“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.”
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