The dharma speaks through music—it always has, it does today. From jazz to metal to rap, Rod Meade Sperry surveys the scene.
Buddhist Music: What is it? Is it gongs, bells, and chants? Well, yes. And, no.
Sound has always been part of Buddhist practice, of course, but 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.
It was in 2005 that I first noticed how varied, fun, and meaningful modern Buddhist-influenced music could be. Music had always been a constant in my life, and that wasn’t going to change now that I’d taken up Buddhist practice. I’d come up as a punk-rock kid, so I started with what I knew and found out about the “first Buddhist punk band,” Ruin. If Ruin was out there, and was so good, I reasoned, there had to be more. I found many musicians with the artistry, the inventiveness, the passion, and the commitment I’d come to see in my fellow practitioners. I started mapping them on my website, TheWorstHorse.com, and it didn’t take long before an exciting new world appeared to me.
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. So now’s a great time for dharma-music nuts like me. Here’s just a sampling of the many artists who are making it so.
The Pioneers: Setting the Western Stage
Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Yoko Ono: These are the names that come to mind right away when we consider Buddhism’s influence on contemporary music. And rightly so; these composers have been instrumental in blending dharma and adventurousness from the get-go, seizing on the attitudes adopted by America’s Beat poets—Allen Ginsberg was only too happy to bust out his harmonium and perform his loving takes on Buddhist sutras—and applying them to a range of musical endeavors.
Others would join them in bringing a dharmic influence into so-called serious music. Avant-garde composers such as Eliane Radigue, Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Terry Riley harnessed orchestras and electronics alike to mimic Tibetan chants and drones and to create musical complements to actual Buddhist teachings.
Peter Lieberson’s “Drala” was commissioned by the Boston Philharmonic and his “King Gesar” was recorded by Yo-Yo Ma. In the pop realm, Laurie Anderson and now-husband Lou Reed would reflect their own dharma studies in their later work, and poet/balladeer Leonard Cohen would take up serious Zen practice with the master Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Meredith Monk, speaking on Public Radio’s On Being, neatly explained how Buddhism and music-making complement one another: “It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you.”
Putting that openness and focus to work, these pioneers helped set the stage for whole new generations of genre-busting, Buddhist-inspired music.
Classic classics: The Kundun soundtrack and his Symphony No. 5 are fine examples of Philip Glass’ work and its dharmic content. The late Peter Lieberson balanced classical and avant-garde elements in Ashoka’s Dream. All-out experimentalism rules the day in Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphonie and Eliane Radigue’s Trilogie de la Morte.
k.d. lang: Singing it Loud
“‘Constant Craving’ is all about samsara.” Ask people about Buddhism and modern music, and you’re almost certain to hear that comment about k.d. lang’s lush and enduring 1992 hit, with its lyrics of longings never fulfilled. Even Buddhists who don’t know that lang is a dedicated practitioner herself seem to make the connection.
And a dedicated Buddhist she is. finally off the road after some nineteen months of touring to support her latest album, Sing It Loud!, lang has new songs brewing but is currently focused on another passion: furthering the practice of dharma as expounded by her late teacher, Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa, a master of the nyingma or “old school” of Tibetan Buddhism.
“I think dharma has been a part of who I am, in this lifetime, since before I found my teacher,” says lang. “When I met Lama Gyatso Rinpoche, I felt immediate connection and devotion, and then dedicated the next ten years, until his passing, to him. I still continue giving my ‘civilian life’ to dharma.”
Before his passing, lang says with a little laugh, her teacher gave his student “a to-do list that was almost infinite.” There was a general mandate to build a strong, functioning sangha in Los Angeles, as well as all manner of other initiatives:
“We started Ari Bhod, the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation, a sort of umbrella for various things like Tools for Peace, the mindful program that we’re bringing to schools now. We have cultural preservation, text translation, thangka painting, statue-making. Everyone should have an opportunity to integrate the dharma into every aspect of their life and make their everyday life a practice. Rinpoche taught that over and over and over again.”
Meanwhile, lang’s fan base seems at ease with her devotion, just as they were when she came out in ’92 (not such a common pop-culture occurrence back then) or when she’s been vocal about her activism for human and animal rights (although her very public vegetarianism has not gone down well in her native Alberta).
“I want to be all inclusive,” she tells me. “I’m interested in having an extremely diverse audience. It’s a worthy aspiration to appeal to everyone and not sell out.” To keep up with k.d.’s work, visit her online at kdlang.com and at aribhod.org.
Kickin’ It Old School: Though performing in an idiom wholly different from lang’s, Sir Richard Bishop (of Sun City Girls and a huge catalog of solo work) and W. David Oliphant (of Life Garden, Maybe Mental, and his own solo catalog) have released Beyond All Defects, an album inspired by Dzogchen (“The Great Perfection”), the main teaching of the nyingma school. The album seeks to evoke a spiritual journey through programming, droning guitars, and what Bishop calls “big-ass Tibetan horn sounds.”
BORN I MUSIC: Hip-Hop Smooth as Honey on a Razor’s Edge
“Sex, music, and religion—those things are in constant interaction in my songs,” says rapper/producer Born I Music. “There’s a dharma-piece in everything I do.” What he’s doing right now is getting ready to release a new album, King of Kings.
“On one hand,” says Born about the album’s title, “it’s an egotistical statement about what I feel my position will be when the project drops. But it also has to do with the mind. In my music, you’ll hear competing impulses from the sensory worlds: ‘This feels good. This looks good.’ These are like feudal lords battling for our awareness, our primordial, fundamental mind. In the end, I believe our natural awareness or awake-ness is the real king.”
The ego/awareness dichotomy is present in all that Born does, and that’s no accident. “I’m a Buddhist artist and I don’t want to sugarcoat things. But I’m also in the rap world, which has its trappings: material things, status. They’re sticky and sweet, and we’re hardwired to be attracted to them. I’m going to be honest about that, but I also know that materialism by itself is like honey on a razor’s edge. That’s important on the dharma path, if we want to lead ourselves to genuine happiness.”
Born feels that such genuine happiness is something everyone should have, and he gives his time in several ways, including teaching meditation to kids. He also thinks his music can inspire an oft-ignored contingent. “I want to reach out to the audience that’s reached out to the least—those who are rejected as a ‘criminal element’ or outcasts. I want to tell them, ‘I’m right there with you. We’re all in this life together.’”
Judging by his excellent Tomorrow Is Today LP, his album with the rap duo Shambhala, and his 2012 single “Number One,” Born’s King of Kings should deliver.
Hear more from Born I Music in this Lion’s Roar Audio interview, all about his Buddhist practice and his Tomorrow Is Today LP.
Ian Astbury and The Cult: Reborn, again
The influential postpunk-turned- rock band known as The Cult recently resurfaced with a new album, Choice of Weapon. Dharma first showed up as an overt influence on 2007’s Cult LP, Born Into This. This time around, spiritually inclined frontman Ian Astbury is talking to the press not just about the new music but also about the Buddhism that informs it.
Astbury told MTV that he’s read Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism “countless times.” He considers Pema Chödrön a “great teacher”: “She has incredible insight. She’s lived the Western life. She has grandchildren. She understands, but she’s an ordained Buddhist nun. If you have the opportunity to see her speak, do.” Choice of Weapon’s cover art even depicts a shaman (a figure not unfamiliar to diehard fans of the band) brandishing a dorje, a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.
Tina Turner: The Queen, Happier Than Ever
Unsurprisingly, much of R&B legend Tina Turner’s connection to Buddhism comes by way of sound—specifically, chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (“I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra”), the key practice of Nichiren Buddhism and of Turner’s Buddhist community, Soka Gakkai International. She talks about how it has made a famously difficult life better.
How has your practice changed you?
I feel at peace with myself, happier than I have ever been, and it is not from material things. Practicing the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for so long has put me in another frame of mind, so that even when I don’t practice for a day or a week, I still feel happy. But I do practice. The chant makes you comfortable because it removes uncomfortable mental attitudes.
What does it mean that your album Beyond is about prayer?
It means that people who work in the arts need prayer as much as anyone else. I don’t separate my work as a rock singer from prayer. Everything has been very positive, and that’s because of my spiritual practice.
Is singing a spiritual practice for you?
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a song. It is a sound and a rhythm, and it touches a place inside you. That place we try to reach is the subconscious mind.
Lotus Flower Formula: Back in 2007, rapper Xzibit sampled the chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in his single “Concentrate” (its use of less “enlightened” language peeving some adherents in the process). The leg- endary psychedelic outfit Acid Mothers Temple devoted a full-length song/album/freak-out to the chant. Pop figures Courtney Love, Belinda Carlisle, and Duncan Sheik, as well as the late songstress Phoebe Snow, have also engaged in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
Sculptures of Sound: San Francisco Zen Center Opens the Musical Gates
In the public mind, Zen temples are envisioned as bastions of quietude and order. But the practitioners at the famed San Francisco Zen Center—which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary—see something more. They see a realm where statues of bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound. Hence Zen Center’s adventurous musical programming that, more and more, is bringing in respected avant-garde acts.
SFZC’s program director, David Zimmerman, explains that a member of local arts-and-events collective The Bold Italic began sitting at Zen Center and suggested that meditation and music programming might go hand in hand. It’s proven to be, Zimmerman says, “a wonderful dharma-gate outside the traditional.” Soon enough, the celebrated drone-metal duo Barn Owl was performing at SFZC, followed by August’s Soundwave festival, featuring semi-electronic soundscapers En. At Soundwave, sessions of guided meditation, kinhin (walking meditation), and chanting led directly into band performances. This made for one-of-a-kind shows, and the musicians appreciated the heightened quality of presence in their audiences. Zimmerman says the public can expect more such collaborations in the future.
Dharma Thunder: The Metal-and-Punk Connection
The interconnection between Buddhism and punk is pretty well established by now: Zen teacher Brad Warner writes about them both and still plays bass for the revivified old-school punk outfit Zero Defex. Dharma Punx, established by Buddhist teacher Noah Levine (also the founder of Against the Stream), even repurposed a cover graphic from Black flag contemporaries Blast! for its logo. And as far back as 1982, Philadelphia’s Ruin, founded by guitarist and future Buddhist author/scholar Glenn Wallis, was covering Leonard Cohen (reportedly a Ruin fan himself) and performing its own Buddhism-informed material.
Just as punk and metal eventually crossed over into each other, it was only a matter of time before dharma and super-heavy metallic music did the same. Sometimes only a slight influence, or even straight-up cultural co-optation, is at play: cult-favorite bands like Yakuza, Earth, Sons of Otis, Meshuggah, Stargazer, and Skullflower, as well more arena-oriented acts like Rage Against the Machine, Loudness, and Uriah Heep, have all used Buddhism-related imagery in their album art. Sometimes there’s real substance. There’s no better example than Portugal’s The Firstborn. Starting as a death-metal act, the band soon found inspiration in The Tibetan Book of the Dead—hey, it worked for The Beatles— and used it as the basis for their first LP, The Unclenching of Fists, recorded in 2004. This was followed by 2008’s The Noble Search and last year’s Lions Among Men. Both explicitly address dharmic themes (Buddhist scriptures and Mahayana Buddhist thought, respectively) while incorporating an Eastern musical palette into an often aggressive, always full-spectrum sound.
The FM3 Buddha Machine: A Temple of Sound, in your pocket
Aesthetically, it’s sort of a cross between your grandpa’s transistor radio and an iPod. But the sound that comes out of the fM3 Buddha Machine isn’t what you’d expect out of either of those. Instead, the Machine plays dreamy, drony loops created by a duo in Beijing who took their inspiration from a similar gadget that some Asian temples employ to play full- volume loops of actual Buddhist chants. (The machines keep the chants make it seem to the world that the temples are packed with enthusiastic and vocal aspirants.) The fM3 machine works in much the same way, only with its own custom sounds.
Music fans quickly learned to love its soothing, lo-fi charms. Musicians, too: since its 2007 release, the Machine has spawned four “remix albums” that feature contributions from Chinese as well as Western artists, including Robert Henke of Monolake, the metal/drone-duo SunnO))), and the Sun City Girls. The Buddha Machine can be hard to find; luckily, there’s now an iPhone app that stands in nicely.
In the Club: “DubSutra” on the Dance Floor
In Japan, two aspiring Jodo Shinshu priests, performing as Tariki Echo, are making Buddhist dance music inspired by the musical trend of the moment, dubstep. While their helmets might evoke the famed french electronic act Daft Punk, TE are their own unique animal. They’ve created their own genre, “dubsutra,” made by matching Buddhist sutras to dubstep beats, and released their first album, Buddha Sound, last year. You can hear their work online at tarikiecho.jp.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan : Musical Adventures in the Pure Land
As a fan of heavy and—okay—often weird music, I was pretty excited when I learned about Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Their name is a hybrid, combining a Buddhist deity and the title of a truly epic track by the classic doom-metal band, Sleep. And they sound it: the band’s self-titled debut LP is at turns beautiful, pummeling, noisy, and transcendent. YT//ST is ambitious; they’ve already completed 33, a rock opera that incorporates Buddhist themes, and another, Star, is in progress.
When I got the chance to see them recently, I found the band’s blend of musicianship, exploration, Buddhist themes, and theatrics even more potent on stage than it is on record. Led by drummer Alaska B. and vocalist Ruby Kato Attwood, the band—all in face paint evoking noh theatre as well as heavy metal’s more extreme forms—is capable of holding a music hall in thrall. Attwood enhances the band’s already undeniable presence through a series of Buddhist mudras matched with facial expressions that seem at once compassion- ate and fierce. See them if you can, but listen to them either way. You can stream all of YT//ST’s debut album online at yamantakasonictitan.bandcamp.com.
Jerry Granelli: The Real Stuff
“I didn’t come to the dharma looking to be a better musician,” Jerry Granelli says. “I’d accomplished most of what I’d hoped for. But I didn’t know how to be a human.” At 71, the jazz drummer and music-and-meditation teacher is as vital and inventive as any artist could hope to be.
As a jazz musician, he made a name for himself young. That’s the 22-year-old Granelli drumming on Vince Guaraldi’s beloved “Linus and Lucy,” the Peanuts’ theme song. He played with the likes of Carmen McRae, Bill Evans, and Sly Stone, but by the time he met his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, in the early 1970s, he was at a crossroads: tired, and perhaps even “done with music forever.” But Trungpa Rinpoche told him, “no, no, that’s where your real stuff will come up.”
At Trungpa Rinpoche’s urging, he began connecting with musicians and meditators as a teacher, and he still teaches both, blending them together. He says meditation is “mandatory” for the many players—pros and beginners alike—who attend his workshops in the hopes that his talent and wisdom might rub off on them. “They love it,” he says. “It’s a way for them to work with their whole artistic process, their whole lives.
Dharma Americana—Jazz and Beyond: Pianist Herbie Hancock, reed players Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin, and bassist Buster Williams are all practitioners of nichiren Buddhism; singer Tamm E. Hunt is a Mahayana Buddhist; Joseph Jarman of the famed Art Ensemble of Chicago is a Jodo Shinshu priest. In the singer-songwriter realm, musicians like Jake LaBotz, Ravenna Michalsen, Meg Hutchison, and Alan Senauke are applying Buddhist lessons to musical hybrids that include elements of the blues and other folk musics. There’s even, thanks to the great Peter Rowan, a Heart Sutra-inspired bluegrass tune, “Vulture Peak.”