Progressing into Mindfulness

February 6, 2018
Chris Berling
Chris Berlin. Photo by Laura Krueger.

Chris Berlin is a counselor to Buddhist students and Instructor in Ministry and Pastoral Counseling at HDS. He is part of a musical group consisting of several HDS alumni and students called Satigata. The group, formed at HDS, recently released an album called “Boundless,” which is a blend of Buddhist chanting, modern rock, and folk set to guitar, hand drums, and Buddhist bells.

Berlin and his group are hosting an album release party on Saturday, February 10, at 7 pm, at the New School of Music in Cambridge.

HDS communications talked with Berlin about the significance of chanting in the Buddhist tradition, the themes in the album, and how the group gets creative when performing live.

HDS: The name of your group is Satigata. What is Satigata? Why choose that name?

Chris Berlin: Satigata is a Pali word, a compound made up of “sati,” which means “mindfulness,” and “gata,” which means “progressing into.” The full name can be translated as “progressing into mindfulness.” This is what we seek to offer participants at our events, an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness together in community through our music.

HDS: Most of the chants on the album are from the Buddhist tradition. What is the meaning and purpose of chanting in the Buddhist tradition?

CB: As a practicing Buddhist and lay meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I’ve found mantras profound as a tool to concentrate the mind and bring breath, intention, and sound together through chanting sacred syllables.

Most of the chants on the album are in Sanskrit, or in the Tibetan pronunciation of the Sanskrit. Each chant has a unique meaning that connects us with different aspects of the Buddhist path. The music is designed to transmit the meaning of the chant in a way that can be felt more deeply in the body. We’ve found that sharing the music and chanting with others through live events can help open the heart and mind to that which is beyond us, beyond the self-limiting mind.

Live events foster a sense of community in a way that silent meditation may not because when we chant in this way, we respond to the voices of everyone around us. So, in a sense, each chant in its own way serves as a foundation from which the music can unfold and encompass the community of musicians and participants alike.

HDS: There are several members of the HDS community involved in this project. How did that come to be? Who’s involved?

CB: Satigata has its roots at HDS dating back a few years. In the spring of 2014, I was teaching a class on Buddhism that I periodically co-teach with Senior Lecturer Cheryl Giles called “Compassionate Care of the Dying.” Accompanied by guitar, I introduced the class to a healing chant called “The Medicine Buddha Mantra.”

One of the students in that class was Darren Becker, who graduated from the MDiv program in 2015 and eventually co-founded Satigata with me. A guitar player himself, he had asked me for the chords and memorized the melody to that mantra. Through follow up meetings, Darren and I discovered that we had a mutual interest and appreciation for singing and chanting Buddhist mantras while playing guitar. We hosted an event in Divinity Hall Chapel in November of 2014 that combined meditation with kirtan, an Indian form of spiritual music and chanting.

After that, we found ourselves writing our own material and hosting more events, both at HDS and at other locations. Our sound, though, seemed incomplete, so when I heard HDS student Andrew Stauffer play hand drums at Seasons of Light in December of 2015, I knew that his playing style would suit our music really well. He started playing with us shortly thereafter, providing the music with its invaluable pulse with a variety of hand drums as well as melodic accents on an instrument called a glockenspiel. Then in September 2016, another HDS student with a musical background joined us, Alanna Coady. Her voice added a lot to our overall sound, as did her interest in integrating Tibetan singing bowls and bells into the music to complete the sound on the album.

HDS: Why is refuge a theme of several of the mantras and songs on the album?

CB: Refuge, as well as the notion of “home,” seems to have particular meaning these days given the state of the world. Refuge is also an important principle in Buddhism. It’s common practice for Buddhists to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the spiritual community). Taking refuge reminds us we have a spiritual home no matter what is happening in our personal, interpersonal, or public lives. Practicing in community helps us foster an inner refuge through contemplative practice, peaceful abiding, and unconditional love. This is really the heart of what Satigata seeks to inspire in others—a place to join others in finding hope, healing, and inspiration, despite the suffering of life.

HDS: Can anyone listen to this? Do they need a background in meditation, yoga, etc.?

CB: Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from people is that the music is accessible. You don’t have to know much about meditation, yoga, or even Buddhism to get the spirit of the songs as well as the chants. We also provide a slideshow with words, chants, and their meanings at our live events to accompany the music, so in a sense, there’s a learning opportunity there for those who join us live. The style of the music itself blends a modern, acoustic folk-rock sound with the chanting, which I think helps with its accessibility. Also, for those who want to learn more, the Satigata website will have more in-depth explanations of the chants and Buddhist principles within the music. That said, our mission is not to convert listeners into Buddhists, but rather to evoke some of the wisdom, compassion, joy, and peace that has inspired us to write the music.

HDS: You all perform live as well. What is the live experience like?

CB: We feel that the live events are what Satigata is all about. We’re performing live March 4 in Cambridge. Many musical groups play live to support their albums—we recorded an album to support the live events, kind of an opposite approach.

At our events, we invite participants to chant with us, thereby co-creating a unique version of the song with them. Some Satigata songs are intentionally left open-ended when we play them live so that the musicians and participants alike are involved in a kind of spontaneous creative process. We feel that this heightens the sense of being more fully in the moment in a joyful way by entering into the unknown together.

We also integrate short meditations and brief periods of silence into the live music. Our hope is that this approach helps to provide people with an opportunity for inner exploration in community. No matter who you are, it’s an opportunity for your heart to open and touch into a sense of unity and refuge together.

—by Michael Naughton