"What we think, we become."
Creative individuals think and will their way into becoming musicians, creating bands of the loud variety that we classify as metal. Within this musical genre, religion is often a topic – with bands being either anti-religious, or using religion as a vessel in hopes of uplifting the audience or filling them with a kind of spiritual energy.
In Buddhism, music is led by the chanting of mantras. Most often in Tibetan or Sanskrit, the chants are complex recitations of sacred texts, accompanied by drums and cymbals. In metal, Buddhism has been seen sparingly, with bands like Cynic and Gorguts implanting the spiritual idea of Buddhism in many listener's ears. Along with these bands, who have dabbled with Buddhist themes, some have gone all-in, integrating mantras to make their musical vessel a completely Buddhist experience.
Labeled "the first Buddhist metal band in Taiwan," Dharma blends the abrasive sound of death metal with a message of compassion. Live, their makeup and stage blood represent the battle scars and blood from fighting the evil deities and karma. The band, made of four practicing Buddhists, are joined on stage by Miao Ben, an orange-robed Buddhist nun, who introduces their concerts with chanting and scripture readings, while the band wear black haiqing robes.
"Our goal is to raise the profile of Buddhist and Taoist cultures using a new way to perform ancient Buddhist mantras," says vocalist Joe Henley. "By hosting shows and festivals across the globe, we will be able to have a subtle influence on the younger generation, spreading the ideals of our chosen beliefs and philosophies. Dharma is a band that combines traditional Buddhist mantras and classics as our chosen medium of expression. If this also makes you want you to explore Buddhism, that's great, but we respect and believe that every religion or good faith is also a choice of faith. Our music is for people of all creeds and colors, as well as for those with absolutely no religious affiliation."
Miao Ben says she joined Dharma because she felt metal would link the faith to younger Taiwanese who might otherwise lack exposure. The band has found that audience members have become more interest in Buddhism after seeing them perform live.
"We're not sure how many people we can influence in the end. If Dharma could affect one person, make them a better person, or help them find their own beliefs, even if in the end it only affects just that one person, we think we are successful. Faith doesn't necessarily bring you anything, but faith can give you strength when you need it."
In the future, they plan to add more rituals to the performance, though for now, the nun as well as mantras displayed on the backing screen makes a Dharma concert feel like a trip to an incense filled shrine, being sincere ceremonies of devotion to Buddhism and Taoism. The audience is encouraged to chant along with the mantras.
Bhaisajyaguru is the medicine Buddha. It is also the name of Dharma's new EP, which ties in with the current health crisis the world is in. The band hopes that they can provide positive energy to the world through this release.
"Bhaisajyaguru is the mantra that we have selected in the Buddhist tradition to eliminate pain for the epidemic," says Henley. "We wish you happiness, safety and a healthy mind and body after listening. Meaning of Bhaisajyaguru: Grant us refuge, Bhaisaijyaguru (Master of Healing), in Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (highest perfect awakening). Bless us with your healing medicine. Rescue us from pain and send us toward enlightenment. Reciting the mantra of Bhaisaijyaguru is said to help friends or family recover when they are sick or in pain. It can banish ill fortune and disease, and help those who are in pain or fearful when facing death to do so with peace and dignity, sending them on to the Pure Land after passing."
China has a fair number of Buddhist temples, though it is rare to see an orange-robed monk walking around the streets like in Thailand or Laos. Still, a number of bands have taken to the spiritual guidings of Buddhism and have integrated it into their musical presentation, including acts like Ritual Day and Voodoo Kungfu, who use elements from Taoism, and Tibetan Buddhism in their music.
Beijing's Bliss Illusion have brandished their own form of Buddhist-inspired blackgaze on their debut album 森罗万象Shinrabansho. Often called China's version of Agalloch, Bliss Illusion utilize a Buddhist backdrop to create enlightening, hypnotizing and spiritual encounters on their album and during a live experience.
"I just came into contact with this philosophy naturally. I think it is not a religion for me, but a philosophy, which is very close to the eternal philosophy," says Bliss Illusion's frontman Dryad.
For black metal as a suitable vessel in which Buddhism can be integrated more than other genres like thrash or death metal, Dryad says, "Although I'm not sure, black metal music is more suitable for this. Personally, I think black metal is an important projection of modern psychiatry. Its history and background coincide with my spiritual world. However, I think this is only the beginning. In the future, I will add a completely different theme to my music."
Bliss Illusion's single "« Mutki »" features a photo of a Myogilsang Buddhist statue by an unknown North Korean artist as the artwork. Bliss Illusion's manager, Morgan describes why this particular piece was chosen, "I discovered this work at a North Korean art exhibition in the 798 Art District. The song is the start of a new path to enlightenment, and this Buddha in front of you is like a step or a door to the spiritual world. The fact that it comes from North Korean is intriguing because we know very little about their art even in China. This statue is shrouded in mystery."
Their latest single, "般若 (Prajnā) • Unplugged" shows a phoenix feather on the cover. "It is described in Buddhist commentaries as the understanding of the true nature of phenomena."
Bliss Illusion's songs have recently been used in yoga playlists by Yoga Witch. Bliss Illusion's concerts could be seen as spiritual ceremonies to some spectators. Dryad says, "I will not do this deliberately. I think what people see and think of are untrue. We may not deliberately satisfy the audience in terms of senses. On the contrary, we are just satisfying ourselves. Everything is not so important. We just follow our hearts."
The US And Canada
Buddhism is the middle path. It's not the cynic's path, but the middle path. Buddhism's take of cynicism would that cynicism is suffering. Being a cynic, one is attached to the idea of cynic, and missing everything else that is covered by cynicism.
Floridian prog metal band Cynic's Paul Masvidal has been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for over 20 years. The dharma spoke to him during his mid 20s when jazz musician Dave Weissbrot helped steer him to the Buddhist philosophy. From the get-go on 1993's Focus, songs like "Veil of Maya" refer to the belief that we view life through a series of distorting veils that prevent us from seeing actual reality. Cynic as a musical force does instigate moments of Zen, and Masvidal is continuously looking to inspire moments of satori—flashes of enlightenment.
Also in the US, Phoenix's thrash titans Sacred Reich explored Buddhist themes. Frontman Phil Rind's own Vajrayana-based Buddhist practices, which he had been practicing for 20 years, made their way to the band's fifth album Awakening. The album touched upon finding peace and strength within oneself.
St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada is one of the least likely places you would mentally connect temples and giant Buddha statues with, though the Eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland, known for its delicious lobster, is also home to the Buddhist black metal band Bodhisattva. The meaning (in Mahayana Buddhism) is a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings, while their logo displays the Hindu symbol of peace. So far, they have only released one EP, Nara atita kutra tatra avavarsati, in 2019.
Just a few provinces to the West and you'll find the legendary Gorguts of Quebec. In 2013 they released Colored Sands, a concept album based on Tibet. Compared to earlier albums, the band introduced longer songs, inspired by Opeth, with the Tibetan theme originating from a sand mandala Luc Lemay had come across. Aside from Buddhism in general, the song's themes touch upon topography, geography, the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s, and the Tibetan people's non-violent philosophy.
Dark Buddha Rising is a Finnish band that combines drone and sludge with the darker aspects of the religion, entering the listener into the endless pulses of the multiverse. Forming in 2007, they have since constructed meditative sonic voids through six albums.
Prague's epic black metal masters Cult of Fire are known for changing their logo with every release, with the band's third and fourth logo written in the Sanskrit Devanagari alphabet. Concerning Buddha, Cult of Fire's album Nirvana has songs named "Buddha" 1-5 and go by the theme of the five wisdoms.
"According to the profound Tantric Buddhist path, we do not seek to abandon the five afflicted emotions (desire, anger, delusion or ignorance, pride and jealousy), but to train our minds under the guidance of a qualified guru to look directly at their essence or reality, upon which they are automatically transformed right then and there into the five wisdoms and we generate spontaneously the enlightened minds of the five Buddhas. If we do manage to look directly at the reality of each of the five poisons as they appear, we recognize them to be none other than the five wisdoms."
Russia's close proximity to Tibet has influenced some key bands from the motherland. Shturm, a death metal band with themes of Tibetan mythology and Buddhism, formed in 2003 and have three full length albums, including 2009's Kalahia, with songs like "Appealing to the Spirit of Tibet" which are absolutely vicious, Nile and Behemoth sounding offerings.
Brazilian/currently based in Germany's Rest in Disgrace are a death/doom metal band who emerged in 2007 with their EP As Beauty Springs from Mud. They touch upon Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, naming the Veil of Maya in their songs as well as songs relating to vanity and the dying lotus (the lotus in Buddhist symbolism refers to purity of the mind and body).
Like China, Japan isn't overflowing with Buddhist temples, though some bands have notable themes inter-spliced. Evil and Gokuraku Jodo are a few who have been inspired by Buddhism, albeit in a fleeting sense, with songs or album covers touching upon the religion but not going all-in. Ningen Isu, the legendary doom band, though, does employ some teachings in their songs. Guitarist/vocalist Shinji Wajima studied Buddhism at university and the beliefs appear in their songs, such as "Shitsuu-Busshou" which delves into the belief that we are only free when we reach Nirvana.
In Thailand, Buddhism is the main religion, which is practiced by 93% of the population, so seeing monks on the street is as common as seeing foreign tourists. The many temples and statues within the country are also an ever-present reminder of the spiritual atmosphere underneath the party one. Thailand is also home to various Hell Gardens – explicit dioramas warning people to live a righteous life, or they may have to climb the "adultery tree" while rabid dogs bite at their genitals, in the afterlife. It's safe to assume that although the metal bands in Thailand don't call themselves Buddhist or have Buddhist lyrical themes or imagery attached to the art, the musicians probably are. One example is Kanprai, a one-man black metal band, who uses Buddhist teachings, in addition to the usual hatred and darkness motifs, to steer his blackened vessel.
The surrounding Southeast Asian countries fare similar to Thailand. In Myanmar, Senanga Privuta create brutal death metal inspired by the Buddhist philosophy. The path to enlightenment can be brutal, but perhaps not as brutal as this Burmese band.
Chinese label Pest Productions always has their eyes on the most talented up-and-coming black metal bands in the world. Kushinagar (a major pilgrimage site), India's Gautama Buddha present their first full-length, released in 2021 through the label, being a "chaotic cacophony of possessed chants shrouded in an aura of sanguine mania, onto a path seeking rebirth but gone astray, leading to a heretic enlightenment of dark minds." The blood-red album cover suggests an ominous trek through the righteous path of Buddhist cultivation and the four songs composed by the anonymous, red shrouded black metal Buddhists are doctrines for the profane, touching upon the more dreadful aspects of reincarnation.
Langdarma are another Indian act who touch upon Tibetan Buddhism through the death/doom metal veil. Hailing from crypts of the Himalayan region Leh Ladakh, the two-piece Langdarma focus on the thoughts and philosophies of an individual. Semsnyid is their 2020 demo, meaning the nature of the mind, which opens with the cries of someone experiencing extreme anguish, before plowing down with slow-paced temple waste.
Heruka, from Karnataka, also put death and doom metal through a darkly ambient Vajrayāna Buddhist (about specific lineages) filter. These mantras are put to record on their 2019 demo Tulzhug Chöpa.
Article by Ryan Dyer