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The Trendy Buddha: Skillful music for propagating Buddhism

As a religion that can claim to be truly ancient, Buddhism has displayed a remarkable adaptability to different cultures and epochs. Skilful means (upaya) denotes a certain clever and hardy attitude, one that considers the inclinations and conditioning of the Other and strives to cater to it. In the contemporary world, skilful means essentially has come to mean modern techniques of sharing Buddhism. This means utilizing radio broadcasting, publishing works in newspaper and magazines, engaging youth in Dharma ministry and activism, and using the internet as a quality medium of mass communication (as Buddhist Door strives to do). One is reminded of a common Zen analogy that has become almost cliché: the finger that points to the moon is becoming a lightning conduit by assuming the forms of mp3’s, digital artwork, internet blogs, and handphones. This helps modern youngsters to glimpse the light of the moon more easily,

but at the same time, it must be acknowledged that these methods can only bring them into the shallows of Buddhism. Ultimately, only the individual can drive herself to go deeper, regardless of how she was introduced to the teachings. The best way to study the ancient religion is still to read the sutras, attend Dharma sermons, and commit to practicing and contemplating morality.

Music however, is one creative way of propogating the Dharma and two contrasting artistic and contemporary examples are highlighted in this article. The first is Buddhist music, expressed through modern singing formats (with accompanying scores) by the Malaysian musician, Imee Ooi (Huang Huiyin). Her chanting, mantras, and dharanis are drawn from all traditions, and she has brought the ancient Pali and Sanskrit devotionals of ancient ages to contemporary Asia. Her music, catered towards a popular audience, nevertheless demonstrates a textual faithfulness to the sutras, mantras, dharanis, and gathas she relies on for inspiration. She also channels her Buddhist devotion into plays and musicals, which have enjoyed significant success in Malaysia and other Asian nations. This first method is a new direction for Buddhist music, one that fulfills the needs of laypeople who wish to engage with the ancient liturgies in a lively and straightforward way. 

The second method, belonging to a monk curiously named Kansho Tagai, combines traditional Buddhist sutras with hip-hop, rap, and the beats that captivate young listeners and musicians. Nicknamed MC Happiness, he was galvanized by the accessibility of rap to communicate the Dharma through a more accessible medium instead of publishing translated sutras. While traditionalists will argue that he is more of an entertainer singing about Buddhism rather than a Buddhist preaching through entertainment, Kansho Tagai sees his mastery of the moonwalk as merely another way by which young people – including children – can come to see for themselves how Buddhism has lessons to teach in every aspect of existence. Should his success continue, his method of “modern means” would influence heavily the way young Japanese see Buddhist clergy. In the scenarios of both Imee Ooi and Kansho Tagai, Buddhist activism is unapologetically modern, blending loyalty to the Buddha’s traditions with technological and progressive upaya.

What does this mean for the modern, progressive Buddhist? The innovations of Imee Ooi and Kansho Tagai underline a desire within many circles of Buddhist schools to meet contemporary voices of need with a creativity made possible by modern equipment and a pluralistic society. A pluralistic, secular society such as the United Kingdom, Canada, or even Hong Kong is capable of fostering open-ended interpretations of Dharma propagation. The most common medium, as many bestseller books and popular blogs have demonstrated, is the interweaving of Buddhist philosophy and practice with three things (these can be further divided into sub-categories which are too numerous to list here):

  • 1. Psychological healing, 
  • 2. Personal experiences in the family and the workplace, and:
  • 3. The endeavour towards bettering one’s own life. 

The third, an avowedly humanistic aspiration, hails from the European Enlightenment idea of self-advancement, and is not always so easy to reconcile with orthodox Buddhism. It may come as a daunting reminder to many that the Buddha saw the key to ending suffering as destroying the conception of self. There is a fine distinction in Mahayana Buddhism: the karmic suffering caused by the concept of self is the prime concern, while striving to destroy the self is to misunderstand the former idea. Modern works should accord to this fundamental idea of “non-attachment to the self.” 

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the striving for Nirvana cannot be expressed in things such as art, music, sculpture, and photography. There are no hard or firm rules to stop the many Buddhist communities around the globe from expressing the Way in creative, popular, or even entertaining ways. In fact, as long as intention remains true the Buddhist aspiration, hip-hop and singing can express a bodhisattva’s compassion and desire to benefit all sentient beings. Despite it being older than many religions such as Christianity and Islam, Buddhism enjoys one of the most advanced and intricate ethical philosophies ever devised. Its systematic inquiry into the mind and morality has given it a unique advantage amongst the world’s extant religions. Upaya, especially the modern upaya of people such as Imee Ooi and MC Happiness, has demonstrated that there are truly eighty-four thousand ways to teach Dharma – perhaps even more. In this sense, Buddhism can now maintain its truly ancient heritage whilst accommodating the modern ways of this world.

Buddhistdoor Audio Channel selections for Imee Ooi:  Om Mani Padme Hum  Mantra of the Green Tara  Sakyamuni Buddha Mantra  Karaniya Metta Sutta

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