The dharma speaks through music


The dharma speaks through music
Ruby Kato Attwood of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan
Ph oto s fro m to p to b ot tom : Gare th Cat te rm ole /Ge t ty Im ag e s , Key We s t, Oz Vi lla n u eva
Ph oto by Mi n g Wu
k.d. lang
The dharma speaks through music—
it always has, it does today. From jazz
to metal to rap, Rod Me ade Spe rry
surveys the scene.
B u d d h i s t m u s i c : W h at i s i t ? Is it gongs, bells, and chants? Well, yes.
And, no.
Sound has always been part of Buddhist practice, of course, but as the
dharma has made its way into the West—and the West has found its way into
the dharma—the idea of what might constitute Buddhist music has opened up.
It was in 2005 that I first noticed how varied, fun, and meaningful modern
Buddhist-influenced music could be. Music had always been a constant in my
life, and that wasn’t going to change now that I’d taken up Buddhist practice. I’d
come up as a punk-rock kid, so I started with what I knew and found out about
the “first Buddhist punk band,” Ruin. If Ruin was out there, and was so good, I
reasoned, there had to be more. I found many musicians with the artistry, the
inventiveness, the passion, and the commitment I’d come to see in my fellow
practitioners. I started mapping them on my website,, and
it didn’t take long before an exciting new world appeared to me.
Today, the gongs, bells, and chants of yore might be sampled or stood in
for by scalding punk guitars, otherworldly vocals, or wholly unforeseen new
approaches across a variety of genres. Sometimes the connections are explicit,
sometimes less so—sometimes they’re bald-faced marketing choices—but like
the dharma itself, Buddhist-inspired music can prompt us to see beyond the
boundaries we so often take for granted. It can be (almost) anything. So now’s
a great time for dharma-music nuts like me. Here’s just a sampling of the many
artists who are making it so.
Born I Music
The Cult’s Ian Astbury
March 2013
Hip-hop smooth as honey—on a razor’s edge
Photo : J o hn Cage by mario n kalter
“Sex, music, and religion—those things are in constant interaction in my songs,” says rapper/producer Born I Music. “There’s a
dharma-piece in everything I do.” What he’s doing right now is
getting ready to release a new album, King of Kings.
“On one hand,” says Born about the album’s title, “it’s an
egotistical statement about what I feel my position will be
when the project drops. But it also has to do with the mind.
In my music, you’ll hear competing impulses from the sensory
worlds: ‘This feels good. This looks good.’ These are like feudal
lords battling for our awareness, our primordial, fundamental
mind. In the end, I believe our natural awareness or awake-ness
is the real king.”
The ego/awareness dichotomy is present in all that Born does,
and that’s no accident. “I’m a Buddhist artist and I don’t want
to sugarcoat things. But I’m also in the rap world, which has its
Setting the Western stage
Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Yoko
Ono: These are the names that come to mind right away when
we consider Buddhism’s influence on contemporary music. And
rightly so; these composers have been instrumental in blending
dharma and adventurousness from the get-go, seizing on the
attitudes adopted by America’s Beat poets—Allen Ginsberg was
only too happy to bust out his harmonium and perform his loving takes on Buddhist sutras—and applying them to a range of
musical endeavors.
Others would join them in bringing a dharmic influence into
so-called serious music. Avant-garde composers such as Eliane
Radigue, Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Terry Riley harnessed orchestras and electronics alike to mimic Tibetan chants and drones
and to create musical complements to actual Buddhist teachings.
Clockwise from center: John Cage,
Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Meredith Monk,
Terry Riley, Laurie Anderson
Peter Lieberson’s “Drala” was commissioned by the Boston
Philharmonic and his “King Gesar” was recorded by Yo-Yo Ma.
In the pop realm, Laurie Anderson and now-husband Lou Reed
would reflect their own dharma studies in their later work, and
poet/balladeer Leonard Cohen would take up serious Zen practice with the master Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Meredith Monk, speaking on Public Radio’s On Being, neatly
explained how Buddhism and music-making complement one
another: “It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment
that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you.”
Putting that openness and focus to work, these pioneers
helped set the stage for whole new generations of genre-busting,
Buddhist-inspired music.
Ph oto b y C hris C arr
trappings: material things, status. They’re sticky and sweet, and
we’re hardwired to be attracted to them. I’m going to be honest about that, but I also know that materialism by itself is like
honey on a razor’s edge. That’s important on the dharma path, if
we want to lead ourselves to genuine happiness.”
Born feels that such genuine happiness is something everyone should have, and he gives his time in several ways, including
teaching meditation to kids. He also thinks his music can inspire
an oft-ignored contingent. “I want to reach out to the audience
that’s reached out to the least—those who are rejected as a ‘criminal element’ or outcasts. I want to tell them, ‘I’m right there with
you. We’re all in this life together.’”
Judging by his excellent Tomorrow Is Today LP, his album with
the rap duo Shambhala, and his 2012 single “Number One,”
Born’s King of Kings should deliver.
Buddha Not “Buddha”: While most hip-hop instances of namechecking “the Buddha” are run-of-the-mill marijuana referClassic Classics: The Kundun soundtrack and his Symphony No. 5 are fine examples of Philip Glass’ work
and its dharmic content. The late Peter Lieberson balanced classical and avant-garde elements in Ashoka’s
Dream. All-out experimentalism rules the day in Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphonie and Eliane
Radigue’s Trilogie de la Morte.
March 2013
ences, you’ll find traces of actual Buddhist thought in songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and its mastermind, The RZA. Most notably, “Life
Changes,” from Wu-Tang’s Eight Diagrams LP, includes a recitation, in Mandarin, of the Heart Sutra. And while we may have lost him
last year, the pro-Tibet, pro-Buddhist work of Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch endures. Its most succinct statement is Yauch’s track
“Bodhisattva Vow,” from the Beasties’ Ill Communication. See also: Sixtoo’s The Psyche Intangible, a great 1996 album exhibiting
dharmic influences, and, more recently, Macklemore’s “Vipassana” single.
March 2013
A poster from the Sunwave Festival.
Ph oto : Ro b Verh o rst/Redferns
San Francisco Zen Center opens the musical gates
In the public mind, Zen temples are envisioned as bastions
of quietude and order. But the practitioners at the famed San
Francisco Zen Center—which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary—see something more. They see a realm where statues of
bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound. Hence
Zen Center’s adventurous musical programming that, more and
more, is bringing in respected avant-garde acts.
SFZC’s program director, David Zimmerman, explains that
a member of local arts-and-events collective The Bold Italic
began sitting at Zen Center and suggested that meditation and
music programming might go hand in hand. It’s proven to be,
The queen, happier than ever
Unsurprisingly, much of R&B legend Tina Turner’s connection to Buddhism comes by way of sound—specifically,
chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (“I devote myself to the
Lotus Sutra”), the key practice of Nichiren Buddhism and
of Turner’s Buddhist community, Soka Gakkai International.
She talks about how it has made a famously difficult life better.
How has your practice changed you?
Reborn, again
The influential postpunk-turnedrock band known as The Cult recently
resurfaced with a new album, Choice
of Weapon. Dharma first showed up
as an overt influence on 2007’s Cult
LP, Born Into This. This time around,
spiritually inclined frontman Ian
Astbury is talking to the press not just
about the new music but also about
the Buddhism that informs it.
Astbury told MTV that he’s read Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting
Through Spiritual Materialism “countless times.” He considers Pema
Chödrön a “great teacher”: “She has incredible insight. She’s lived
the Western life. She has grandchildren. She understands, but she’s
an ordained Buddhist nun. If you have the opportunity to see her
speak, do.” Choice of Weapon’s cover art even depicts a shaman (a
figure not unfamiliar to diehard fans of the band) brandishing a
dorje, a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment.
What does it mean that your album Beyond is about prayer?
It means that people who work in the arts need prayer as
much as anyone else. I don’t separate my work as a rock
singer from prayer. Everything has been very positive, and
that’s because of my spiritual practice.
Is singing a spiritual practice for you?
Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a song. It is a sound and a rhythm,
and it touches a place inside you. That place we try to reach is
the subconscious mind.
Lotus Flower Formula: Back in 2007, rapper Xzibit sampled the chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in his
single “Concentrate” (its use of less “enlightened” language peeving some adherents in the process). The legendary psychedelic outfit Acid Mothers Temple devoted a full-length song/album/freak-out to the chant. Pop
figures Courtney Love, Belinda Carlisle, and Duncan Sheik, as well as the late songstress Phoebe Snow, have
also engaged in the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
March 2013
Singing it loud
Ph oto b y Jeri H eiden
I feel at peace with myself, happier than I have ever been,
and it is not from material things. Practicing the words Nammyoho-renge-kyo for so long has put me in another frame of
mind, so that even when I don’t practice for a day or a week, I
still feel happy. But I do practice. The chant makes you comfortable because it removes uncomfortable mental attitudes.
Zimmerman says, “a wonderful dharma-gate
outside the traditional.” Soon enough, the
celebrated drone-metal duo Barn Owl was
performing at SFZC, followed by August’s
Soundwave Festival, featuring semi-electronic soundscapers En.
At Soundwave, sessions of guided meditation, kinhin (walking
meditation), and chanting led directly into band performances.
This made for one-of-a-kind shows, and the musicians appreciated the heightened quality of presence in their audiences.
Zimmerman says the public can expect more such collaborations
in the future.
“‘Constant Craving’ is all about samsara.” Ask people about
Buddhism and modern music, and you’re almost certain to hear
that comment about k.d. lang’s lush and enduring 1992 hit, with
its lyrics of longings never fulfilled. Even Buddhists who don’t
know that lang is a dedicated practitioner herself seem to make
the connection.
And a dedicated Buddhist she is. Finally off the road after
some nineteen months of touring to support her latest album,
Sing It Loud!, lang has new songs brewing but is currently
focused on another passion: furthering the practice of dharma
as expounded by her late teacher, Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa,
a master of the Nyingma or “old school” of Tibetan Buddhism.
“I think dharma has been a part of who I am, in this lifetime,
since before I found my teacher,” says lang. “When I met Lama
Gyatso Rinpoche, I felt immediate connection and devotion, and
then dedicated the next ten years, until his passing, to him. I still
continue giving my ‘civilian life’ to dharma.”
Before his passing, lang says with a little laugh, her teacher
gave his student “a to-do list that was almost infinite.” There
was a general mandate to build a strong, functioning sangha
in Los Angeles, as well as all manner of other initiatives:
“We started Ari Bodh, the American Foundation for Tibetan
Cultural Preservation, a sort of umbrella for various things like
Tools for Peace, the
mindful program that we’re
bringing to schools now. We
have cultural preservation,
text translation, thangka painting,
statue-making. Everyone should
have an opportunity to integrate the
dharma into every aspect of their life and make their everyday
life a practice. Rinpoche taught that over and over and
over again.”
Meanwhile, lang’s fan base seems at ease with her devotion, just
as they were when she came out in ’92 (not such a common popculture occurrence back then) or when she’s been vocal about her
activism for human and animal rights (although her very public
vegetarianism has not gone down well in her native Alberta).
“I want to be all inclusive,” she tells me. “I’m interested in
having an extremely diverse audience. It’s a worthy aspiration to
appeal to everyone and not sell out.” To keep up with k.d.’s work,
visit her online at and at
Kickin’ It Old School: Though performing in an idiom wholly different from lang’s, Sir Richard Bishop (of Sun City Girls and
a huge catalog of solo work) and W. David Oliphant (of Life Garden, Maybe Mental, and his own solo catalog) have released Beyond
All Defects, an album inspired by Dzogchen (“The Great Perfection”), the main teaching of the Nyingma school. The album seeks to
evoke a spiritual journey through programming, droning guitars, and what Bishop calls “big-ass Tibetan horn sounds.”
March 2013
The interconnection between Buddhism and punk is pretty well
established by now: Zen teacher Brad Warner writes about them
both and still plays bass for the revivified old-school punk outfit
Zero Defex. Dharma Punx, established by Buddhist teacher Noah
Levine (also the founder of Against the Stream), even repurposed
a cover graphic from Black Flag contemporaries Blast! for its logo.
And as far back as 1982, Philadelphia’s Ruin, founded by guitarist and future Buddhist author/scholar Glenn Wallis, was covering
Leonard Cohen (reportedly a Ruin fan himself) and performing its
own Buddhism-informed material.
Just as punk and metal eventually crossed over into each other,
it was only a matter of time before dharma and super-heavy metallic music did the same. Sometimes only a slight influence, or even
straight-up cultural co-optation, is at play: cult-favorite bands like
Yakuza, Earth, Sons of Otis, Meshuggah, Stargazer, and Skullflower,
as well more arena-oriented acts like Rage Against the Machine,
Loudness, and Uriah Heep, have all used Buddhism-related imagery
As mass-culture has become more pervasive and extreme, so too
has the use of Buddhism-inspired imagery in the musical marketplace.
Separated at rebirth? The Against the Stream/
Dharma Punx logo and Blast!’s It’s In My Blood.
in their album art. Sometimes there’s real substance. There’s
no better example than Portugal’s The Firstborn. Starting as
a death-metal act, the band soon found inspiration in The
Tibetan Book of the Dead—hey, it worked for The Beatles—
and used it as the basis for their first LP, The Unclenching of
Fists, recorded in 2004. This was followed by 2008’s The Noble
Search and last year’s Lions Among Men. Both explicitly address
dharmic themes (Buddhist scriptures and Mahayana Buddhist
thought, respectively) while incorporating an Eastern musical
palette into an often aggressive, always full-spectrum sound.
People: Ceremony, Buddha
Meet Rock (1971); The Band,
Rock of Ages (1972)
THE 70s
Early in the decade, the Muslim artist formerly known as Cat Stevens found himself on a plane with a Buddha in one hand, and a box of chocolates in the other. He
was so vexed by the seeming duality of his desires that he named his new album for
the incident: Buddha and the Chocolate Box.
Starship: Greatest Hits:
Ten Years and Change
(1979-1991); Earth: Sunn Amps
and Smashed Guitars (1995)
Phenomenal Expression: If “thinking person’s metal” is your thing, The Firstborn are essential. You can stream (and purchase) all three of their albums at Likewise, Buddhist-curious punks and punk-curious Buddhists
should seek out Black Hole Records’ excellent Ruin retrospective, Songs of Reverie and Ruin.
THE 80s and 90s
Left to right from top: Meshuggah, ObZen; Queen
Elephantine, Garland of Skulls; The Firstborn, The
Unclenching of Fists; Yakuza, Samsara; Sons of Otis,
Songs for Worship; Deadly Light, No Gods Within
the City; Ruin, Songs of Reverie and Ruin; Loudness,
The Everlasting; Akon/Family, Meek Warrior
Outside of Howard Beale from the classic film Network, few things say “I’m mad
as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” like the famous photograph of
Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc immolating himself in protest of his government’s oppression of his religion. So maybe it’s fitting that Rage Against the Machine,
a band whose music would embody large-scale protest done on the corporation’s
dime—just how Beale did it!—would employ the image for its eponymous debut.
Uriah Heep: Wake the
Sleeper (2008); Xzibit:
“Concentrate” single (2006)
Yes, this is a real cover for a real album (Karma. Bloody. Karma.), by a real band. It
depicts a six-armed, knife-wielding, bull-headed figure—a nod to the wrathful deities of tantric Buddhism (and also some of the gods of Hinduism). With a band
name like Cattle Decapitation, some might guess that these guys, who play metal in
the death-metal/grindcore vein, are insensitive, bloodthirsty goons. But nope. They’re
actually quite concerned with animal rights, vegetarianism, and the environment.
March 2013
Dharma talks and “dubsutra”
on the dance floor
Musical adventures in the Pure Land
As a fan of heavy and—okay—often weird music, I was pretty excited when I
learned about Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Their name is a hybrid, combining a
Buddhist deity and the title of a truly epic track by the classic doom-metal band,
Sleep. And they sound it: the band’s self-titled debut LP is at turns beautiful, pummeling, noisy, and transcendent. YT//ST is ambitious; they’ve
already completed 33, a rock opera that incorporates Buddhist themes,
and another, Star, is in progress.
When I got the chance to see them recently, I found the band’s blend
of musicianship, exploration, Buddhist themes, and theatrics even more
potent on stage than it is on record. Led by drummer Alaska B. and vocalist
Ruby Kato Attwood, the band—all in face paint evoking Noh theatre as well
as heavy metal’s more extreme forms—is capable of holding a music hall in thrall.
Attwood enhances the band’s already undeniable presence through a series of
Buddhist mudras matched with facial expressions that seem at once compassionate and fierce. See them if you can, but listen to them either way. You can stream all
of YT//ST’s debut album online at
March 2013
Ph oto b y b y M atthew M aaskant/A laska B
While he has yet to rap, Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche,
author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has been
experimenting with club music as a way to reach young people. “Awake Amsterdam,” held at a hip concert venue in May
2011, combined Buddhist teachings with electronic music in a
nightclub setting, followed by a dharma talk and, yes, meditation. Attendance topped out at 700, and a 2012 “Awake” event
was quickly planned.
In Japan, two aspiring Jodo Shinshu priests, performing as
Tariki Echo, are making Buddhist dance music inspired by the
musical trend of the moment, dubstep. While their helmets
might evoke the famed French electronic act Daft Punk, TE
are their own unique animal. They’ve created their own genre,
“dubsutra,” made by matching Buddhist sutras to dubstep
beats, and released their first album, Buddha Sound, last year.
You can hear their work online at
Buddha Machine Image: Lo
Aesthetically, it’s sort of a cross between
your grandpa’s transistor radio
and an iPod. But the sound that
comes out of the FM3 Buddha
Machine isn’t what you’d
expect out of either of those.
Instead, the Machine plays
dreamy, drony loops created by a duo in Beijing who
took their inspiration from a
similar gadget that some Asian
temples employ to play fullvolume loops of actual Buddhist
chants. (The machines keep the chants
make it seem to the world that the temples are
packed with enthusiastic and vocal aspirants.) The FM3 machine
works in much the same way, only with its own custom sounds.
Music fans quickly learned to love its soothing, lo-fi charms.
Musicians, too: since its 2007 release, the Machine has spawned
four “remix albums” that feature contributions from Chinese as
well as Western artists, including Robert Henke of Monolake, the
metal/drone-duo SunnO))), and the Sun City Girls. The Buddha
Machine can be hard to find; luckily, there’s now an iPhone app
that stands in nicely.
The real stuff
Ph oto © ge offrey creighto n ph oto graphy— o ffreycreighto m
A temple of sound, in your pocket
“I didn’t come to the dharma looking to be a better musician,” Jerry
Granelli says. “I’d accomplished most of what I’d hoped for. But
I didn’t know how to be a human.” At 71, the jazz drummer and
music-and-meditation teacher is as vital and inventive as any artist
could hope to be.
As a jazz musician, he made a name for himself young. That’s
the 22-year-old Granelli drumming on Vince Guaraldi’s beloved
“Linus and Lucy,” the Peanuts’ theme song. He played with the likes
of Carmen McRae, Bill Evans, and Sly Stone, but by the time he
met his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, in the early 1970s, he was at
a crossroads: tired, and perhaps even “done with music forever.”
But Trungpa Rinpoche told him, “No, no, that’s where your real
stuff will come up.”
At Trungpa Rinpoche’s urging, he began connecting with
musicians and meditators as a teacher, and he still teaches both,
blending them together. He says meditation is “mandatory”
for the many players—pros and beginners alike—who attend
his workshops in the hopes that his talent and wisdom might
rub off on them. “They love it,” he says. “It’s a way for them
to work with their whole artistic process, their whole lives.”
Dharma Americana—Jazz and Beyond: Pianist Herbie Hancock, reed
players Wayne Shorter and Bennie Maupin, and bassist Buster Williams are all
practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism; singer Tamm E. Hunt is a Mahayana Buddhist;
Joseph Jarman of the famed Art Ensemble of Chicago is a Jodo Shinshu priest. In
the singer-songwriter realm, musicians like Jake LaBotz, Ravenna Michalsen, Meg
Hutchison, and Alan Senauke are applying Buddhist lessons to musical hybrids
that include elements of the blues and other folk musics. There’s even, thanks to
the great Peter Rowan, a Heart Sutra-inspired bluegrass tune, “Vulture Peak.”
and check out exclusive interviews
with some of the artists you’ve read about
here, including Born I Music, k.d. lang, the RZA,
Tina Turner, and more, as well as tracks by Meredith Monk,
Macklemore, Sir Richard Bishop and W. David Oliphant,
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, and others. ♦
March 2013