What Is the Sound of Buddhist Music Today?

The dharma speaks through music—it always has, it does today. From jazz to metal to rap to emergent hybrid forms, Buddhism’s influence on the musical realm can be discovered at almost every turn.

Lion’s Roar
14 December 2020
Photo by Julian Lozano.

Buddhist Music: What is it? Is it gongs, bells, and chants? Well, yes. And, no.

Sound has always been part of Buddhist practice. In most traditions, chanting and instrumental music retain a special position during ceremonies. Music often acts as an offering to the Buddha. According to the Lotus Sutra, the bodhisattva known as “Wonderful Voice” once made offerings of various kinds of music to the Buddha. Music can also be a means of memorizing sacred texts, and as a form of meditation.

As the dharma has made its way into the West—and the West has found its way into the dharma—the idea of what might constitute Buddhist music has opened up.

Haleigh Atwood writes in her article “The Power of Sound”:  “For hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha, Buddhism was solely an oral tradition, dependent on sound to pass from one generation to the next. The tantric yogi and poet Milarepa taught his students about impermanence, meditation, and enlightenment through song. In many images, Milarepa is portrayed with his head cocked and a hand cupped to his ear, listening with his whole body. Sound, ancient and ubiquitous, urges us to remember what we often forget. Reverberating off the walls of history, the ring of a bell acts as a humble reminder that this sound has existed longer than any one of us. This ringing, which has brought calm to countless minds, can remind us of our interconnectedness.” 

As the dharma has made its way into the West—and the West has found its way into the dharma—the idea of what might constitute Buddhist music has opened up.

The first thing someone will notice when they delve into modern Buddhist-influenced music is how varied, fun, and meaningful it can be. Music plays a huge part in many people’s lives, and that isn’t going to change when they take up a Buddhist practice. You don’t have to immediately exchange your record collection for recordings of Tibetan chants. You can let your tastes provide a path toward artists that mix the music you love with an element of Buddhism.  An example: If someone had come up as a punk-rock kid, they might have discovered the “first Buddhist punk band,” Ruin. If Ruin was out there waiting for you to find it in your search and their music was so good, you could reason, there has to be more.

Today, the gongs, bells, and chants of yore might be sampled or stood in for by scalding punk guitars, otherworldly vocals, or wholly unforeseen new approaches across a variety of genres. Sometimes the connections are explicit, sometimes less so—sometimes they’re bald-faced marketing choices—but like the dharma itself, Buddhist-inspired music can prompt us to see beyond the boundaries we so often take for granted. It can be (almost) anything.

Continue Reading our Fan’s Guide to Modern Buddhist Music

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Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.