By Huston Smith
Mickey Hart, a drummer for the erstwhile Grateful Dead, is also a serious ethnomusicologist who now works with the Smithsonian Institution. Fascinated by the Tibetan monks’ multiphonic chanting, he put the infrastructure of the Dead to work and helped organize six sellout coast-to-coast tours with twelve of the Gyuto monks.
One evening the monks were returning to Mickey’s ranch, in Northern California, after a performance in the University of California’s Zellerbach Auditorium, in Berkeley. When the van reached the Marin side of the Richmond Bridge, out of the blue the monks asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road. They told Mickey that they sensed evil in the vicinity, and they wanted to alleviate it. Little did they know that at that moment they were passing San Quentin, a maximum-security penitentiary. Visibly moved, they asked if they could go into the prison and bless the inmates.
Mickey was skeptical, but he asked the sentry on duty, who referred the matter to his superior. The monks were admitted to the entrance, which was separated from the prison proper by about twelve yards. On the opposite side was an electric fence featuring elevated cages, which housed sharpshooters with cocked rifles.
The prison chaplain told us about a Christian group of prisoners who met regularly to pray and sing hymns. They were summoned, and for about half an hour they alternated with the monks, one group singing and praying, and the other group chanting. The monks were so moved by their encounter with the prisoners that they returned several times to repeat the ritual.
Later, I accompanied Mickey to the San Francisco Airport to say farewell to the monks, who where returning to India, for their final tour had ended. As the stairs for boarding the plane descended to the runway, the monks regrouped themselves and chanted a farewell blessing on the land that they were leaving. The passengers in the corridor who were proceeding to their departure gates were so captivated they stopped and clustered around the monks, listening intently. As the last monk disappeared into the plane and the door was closing, a woman asked us in wide-eyed wonder, “What was that all about?”
As if to answer her emphatically, Mickey shouted out to the departing monks the famous line from Star Wars, “May the Force be with you!”
Then, turning to me, Mickey said, “What am I saying? May the Force be with me! They already have it!”
About Huston Smith:
Huston Smith is recognized and revered as the preeminent teacher of world religions. Smith has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California, Berkeley. He has written fifteen books, including the classic “The World’s Religions”, which has sold over two million copies in many translations, and the New York Times bestseller “Why Religion Matters”. He has been bestowed with twelve honorary degrees and was the focus of the five-part television series “The Wisdom of Faith” hosted by Bill Moyers.
From the book “And Live Rejoicing”. Copyright © 2012 Huston Smith. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com