By Clare Morin
There are moments in our meditation practice where we get a glimpse of our mind’s potential. Our otherwise incessant mental chatter ceases for a while and we meet our capacity for radiant, soaring peace. We meet our Buddha nature.
There is a moment in Brooklyn-based composer Douglas J. Cuomo’s recent album and performance project, Seven Limbs, that captures this moment of radiant insight. And it makes me cry every time I hear it.
It arises about 11 minutes into the 70-minute musical odyssey, in a section called ‘Offering: Parts II and III’. Nels Cline, the legendary guitarist of the world-renowned rock band Wilco, opens the section with layers of electric, jewel-like sounds.
Around him, the Aizuri String Quartet, an all-female, Grammy-nominated group, builds swelling walls of warmth. It sounds like sunlight illuminating a vast Himalayan valley. Or hundreds of golden lights shimmering on a shrine. It sounds like pure, brimming, peaceful potential.
But then, after a few minutes of hanging in that most remarkable beauty, the composition suddenly changes. With ‘Offering Part IV’ everything suddenly becomes startlingly discordant. The guitarist turns manic, the strings become urgent, and the peace is shattered.
As a Kadampa Buddhist, I’ve recited various versions of the seven limbs prayer most mornings for the past 20 years of my life. I’ve explored and lived the many lessons of this prayer. Learning how to accept my karma. Learning how not to run away from the challenges that arise in my work and relationships — but instead to sit, meditate, purify, apply Lojong (Tibetan for mind training) and patient acceptance. I’ve learned how to how to hold mandalas in my hands and ask the Buddhas to keep on teaching.
But this is the first time I’ve heard a contemporary American artist explore the prayer’s meaning via a musical project. And as a writer myself, I’m intrigued about what he’s up to.
Prayer of the Seven Limbs
With my body, speech and mind, humbly I prostrate
And make offerings both set out and imagined
I confess my wrong deeds from all time
And rejoice in the virtues of all
Please stay until samsara ceases
And turn the wheel of Dharma for us
I dedicate all virtues to great enlightenment.
The seven limbs are practices for purifying negativity and accumulating merit – and they are incredibly old. They form an essential stage in many Mahayana Buddhist sadhanas — or ritual prayers — and have been contemplated by countless humans for thousands of years.
As my teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in his book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune:
The seven limbs are: 1) Prostration, 2) Offering, 3) Confession, 4) Rejoicing, 5) Beseeching the Buddhas and Spiritual Guides not to pass away, 6) Requesting the Buddhas and Spiritual Guides to turn the Wheel of Dharma, and 7) Dedication.
The practices of prostration, offering, beseeching and requesting accumulate merit; the practices of rejoicing and dedication multiply merit; and the practice of confession purifies negative karma. These seven practices are called ‘limbs’ because they support our meditation as limbs support a body. Without the use of limbs, we cannot accomplish much in the way of physical actions. Similarly, without the limbs of accumulating merit and purifying negativity we cannot accomplish much in the way of meditation.
The seven limbs help us prepare the mind for meditation. They help us do all the necessary clearing out of negative mental habits and planting of new, nutritious habits that lead to a healthier mind. These elements of meditation practice are perhaps less well known in our modern world where meditation is becoming increasingly popular. They speak to the fact that we can’t just sit down every day and expect to enjoy the crop of a consistently peaceful mind if we don’t also learn how to work with our field-like consciousness.
The seven limbs teach us how to attend to the soil of our mental continuum. They show us how to add essential fertilizers and make sure the water and light are coming in. There is a whole science to a meditation practice, and the seven limbs are an important part of this.
An extraordinary Covid appearance
I first spotted the album Seven Limbs on Instagram in August 2021.
We were nearing the end of a second coronavirus summer, and the novelist Sharon Guskin posted that her husband had just released this new album. I had literally just finished reading Guskin’s novel The Forgetting Time that summer and was stunned by her brilliance as a writer. Sharon skillfully brings Buddhist concepts of past and future lives into a work of contemporary fiction.
So, when I saw that her husband was now releasing an album inspired by his meditation practice, I immediately purchased it from Sunnyside Records.
Then I did what probably a lot of other people do. Assuming that this would be a gentle and relaxing, bell-ringing Buddhist album, I put it on as background music and set about working from my home office.
Eleven minutes in, I was thrown into outer space by Nels Cline. And realized that there was no way this could ever be background music.
Like a meditation practice itself, Seven Limbs demands your absolute focus and attention.
From Sex in the City to Seven Limbs
“I think there’s this idea people often have that a meditation practice is this really peaceful thing,” says composer Douglas Cuomo over Zoom from his Brooklyn home. “And that is sometimes what it’s like, but it’s not always. My mind is not always that controlled.”
He clarifies further: “The practice of meditation itself is peaceful by nature and it’s a cause of inner peace in the future. But how many times do we sit there just completely distracted, not actually meditating, not bringing the mind back to the object?”
“Our practice is our whole life of practice,” he continues. “And there are some things that are wonderful conditions and there are other things that are just really difficult conditions. Stuff comes up that is really hard to process and figure out.”
“I wanted this music to encompass all of that.”
It’s late November 2021, and I’ve set up a Zoom call with Douglas to learn more about this project. Both he and Sharon are members of the New York City Sangha of the same Buddhist school as me, the New Kadampa Tradition. And he also has serious pedigree as a composer.
Douglas has composed for the concert, operatic and theatrical stages, television, and film. He created the music for the iconic TV show Sex and the City — which may be one of the most recognizable musical refrains on Planet Earth. He also spent many years crafting scores for the multiple Peabody award-winning TV drama Homicide: Life on the Street.
Then he began to move into more avant garde projects. In 2008, his chamber opera Arjuna’s Dilemma premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). His latest work, a raft, the sky, the wild sea, featured renowned saxophonist Joe Lovano improvising with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2022.
Cuomo has received critical acclaim for his artistic practice. John Schaefer (WNYC), the renowned American radio host and author has said of his work:
“Like the best of today’s composers, from the late Lou Harrison to Osvaldo Golijov, Cuomo has developed a lingua franca that is international enough to allow the speakers of different musical languages to communicate… The music occupies a space that is not bound by geography or chronology.”
Douglas explains that the idea for Seven Limbs had been floating around his mind for over a decade.
“Obviously one of the things we try to do as Kadampas is to have everything reflect our practice,” he says. “But this is a very direct way of doing that.”
He wanted to explore what each of the limbs meant to him in a way that wasn’t verbal but musical. “For example, this section is about prostration,” he explains. “But what does that mean to me in a musical way? In a non-verbal way?”
He also wanted to push the possibilities of his own creative practice and experiment with bringing together an electric guitarist to improvise with a string quartet. At the top of his wish list for guitarists was Nels Cline – and he says he was excited and surprised when the legendary guitarist said yes at their first meeting.
“When I talked to Nels, I proposed this idea to him,” explains Douglas. “He has a spiritual bent and I think that was attractive to him also.”
Douglas wrote most of the score during the pandemic.
“I realized I didn’t want it to be a kind of New Age-y meditation music — that’s not really how I write. That’s not the way my musical mind works. I don’t think I could sustain interest in an extended piece like Seven Limbs writing in that way. My internal time scale isn’t that long so I am drawn to more variety of mood, color, etc. Having said that, the section inspired by the last of the seven limbs, ‘Dedication’, is 15-minutes long, and all in a slow moving and still mood.
“Also, the kind of music Nels plays is very different,” continues Douglas. “He can play very, very beautifully and he can also play like pure noise. He can make this incredible racket! He has all these electronic effects that he uses on his guitar — it’s a real part of his musical genius.”
“During ‘Beseeching,’ which is the most aggressive section in a way, he’s using the end of a wine bottle to pound on the strings, while running his guitar through all these discordant effect pedals. And in ‘Requesting’ he plays the acoustic guitar in such a gentle and beautiful way. As a composer, that’s what I wanted to do — to allow him to express his musicality in all the varied ways that he does.”
Heading out on the road
The group recorded the album in February 2021 while Covid was still causing chaos throughout the world. They wore glowing purple shirts and black masks in a freezing warehouse in Brooklyn. The video of the performance is an absolute treat to watch – and shows why seeing this work performed live is a whole other experience. Seeing the dynamic members of the Aizuri Quartet play so rhythmically their violins, viola, and cello, and Cline using all sorts of remarkable objects to evoke sounds from his guitars, brings a whole new level of power to the work.
Seven Limbs is now being performed across the United States. Here you can watch a full performance of the piece, played more recently by Cline with the Overlook string quartet at Roulette, a performing arts venue in Brooklyn.
For myself as a Kadampa Buddhist, sitting and listening to the album on my own – tracing the title of each section with each limb – was powerful and moving. To hear how Douglas has interpreted these sacred, inner experiences, and offered them back out to the world, is inspiring.
When the album closes with ‘Dedication,’ the tears are streaming from my eyes once again.
As we move into the final movements, it sounds like pure, Dharmakaya space — vast and unobstructed. And into this huge sonic landscape the guitar and strings begin to play a slow and ever-repeating refrain. It is utterly evocative of the prayer we make every day as Mahayana Buddhists:
Through the virtues I have collected
By practicing the stages of the path,
May all living beings find the opportunity
To practice in the same way.
May everyone experience
The happiness of humans and gods,
And quickly attain enlightenment,
So that samsara is finally extinguished.
Every time we sit and meditate, we finish by dedicating it to the benefit of others. We redirect our mind outwards from the solitary concerns of our own life and wish for the good effects of our practice to ripen as freedom for all living beings. This music is utterly evocative of that pure and expansive prayer.
Then in the very last moments, everything dissolves back down into one solitary, electronic pulse. It glows and gradually descends. To my mind, it sounds like a seed letter hanging in space, gently radiating its blissful light outwards, until finally, that too dissolves into emptiness.
Clare Morin is a writer, wife, cat mom and content marketer who lives and works in the forests of Maine. The first part of her career was spent as an arts writer and editor in Asia where she first met Kadampa Buddhism in 2004.