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.

Christian Spoken Word

Recently we’ve seen a bunch of Christian spoken word (that is, performance poetry, soft rap) videos on YouTube go viral. They often speak to the ‘cutting-edge’ of Christian theological and social developments – or at least, what is popular among some tech-savvy, plugged-in younger Christians. Our first one is called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.”

This video caused a huge stir when it was released in January this year (2012). At time of writing it has 22,167,394 views on YouTube and has garnered 123,580 comments, showcasing all the normal vitriol and passion that YouTube seems to draw out of people. The poem was written by Jeff Bethke and produced by Christ is King Productions, a Christian hip-hop production house.

In the video Bethke expresses his disdain for something he titles ‘religion,’ claiming that Jesus represents its opposite. Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what Bethke means by ‘religion.’ Although many would take it as meaning organised, institutionalised religion, Bethke denies this was his intention. “If you are using my video to bash ‘the church’ be careful. I was in no way intending to do that,” he wrote. “The Church is Jesus’ bride so be careful how you speak of His wife.”

Instead, ‘religion’ comes to have a very specific meaning in Bethke’s theology. “I meant religion equals any work of righteousness that has someone hoping to earn favour with God,” he told HuffPost in an interview. “Religion is man performing for God. Grace is Jesus performing for man. That fact humbled me, broke my heart, and changed my life.”

However convoluted Bethke’s own word usages are, the sentiment ties into a long historical development of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Bethke wasn’t the first to say Jesus Hates Religion. From the Reformation onwards, as Western society has become steadily more individualised, we’ve seen Christian theology take the same route. It’s not about following a priest, you don’t need any mediator, you only need the Bible and your own faith, it’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus – this has been the message of Protestant Christianity from the moment Martin Luther rejected the structures of Catholicism. Bethke is ultimately repackaging radical Protestant theology for a new, YouTube-connected audience.

“Religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket,” Bethke says in his video, it’s just “a long list of chores,” like decorating a mummy while “the corpse rots underneath.” There’s something eerily similar in these images to one presented in this next video: “This is us: heap up your good deeds. Chant. Pray. Meditate. Well all of that of course is spraying cologne on a corpse.” Check out “Life in Six Words: The GOSPEL.”

The artist here is rapper Propaganda, in a video produced by Dare 2 Share Ministries, a Colorado-based organisation dedicated to “sparking the fire of evangelism” among young people.

The video ostensibly summarises the message of the Gospels into a six-word acrostic poem. But, of course, no act of summarising is passive: what is ultimately produced is a particular interpretation of Jesus’ message, one that draws on particular historical streams of Christian thought. The primary thrust of the video is that “sin cannot be removed by good deeds,” only by faith in Jesus. This is the doctrine of sola fide, or grace by faith alone, and it is one of the major points of difference between most Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church (thanks again to our old friend Luther).

So don’t strive to be a good person, say our contemporary YouTube preachers. That’s not what Christianity is about. It’s only putting on a mask. After all, Jesus has done everything for you already – you just need to believe that. I just hope the good deeds sneak back in somewhere.