“This is why we come early,” Buddhist singer-songwriter Ravenna Michalsen says for the third time this trip, as we search for the correct turn into Wellesley College. She’s playing a show for the college’s Buddhist Community tonight, and we’ve driven up to Massachusetts from New Haven, Connecticut, where various karmic causes and conditions have brought the two of us together again for another semester.

Michalsen and I first got to know each other in 1999 as participants in Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies in India program. Along with several other undergraduates from around the United States, we spent a fall term in the Burmese Vihar at Bodh Gaya, practicing meditation and studying Buddhism in depth. In many ways, she’s the same person I remember—funny, attractive, big-hearted, and whip-smart. Her commitment to dharma practice and teaching was oak-strong then and remains so. (She cofounded and was president of the Yale Buddhist Society, which has since morphed into Indigo Blue, a burgeoning center for Buddhist life at her alma mater.) Now, though, her interests are more focused, opinions more pronounced, and aptitudes more develop

It is Michalsen’s career as a “dharma musician” that perhaps best represents this maturation of her practice and understanding. “It doesn’t always have to be the spoken or the written word, which I feel we’ve fallen into pretty deeply—the idea that you either have to read books or hear talks or go on retreat to learn about Buddhism,” she explains with great conviction. “It’s not that these things aren’t extremely important—they certainly are—but there are other ways of learning about Buddhism, too. What about music? What about art? I think that’s one of the ways [Chögyam] Trungpa Rinpoche was a genius: he started doing theater, flower arranging, and those sorts of things. He tapped into other kinds of intelligence.”

A longstanding and devoted student of Trungpa’s Shambhala teachings, Michalsen found her way to dharma music through the Shambhala community’s current lineage holder, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. “I studied classical cello for about 14 years, but then I developed rheumatoid arthritis and slowly had to give up playing. Then in 2002, I met the Sakyong, and it ended up that I sang a song for him. Later, he wrote two songs for me to set to music. I didn’t really think that much about it—I just began to write more dharma-based songs.”

She subsequently left a Ph.D. program in anthropology at Yale to dedicate herself to Buddhist practice and songwriting. (Michalsen says that she writes most of her songs right before or after performing devotional practices.) Eventually, she found her way to Tara Mandala, the retreat center founded by Tsultrim Allione in the Four Corners area of southwestern Colorado. “Ravenna had found my first book, Women of Wisdom, during a difficult moment in her life and told me she had kept it under her pillow for months and read the biography of Machig Labdrön [the great eleventh-century Tibetan yogini] again and again,” Allione remembers. “She would sometimes offer a song at our tantric feast offerings, and I was struck by their unusual quality—something between a chant, dharma blues, and a devotional invocation. They also seemed to directly connect with the open space and rugged beauty of Tibet in an eerie, powerful way I had never heard before.”

Allione encouraged Michalsen to record, and it wasn’t long before she produced Bloom, an album of original devotional songs. Another album, Dharmasong, followed in 2007, and it’s this album she’ll be promoting at Wellesley.

Michalsen’s songs defy easy categorization, and her albums are unique among those usually pitched to Buddhists and yogis. Her work doesn’t really fit into such genres as new age, worldbeat, relaxation, or meditation: it’s neither “mantra set to music” nor heavy on ethereal studio effects. “My music is song-based,” Michalsen says. “I only really have one song—‘Om Tare’— that’s mantra set to music. Otherwise, it’s verse-chorus form.” This means, among other things, that the songs are not as lengthy and repetitious as most tracks on an album of so-called “yoga music.” Referring to a song we can hear playing off in the distance somewhere, she notes: “‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is four minutes, not fifteen. My songs are like that.”

The uniqueness of Michalsen’s music may account for the fact that she has not yet been picked up by a major recording label: she’s blazing a trail through somewhat uncharted territory. “We in the West are beginning to see not just Buddhist traditions taking root, but new, creative, and expressive Buddhist artistic forms arising,” says our mutual friend Sumi Loundon, former associate director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. “I think the fact that someone like Ravenna is writing new kinds of Buddhist music is a sign that Westerners are beginning to feel comfortable with this religion.”

Musically, Michalsen’s songs draw from such diverse influences as folk, bluegrass, ambient, techno, choral, and avant-garde. Lyrically, though, her inspiration is decidedly Buddhist: “I’m trying to create songs using the best of what American music has offered, and have it be about Buddhist spiritual topics and figures. It’s the content, rather than the musical style, that makes it ‘dharma music.’”

Making dharma music also entails other specific pieces for Michalsen. For one thing, she is extremely wary of doing anything that might exoticize Buddhism or Tibet. This is one reason, she says, that most of her lyrics are in English. And unlike sad love songs, for example, her songs “aren’t about building up kleshas [destructive emotions].” As another mutual friend, Judith Simmer-Brown, the Naropa University professor and Shambhala acharya under whom Michalsen completed the Sutrayana Seminary training, puts it, “She makes music to contribute to a more awakened world.”

One of the biggest themes in Michalsen’s work is the role of women in Buddhism. She has written songs about such female figures as Yeshe Tsogyal, consort of Padmasambhava, father of Tibetan Buddhism; Machig Labdrön (believed to be an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal); and the goddess Tara. Michalsen says it took her over a year to write her song “Marpa,” because of the strong emotions that came up for her as she thought about Dagmema, the saint’s wife. “That she’s called a dakini [an embodiment of the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism] in the texts just seems like such a consolation prize to me. ‘Sure. Why not? You’re a dakini.’ I started to ask myself, ‘Why is it that I have to do 108,000 prostrations to a lineage tree that has only three women in it?’”

“While I’m definitely counting heads when I get to gig,” says Michalsen, “when I’m singing I’m concentrating on singing.” © Sarah Ball, sarahballphotography.com

Also driving Michalsen’s work is the hope that American dharma music will appeal to as wide an audience as gospel: “I listen to Aretha Franklin’s early gospel music not because I’m Christian, but because it’s terrific music,” she says. “For the American dharma music movement to be successful, both the content and the music will need to compel listeners in the same way.”

At present, however, it seems that it might take time for non-Buddhists to get hip to the dharma sound. Though Michalsen is buoyed by a recent invitation from a coalition of Buddhist organizations in Malaysia’s Klang Valley, where she played to an enormous crowd as headliner for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Wesak International Film Festival in Kuala Lumpur, the Wellesley show draws only a paltry crowd of diehard practitioners. That it’s midterm exam period has something to do with this, but it’s still painful, Michalsen says, when audiences are small and no CDs are sold—in part because her livelihood in the “dharma industry” depends upon donations and CD sales. She takes heart knowing that some of her musical heroines have had to endure much the same. “Years ago, my parents went to see Joni Mitchell at Toad’s Place in New Haven—right when her Blue album was coming out—and there were three people in the audience. Three. And still she played for an hour and sang these songs that are now utterly iconic and classic—‘Blue,’ ‘A Case of You,’ and all those others,” she tells me incredulously. “So while I’m definitely counting heads when I get to a gig, when I’m singing I’m concentrating on singing.”

As Simmer-Brown observes, Michalsen is “resilient and focused in her commitment.” What’s more, her professionalism as a musician and training as a meditation instructor give her an extremely magnetic poise when she’s performing—no one drifts off or tunes out during the Wellesley show. “She is a woman of many gifts, combining a brilliant mind, deep emotional sensitivity, an empathetic nature, and a love of beauty,” adds Simmer-Brown. “And she understands that part of her practice is fostering awakened community.”

Michalsen says, “There are things that individual Buddhist communities do to jell, and that’s wonderful, but what about the overall Western Buddhist world? What brings all of us together? Well, I think music can be one of the things that does that.” It seems quite fitting, then, that about halfway through her show Ravenna passes out lyrics and we all sing along to her song, “May My Mind Turn to Others”:

May my mind turn to others
May I not think just of myself

May my mind turn to others
May I not think just of myself

But when I do
May I hold my heart
In tenderness

But when I do
May I hold my heart
With both hands

Just like I hope to hold
All sentient beings

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