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San Bao

I met San Bao at Drepung Monastery, during the unfolding of the great thanka. In his own way, San Bao was searching for inspiration for new music. Recognized as one of China’s greatest music composers today, from classical to pop, San Bao has created stars through his song writing and composition by writing hits for pop singers and movie directors like Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang. I had seen him at a concert in Beijing, conducting an orchestra that was playing his compositions. I had listened to his music and felt his compassion. I did not expect, however, that of all places, I would meet San Bao here in Tibet. Some might call this karma.

San Bao is actually ethnic Mongolian. The Mongolian people also practice Tibetan Buddhism. Lifestyle in the mountains and on the grasslands are similar to the Tibetans, so is their nomadic spirit. One afternoon, we sat together on the rooftop of Jokhang Temple, drinking yak butter tea. Potala Palace was within the distance and the crystal blue sky created an illusion that one could actually reach out and touch it. I tried to touch it, only to realize it was just an illusion, a distortion of perceptions. I began questioning my own perception of distance, space, time and music. We talked about sound.

“Your name ‘San Bao’ means ‘three treasures’. It’s a concept in Tibetan Buddhism, right?”

“This is my family name. As I am the third brother, so my family called me ‘San Bao’, or ‘third treasure’. San Bao is directly related to Buddhism. I do know that. There is a San Bao Temple, but the specifics of this place are not known to me. I believe in reincarnation. Everything does not have a conclusion. When one thing concludes, a new one begins. A person’s life is forever faced with making choices which require sacrifices. The gain from one’s choice is also one’s loss.”

“Many people come to Tibet for inspiration,” I wondered. “But why are we really here? What do you make of it?”

“Every person has a Shangri-La in his mind,” San Bao explained. “Every person is searching for this. But people have their own individual viewpoints, and they will use their own familiar way to find their own dream.”

“So is this search for Shangri-La the driving force behind New Age music, like the band Enigma?”

“From the music perspective, in the early 1980s, so-called New Age or World music emerged, reaching for the roots of ethnic elements and fusing them into modern lifestyle rhythm, creating pure sounds. From this point onwards,” San Bao explained, “a variety of diverse New Age music forms sprang upon the scene. Many DJs and record engineers compiled and recomposed raw and ethnic sounds. Step by step, a new epoch of music emerged. I feel that other cultural forms are also following this pattern, creating a kind of ‘crossover’ movement. Collectively, the past twenty years may be viewed in retrospect as representing an epoch characterized by a search for the pure and the natural. You see, music has many levels of comprehension. For instance, New Age music has now become a fashion. Suddenly, it appears that everyone is doing this and it is now becoming overdone. Every person thinks that as long as you get some primitive sounds and patch them together, you have the New Age sound. For example, here in Lhasa, I saw a lama standing under a China Mobile advertisement, talking on a mobile phone. You will feel it is strange and a bit overstated.”

“Through New Age music, do you feel that composers and songwriters are looking for something natural in ethnic sounds which they feel is missing in modern urban life today?”

“Missing something?” San Bao asked himself out loud, looking up at the pure blue sky, where waves of white clouds scattered in a distant illusion gave a sense of proximity. “What are we all missing? Nobody can really answer this clearly. In reality, Shangri-La represents a state of composure. Regardless of where Shangri-La might be, this is really not so important. It is a lifestyle, a state of composure, or the ideal in one’s imagination.” The clouds shifted, exposing more blue.

“Does this then represent an escape from the modern urban yuppie utopia?” I asked.

“People living in cities for long periods can find themselves short of inspiration. But every person’s inspiration is different. Sometimes, I really want to go to some place which is far from the city, far from noise, maybe somewhere in the countryside or somewhere where there are no people. Just close the door and stay alone by myself without anyone around. I am a person who has an extreme dislike of cities. I do not like any city at all. I do not know why. I have a feeling of special admiration for those artists, such as painters. If I were a painter, I would certainly not live in the city because art can be completed by a person alone. But for me, this is not the case. To be a music composer, I must work with songwriters, musicians and recording engineers, because my work requires many people to be involved collectively to complete. Qian Zhongshu once said, ‘City people want to leave the city. Country people want to enter the city.’ Regardless of career or marriage, people are just that way. I lived in this atmosphere and situation. So what I want is something different. In fact, however you look at it, it is just the same.”

“The same, as compared to what?” I was more confused. “Can you give me an example of what you mean?”

“Once, I went to Yunnan,” San Bao explained. “A friend there interviewed many people in rural villages, recording their lifestyles. He saw a local girl, who looked very open and expressive, so he wanted to interview her. After talking for a while, he fixed a time for the interview. At the time he spoke, the girl was wearing traditional ethnic clothes, with a lot of character, very interesting. The next day, when the village girl came for the interview, she did not wear her ethnic clothes, but rather, a modern dress with stylish shoes. Of course, this girl must have felt that she was dressed quite attractively. This shows a gap in culture. It is in fact very simple. It makes you really wonder. What is beautiful?”

“So is this why you came to Tibet? What inspired you most here?”

“Yesterday, I drove to Namutsuo Lake. It is a beautiful lake. But the local nomads will probably ask you why you would bother driving a jeep for such a long distance just to see a lake. They see this lake every day and do not see anything special there. The road to Namutsuo Lake evoked a feeling of traveling on a rough uncertain road. But then, suddenly coming over the hill, I saw the lake. It reminded me of the time when I was driving a car in the U.S.A., when suddenly I saw a city of neon lights appear in the desert, and that’s Las Vegas. Back then, I also had this same feeling. Of course, both cases are two extremes of the same thing, but both situations created a feeling of awe after apprehension.”

“Experiencing awe after apprehension … maybe this is the search for Shangri-La. What do you think?”

“Many people search. This is just idealistic. The real dream is inside our own minds if your heart can really find it. I like to go to really rural areas where life is simple. In fact, it is not the place that I go to that is important, it is the process of getting there. People in the city, however, often do not even have the time to consider this single question. Many workaholics probably do not even think that this is Shangri-La. But I am not a workaholic. So people often ask me as if I am strange, whether I feel bored going off to that kind of place, working alone for over a dozen hours at a time? I say, maybe it is boring for you, but every person is different and has different feelings. Some people feel that if they have a nice house, a stable job in the city, a nice family and well-behaved children, then that is enough. They feel that that is their Shangri-La, their dream. Is there anything wrong with that? In fact, they live a real life and that is really great.”

New world music and new lifestyle being fused with images and senses of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, a lifestyle as far removed as one can get from that of urban yuppies seeking new world vision. The irony seemed striking. The question came back to what Nyima Tsering had said. Regardless of materialism, happiness was something you create with your own lifestyle and your own means. Maybe this explained the rising international popularity of New Age music. I asked San Bao, “Then isn’t any kind of ethnic music entirely inter-related with lifestyle?”

“Mongolian and Tibetan nomad music is completely integrated with the landscape,” he explained, pointing to a Mongolian yak hair standard propped on one rooftop of Jokhang. Integrated lifestyle of these two nomadic peoples had made this Mongolian symbol of power Tibetan as well. “On the vast grasslands, there are actually very few people. Their lifestyle is focused on raising sheep and yaks. Sometimes, there is only one person out there with the sheep and yaks. Imagine, alone all day on the grasslands with nobody to talk to. So the nomad will sing. The space is too vast. Anybody who comes to such a place will feel its expansiveness as they cannot see anyone on the horizon. So what do you feel, what do you really want to do? Just scream out. Here you have the feeling that you can let yourself go altogether. Here, one’s relationship with the forces of nature is the most basic. You can hear such a person sing from a very great distance. Completely alone, one will tend to sing to oneself just to make oneself happy. It is a pure relationship between an individual and the environment.”

The day before, I noticed San Bao using a video camera to film two dogs sleeping in front of Jokhang Temple. I was really curious why he had bothered to film the dogs when so many other things were happening there. Before Jokhang Temple, Tibetans from all parts of the plateau, and monks from throughout the world, came to prostrate themselves before the temple doors. Hundreds of prayer wheels turned, circulating a powerful energy. Pine incense infused the temple plaza in a shrouded mysterious air. Visitors from every part of China and every country in the world came and went, purchasing Tibetan antiques and crafts in the surrounding market. With all of these comings and goings, I was very curious why San Bao chose to film two sleeping dogs. So I asked him.

“There were two dogs sleeping there. I filmed them because they had life. They slept there while everything else was going on around them. That was just the point I was trying to capture. To them, things around them did not matter. They were not bothered by them. But many people come to this place seeking something that is difficult to attain. If they cannot attain what they have come to seek, they may not understand the reason why and feel it strange. I have always had this kind of desire, and during the course of searching for this desire, I have been afraid that there will be people who do not understand what I am thinking. For instance, if you do not get out of the house for several days, people will think you are strange, because you are different from others. If you are not together with a group of people, others will think you are strange because you are different. But if you are together with everybody, you will ultimately seek your individuality rather than be the same as others. But in fact, you are really afraid that you will be different from others. This is where the conflict lies. But at the same time, you must be different from all the others. Character is not something you can find. This comes from the road you have traveled and the things that have become a part of your mind. It is not something you can find or create; it is a natural expression. In fact, I doubt many people will actually go out and search for their own Shangri-La. Most will be just floating without direction or follow the others.”

“Then has the search for Shangri-La become just a fashion, like New Age music or fusion lifestyle living?”

“Many people will just do what is in fashion,” San Bao shrugged, “instead of really finding Shangri-La. For instance, the other day, a whole bunch of fashion models had used Jokhang Temple as a background for their modeling. Why? This is very superficial. Things like this disgust me and I cannot accept it. In fact, it is quite frightening if you think about it. Real things must be found from within yourself, not just in a place. It can’t be found just because you have come to Lhasa. The spirit within you is the most important. A monk who wanders, begging in the street, is looking for something. In fact, he may have already found it. Since his childhood, he may have left home in search of this, and in fact, this search is Shangri-La. I feel if I want to search for my own Shangri-La, there is still time. When it is complete, and when I look back, there should be no regrets. I do not have anything worth regretting. This life, as long as I have lived, as long as it is worth it, then that is good.”

“There is a Buddhist concept of a voiceless voice. Can you tell me about this soundless sound?”

“I once discussed this in detail with a Buddhist,” San Bao replied. “The sound within Buddhism is the most sensitive and the most basic element of all things. You see, I am a composer, so I am very sensitive to sound. This point of Buddhism is very difficult to understand. When I was young, my teacher taught me something that changed the way I would ever think. ‘You must remember,’ he explained, ‘within music, the point of silence is actually a part of the music.’ My realization suddenly had greater clarity. These words have influenced my own understanding of music ever since.”

“So for you, what does Shangri-La mean?”

“One should sometimes just think about what one is doing and consider whether it is worthwhile or not. I often ask myself, what is the meaning of all these — the things I am doing, music I am composing. In this question, there is a powerful conflict. I think there are a lot of other things I must still do. When I talk with friends, they say that when you reach a certain age and you have already accomplished many things, you will suddenly wonder and discover what you really have done and what you really want to do. My Shangri-La is my own lifestyle. My greatest objective in life is to find Shangri-La, and through my own work, it is my search to find and express Shangri-La. But after much effort, people say such work is not commercial enough. They worry about the market. Actually, I don’t care about this. As long as I have created it, then that is alright.”

As San Bao explained the vision of his music, I noticed the Mongolian yak hair standard protruding from one of the rooftops of Jokhang Temple, sharp against the blue of the sky. Golden rooftops with guardian dragons and laughing lions framed the Potala Palace in the distance, which seemed so close. We sat on the rooftop of Jokhang Temple all morning, discussing the search for a sound that could not be heard. The blue sky, which stretched behind San Bao, seemed so close that it could be touched at any moment. Just reach out and grab a cloud passing by. Such is an illusion perpetuated by the blue sky. Such was its clearness. Awareness undistorted. If the Tibetan sky were a sound, a chime would ring forever.

“You must remember … within music, the point of silence is actually a part of the music.”

—Laurence Brahm, Sambhala Sutra