Segment 24A – Thai Buddhist Pop

I recently visited Thailand and was impressed by the richness of Thai popular religious traditions. We played a couple of Thai pop songs as part of this week’s segment. It was the first half of a double feature to mark the end of the segment!

We played ‘Chamloei Rak‘ by Phumphuang Duangchan, and the ubiquitous Loy Krathong song.

Over 90% of people in Thailand are Buddhist, of the Theravada school. Theravada is ostensibly the type of Buddhism closest to that of the Buddha himself, but of course in reality, local traditions develop their own quirks and idiosyncrasies over the centuries. Thai Buddhism is no different. The monks may be strict traditionalists (they can’t even accept something a woman hands them, and are given separate sections to sit in at airports etc.) but among lay people, a myriad of other beliefs and practices proliferate. Spirit mediums, amulets, magic monks and other supernatural elements are abundant, often in contradiction to the rationalising and modernising attempts of the Thai monarchy.

A great example of those pop practices is Phumphuang Duangchan. She was an incredibly popular 1980s pop singer who died tragically in the early 90s. There was a massive outpouring of grief for her, which precipitated the emergence of a personality cult in her adoration. Throughout the 90s this grew and grew. The spirit of Phumphuang was credited with the power to bestow luck or material gain. Lotteries were very popular in the 1997/98 Thai economic crisis, and the phrase “Phumphuang gives luck” became widespread. Now she seems to have attained the status of a minor deity in Thai laypeople’s personal pantheons. There is a temple which is particularly associated with her worship, and people leave notes there, asking for luck and prosperity.

So some things can get added into Thai Buddhist practice later; other things existed before Buddhism came to Thailand, and got co-opted into it. One example of the latter is the festival of Loy Krathong, which may have originated with ancient river spirit offerings. People create little floral offerings with candles and incense and let them float on rivers. This is a very popular national festival. For some people, they are offerings for the river God; others treat them as Buddhist, seeing them as metaphors for letting one’s anger, pride, and other emotional attachments ‘float away’. We played a pop song which is associated with the festival, and is played everywhere in Thailand! Trust me, it gets on your nerves. “Li, like a tong…”

Check out the next post for the other half of today’s double feature: the religious nature of money and capitalism! Great stuff.


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.

Segment 19 – Zen Jazz

Flow, oneness, connection, selflessness, immediacy – all of these notions are central to both Zen Buddhism and jazz improvisation. Hear us chat about the links here:

Tracks we played were ‘Rita‘ by Jazztronik, and ‘Kogun‘ by Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Zen is great fun – it’s whole aim is to mess with your understandings of logic and your normal view of the world. Although Buddhism began in India, the Chan school can be traced back in China to the 6th Century CE; from China it worked its way to Japan, where it became known as Zen. According to the stories, the founder of Chan/Zen was a chap named Bodhidharma (pictured). He’s usually depicted as a hairy, wild-eyed barbarian, which gives you a sense of Zen’s underlying ethos. He was also a madman, by most people’s standards: he sat staring at a cave wall for nine years, cutting off his eyelids after seven to ensure he didn’t fall asleep. In another story, a student kept coming to the cave to be taught by Bodhidharma, but the master wouldn’t take him seriously until the student had cut off his own arm to prove his sincerity. Yup.

The basis of Zen is direct insight, not mediated by logic, texts, teachings, dogma and so on. Enlightenment is taken from nirvana (a perfect state to be attained upon death) and placed in satori – brief flashes of enlightenment that can be experienced in life, when the right practices are cultivated. One practice is the study of koans, which are little nonsensical stories or teachings. A famous one asks, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ In another, a student asked his master, ‘What is the true meaning of Buddhism?’ to which the master replied, ‘The cypress tree in the courtyard.’ Ideally, these apparently illogical tidbits will snap you out of the strictures of quotidian logic and allow you to experience satori.

You may have also seen the phrase ‘Zen in the art of … gardening/tea-making/painting/archery/etc.’ The idea is that with intense practice, any of these tasks can become a form of meditation. When you become utterly absorbed in them, you are able to let the essence of Zen flow through you, so to speak, and again experience satori. It is here that we find similarities with jazz. Jazz improvisation is all about being ‘in the moment’, being ‘at one’ with your instrument, the audience, the world and so on. Improvisers strive to lose their sense of self while playing, letting themselves become their music. “Like Zen, jazz develops a loose, all-embracing awareness of its subject and a lack of premeditation that allows the musician to suddenly strike the right note.” Playing your instrument becomes the meditation, that allows you to transcend your normal thinking and experience and ‘tap into’ something else.

[I should note that this heightened state is experienced by performers of all stripes, from rappers, to sportspeople, to artists. Psychologists have called it flow,and it can be likened to what many would dub a ‘religious’ experience.]

The artists we played today are Japanese jazz artists. Although they don’t draw on Zen teachings or principles directly in their music, the parallels between the Zen and jazz experiences are commonly drawn in Japan. Toshiko Akiyoshi is characteristic of a kind of Japanese-jazz fusion, drawing on some traditional Japanese instruments and melodies in her music.

I wrote about Zen on an old blog of mine many years ago. The koans and stories in this post primarily come from D.T Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Our neighbouring radio programme which also deals with religious music, ABC Radio National’s The Rhythm Divine, have also spoken about Zen jazz.

Next week I’m going to try to find some music that’s associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead – wish me luck! And you can keep getting these posts each week by subscribing on the right –>

Confused about Zen? You’re not alone. One disciple said to his master despairingly, “I cannot follow your reasoning.”

“Neither do I understand myself,” concluded the Zen master.

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!

Segment 2 – Buddhist Death Metal

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.