Page 1 of 2
k.d. lang’s Watershed
Her new album, Watershed, reflects the dramatic changes in her life since she became a committed Buddhist. k.d. lang talks for the first time about her Buddhist teacher and practice.
Melvin McLeod: Over the years, you’ve made passing references to Buddhism, but this is the first time you’ve discussed your Buddhist practice in detail. How long have you been a Buddhist?
k.d. lang: From a very early age I have considered myself to be a Buddhist. I don’t even know where that came from, it was just an innate feeling. I was also very interested in—and very sure of—the concept of reincarnation. Then the older I got and the more I learned about Buddhism, the more I felt at home with its principles and philosophy. I took refuge as a Buddhist about seven years ago, so it’s clearly something that I’ve kept relatively low key in the press. I don’t think it’s necessary or even helpful to advertise your practice of the dharma.
Melvin McLeod: What type of Buddhism do you practice?
k.d.lang: About eight years ago I met a teacher here in Los Angeles from the Nyingma lineage of Tibet, Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa. The great teacher Chagdud Tulku asked him to come here and work on stabilizing dharma in the West. Lama Gyatso quickly became my teacher. I have been practicing and studying with him since.
I’m very proud to be a Nyingma practitioner. It totally suits my character. It’s the oldest Tibetan lineage and yet in some ways the most radical, you might say. Although there is plenty of academic study, it is not fundamentally academic. Beyond that, the importance of being a Nyingma to me is the purity of the lineage. The oral transmission has remained unbroken and it’s very, very potent. There is an unwavering dedication and homage to Guru Rinpoche, the founder of the lineage, and to your root lama. That kind of deep dedication is what makes the Nyingma tradition so special.
Melvin McLeod: What practices do you do?
k.d. lang: I’m actually in the middle of doing my ngöndro, the preliminary Vajrayana practices. I practice it in my hotel room, on the plane, wherever I can. As far as our sangha is concerned, there are practices that we do as a group on a regular basis. We have a thröma retreat that we do every year. We do Yeshe Tsogyal and a few other secret practices. We do Orgyen Dzambhala every New Year’s.
Melvin McLeod: Committing to a teacher as you have, particularly one in the Tibetan tradition, can really turn your life upside down.
k.d. lang: Yes, absolutely! [Laughs] That’s very true! When you find your teacher your life is turned upside down, but in the most divine way. My involvement with the dharma has completely changed the structure of my life. Our sangha is very small, so we work very hard. I would say that supporting Lama Gyatso Rinpoche’s activities is my number-one job. Together with my partner, Jamie Price, I’m on the board of directors of Ari Bödh, the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation. We’ve been building a long-term retreat centre on a 475-acre retreat property north of Los Angeles. We’re just four years old now, but we are planning to create a facility that will accommodate retreats of three or more years. We have a temple, which has a lovely statue of Guru Rinpoche commissioned by Lama Gyatso.
We also have a children’s camp called Tools for Peace. The curriculum we use there is being translated into four languages now. Kids come to Ari Bödh every summer for the camp, and I serve as a cook and bottle washer there. It’s very rewarding.
Melvin McLeod: What about your singing career?
k.d. lang: Well, my singing career got put on the back burner a little bit. When I took refuge and became a practitioner in earnest, I started devoting my time and energy to practice and building our meditation center. Music became this thing that basically kept me paying the bills. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to make the record with Tony Bennett, Wonderful World, and then Hymn to the 49th Parallel, an album of covers of classic Canadian songs. Interpretive records take far less time and energy than writing and recording your own record.
Also, starting on the path really wreaked havoc on the concept of writing material. I was always worried about whether I had to literally become like Milarepa, the great yogi and ascetic, and write songs about spinning the dharma wheel [laughs]. I was a little nervous about the prospect of having to do that. That was one of the reasons it took me so long to write the new record. I was processing all of this information I had been learning and absorbing, which was changing the actual structure of my brain, and my soul, and my heart.
Melvin McLeod: It’s not unusual—I know myself—to think at the beginning that you have to go off and live in a cave or something.
k.d. lang: Exactly. You can become pretty carried away, to the point where you feel you have to let go of your friends and your house and all sorts of things, and nothing can be integrated. It’s total chaos. Then all of a sudden everything starts to integrate. At a certain point, Buddhist practice is so inseparable from everything you do that you start to live and breathe it. I suppose that’s the gradual process of awakening—it’s naturally incorporated into your very being. You don’t even think that you’re processing things in a “Buddhist way,” particularly.
Melvin McLeod: What about your songs?
k.d. lang: I had a couple of conversations with Rinpoche, asking him whether it was important for me to actually integrate my practice into my lyrics. He told me, “Oh, no. Not necessary.” That was a big relief, because it took away the pressure of having to produce explicit dharma songs. Of course, the dharma is integrated into the way I think and breathe and live, so it’s also integrated into the way I write lyrics. But it hasn’t been purposeful. It’s been natural. It has been a total relief to realize that. Buddhism is a religion of non-proselytizing, so it would have felt very unnatural to make an effort to include Buddhism in my lyrics.
Melvin McLeod: How would you say, then, that your practice has affected the songs on your new album?
k.d. lang: I’m a young practitioner. I’m really just in the initiation stages, which is like standing naked in front of the mirror and diving inside to see what you’re working with, what kind of a mess is going on in there! [Laughs] The new album, Watershed, is a reflection on my various relationships—my relationship to my partner, my relationship to my music, to my fame, to my teacher, to this existence. I try and touch on those things on some of the songs, such as “Je Fais La Planche” and “Flame of the Uninspired.” “Coming Home” is about finding my past. I tried to write the song in a way that would transcend all of the pedantic ways of expressing it, and just be completely naïve about it, you might say.