I wrote a post on Adam Yauch’s passing in August of 2012 that I thought at the time would be the first in a series on posts on the ironies and interests of the intersection of rock and hip hop with the dharma, but never got around to continuing with it. I pick up the thread again here with a different focus, not so much on Adam, but on issues the popular reception of his interest in Tibetan Buddhism raises that interest me. This is different from writing about MCA himself, and seems more suited to a time that is not in the wake of his death. Like any rock star, “MCA” as a cultural phenomenon is in large part a product of what people projected onto him, present company included.
One thing that MCA was asked when he began to speak publicly about his practice was whether he felt any hesitation because of the conflict some would likely point out between being a rock star and studying and the dharma. (I prefer to talk about meditation on those terms rather than using the term “Buddhist,” but I will use that term here for convenience’s sake.) Usually, these questions tend to resolve around the issue of the ego. Being a rock star is to cultivate its inflation and dei / rei – fictation; being a Buddhist is about seeing through its delusions as a source of suffering. So how can you practice both at the same time? “I’m the last person who should talk about this stuff,” MCA once said in reply to such a question in an interview.
I began to practice Vipassana, a different school of Buddhist meditation than the Tibetan traditions MCA took part in, at just about the same time as I started to get into underground / indie music, when I started high school. I found out about Vipassana from my mother, and most of the folks at retreats and classes I went to were ex-hippies of my parents’ age. I didn’t know of any musicians that had an interest in meditation in those days. So I got used to thinking of music and the dharma along the lines of “ne’er the twain shall meet,” – an easy way for someone who had grown up in joint custody to think of social milieus generally speaking.
I kept up this approach for the most part when I started making records in the ’90’s, so I was pleasantly surprised and interested to read an interview that MCA did with the Dalai Lama in Tricycle magazine in 1996. (The interview appeared excerpted in several different publications, Rolling Stone, Grand Royale, etc.) More than anything that they said to each other, what jumped out at me was MCA’s admission that he had been nervous to meet the Dalai Lama. “That kinda puts the shoe on the other foot,” I remember him saying. “People are usually nervous to meet me, and now here I am, nervous to meet him.” I thought of my dad’s answer when I asked him why he thought Bob Dylan became a born again Christian. Dad said, “There’s somebody who’s bigger than me!” speaking as if he were Bob suffering from the pressures of living as the center of a cult of personality. I began to wonder if MCA was feeling a similar need to rotate around a larger than life figure who he could use to refashion his own pop star figure-hood.
His interest in the dharma was clearly very genuine and integrated with his interest in social justice issues. I would not want to suggest he was using it for promotional purposes. But any Beastie Boys fan knows the band wanted to solidify their transformation to a more mature identity in the eyes of the public at that time, so as to cultivate a new audience they felt more comfortable playing to that shared more of the values they grew into as adults. (I think their stuff from Paul’s Boutique through Hello Nasty is great.) I remember MCA telling one interviewer from Spin magazine around the time Ill Communication came out, “I got your story right here: I went to buy a juicer for my parents at a b-boy health food store in Brooklyn. The guy behind the counter said, ‘You’re from the Beastie Boys, right? So, I guess you guys don’t drink 40s anymore?’”
Reading about the interview in Tricycle made me more likely to see it as a public relations endeavor. I liked the magazine, but used to jokingly refer to it as “the Buddhist People magazine,” because of the way it promoted its circulation by choosing to do features on dhamma practicioners based on their level of fame and public recognition rather than on the depth and quality of their insight. (Any excuse to drag out another piece about William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia, Pattie Smith talks to Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson interviews John Cage, blah blah blah.) It had a glossy cover and full color format that was quite different from journals I was used to reading like Insight, Inquiring Mind, and the Forest Sangha newsletter. It tended to focus more on Tibetan schools of Buddhist meditation, which I thought were likely to be more appealing to celebrities for various reasons I was suspicious of, (more on that, perhaps, in a future post.) I actually thought MCA’s interview was one of the more thoughtful and thorough interviews I had seen a western celebrity do with the Dalai Lama, compared to one done by Spalding Grey for Tricycle that struck me as self-absorbed.
But what I mostly want to say here is that the focus on the issue of the ego as the “opposites attract” explanation for the interest musicians such as MCA have taken in meditation over time is overhyped. What’s actually more interesting to me as a point of contrast is the perspective that dhamma practice can offer on the thoughts and emotions that the songs we write and play as musicians evoke and attempt to reshape. Most musicians I know think of music as having to do with ideas and feelings. In western culture generally, we are used to identifying with thoughts, ideas and emotions as “me” or “mine.” They are the basic building blocks we are made of. On this we agree, even if we place a different value judgment on the relative worth of thinking and feeling. The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes is usually cited as the icon of valuing ideas above feelings, a position associated with the conservative wing of western culture. There’s no phrase Buddhist teachers love to pick on more than his dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” Progressive reactions against this position have tended to reverse this cosmology. Romanticism and rock and roll have this in common. Rock music, Keith Richards said, is meant to be felt from the neck down. Daniel Johnston’s most famous song, Speeding Motorcycle, puts it more eloquently by saying, “we don’t need reason, and we don’t need logic, cuz we’ve got feeling, and we’re dang proud of it.” Daniel of course was never one to traipse across borders on a regular basis delivering this message, but Yo La Tengo have spread this anthem to places like Stockholm, Barcelona, and Berlin as his apostles.
Wole Soyinka is a playwright from Nigeria that I learned about from my father, who was an English teacher, and had a picture of Soyinka prominently displayed in his office at home. One book that my father recommended is Soyinka’s collection of essays called Myth, Literature, and the African World. In this text, there is an amazing passage where he takes down the Negritude movement of writers like Leopold Senghor that were his generational predecessors by writing that their exaltation of feeling over thinking was akin to “Descartes in a pith helmet: I feel therefore I am.” He saw this sensibility as a legacy of racism that was trapped in its clutches even as a it tried to escape it. White settler colonialism justified its conquest since 1492 by making the white world out to be the world of the mind and reason, and the black world is the world of the body and “primitive” emotions held in sway to the body’s urges, especially its sexual and romantic ones. Blacks (or indigeneous “Americans” / Indians) couldn’t be trusted with political power because they lacked the “logical mind” necessary to do everything from deciding who to carpet bomb to deciding what play to call from the sidelines or the huddle of a football game. Soyinka saw those who championed the culture of the African diaspora as a triumphant endorsement of feeling over reason as buying into the same old notions that people of African descent couldn’t think straight. Only now they were being lauded for it by everyone from Senghor to white boys like Keith Richards. So while it might appear that the valuation of feeling over logic in pop music by everyone from the Stones to Daniel Johnston is a rebellious gesture, you could say from Soyinka’s perspective that it represents being stuck in the legacy of the racism of the ongoing white colonial settler era of history as well.
From the perspective of the Buddha – who Soyinka loved to disparage – there’s something missing from both sides of that conversation. All schools of dharma practice share the teaching that the mind cannot be defined by thoughts or ideas and feelings or emotions alone, and that identification with these transitory phenomena creates suffering. The heart of Buddhist meditation is the cultivation of mindfulness, defined as the quality of awareness that sees without judgment, before thinking and language and emotions come into the picture. When practicing, students learn to observe their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations in this way, rather than reacting to them by trying to change them if they are painful, or make them last if they are pleasant. One of the first exercises I did in Vipassana was one I learned from the American monk Ajahn Sumedho. “Take any thought,” he said, “any old thought will do, say, ‘I am a human being.’ Then say it consciously in a very slow way, like ‘I…..am…….a……..human…….being.’ Notice the space that there is before and after each word, each thought. We usually don’t notice that space.” Sumedho said that the more our practice develops, the more thoughts that once troubled us become less threatening. It’s as if we start off cooped up with them in a tiny closet, and then take them out into a big pasture where they don’t dominate our awareness anymore.
This is where I think the most interesting difference between music and meditation is at. It’s also why I would hesitate to label anything I would do with music as capturing or expressing something of the dhamma. We commonly describe music we love by the way it makes you feel, or by the thoughts and ideas it can share and provoke. We define musicians by their “ideas”, and attach their songs to certain memories and experiences they call to mind for us. We choose what records to listen to because of the feeling or vibe they will stimulate in us. I’m not knocking that, but it’s a different endeavor than the practice of mindfulness, which doesn’t try and make you feel or think anything, but rather to look into whatever turns up with a spirit of inquiry. Payola plays no role in this particular hit parade. As Allen Ginsberg once said, “whatever you think, it’s a big surprise.”
Or as Jimme Dale Gilmore put it, “my mind’s got a mind of it’s own.”
Listening to music like the following selections from Brian Eno, Steve Reich, and Morton Feldman can serve a function similar to the aspects of Buddhist meditation that are designed to cultivate concentration, (Samadhi.)
But they can’t really deliver the experience of the mode of meditation that samadhi practice is designed to make possible, the insight or vipassana mode in which one pays attention to whatever comes most prominently to consciousness with what is called “choiceless awareness.” There is always a choice being made when you step on a distortion pedal or rewrite a lyric, or when you pull an LP or CD out of your collection. Those choices manipulate what you and the audience are thinking and feeling. Some of the problems musicians experience could be described by the famous Buddhist parable of the painter who worked with great skill and determination to create a powerful image of a dragon, and then ran out of the room in fright when he was finished because he thought it really was a dragon. He was both the victim and the perpetrator.
I think that what appeals to some musicians about the dharma is the opportunity to take a break from the ups and downs of that process of manipulation, which of course can be used to so many wonderful ends. But it can also be pretty draining and exhausting, and even disorienting, when you discover that whatever feelings and thoughts one tries to cultivate through the music one plays cannot be sustained forever, no matter how loud your PA system is, or how many people sing along with your songs in the audience. It takes a lot of energy to recreate a set of conditions that can reproduce a particular emotional and intellectual experience with a certain degree of consistency. What I like about Buddhist meditation as a musician is that it heals the stress of that process by departing from it altogether. Then you can come back to music – or anything else in the conditioned realm – with a different motivation, one MCA once articulated in the following way: “what I want to be a part of with the band is sending positive energy out to all beings.”