Today on the segment we discussed Buddhist death metal, and in what I think will probably become a habit, I prepared too much material. So if you wanted to know more about this wonderfully bizarre combination, here it is!
Before we start, here’s the audio from the show:
Most of the Buddhist death metal out there seems to be made in the West. Now Buddhism has been known to Europeans for hundreds of years, but it really took off in the West in the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s. Disillusioned with the structures, traditions and apparently failing institutions of their own societies, young people began to look for other sources of inspiration, and many found it in so-called ‘Eastern’ religions, of which Buddhism was the most prominent. This has led to the generation of a kind of ‘Western Buddhism’ that obviously draws on the older traditions but adapts itself to Western concerns (see, for example, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
Buddhist ideas since that time have been left floating around in our cultural awareness, occasionally flaring up into popular awareness: The Matrix has heaps of Buddhist notions in it, for example. We’re also seeing metalheads discovering them and using them for inspiration for their music; there’s actually a whole community of bloggers out there talking about how metal has helped them become better Buddhists, and vice versa. This may seem like an unmanageable juxtaposition, but they find ways to make it work. Noah Levine’s books, such as Dharma Punx, deal at length with how a Buddhist life may be accommodated in an alternative cultural context. Nate DiMontigny, from the band Leukorrhea (don’t Google that word), argues that impermanence is the link between metal and Buddhism. Buddhists believe that everything is impermanent; Nate takes this to mean that death is just around the corner; ergo, death metal.
For the Portuguese band The Firstborn, the ‘in’ was the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes the spirits you meet and the trials you must overcome upon death to achieve nirvana; perfect material for death metal, right? That album was indeed dedicated to “the good of all beings,” a very Buddhist aspiration. I quoted the following on the show this morning: (song here)
Transcending the cycle of mortality, I revel in the absence of Time
Beyond the boundaries of physical space
My fists, at last, unclenched…
This is actually not a bad description of nirvana, the state of blissful nothingness that Buddhists hope to attain upon death. The “cycle of mortality” refers to samsara, the process of reincarnation, which keeps us trapped in this existence; after a series of morally correct lives, we can hope to “transcend” this cycle by having our candles snuffed out (the Buddha’s description) or our “fists, at last, unclenched” (the Firstborn’s description) in nirvana. They’ve gone on to deeper explorations of Buddhist concepts. Another Firstborn lyric goes: (song here)
You who seek
Accept the non-self, tolerantly
Firmly convinces of emptiness
Yet compassionate towards all beings
You who seek
Fear not the void
For emptiness is itself empty …
These lyrics refer to the concept of sunyata, commonly translated as emptiness. In the Buddhist view, there is nothing substantial or essential in a table, in a cat, or in you. The table is instantiated through its relations with the things around it; there is light-hitting-table, computer-on-table, you-at-table, but there is no table-ness at the heart of all this; it is empty. Likewise, the idea of anatman or non-self suggests that there is no fundamental you-ness independent of your interactions with the things and people around you. But you are not to think, then, that emptiness is the essence of all things, for sunyata itself is sunya, emptiness itself is empty. Please don’t ask me to explain this any more as it does my head in too!
It’s not only metalheads who are picking up Buddhism, however; some Buddhists are picking up metal. Shenpenn Khymsar is a Tibetan exile who grew up in Darjeeling, India. He discovered metal in his youth and found in it the perfect place to exorcise his inner demons; he migrated to Canada and has since become the self-proclaimed first Tibetan Buddhist to form a heavy metal band. They are named Avatara, which is Sanskrit (the Latin of India) for ‘the reincarnated.’ Now he’s making a documentary biopic named Journey of a Dream.
But most of these artists, this Buddhist metal community, are Westerners drawing on the deep and central notions of the Buddhist worldview and realising them in a cultural form that they are comfortable with and trained in. The products of their experiments may seem incongruous (like the four-armed metalhead sitting on a lotus on Nate DiMontigny’s blog) but they are natural progressions of Western cultural trends. And if there is one thing we can take from all this, it has to be the tagline of the blog Metal Buddha: Life is short, meditate naked.