Segment 23 – American Buddhist Folk

Guitar-pickin’ monks and bluesy Buddhists are our topic today. Listen to us chat about the cultural flexibility of Buddhism here:

We played a couple of American Buddhist folksy tracks: ‘Yashodara‘ from the Venerable Heng Sure; and ‘Zen Gospel Singing‘ from Bryan Bowers.

Buddhism, throughout its couple of millennia of history, has exhibited an incredible ability to adapt to new areas.There are plenty of stories of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) meeting and converting the local gods of new areas – a pretty clear allegory for the process of co-opting and converting the local culture. Every time it has encountered a novel culture, Buddhism has succeeded in co-opting parts of that culture and incorporating them, creating unique Buddhisms in every part of the world. As a result, Chinese Buddhism looks very different to Sri Lankan Buddhism – and they both look very different to American Buddhism. Especially since the 1960s, Buddhism has been growing in America. This is partly a result of immigration from parts of Asia, and partly a result of ‘white’ Americans converting. These Americans obviously take their own cultural background with them when they go to Buddhism. As such we are seeing ‘mantra songs’ emerging in a wide variety of American popular music genres. Buddhists welcome these cultural products that are simultaneously distinctly Buddhist and distinctly American; it is simply the latest in a long process of regionalisation and slow morphing in the Buddhist tradition.

The Venerable Heng Sure was born Christopher Clowery, a white Methodist. He converted to Buddhism in grad school in the 60s, and is best known for conducting a 2.5 year ‘bowing pilgrimage’ – where he bowed to the ground every two steps – across half of California, for world peace. In 2008 he released an album of American Buddhist folk songs. We played ‘Yashodara’, in which he takes Gautama’s choice to abandon his wife and newborn son to live a holy life as an ascetic, and depicts it as an act of supreme love. “When I get free, I’ll come back for you,” he sings. Not sure where I stand on that one.

There are plenty of other American Buddhist folk artists out there. Ravenna Michalsen is often mentioned as an example of a contemporary American Buddhist singing mantra songs in distinctly American styles. Check out Tricycle for a great magazine looking at Buddhism from an American perspective.

We also played a track written by Mark Graham and performed by Bryan Bowers called ‘Zen Gospel Singing‘. I thought this was genuine when I first heard it – a poignant tale about the realities of converting to Zen Buddhism and still wanting to sing gospel music. Now I’m fairly sure it’s a parody! Either way, it’s interesting to hear the Buddha being praised in old time gospel tunes.

Rad Religion is off for another two weeks, but we’ll be back with more fascinating religious-cultural mash-ups in December.

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