Meet The Taiwanese Buddhists Head-Banging To Enlightenment Through Death Metal
Death metal is considered the most soulless music of all. But the Taipei-based Buddhist death metal band Dharma is proving otherwise. Their music may also even be a secret weapon in the island's stand-off with China.
This article was update Sep. 1 at 10:40 a.m.
TAIPEI — Six robed figures follow the orange-robed nun onto the stage, gazing rigidly at the floor. A gently swinging sound bowl accompanies her steps. Incense sticks spread the smell of sandalwood. Then the procession stops in one fell swoop. A gong sounds, and all hell breaks loose. Guitar riffs tear through the solemn silence. From the booming basses, chants emerge that the Western listener would most likely associate with Gregorian chanting. It is a mantra written in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit — "Aryavalokiteshvara Bodhisattva Vikurvana Dharani" — which is supposed to grant the grace of Buddha's light to the one who sings it.
The Taiwanese band Dharma underpins traditional sutras with Death Metal, perhaps the heaviest form of rock music in which violence and death are the usual themes. At the background of the stage, which is now bathed in red light, a Buddhist wheel of life rotates, which draws more and more spectators into a maelstrom of bodies in front.
A spectator sitting in the lotus position above the crowd.This kind of meditative crowd surfing is already a tradition at Dharma gigs. Also, the fist is not raised in the air for the devil's greeting as is usually done at metal concerts. The fans fold their hands for the Anjali Mudra, a gesture of reverence and humility known in this country mainly from yoga classes. But the neck-breaking spectacle has little to do with silent mindfulness and Gong Bath relaxation.
A new way for Buddhism
On stage, the six band members present themselves with martial face paint. They are supposed to represent the "Dharmapalas," "wrathful guardian deities" who prevent the Buddhist disciple — represented here by the ordained nun Miao Ben — from straying from the path. It is a well-known theme in many Buddhist schools in Asia. "We don't do Buddhist theater," insists Jack Tung, the drummer and founder of Dharma, a long-haired giant who smiles with enlightenment as he speaks.
Everyone in the band is a practicing Buddhist. Before each concert, they meditate together and donate parts of their fee to charity. "There are many ways to find peace," says Tung, who runs a concert venue in Taiwan's capital, Taipei, besides his band. Miao Ben, 52, who belongs to the Buddhist "Fo Guang Shan Order" founded in Taiwan in 1967, agrees: "Extreme noise is just the flip side of silence."
Taiwan's Buddhist dignitaries might consider his Buddhist update as sacrilege.
Around 20% of Taiwan's 23.5 million inhabitants practice Buddhism, the island's most important popular religion alongside Daoism. "There are more temples in Taiwan than 7-Eleven supermarkets," Tung says, laughing. The two largest communities, "Fo Guang Shan" (Buddha's Mountain of Light) and "Tzu Chi" ("Merciful Help") value humanism and charity. The orders were also inspired by Christianity, whose missionaries built schools and hospitals here more than 100 years ago.
Young people in particular, though, feel that the Buddhists' community activities, from clothing collections to chanting circles, are dusty — especially since they are often firmly in the hands of the retired. "It's no different in other countries with religious traditions," Tung sums up. He therefore wants his bands' shows to be understood as living Buddhism. "Many young people today stick to their smartphones and don't know who they are. Buddhism can give them direction."
A spectator sitting in the lotus position above the crowd.
Purifying the spirit through metal
The idea to combine extreme heavy metal with Buddhist themes came to him 20 years ago. The monotonously recited, hypnotic sutras he knew from the temple perfectly complemented the down-tuned guitar riffs of his favorite bands. Tung, however, was afraid that his idea would be met with rejection from metal fans. And even more so, that Taiwan's Buddhist dignitaries might consider his Buddhist update of inherently blasphemous death metal music as sacrilege.
In 2019, he made a pilgrimage from temple to temple to perform the first demo recordings by Dharma to the masters, monks and nuns. "Even though they were over 80 and had never heard heavy metal before, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive," Tung recalls. Miao Ben, the nun who now quotes Dharma's Mantras, was also enthusiastic. "At first, I was shocked by this extreme music. But I also thought it was a brand-new way to teach Buddhism to younger people. I wanted to get involved right away."
Among the metal heads who were open-minded enough to go through with the project with Tung was Joe Henley, the band's only non-Taiwanese member. In 2005, the Canadian came to Taipei to work as a journalist and translator. He was quickly captivated by the small but sophisticated metal scene. He soon played in several bands and helped organize Taiwan tours for American genre greats such as Cannibal Corpse.
With Dharma, however, a completely new chapter began for him. To be able to intonate the sutras properly, he went to study with a Buddhist master at a temple in Taipei's Wanhua district for four months in 2019. "It was an interesting experience," he recalls. "The class consisted of just me, a tattooed-to-the-neck Canadian in his thirties, and a bunch of Taiwanese retirees who attended the class in their spare time."
To really understand what he was chanting, Henley dug deeper into the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism, widespread in Southeast Asia. "One day the master spoke of how our thoughts are like mice. He said, 'when meditating, don't try to catch the mouse, just be aware of its presence.' That stuck in my mind." At the end of the course, the metal head, who grew up in a Christian household, not only converted to Buddhism but also stopped drinking. "Since then, the Buddha's teachings have been an integral part of my life outside the band as well."
Henley compares Dharma to the Polish band Batushka, which draws inspiration from the mystical side of the Orthodox Church and writes its lyrics in Old Slavic. "Metal, fortunately, is a genre that is constantly evolving," he says. "I'll still be listening to my favorite bands from the '90s when I'm sitting in my retirement home. But you can't just sing about Satan and violence forever."
In this context, the American sociologist of religion Richard Madsen speaks of the principle of "moral representation": diplomatically isolated and geopolitically largely powerless, Taiwan can carry a positive, committed image of itself into the world through organizations such as Tzu Chi or Fo Guang Shan. Even a Buddhist metal band somehow fits into this concept. The fact that a nun does not hesitate long to become part of an extreme metal band is probably only possible in Taiwan.
Freddy Lim, another heavy metal ambassador of the democratically-ruled island, also knows that those who cross borders are seen. His band Chtonic, which incorporates elements of Enka hits and Chinese opera, writes songs about heroes of Taiwanese history or the freedom struggle of the indigenous minority. As a politician, Lim has been a guiding force in the New Power Party, inspired by the Sunflower protests, which openly challenges Beijing by promoting Taiwanese independence.
In 2016, he entered parliament as a deputy and, initially with long hair, quickly became the poster boy for Taiwanese cosmopolitanism. He continued to tour with Chtonic on the side and also played three times in Wacken, the largest and most important metal festival near Hamburg. In the port city of Kaohsiung, Lim launched his own music festival called Megaport, which could also take place in front of 95,000 people in 2021 because of Taiwan's well-managed coronavirus policy.
This year, Lim also invited the Buddhist band Dharma to the Megaport, where they played in front of thousands of spectators. "I fell in love with their music right away," says the recently independent MP, who announced his retirement from day-to-day politics this year for family reasons. "I think the idea of pairing Buddhism with metal not only makes sense but Dharma execute it brilliantly." While he's not sure if it will get more people interested in Buddhism, he says, "But I think listening to their music carefully can calm the mind and even purify it."
Taiwanese Buddhist death metal band Dharma.
Politics through music and Buddhism
In fact, more and more metal bands around the world are making spiritual traditions and mythologies the content of their music: in India, Vedic metal bands like Purvaja celebrate the goddess Kali, who in Hinduism embodies death, destruction, but also renewal. In Mexico, the band Cemican evokes prehispanic Aztec priests with the sound of flutes and feathers. And in 2022, the indigenous musician Sgah'gahsowáh caused a stir on the Bandcamp platform when he paired black metal with Native American legends in his solo project Blackbraid.
The idea of pairing Buddhism with metal not only makes sense but Dharma execute it brilliantly.
Dharma is also far from being the only metal band on earth to be inspired by Buddhism. But where groups like Gautam from Uttar Pradesh or Kanprai from Thailand sing about the Buddhist underworld Naraka or dissociate themselves from the world like misanthropic hermits, Dharma has the potential to reach the center of society. This has to do with the special role of Buddhism in Taiwan. It not only satisfies spiritual and social needs, it also fulfills geopolitical functions. Due to pressure from the People's Republic of China, most countries in the world community do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. So the country has to maintain diplomatic contacts in other ways. And this is where Buddhism steps in.
Tzu Chi and Fo Guang Shan are now multi-billion dollar, globally operating organizations that maintain temples, academies, publishing houses and charities on all five continents. Taiwanese Buddhists are also extremely active in international disaster relief. And this is even the case in mainland China, which is otherwise extremely suspicious of civilly organized religious communities. Just think of the Falun Gong movement, which has been banned and severely persecuted in China since 1999.
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