russell’s interest in the Trungpa’s theoretical endorsement of improvisation in the instruction “First thought, best thought.”


Arthur Russell's posthumous compilation First Thought, Best Thought (2006).


Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973)

Arthur Russell’s engagement with Buddhism is explored in depth in Matthew Marble’s Buddhist Bubblegum: Esoteric Buddhism in the Creative Process of Arthur Russell (2016). The thesis explores how Russell gravitated towards the strategies of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, “mantra, meditation, visualization, sadhana rituals” to guide his creative process. In Matt Wolf’s documentary Wild Combination (2009) Ginsberg says in eulogy  “His ambition seemed to be to write popular music, “bubblegum” music, but “Buddhist bubblegum” — to transmit the dharma through the most elemental form, or to transmit some sense of illumination. That was [his] constant preoccupation.”

Marble focuses on the “matrix system” Russell developed to compose Instrumentals Vol. 1 & 2 (1977-78) and his improvisational disco work 24>24 Music (1980). The latter took a great deal of marshalling by François Kevorkian to whom we should be grateful for the concision of Go Bang #5 (1982). He argues of World of Echo (1986) that Arthur was, “perhaps nowhere more successful in sonifying these “first thoughts””. Russell is memorialized in Ginsberg’s poem Charnel Ground (1992) “The artistic Buddhist composer on the six floor lay spaced out feet swollen with water, Dying slowly of AIDS over a year.”


Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita with a foreword by Aldous Huxley.


The Gospel of Ramakrishna.

We shouldn’t get too hung up on geography or ethnicity. Eastern thought in its purest form is simply philosophy. It’s interesting to discover that Ravi Shankar, who we identify as the quintessence of Hindustani music, had an exceptionally cosmopolitan upbringing travelling with his brother Uday’s dance troop to Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles. Ravi did not turn exclusively to either music or India itself until 1938 when he was eighteen. This bears similarities to the equally cosmopolitan Gandhi’s own introduction to the Bhagavad Gita by Theosophists in London.

One cannot escape the suspicion that of all the countercultural music, two which had less obvious debts to eastern spirituality were posing similar questions without referring to its influence. The implication of dub reggae’s visible-then-invisible sonic figures is explicitly, and without recourse to metaphor, demonstrative of the reality of higher forms; and the blind, no-mind mantras of krautrock articulate the principles of the Tao and the theoretical violence of Zen Buddhism – even if with track titles like Aumgn or Negativland these groups may have hinted at their understanding of the actual tenets.

For the spiritualists of the counterculture, and even those of today, La Monte Young summarises the cosmic appeal of these philosophies of music, “…sound is capable of presenting the most perfect model of universal structure, and sound is a physical phenomenon since it involves air molecule vibrations.” Music holds out the promise of being a better manifestation of a divine order than that which is normally engraved in the sludge of the western ego. It was through their manifestation in music of higher order principles that these musicians gave us a glimpse of the sublime.