Dalai Lama’s ‘Inner World’ is well-intentioned but shallow ambient music-lite

Dalai Lama
Gaden Phodrang Foundation/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

No, folks, you heard correctly. The actual 14th Dalai Lama has dropped an album of prayers for meditation set to ambient instrumentals. Released July 6 on his 85th birthday, Inner World was conceived as a way to combine the Dalai Lama’s teachings with music for stress relief. Proceeds from the album’s sales will be donated to two educational programs: Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning and the Mind and Life Institute.

Speaking to The Associated Press, Junelle Kunin, former student of the Dalai Lama and co-executive producer on the album, recounted why the Dalai Lama finally felt compelled to create Inner World. Describing a conversation the two had, she said, “He [talked] about how music can help people in a way that he can’t; it can transcend differences and return us to our true nature and our good heartedness.” What follows is an album full of the teachings of His Holiness, featuring a selection of guitar, piano and light percussion, as well as a contribution from famed sitar player Anoushka Shankar.

Though Inner World is undoubtedly filled with said “good heartedness,” it’s also sorely lacking in creative judgment. A 42-minute mix of homogeneous sounds with altruistic yet eye-roll-inducing song titles such as “Children,” “Humanity” and “Wisdom,” the Dalai Lama’s debut is a well-intentioned but ill-advised exercise of ambient music-lite, settling the debate that music actually doesn’t always make everything sound better. Listening to the sounds of Inner World and hoping for transcendence is similar to the experience of wading around in a shallow pool while mistaking it for an ocean. 

Describing the music of Inner World is difficult to do, not because of its complexity, but because of a lack of compelling qualities. However, some tracks manage to cover interesting ground. “Compassion” finds the Dalai Lama reciting one of the most famous Sanskrit mantras over brushed drums and a gentle, airy arrangement of wind instruments, bass and keys. The groove is stirring enough to slightly separate it from the remaining songs. The Dalai Lama makes no attempts at singing or melody, relying instead on the power of his message and atmosphere to connect with listeners.

Elsewhere on the album opener “One of My Favorite Prayers,” he does just that — to strangely mixed results. Citing that he recites the prayer more than 100 times a day, you can hear the Dalai Lama trying to radiate genuine spirituality, but falling just short due to the uninteresting free-form guitar playing and cheap rattles. On rare occasions, the music reaches a delicate balance of meditation and introspective atmosphere, such as on the warm horns on “Protection” and in the uplifting sitar solo on “Ama La.” Mostly, however, the album fumbles, often sounding more like music heard at generic spiritual shops than something created by the leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

The power of ambient music is in its unique relationship to the listener. From the haunting cycle of William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops” to the spacebound exploration of Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, these pieces of music allow for a deep dive into their soundscapes, evoking worlds of emotion that the listener individually creates, with each playthrough a different experience than the last. The music of Inner World fails to reach this level of depth, offering little to separate itself sonically from the generic; instead, the Dalai Lama’s mantras work to fill in the void, suggesting what and how to feel.

There lies the key flaw of Inner World. It’s an album of “elevated” ambient music that works best if you accept its Buddhist teachings in the first place. Otherwise, it comes across as platitudes soundtracked by indistinguishable noise designed for sleep — like adding background music to a public service announcement to try and simulate emotional weight. 

Prominent public figures have been trying their hand at music for as long as the industry has existed. That the Dalai Lama would create an album unconcerned with commercial appeal, solely for the purpose of enacting positive change, is absolutely admirable. Unfortunately, the resulting music is less than noteworthy. Those who are already big fans of the spiritual leader might find some sort of enlightenment with Inner World. The rest of us would probably be better off with a trip to a day spa instead.

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].