Among the many adjectives appended to the death metal music genre, ranging from brutal through sepulchral to blackened, “Buddhist” is a true rarity. While religious extreme metal is not unheard of, Dharma from the island of Taiwan may well be the first band in the world to blend the aggression of death metal music with the Buddha’s message of compassion.
Although the band’s roots go back as far as 2007, the project only became a recording and performing entity in 2018. Founded by drummer Jack Tung, Dharma is a truly unique and novel phenomenon, from the perspectives of both the Buddhist sangha and death metal fandom. In a manner reminiscent of tantric Buddhism—where various practices harness the energies of what may appear superficially to be transgressive and un-Buddhistic toward the pursuit of enlightenment—the band employs tremolo picking and blast beats of death metal to bring the teachings of the Buddha to a new audience.
What is more, and what perhaps may be a further surprise to the reader, the band are doing so with the support of the Buddhist clergy. The project operates with the full blessings and spiritual guidance of Master Song, and they are even joined on stage by Buddhist nun Master Miao Ben.
The apparent dissonance between the band’s music and message is compounded by their live presentation. In front of crowds of long-haired, black-clad rowdy metalheads, Master Miao Ben chants mantras in a traditional style as an accompaniment to the band’s death metal renditions of the same mantras. The band members, meanwhile, perform in the traditional haiqing (海青) robes of Chinese Buddhist lay devotees to demonstrate that they take their performances as sincere acts of devotion to the Buddha.
In keeping with the typical on-stage theatricality of extreme metal, their faces are adorned with makeup and stage blood, intended to represent the struggle against maras, both internal and external. Dharma’s shows even end with a formal transference of merit! That Dharma’s unique approach to promoting Buddhism is having some effect on Taiwan’s metal fans can be seen from the crowds holding their hands together in reverence at their concerts, while the act of fans crowd surfing in full lotus posture has become a fixture of Dharma’s performances.
To gain a deeper insight into what Dharma is up to, we sat down with the band’s founder, leader, and drummer, Jack Tung.
Buddhistdoor Global: Easy question to begin with: I noticed that Dharma’s Chinese name 達摩 (DaMo) is not the standard translation of “Dharma” i.e. 法 (Fa). Could you explain the meaning of 達摩 (DaMo)?
Jack Tung: Dharma technically has multiple meanings. One that’s most known is “conformity to religious law, custom, or duty.” Its core meaning is “to hold one’s own quality.” Holding one’s true quality helps us to understand and connect to the world and its wisdom, through Dharma we are called to keep the nature of all things unchanged.
“達摩” is the transliteration of “Dharma” that’s known to Mandarin-speaking folks. Whether people do a websearch for Dharma or “達摩” in Chinese, both will bring people into contact with Buddhism, which serves our goal of spreading the Buddhist teaching. Isn’t that like killing two birds with one stone?
BDG: What inspired you to start Dharma? Do you have any specific goals you would like to accomplish with this band?
JT: I first heard Tibetan Buddhist scriptures around the year 2000. I was very much a metalhead at the time and I was shocked by the borderline screamo style of chanting, especially as someone who grew up in a Buddhist household, I was immediately inspired to start working on rhythms and beats with tons of ideas.
In this modern society—with the advancement of technology and promotion of individualism—morality and ethics are at an all-time low. As a teacher who works not only in studios but also schools, I can especially feel the change in the younger generations. I’m hoping that through religion we can inspire the good in people. That doesn’t necessarily have to be Buddhism. It could be Daoism, Christianity/Catholicism, or even Satanism. I believe all religions are based on a foundation of peace and harmony. And personally I’m hoping to do my part for Buddhism. All of our song lyrics are classic Buddhist mantras. Through our music our audience, our stage crew, or anyone behind their phone/computer screen is blessed by the mantras. Anyone who searches for any of our songs online will inevitably come in contact with Buddhism, and with that we’ve accomplished our goal.
BDG: What are your main musical influences in terms of bands or scenes? For example, Floridian old-school death metal, New York death metal, Swedish death metal?
JT: We are much influenced by Napalm Death and Behemoth.
BDG: Were you inspired by earlier death metal performers who sought to advocate their faiths through extreme music, such as Mortification (Christian from Australia) or Rudra (Hindu from Singapore)?
JT: Thanks for bringing these two bands to my attention! Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard about them previously. Earlier, here in Taiwan, information wasn’t as easy to come by as nowadays. I’ve been lucky enough to come across lots of information, but there’s still tons that has flown under my radar.
BDG: I’d like to look deeper into the spiritual side of the band. Could you briefly give the spiritual biographies of the band members? Are you all Buddhists? Were you raised as Buddhists, or did you encounter the Dharma later in life? If you were not raised as Buddhist, could you share a little about how you came to be Buddhist?
JT: Basically, everyone in the band is a Buddhist. That said, two of our members haven’t taken refuge.
For my part, because my mother is a very devout Buddhist, I grew up in a Buddhist environment. I’ve practiced vegetarianism—between 11pm and 11am—since I was a child. Since most of my knowledge of Buddhism comes from my mother, it may not be that accurate, but what is important is that I received the innate goodness of the teachings.
BDG: This is a difficult question. From a personal spiritual perspective, do you experience any conflict between your spiritual practice and the dark, violent, and demonic imagery employed in most black/death metal? How do you negotiate this? I think this is something that has come up for religious people who are fans of extreme metal—myself included.
JT: I’ve loved black/death metal for many years now. It is a style that lines up with my interests and my preferred way of performing. I fully appreciate the original content of black/death metal, but as a drummer who loves rock music—and especially heavy metal—the pursuit of speed and power in playing music just comes naturally. For me, performing this type of music is like playing extreme sports. The adrenaline rush and the high that comes with this kind of “exercise” feels amazing, both physically and mentally. I’d assume the same goes for most black/death metal fans, it’s a way to relieve the tension and stress that builds up in our daily lives. Not all metalheads are anti-social, just like horror movie fans don’t go about killing people in real life. In terms of entertainment, music is simply an outlet for venting emotionally and physically.
As far as I know, in the process of Buddhism spreading from India, lots of different Buddha statues appeared that portrayed buddhas as wrathful guardians. According to my understanding, this “angry” appearance of the Buddha served the purpose of either protecting monks and believers from showing anger or protecting the Dharma from harm. This raging and intimidating side of the Buddha coincides perfectly with the image and musical characteristics of black/death metal. We hope to use the enormous energy of black metal to increase the power of mantras, and to use music and costumes to depict the anger or protection of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Of course, although it might look scary, at heart it’s still the benevolent Buddha that preaches compassion, mercy, and peace.
Nowadays we can easily search the internet for Buddhist scriptures set to different forms of music, from crystal music to chakra music and even dance music. We’re simply making a death metal version. We don’t have any resources or sponsorship to produce these songs, we create all this music by ourselves. Although the singing in black/death metal is screamed, we’ve studied Sanskrit and its pronunciation. Our venerable master has worked closely with us, guiding and monitoring the process of our rendering the sutras and mantras into song. Our creation and production process is always in line with the Dharma, to show our respect for the sacred mantras we are using.
Amitabha Buddha has 84,000 aspects just like there are 84,000 ways to follow his teaching. We can’t really say we’ve done much for Buddhism but by speaking to you right now and sharing our ideas online, we’re taking an opportunity to introduce people to Buddhism who wouldn’t have come in to contact with anything to do with the Dharma otherwise. We believe that is a blessing and good karma on its own.
BDG: On a related note, in the West a lot of metal and the extreme metal scene especially is intensely anti-religious. How has the reaction to your project been so far from the metal scene? Conversely, what reactions have you had from the Buddhist community?
JT: Personally speaking, music is just like movies, and extreme metal is much like horror or cult films, it’s simply a genre. It’s true that some in the scene are strongly anti-religious, anti-society, and mainly sing about pornography and violence, and some even praise Satan, but hey it’s a free world. And who’s to say you must sing about certain things or behave a certain way to enjoy or create extreme metal music?
There are no restrictions in the creative process of Dharma the band. While we’re creating, we mainly wanted to make something that we ourselves truly enjoy, and considering our background that’s probably why it came out in death metal form.
While touring I’ve come across metal artist from different countries and backgrounds in the past few years. I get it, a lot of us metalheads look intimidating and could easily scare a kid, but once you get a chance to know them better, most of us are friendly and dare I say cute behind the scary façade. Lots of them are also vegetarian/vegan and care deeply for our planet and world. I think religious traditions and culture need updates as time passes, and so does the heavy metal scene.
So far people from the metal scene have been friendly to us, as have the Buddhist masters. Just a tiny portion of believers that are a bit more old school don’t seem to approve of our music. We don’t let that bother us much though, it’s just music. Plus we know what ideas we wish to spread.
BDG: Interestingly, I noticed that you use more Sanskrit than Chinese in your lyrics! This is unusual in the context of East Asian Buddhism, where classical Chinese is generally the liturgical language. What was the reasoning behind the decision to use mainly Sanskrit?
JT: Since Buddhism originated in India, Sanskrit was the language originally being used in sutras and mantras, therefore we’d like to stay as true to it as possible.
BDG: Are there particular sectarian traditions you draw inspiration from, both in your personal practice and/or in Dharma’s lyrics, for example Madhyamika, Chan, Pure Land, Vajrayana?
JT: So far, all scriptures we use are the ones familiar to Taiwanese audiences—you could say the most popular and well used scriptures in our lives—and are not inspired by any specific traditions.
BDG: Could you speak about the state of Buddhism in Taiwan, particularly among young people? Is there anything you think should change or could improve?
JT: Taiwan is a small island. In Taiwan, most people can’t distinguish between Buddhism and Daoism. Almost every family has an altar in their house and if it’s not directly related to Buddhism then it’s at lease for their ancestor. You can find temples in every community and each serves multiple deities. There are plenty of traditional Buddhist and Daoist ceremonies being practiced monthly following the lunar calendar.
Unfortunately, you barely see any young people participating in these ceremonies nowadays. They have slowly drifted away from these traditions and the meaning behind them. Due to environmental protection issues, some traditional rituals have had to change or have even ceased to exist. It’s worrisome to see how much the younger generation has gradually lost touch with their “faith,” such a fundamental part of our country/culture. This is one of the reasons why we started Dharma. Of course we wish to spread Buddhism, but in the end it’s the idea of “faith” that gets us going. We wanted to show them what faith is about and hope they understand its power—especially during trying times.
We want to continue the traditional Buddhist culture that has been practiced for centuries, but also to give it a twist so that the younger generation can feel more inclined to participate. In short, we hope to integrate both tradition and innovation.
BDG: Do you have any plans for upcoming physical or digital releases?
JT: We’re working to release an album by the end of 2021.
BDG: Eventually the COVID-19 situation will end—everything is impermanent! Do you have any plans to tour after it becomes possible to do so? Where would you like to tour?
JT: Yes! We’d love to hit the road and get started with touring. We’ve done our tour here locally and would like to go abroad and tour in some other countries. Perhaps we’ll start with some nearby places like Japan or Korea, then maybe Europe. To be honest we’d be pleased to play anywhere as long as there’s an audience that’s intrigued by what we’re doing. If there is any chance to inspire people with faith, we’d like to be a part of it.
BDG: Thank you very much for the interview, and I hope to see you play when the pandemic ends. Hopefully sooner than later!
Dharma band (Facebook)
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