Thursday, May 23, 2013

Buddhism and Modern Rock

Hi again friends! This latest blog entry revolves around my love of music and my ongoing fascination with Buddhist philosophy.* I hope the word philosophy hasn’t scared anyone off! I’ll try to keep it relatively simple. What got me going on this train of thought is the fact that Buddhism, while it receives extensive treatment in Western literature and film, is hardly ever linked to Western music, especially modern rock. But modern rock is overflowing with Buddhist ideas! In what follows, we’ll take a look at FOUR songs that communicate important Buddhist principles. The four tracks, independent of one another, are by no means Buddhist anthems. When considered together, however, these songs can bring us to a deeper appreciation of Buddhism's influence on modern rock. 

The Beatles meditating with the Maharishi in 1968

In the online community, there seems to be very little buzz concerning Buddhism’s connection to Western music. For example, if you do a Google search for “Buddhism in rock music” you’ll find the results are curiously meager. What a shame! Starting with The Beatles, who famously dabbled in transcendental meditation and incorporated Buddhist ideas in their music, along with other influential artists of the 60’s—such as Leonard Cohen, Donovan, and The Grateful Dead—the historical influence of Eastern spirituality on rock n’ roll has been undeniable and significant. Later bands, like Oasis and The Verve, have even carried this tradition to the present day. But it wasn’t long before popular culture picked up on this trend as well... and promptly began ridiculing it.
In This is Spinal Tap, an 80’s mockumentary which pokes fun at the banal excesses and naïve pretensions of rock bands, David St. Hubbins, the lead singer of Spinal Tap, says, “Before I met Jeanine my life was cosmically a shambles. I was using bits and pieces of whatever Eastern philosophy would drift through my transom.”** In the more recent film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the rock star Aldous Snow, who steals the protagonist’s girlfriend, is portrayed as an eccentric mystical-moron: “Let me tell you something about these tattoos…” Sarah Marshall says, pointing at the symbols on Aldous’s arms, “That is Buddhist, that is Nordic, that is Hindu, that’s just gibberish! These are completely conflicting ideologies… that does not make you a citizen of the world; it makes you full of shit!” As we can see, this notion of the self-righteous, yet absurdly comical guru/artist is by now a commonly abused cinematic cliché. And rightly so! We cannot help but laugh when the lead singer of a hair metal band—complete with teased hair, running mascara, and a cucumber stuffed in his pants—tries to play the part of the meditative philosopher. Oh well! We have to work with what we’ve got! Thankfully, the four songs I’ve chosen are no laughing matter; rather, they are each profound philosophical statements that illuminate humanity’s struggle to find peace and enlightenment in a world filled with suffering.
Before I get to the songs, it will be helpful for those new to Buddhism to read some sort of introductory summary. It’s important to remember that Buddhism is by no means a fixed or static tradition. In Buddhism, there are a few different branches (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) and many different schools (too many to list). With each school there are subtle variations in practice, metaphysical outlook, and ethical obligation. This is partly why Western interpretations of Buddhism have proven so troublesome and incomplete; they tend to amalgamate the tradition into a painfully inaccurate whole that suits the Western understanding, but does little to represent the essence of Buddhism. Like any religion, however, there are some incontrovertible principles and philosophical elements that run throughout the entire tradition: To better understand these basic principles, visit (an introduction I highly endorse), or get your hands on a copy of Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, by Damien Keown (it’s cheap, the guy’s an expert, and the subject is treated broadly).
Take It Easy – The Eagles
While this song isn’t necessarily modern, it’s one of those rare gems that deliver a kind of deep, blue-collar wisdom. The Eagles aren’t known as advocates of Buddhism, nor has the band ever been particularly profound in my eyes. Yet in the face of all of life’s chaos, this song reminds us over and over again to simply, “take it easy.” Though seemingly unsophisticated, this advice isn’t just some cheap hippie slogan; there’s actually much more going on here. In my eyes, the song is really about suffering—a particular type of suffering—and, in turn, letting go.
In Buddhism, the first of The Four Noble Truths states that, “Life is suffering.” But “suffering” (dukkha) can be a confusing concept. When we typically think of suffering we imagine poverty, starvation, illness and death. However, Buddhists have a much broader and more thoughtful understanding of what suffering truly is. Suffering doesn’t just happen when we experience physical pain or when we are lacking basic necessities; it occurs every day to all of us, even the affluent. In American culture, it is often assumed that the more material wealth one has, the less one suffers. But this is not the case in Buddhism. Thus the second of The Four Noble Truths is that suffering arises from craving, desire and attachment. Hopefully most of us are familiar with the concept of the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. Psychologists and philosophers use this concept in “happiness studies” to explain that as a person begins to make more money or experiences an increase in external pleasures, expectations and desires tend to rise in tandem with those external changes, in turn leading to no permanent gain in happiness. This doesn’t mean that experiencing pleasure or making money is intrinsically bad, but rather that once our basic needs and wants are met, having more will not necessarily lead to happiness. In Buddhism, the hedonic treadmill—which symbolizes the fool who keeps running only to stay in the same place—is a process that invariably leads to more suffering.
In this way, “Take It Easy” is really a didactic story: We meet a man with “seven women on his mind”—four of them want to “own” him and two want to “stone” him. Of course, we see where this is going. Here is a man who is not satisfied with only one woman; he must have seven. Our protagonist’s mind is filled with desire and angst; he cannot balance his earthly pleasures and he has created chaos. If this isn’t enough, the man further laments:
I'm running down the road
Tryin' to loosen my load
Got a world of trouble on my mind
Lookin' for a lover
Who won't blow my cover
She's so hard to find
These lyrics bring us back to the hedonic treadmill, as we realize the man is caught up in a futile search. He longs to ease his troubled mind through pleasure and satisfaction, but cannot seem to find it in the places he is looking. Given the difficulty of reading too closely into a breezy song like “Take It Easy,” there are sure to be alternate interpretations. Yet even my interpretation can admit that the beauty of this song lies in the choruses, as the narrator reminds himself to let go of his futile concerns, de-clutter his mind, and simply “take it easy.” 
Take it easy
Take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy
The anxiety the man has manifested through his search for sensual pleasure is indeed a form of suffering, and one that the man warns himself (or us) against: “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy,” he advises. This line is one of the best in all of rock n’ roll and it clearly echoes, albeit indirectly, the normative stance presented in the first two of the Four Noble Truths—that 1) life is suffering, and 2) suffering is caused by craving (taṇhā) and attachment (upādāna). The metaphorical significance of the vehicle is clear: We are like ego-vehicles moving through the world—craving, acting, and reacting. The word “wheels” conjures the image of mental gears driving and striving for pleasure, acceptance, and understanding. And the word “sound” represents the reverberation of this behavior and the suffering produced as a result.
The third noble truth, however—that suffering will only cease through extinguishing all craving and desire—is where the Eagles depart from the Buddhist tradition. In the end, the song is not actually telling us to do away with all passion and desire, but instead to realize how short life is and to place less emphasis on our attachment to fleeting trivialities. This is almost directly stated in the first chorus, with the line, “Lighten up while you still can. Don’t even try to understand. Just find a place to make your stand. And take it easy!” 
Waiting – Cake

This next song, by Cake, is also about suffering. But again the suffering I’m talking about here is probably not immediately obvious to the Western mind. “Waiting” is about the tendency of human beings to live their lives in anticipation of events to come, rather than living in the now. “You’ll always be waiting,” John McCrea sings, “for someone else to call.” This message is particularly relevant to our present condition, as we grapple with the constant pull and distraction of various social media outlets. This sense of “waiting” is satirized to perfection in the South Park episode, “You Have 0 Friends”. Check it out!

But Cake’s message is not a surface critique on our obsession with technology and social media. No, the song, I think, is getting at something deeper; it is attempting to describe a form of suffering that we experience in our everyday lives, a kind of chronic dissatisfaction which stems from a mindset of craving, grasping, and expectation. But what does this have to do with waiting for someone to call? Well, anytime we are waiting in expectation for something, we are necessarily not living in the present. Just as anytime we are caught in an act of nostalgia, longing for the past, we too are not paying adequate attention to the here and now. But the song is also attacking our material desires, and the thin ideological convictions we use to convey to others who we are.
So we think that we’re important
And we think that we make sense
And we think there’s something better
On the other side of this fence. 
We’d do well to remember this warning against ‘coveting thy neighbor’s goods’ is not unique to Buddhism (the Bible actually goes as far as to say that one should not covet thy neighbor’s “man-slave”… Apparently jealousy, in Christian scripture, is a far worse offense than enslaving human beings). As if we hadn’t learned enough, McCrea now turns his gaze to our flawed belief that material possessions will lead to lasting happiness and satisfaction. He exclaims:
You can soak your bread in gravy
You can soak your bread in soup
But the car that you are driving
Doesn’t really belong to you!
In other words—to translate from Cake-speak to English—no matter what material pursuits we choose to distract ourselves with, our fundamental condition as human beings will not change. We are delicate, fleeting, momentarily existing organisms, connected to the earth in ways we are only beginning to understand. The Muse song “Time is Running Out” plays with a similar notion, critiquing our tendency to “bury” and “smother” the fact of our own mortality. “Our time is running out/ Our time is running out,” sings Matt Bellamy with ample vibrato, “You can’t push it underground/ You can’t stop it screaming out”—(this song, I should note, isn’t entirely morbid; it’s as much about life and love as it is about angst and death.) Yet returning to McCrea’s point: Try as we might to sculpt our identities through the things we collect, in the end we find these things don’t even really belong to us in the first place; they are but small components of a vast, unconcerned, rapidly expanding universe (not to drift  into Carl Sagan land***). Or, if this notion is too vague or sentimental, we can actually take McCrea quite literally. For the most part, we do not own our cars or our houses; the bank owns them.
“Waiting” is truly an anthem of the anxiety and unsettledness of the post-modern/post-industrial condition. And, no, neither our staunch ideological convictions, nor our vain material strivings, will save us from this sense of waiting and waiting and waiting… “for someone else to call.” 
Zen Brain – Nada Surf

What, then, is the individual to do? And isn’t Buddhism itself an ideological conviction? A religion, in fact? How can Buddhism claim to be above rigid ideologies when it itself is a fixed mode of understanding the world and deriving meaning from experience? Here we turn to Zen.
Zen effectively means “enlightenment” or “meditation,” depending on whom you ask. The Random House Dictionary states that Zen is “a Mahayana movement, introduced to China in the 6th century and into Japan in the 12th century, that emphasizes enlightenment for the student by the most direct possible means.” To put it plainly, Zen Buddhism de-emphasizes knowledge of scripture and facts, instead placing its emphasis on experience and meditation. The goal of Zen, if we can call it a goal, is to help practitioners to become fully aware, to let go of all clinging to past and present, and to live in the now. In this way, Zen is about coming to one’s senses. When we are truly living in the present moment—that is, focusing on the task at hand—we are able to, in a sense, become whatever activity we are pursuing. This is what athletes typically call being in “the zone.” In music, it is called being in “the pocket” (the term is most widely used with bass players, since bass, everyone knows, is the Zen-est of all musical instruments!). Interestingly enough, the influential Nike slogan—“Just Do It!”—was originally a saying used by the Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn. In fact, “Just Do It” pretty much sums up what Zen is all about. In the Zen tradition, facts, concepts, and words can be valuable and even potentially meaningful, but mistaking them for reality is a grave error. This is because facts, concepts, and words about reality are not reality. As one Buddhist monk famously points out, “The menu is not the food.”
Nada Surf’s song “Zen Brain harnesses the spirit of this tradition, asking that we cultivate Zen Brain (the safest equivalent to “Zen Brain” in the actual tradition is probably what the Japanese call mushin no shin or “mind without mind”). “Zen Brain,” then, tells us to clear the mind of any and all emotional or intellectual obstacles, so we may focus on the task at hand, on the present moment. Zen master Takuan Soho writes, “The mind must always be in the state of flowing, for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind.” This is ultimately the conclusion that lead singer Mathew Caws (whose father is actually the notable philosopher Peter Caws) reaches in “Zen Brain”.
Caws tells us the story of his angsty youth and concludes “I need a new heart/ This one’s hollow, always scheming.” In this song, again the root cause of suffering turns out to be craving and expectation, or in Caws’ words, “scheming.” He goes on in the prechorus, as the band begins to rise in crescendo, “You wait for summer/ And then you wait for winter/ But there’s a total lack of splendor”—again we get a sense of the futility of a life spent “waiting”—and then the chorus explodes:
            Zen Brain!
            Throw away your crushes,
            All your childhood crutches away.
            Never scared of nothing
Violence or loving my way!
Here Caws, perhaps intentionally, employs a kind of mock adolescent language: To throw away one’s “crushes” essentially means to free oneself from craving and attachment. And to remove one’s “childhood crutches” is to rid oneself of the obstacles of expectation and fear, which stem from clinging desperately to the future. For Caws, and many Buddhists, spending all of one’s time preparing for how one will react to future events is simply a crutch. Surely one who cultivates “Zen Brain,” as Nada Surf recommends, would hardly need a crutch to lean on, but would be supremely engaged in and focused on the task at hand.  
Tougher Than It Is – Cake

No doubt about it! The song “Tougher Than It Is”—despite what I said earlier—is a Buddhist anthem! In fact, the whole album Pressure Chief is overflowing with Buddhist and Taoist ideas. It’s as if John McCrea wrote these songs with a copy of the Tao te Ching or the Dhammapada in his lap. “Tougher Than It Is” is informed by Taoist and Zen principles, but it is also driven by more classical Buddhist arguments.
The song starts out by exclaiming boldly, “There is no such thing as you! It doesn’t matter what you do! The more you try to qualify, the more that life will pass you by.” This notion, that there is no-self (anātman), is a central aspect of Buddhist metaphysics and can be found in nearly all of the major schools. There are really two different ways to look at this claim: The first, and most thoroughly Western, is to treat anātman the same way that Christians treat selflessness—as an ethical virtue. Buddhism, like most major world religions, preaches selflessness and selfless love as its utmost virtue. Just as Christ is said to have sacrificed himself for humanity, it is the job of the lay practitioner and the Bodhisattva—a being who has reached enlightenment—to help others reach spiritual enlightenment and become free of samsara. But an even more important ethical factor is that focus on the self invariably leads to suffering. As the link I provided notes, “We suffer because we are constantly struggling to survive. We are constantly trying to prove our existence… The harder we struggle to establish ourselves and our relationships, the more painful our experience becomes.”
The second way to look at anātman or no-self is ontologically (ontological arguments are claims about existence or reality). Each school has a different interpretation of anātman, but for our sake I’ll put it simply: Anātman, if we are taking the view quite seriously, is the position that YOU yourself literally don't exist, not ultimately at least. In the terminology of Buddhist metaphysics the “self” only exists, as they say, conventionally. According to Buddhists, in order for something to be ultimately real it must be able to retain its full identityall of its properties and components (down to the smallest elementary constituents of matter)over time (i.e. from t1 to t2), yet nothing ultimately does. Everything in the world arises, exists, changes, decays, and ceases at each and every moment. As the famous Buddhist philosopher Jay Garfield points out, “the observable phenomena we take to be enduring, including ourselves, are causal continua of momentary phenomena to which we conventionally ascribe an identity” (Buddhist Philosophy, 2009, p. 4). In other words, all things are momentary and impermanent, yet we make the mistake of ascribing identities to things because of our innate ability to observe cause and effect and make stable arrangements of phenomena. But many people raise an important question: “When a Buddhist says YOU do not exist, who exactly is this you they are talking about?” To answer this, Buddhists explain that the concept of “self” is simply an illusion, a mistake, which occurs early on as we learn to use language, and as we first look in the mirror and realize that there is a place or border where our physical body begins and ends. In reality, what I call my existence is really just a collection of momentary experiences or mental states that I naively lump together to form a conception of “self.”
While this view surely sounds eccentric, impractical and wildly unintuitive to the average Joe, it is indeed one of the oldest and longest standing philosophical positions known to man. For a more thorough articulation of this dizzying subject, see Garfield and Edelglass’s Buddhist Philosophy (a text I was assigned as an undergrad), or, for a more approachable explanation, the magazine New Scientist has recently published several articles on this problem: My former advisor at SUNY Binghamton, Charles Goodman, gives a great  verbal explanation of why he believes you do not exist, here: Charles-Goodman-No-Self. That being said, try not to worry too much! Retaining a healthy self-identity is normal human behavior, and Buddhism respects this fact. Because it is in our nature to go on living life as a “self”—and not as some unemployable, amorphous, identity-less creature—Buddhism merely seeks to help people place less emphasis on the self, and to reduce the suffering that overemphasis on this self creates.  All metaphysical speculation aside, this track is really about the ways in which we bring suffering upon ourselves, causing life to seem much “tougher than it is.” McCrea expresses the song’s central message in a somehow familiar, yet highly original way:
Well the more you try to shave the cat
The more the thing will bite and scratch.
It’s best I think to leave its fur
And to listen to it’s silky purr.
Some people try to make life a little tougher than it is.
In essence, McCrea’s advice is similar to the famous analogy given by writer and Zen enthusiast Alan Watts, who writes, “[Y]ou cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run” (The Wisdom of Insecurity, 1951, p. 24). Cake, similarly, tells us that constantly trying to grasp and control the external sanctions of life will invariably lead to suffering. We can only experience the cat’s silky purr—or the sublimity of life and nature, as the allegory suggests—if we “let it be” and do not seek to oppose and control it, but rather live harmoniously with it. This includes not only the objective external world, but the subjective internal. McCrea sings, “Well there is no such thing as you/ It doesn’t matter what you do./ The more you try to qualify,/ The more it all will pass you by.” In other words, as we desperately try to prove to others that we are unique, attractive, smart, worthy, charming, and righteous, there is a world out there waiting for us—one that is filled with beauty, love, and most appropriately, music.

  --Jordan Hill

Note: Since this is an informal blog, not an academic paper, I have decided not to include formal citation. My main references were the sites and books mentioned, and my undergraduate education!
* I am not a Buddhist. However, as an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy and minored in South Asian Studies. I’m continually impressed and inspired by the level of sophistication and rationality that ancient Buddhist arguments and later commentaries possess. Aside from doctrines like Karma and reincarnation, which modern Buddhists admit are, at best, speculative and inexact, Buddhism is surprisingly naturalistic and even quite in-line with modern science. Buddhism has no creation story and no creator God. The scholar who has probably done the most work in de-mystifying Buddhism is Owen Flanagan, who recently wrote a book called The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Or, for a shorter exposition, check out his blog:
** Please note: The word “transom” is utterly meaningless in this context, and has no connection or affiliation whatsoever to Eastern philosophy. 
*** Carl Sagan is one of my heroes! Carl Sagan’s famous series The Cosmos may be somewhat outdated, but it has aged surprisingly well, which is a testament to the man’s brilliance. If anything, Sagan found it his mission—somewhat like H.P. Lovecraft—to contextualize and illuminate our smallness, as human beings, relative to the vast cosmos. For Sagan, however, we are undoubtedly important. “We are a way,” writes Sagan, “for the cosmos to know itself.”