Segment 12 – Buddhist Ambient Electronica

This week we enter the surreal soundscapes of Buddhist ambience. Hear us chat about it here:

Songs we played: ‘Life‘ by Bill Laswell, the Dalai Lama and Toshinori Kondo; and ‘Jasmine‘ by Makyo

It turns out there are quite a lot of ambient musicians who are inspired by Buddhism! Most Western meditation music that you buy these days from New Age stores is electronic, and attracted to Buddhism. This leads me to an important caveat, that we must be careful when we bandy about religious labels. Anthony D’Andrea, from the University of Chicago, wrote the following warning on a forum thread concerned with today’s topic: “Unfortunately, I find that most DJs/music producers who employ exotic symbols/instruments in electronic music have a very rudimentary grasp of such religions. Labeling these musical forms, it seems to me, can be misleading, as it often conceals an ‘orientalist‘ fascination.” What he means is that these artists are drawn to the ‘mystique’ or sense of ‘exoticism’ that labels like ‘Buddhist’ evoke; and this ascription of ‘mysticism’ to Eastern culture is wrapped up in the whole discourse of Western difference and superiority. We must endeavour not to do the same!

These comments may be applicable to the DJ named Makyo – although he ostensibly studied Zen Buddhism in Kyoto in the early 80s, while playing in punk bands. He formed Makyo in 1993, “incorporating Eastern philosophies of sound and spirituality into the whole spectrum of 90s electronica,” creating a music style some have called ‘Zen dub.’ Zen Buddhism originated in China in the 6th Century, when Taoist philosophers re-imagined the Buddhist scriptures that were coming in from India. It eventually spread to Japan, where it is most commonly found today. Zen focuses on enlightenment through direct insight (satori) rather than years and years of hard work and meditation, as earlier (Theravada) Buddhism taught. Makyo is a Zen Buddhist term meaning ‘devil’s cave.’ It refers to the hallucinations that one can experience during meditation, and that may be mistakenly perceived to be true nature. Makyo, the artist, extends the metaphor by saying that in contemporary society “we are surrounded by layers of makyo” – artificial and mediated realities – and “our music is about cutting through this illusion in a search for something pure.”

Our other track from today is pretty unarguably Buddhist, considering that it features the voice of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Now Buddhist scriptures reached Tibet in the 5th Century but they weren’t translated for a couple of hundred years; by the late 8th Century it had become the official religion of the land. It’s lineage is thus largely separate from Zen’s (although links have been suggested). Curiously, Tibetan Buddhism is also practised in Mongolia and Bhutan, as well as parts of Nepal, China and Russia. The Dalai Lama has become something of a darling for Western observers, from politicians to rock stars, and has been open to all sorts of offers for ways to get his messages out there. We played a track from his collaboration with American producer Bill Laswell and Japanese saxophonist Toshinori Kondo, an album named Life Space Death. Teachings from the Dalai Lama are blended with smooth sax lines and grooving beats. It’s a perfect example of Bill Laswell‘s (and Rad Religion’s) pet concept of ‘collision music’ – getting diverse artists together and seeing what comes out.

There are plenty more relevant artists out there, but that will have to do us for now. Next week we’re looking at Candomblé – Afro-Brazilian syncretic religion. Fun!

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