Segment 24B – Money and Capitalism

Could we say that capitalism is the religion of modernity? Or at least a part thereof? For the final topic of Rad Religion, we chatted about how money and capitalism could be ‘religious’. Hear us chat here:

We also played a couple of great money-themed tracks: ‘Money‘ by Pink Floyd (of course) and ‘I Need a Dollar‘ by Aloe Blacc.

Money itself is a matter of belief. If we didn’t believe it meant something, it simply wouldn’t. It’s a kind of collective fiction that we’ve made up, and as long as we all run along with it, behave as if it’s really worth something, then our societies function. But if we all stopped believing those little lumps of metal, scraps of paper, or digits on our computer screen were ‘valuable’, then the whole money system would end. Especially since our currencies were floated (that is, there is no pile of gold somewhere tying them to something of ‘real’ value) money is completely a social creation, a shared belief.

But we’ve gone a step beyond that. In capitalism, money comes to structure our lives. It is a system of organising our existence, our society. We become ‘workers’, ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’. We are forced to spend most of our days working, as units of labour, so we can get money to go off and spend on other things, vastly above what is required for our lives. Capitalism becomes a totalising system of belief and practice in a way akin to religions (and perhaps they used to do fulfill this role, thinking of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe). This system includes moral imperatives: you should do whatever makes you the most money. Everyone should do this, and somehow everyone will have more fulfilling lives. This is a religious-like tenet, just as the dreams of a classless society among early 20th Century communists were akin to religious, utopian beliefs.

The free flow of capital – that is, unregulated markets – was held by early economists to be very important for everyone to benefit in this way. Adam Smith coined to term “the invisible hand“, which he believed was a kind of transcendental force that would right a market and keep things in balance. This was an ethical hand, who would keep things best for everyone. Smith may have actually thought of this as divine design – and it’s too easy to see this as a kind of economic God! Later economists in the last 50 years have seen the fundamental reason for deregulation to be freedom. Personal freedom is ultimately the central tenet of contemporary Western ideology and society, and this is reflected in the fervent attachment economists have to free markets, which they see to be necessary for political freedom. Again, freedom here operates as a religious-like principle, the ultimate aim for individual and collective life.

So that ends Rad Religion! At least in its form as a radio segment. I might continue posting interesting religion-pop culture mash-ups on here when I find them. Thanks for reading and listening!

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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 22 – Romantic Love

Today we looked at what might be the most widespread myth in Western culture: the myth of romantic love. Hear us chat about it here:

We played ‘This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)’ by Natalie Cole – which my girlfriend reliably informs me is featured in at least five rom-coms – and ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth‘ by Belinda Carlisle – a track that exposes the religious nature of romantic love in no uncertain terms.

So what is the myth of romantic love? It’s a kind of narrative, a group of ideas that guide people’s lives and imbue them with meaning. Some of the central tenets of the myth include: that we each have ‘the One’, the single person who will be perfect for us, our soulmate; that we can fall in love at first sight, just by clapping eyes on the right person; that the love will be everlasting; and that “I love you” is a sacred phrase, that should only ever be uttered with absolute sincerity. Pretty much all of these are consistent elements of rom-coms.

Love is not a universal, essential experience inherent in humanity. Of course there are biological aspects to attachment and eroticism, but different cultures differ on the rules of how people should relate to one another. The idea of romantic love – an intense, personal relationship with an idealised other – is a peculiarly Western construct, and one that developed slowly since the eleventh century. It really took off with the increase in rampant individualism in the modern West: the idea that we should be free to choose our own partners based on personal bonds is central to this idea of romantic love.

Also with modernity (we’re talking seventeenth, eighteenth centuries here) we saw the breaking of the hegemony of Christianity in defining how people should interpret the world and give meaning to their lives. Both the institutional power of Christian churches and personal belief in God have declined, more or less steadily, since then (this is not to say that it will die out entirely, there have been signs of revival in certain sectors of the West in the last couple of decades). What early modern philosophers were rejecting in the Christian God were his authoritative roles, his power in controlling the individual’s life. This assault on Christian symbolism left behind, however, the idea of having a personal relationship with the ultimate. That desire was relocated to other systems and ideologies in the West – most strongly, perhaps, to the myth of romantic love.

So we’ve seen the shift of religious qualities from God and Christ to personal human relationships and the idealised ‘lover.’ Romantic love becomes a source for mystical experience – being lifted out of yourself and being absorbed in something greater (an idea prevalent in mystic thought worldwide, from Sufis to Buddhist monks). The lover is also given a salvific quality, meaning that they have the power to ‘save’ the individual. We see this throughout rom-coms. At the start the individual is waylaid, disenchanted, unhappy, and through the discovery of their love with their soulmate, they are transformed, authenticated, they discover their true self, they become self-actualised. This is often tied into a whole host of other things that the West attributes to successful people: once they fall in love, they get the house, they get the promotion, they’re popular, they’re happy, and so on. In this we see the qualities of the heavenly afterlife relocated to the secular sphere, to having a perfected life. The lover can attain, as Belinda Carlisle sung, heaven on earth.

And people believe this. I believe it too, to a certain degree. This is the myth of romantic love, and it has a good claim to being the undeclared religion of the modern West.

P.S. The ideas presented in this post are a simplification and butchery of a thesis written by Sarah Balstrup. Anything worthwhile comes from her; anything else, from me.

P.P.S. I do this segment as a volunteer on 2ser, community radio in Sydney. At the moment its our Supporter Drive, themed ‘Share the Love’ (thus this topic). In Australia, community radio has a crucial role in providing an independent voice in the media landscape. Please consider supporting the station, which literally needs your help to survive. So head to their website and chuck ’em a few dollars.

Segment 21 – Sikh Rock

Christians aren’t the only ones rockin’ in God’s name – today we looked at the Sikh bands who are doing the same thing. Listen to some tracks and our discussion here:

We listened to ‘Tu Kaun Hai‘ by The Roving Sikhs, and ‘Ik Ongkar‘ by Anhad.

Sikhism isn’t very well known, but it’s actually the fifth largest organised religion in the world, with about 30 million adherents globally. Most Sikhs live in Punjab, a region split between Pakistan and India which is the historical birthplace and homeland of the Sikh community. The religion was founded in the 15th Century CE by Guru Nanak Dev. The dominant religious traditions of the area at the time were Islam and Hinduism, and the guru preached a new, distinct faith which drew on elements from both. Sikhism is monotheistic – meaning there is only one God, like in Islam – and yet they also believe in the cycle of reincarnation and the notion of karma – both Hindu concepts. There were ten living gurus, the last of which was Guru Gobind Singh, pictured. He declared the holy scripture of the Sikhs to be the eleventh guru, to remain so in perpetuity.

The Sikh community was militarised early on, and has had to fight for its independence (or regional dominance, depending on the century we’re talking about) throughout its history. They felt badly treated by the Partition of the British Raj into two states of India (secular) and Pakistan (Islamic) in 1947. Sikhs demanded their own state, however this was not awarded them, and their homeland was split between the two new countries. Subsequent political agitation led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards. All Sikh boys are given the surname Singh, and all Sikh girls are given the surname Kaur. The capital of Indian Punjab, Amritsar, is home to the Golden Temple – the major temple of Sikhism. From personal experience, it’s absolutely beautiful.

To my knowledge there are a total of about five Sikh rock bands in the world, and today we looked at two of them. The Roving Sikhs are from Jammu, and claim to be India’s first all-Sikh rock band, while Anhad are from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Both bands are devoutly Sikh, wearing their turbans on stage and drawing on their faith explicitly in their music. The Roving Sikhs feel that “God gave us music itself, that we might pray beyond words.” Similarly Anhad “believe that God is a part of every breath, every moment of our every day” – even during rock concerts and YouTube videos. The word ‘anhad’ itself means the ‘unstruck melody’ – the primordial sound from which all others have descended. (The word ‘om’ takes this role in Hinduism.) Anhad use mantras from the Sikh holy text – from their eleventh guru – for their lyrics, making their music explicitly devotional and even meditative.

I’m taking a break next week, but I’ll be back on the radio on October 18, joining 2SER’s Subscriber Drive (themed ‘Share the Love’) to talk about the religious nature of the Western myth of romantic love. It’s going to be great.

Segment 20 – Day of the Dead

Today we tried to get ourselves immersed in Mexican culture with the quirky traditions of la Día de los Muertos. Hear us chat about it here:

We played a couple of traditional Mexican tunes to get in the mood: ‘Cruz Olviada‘ by Dorance Ospina and ‘Vamonos‘ by Lila Downs.

The Day of the Dead is a national holiday in Mexico that goes for two days, 1-2 November. The basic idea is celebrating the deceased. People make altars in their homes or visit the graves of their loved ones and conduct various ritual practices to attract their spirits and commune with them. A big part of it is offerings: people leave sugar skulls with the deceased’s name inscribed on their forehead; they cook the deceased’s favourite food; they print pictures and write message to the deceased. Other little idiosyncratic items are also left, like toys for children or little bottles of tequila for adults. Then they play music, dance, have picnics and so on around the graves. It’s sad, but celebratory at the same time.

The tradition can be traced back to the indigenous practices of the Aztecs and other native peoples of central America. These people did not see death in the same way as Europeans – it was just another stage of life. The Spanish invaders had a different reaction, thinking that they were mocking the dead with their use of skulls and so on. They saw it as inimical to the Catholicism they were trying to evangelise and attempted to suppress the celebration, which at that time went for a whole month in about August. Ultimately they gave in and decided to appropriate it instead, moving the holiday to November 1-2, the dates of the Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days (known in popular Western culture as Halloween). These holidays are also about communing with the dead, so the move was successful. Now, Catholic elements are spread through the celebrations: masses, prayer vigils, rosaries, images of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Over time the holiday has changed shape, and it is celebrated uniquely in different regions across Mexico. In 1910 a cartoonist named Jose Guadalupe Posada made an etching of a rich woman as a skeleton, named La Calavera Catrina (displayed). She has gone on to become one of the defining images of the Day of the Dead. In fact, depicting people as skeletons is a common cultural practice associated with the festival. Cartoonists regularly depict public figures as skeletons, for example. People also write tongue-in-cheek, mocking epitaphs for their friends or other public figures, as if they were already dead. This kind of open, irreverent approach to death is sorely lacking in contemporary Western societies.

(P.S. If you’re in Sydney, check out the Holy Kitsch stores in Newtown and Surry Hills for all manner of brilliant and surprising Day of the Dead-related paraphernalia!)

Next week we’re going somewhere very different – Punjab – and looking at Sikhism. Surely some of them make rock music, right?

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.