FEATURES|THEMES|Music

Heavy Metta: Plan B Share an Ancient Teaching through Rock

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2020-03-31 |
Musical activists Plan B. Image courtesy of Plan BMusical activists Plan B. Image courtesy of Plan B

Plan B have a vision: to share the Buddha’s timeless message of peace, love, wisdom, and liberation by popularizing Dharma-inspired contemporary music. Founded in 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Plan B 计划 is one of the few Buddhist bands in the world playing modern music for modern audiences. Featuring an all-Buddhist lineup of missionaries, musicians, and vocalists united by a common mission to share the Buddhist teachings for the benefit all beings, the members of Plan B—which stands for the Buddha’s plan—aim to share their music to inspire young Buddhists toward personal spiritual growth and happiness.

The band’s lead vocalist, lyricist, and composer JJ Wong shared the group’s genesis with Buddhistdoor Global. “Plan B was started by a group of friends with the ability to play music and with a common interest in serving the Buddha-sasana with our humble skills,” he explained. “Back then, we were operating under the umbrella of a prominent Buddhist music organization called the Bodhi Buddhist Fellowship Malaysia (BBFM).”

The group’s three other founding members are bandleader and lead guitarist Vui Kiong, bassist Rich Li, and rhythm guitarist Jacky Tan. All of the members were active as musicians for the BBFM’s Friday gatherings. “I met our band leader when I joined BBFM,”  JJ explained. “The latter two were friends from the university Buddhist society (which I founded) and Music Club.”

Fast-forward to today and Plan B has expanded in scope and size as an eight-person ensemble mixing pop, rock, and rap as a foundation for their inspiring Buddhist message. In addition to the four founders, the group now includes guitarist and pianist Steven Wong, pianist Yuki Lee, pianist Chris Tan, and drummer Chee Wah.

“To provide some context,” JJ observed, “the Buddhist community in Malaysia is unique in the sense that combining music and youth activities are fairly common in all Buddhist societies, especially those that use the Chinese language as their medium. Growing up in Malaysia, we would have Buddhist youth societies in high school, and youth activities/camps were conducted with fairly modern Buddhist songs. The Bodhi Buddhist Fellowship Malaysia was one of the pioneers of this movement, popularizing Buddhist music across Buddhist organizations in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“We found that young people today are no longer attracted to simple guitar-and-singalong sessions, and many of them were even attending Christian churches, which they considered more fun and exciting. We realized that we needed to take things a step further by doing something different, and we started by making use of an old donated drum set that was sitting idle in the recording studio. The fact that none of us knew how to play drums at the time didn’t help, but it didn’t deter us from trying! 

“That’s when we started playing as a band with Buddhist singers from BBFM for some major festivals such as Wesak Day. As we gained experience, we started taking tips and cues from popular Christian bands such as PlanetShakers and Hillsong (which organize massive worship concerts in Malaysia for audiences numbering in the tens of thousands and with free admission) and we started employing some of their techniques.” 

Most of Plan B’s members grew up within Chinese Mahayana traditions, but as a group they have learned to appreciate the best of all Buddhist traditions and therefore consider themselves non-sectarian. The band members center their Dharma practice on the teaching of the historical Buddha, founded in scriptures from Mahayana and Theravada sources.

“We use inspiring music and lyrics to help the audience contemplate the Buddhadharma and the Buddha’s message of love, peace, and wisdom—although we’re extremely careful to not equate Buddha to an almighty savior God,” JJ explained. “What used to be just performing ‘band versions’ of existing Buddhist songs has turn into cohesive Dharma-sharing sessions in which we use music to inspire and to provide the wisdom of the Buddha as a solution for the troubled youth of today.”

In 2018, Plan B became an independent band as they worked toward developing their own distinct Buddhist musical style. However, things got off to a rocky start as some people accused the band of imitating Christian bands, misunderstanding that Plan B were simply using similar techniques while still carrying forward a message that holds true to the teachings of the Buddha. 

Since then, Plan B has successfully garnered a growing audience, and the band now receives regular invitations to participate in youth events around the country to share their Dharma-inspired beats. “For example, we have been working very closely with Fo Guang Shan (the Buddha’s Light Association of Malaysia) to share their music with thousands of young people every year,” said JJ.

Plan B is currently in the midst of planning for their third major Dharma concert, which is scheduled to happen at the end of 2020. These concerts are part of a series that began in 2018, focusing on the four stages of a genuine Dharma practice: faith, understanding, action, and realization, as expounded in the Mahayana Avatamsaka Sutra. The upcoming concert will focus on the second stage, understanding the Dharma, as Plan B covered the concept of faith in their previous concerts.

“We’re also writing more songs and preparing for professional recording. However, these will take more time as we continuously work to deepen our own Dharma practice, gather more funds, and improve our music skills,” said JJ. “We’d like to invite all our fellow Buddhistdoor Global readers to follow our Facebook page and our YouTube channel. If you believe that sharing the Buddha’s message of compassion and wisdom to as many people as possible is a noble aspiration, please do consider supporting us and sharing our music with more people. We hope that through our humble effort, genuine message, and compassionate intention, we can inspire more to the Dharma!”

Image courtesy of Plan BImage courtesy of Plan B
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