Dechen Shak-Dagsay is a Swiss-Tibetan musician and author. Over the past few decades, she has built a career in music by combining the Tibetan mantra transmissions passed down by her father, Ven. Dagsay Rinpoche, with innovative melodies and contemporary instrumental productions. She has also engaged in collaborative projects with other spirituality-inspired musicians. Having lived in Switzerland for most of her life, Dechen is one of the most prominent contemporary Tibetan singers in Europe today, and has also become globally recognized through various music awards, and for having performed songs from her albums Jewel and Day Tomorrow at Carnegie Hall in New York. Dechen is also the founder of the Dewa Che charity organization, which engages in social projects in Tibet.
Dechen’s newest album, emaho – The Story of Arya Tara, released in October 2021, is about the enlightened activity of the Vajrayana goddess Tara and contains a musical rendition of the “21 Praises of Tara.” BDG recently had a chance to speak with Dechen about her latest project.
BDG: You’ve sung about Tara on various albums before, but this new album is devoted specifically to her story. What do you find inspiring about this female buddha?
Dechen Shak-Dagsay: I have had a wish for many years now to share the extraordinary story of Goddess Arya Tara, the gentle-yet-indomitable princess who became a female buddha. The mythic story goes back many eons in ancient India, where she was called Princess Jhana-Chandra, which means Wisdom-Moon. In Tibetan, her name is Yischi Dawa, and it touches me profoundly that, out of a deep sense of compassion, she would not even eat breakfast before she had liberated hundreds of thousands of beings from samsara each day. She was a faithful disciple of her teacher Buddha Dundubhisvara, and her entire community admired her.
One day, the monks urged her to make an aspiration (vyakarana) to be reborn as a man in her next life in order to attain full enlightenment. The princess laughed at this sexist exhortation and replied: “There is no male, there is no female. To discriminate between male and female is the mind of a small being. There are neither men nor women, nor a self, nor beings.” She vowed to return again and again in a female form in order to help all beings from suffering and to reach enlightenment in female form. Therefore, her teacher, Dundubhisvara, gave her the name Tara, which means “Swift Liberator.”
Tara’s story reminds us every day that we are all equally beautiful beings blessed with great inner qualities, such as love, compassion, kindness, and clarity. These qualities are just waiting to be rediscovered and nurtured.
BDG: Your album emaho captures a profound thought: “What an amazing, wondrous moment when the mind awakens.” How does the music create a mood and ambience in which the listener can realize this moment for themselves?
DSD: Emaho is indeed not an ordinary word. It is found in ancient Tibetan spiritual texts and is an exclamation of joy and amazement when the obscured mind awakens and experiences the pure, clear, and bright shining light of the true nature of our mind.
Personally, I find that each of the eight pieces hold beautiful emaho moments for the listeners. As with all my previous albums, I received the texts for this exalted goddess from my dear father, Ven. Dagsay Rinpoche. It is a great blessing that Rinpoche gave me the transmissions for these beautiful “21 Praises of Tara,” which are practiced in all Tibetan traditions. I also had the privilege of working with Swiss producer Helge van Dyk, who also composed and produced the music of my two previous albums, Jewel and Day Tomorrow.
I said to Helge that I wished to represent the four enlightening activities of Tara in four musical pieces. I cannot thank Helge enough for creating the most sublime music to present the four skillful enlightening activities of Tara: the pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and wrathful aspects.
When you listen to emaho – The Story of Arya Tara, my hope is that you will enter the wonderful, unique space and landscape of Tara’s buddha-field, and perceive her different fields of activities through the following musical compositions.
BDG: How do you think the spirit of emaho can help heal our fractured and hurting world, which is now immersed in COVID-19 and a range of other immense crises?
DSD: We generally believe in the great healing power of the Buddha’s teachings, especially when the world is going through a difficult time. We are still in a worldwide pandemic, and we constantly face threats of natural calamities and other crises.
The whole world has faced unprecedented challenges over the last two years, and we are still trying to find solutions for how to handle them. From a worldly point of view, these problems are simply devastating and are creating immense suffering for everyone. But from a Buddhist view, such challenges are exactly what we call “precious moments” for our minds to awaken and to encourage a total reset in our interior world and inner being. We call these moments precious because they allow us to open our hearts to the Buddha’s teachings, such as the Three Marks of Existence. Recalling them always has an instant healing effect on me:
• Impermanence (Skt: anitya): Nothing stays the same, everything is constantly changing.
• Whatever we experience is marked with some kind of suffering. As long as we identify ourselves with a sense of solid self, we will always suffer (dukkha).
• Everything around us and even our own person is empty of a self (anatman).
Together with Helge and other musicians, we created emaho in the hope that it will be a small contribution to helping us all through these troubled times together.
We hope to be able to bring calm and peace into people’s hearts. We will not be able to get rid of COVID-19, or the economic, social, and political fallout it has caused, but the music that carries the blessings of Arya Tara, the Swift Liberator, will help us all to overcome our fears, sadness, frustration, and pain to create some space in our hearts and to rebalance our minds. It is within this calm space that we will be able to tap into our innate beauty and strength. We all need this to transform our pain and negative thoughts, and to calmly face and embrace the difficult times ahead of us; to fully become aware of our own inner qualities.
The release of the new double album was followed by the release of my new book, Mantras, Musik & Magic Moments, in December 2021, in which I write about the healing aspects of the old Tibetan mantras, and why I chose music as a tool to reach people’s hearts. I also talk about how Tibetan healing symbols have carried sacred power for centuries. I began making mantra music about two decades ago, and I hope followers will enjoy this new perspective I am offering through my work.
BDG: Your music has been received very well worldwide and your profile has also been rising in Asia. Do you present your music as non-denominational and embracing of all Buddhist traditions, even while it expresses your Tibetan heritage?
DSD: Although I am very rooted in Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism, I embrace all Buddhist traditions. My dear father Dagsay Rinpoche, who lives in Chengdu, always reminded us that the essence of the Buddha’s teachings is non-violence and cultivating love and compassion for all beings. All Buddhist traditions, including the Tibetan heritage, are following this beautiful path. It is my wish to one day come to Asia to meet all my Asian friends and to perform my music in Asia together with the Jewel Ensemble.
In my third piece on disc two, called “Peace of Mind,” I sing a “Praise to the 21 Taras” in Chinese and in Tibetan. It is my deep wish to create a wonderful space of peace, respect, and reconciliation.
BDG: You’ve come together with various artists to create a fusion of music. These artists also tend to have a spiritual flavor to their work. How do you decide to work with an artist? How do you identify a potential collaboration?
DSD: Thank you for sensing what I see as a very special energy to our music. I am very thankful to Helge, who has a distinct talent in finding the right artists for a special collaboration that requires not only technical musical skills, but also an open heart that is fully inspired to play soulful music with us. He has carefully selected outstanding musicians to form the Jewel Ensemble, with whom we have played many concerts all around the world. I feel very privileged to have the following members of the Jewel Ensemble, as well as an extended ensemble that we shared the stage with when playing the Call for Peace concerts with the renowned Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO).
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my Jewel Ensemble musicians and guest musicians from around the world for their beautiful contributions on emaho. It has been such an honor to work with all these outstanding artists, who committed their heartful work to this album.* I would like to thank BDG for opening the door to the story of Arya Tara. I would be very happy if this music finds its way across Asia, and I would like to thank all my musicians, my producer Helge, and my dear father Dagsay Rinpoche for letting me create such precious music. I hope it will help to remind people all around the world of their own inner strength and beauty.
* Album credits:
Helge van Dyk: Grand piano, keyboards and programming, dulcimer, dung cheng, Tibetan conch shell, Brazilian shell chimes
Dieter Dyk: Nga chung (Tibetan prayer drum), raven drum, dung cheng, glockenspiel, Japanese temple bowls, Indonesian gendèr, Chinese tam-tam, Asian gongs, chimes
Jürg Fuyûzui Zurmühle: Shakuhachi
Thomas Niggli: Sitar, tambura
Tosho Yakkatokuo: – Cymbals, hi-hat, jingle ring
Björn Meyer: Bass
Satnam Ramgotra: – all frame drums, tabla, darbuka, shaker, crystal bowls, clave, djembe
Ricky Olombelo: – Aponga, kayamba, tsikadrha, bambou, vibraslap
Jonathan Allan: First and second violin and viola
Fabian Müller: Cello, string arrangements on “emaho – An Amazing One”
Max Lässer: – Guitar on “emaho – An Amazing One”
Degi Faoro, Sada Silke Dyk, Dolkar Dagsay: choir on “emaho – An Amazing One”
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