Pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist sites led by experienced Dharma teachers. Includes daily teachings and group meditation sessions. A local English–speaking guide accompanies and assists.
Meditating as though my life depended on it, I felt doubt nonetheless.
When you hold a screaming baby, it can help to sing to her.
A car alarm helped me realize that human sense organs are designed to perceive contrasts. If there was silence, then any abrupt loud noise could hurt me terribly. We humans perceive unpredictable pains as feeling much worse, too. A patterned, predictable, familiar sound is always less painful than a sudden sound.
When a sick eardrum is overwhelmed with sound, another answer is to turn on the radio. One day I was listening to soft music, and all of a sudden it occurred on me that music is good. It’s really, really good.
This was the stupidest insight ever. Everyone loves music. In This is Your Brain on Music, musician-neuroscientist Daniel Levitin wrote, “Americans spend more money on music than on sex or on prescription drugs.”[iv] I did that too, but not with any particular emotional investment—until Meniere’s disease hit me.
Being hypersensitive to sound means all the nuances in a song pressed against my malfunctioning eardrum with enormous intensity. One day, out of the blue, my emotional mind grasped the clear beauty in the sounds. “Suddenly, I turned by chance… and there she stood.” Before my illness, the music of Miles Davis bored me. After, its beauty made me weep. Sound caused me profound pain, but when sound was beautiful, pain was bearable.
Mahākāśyapa knew a flower is beautiful. I know music is beautiful. A special transmission, outside the scriptures.
One day I realized music was answering my doubts about Buddhism.
“Amen Brother” is by a band called the Winstons. It’s an old B-side from 1969, mostly forgotten now. There are, however, six very well-known seconds in the middle.
Even if you don’t know it, you’ve certainly heard this break beat before. It’s called the Amen Break. Sampling (the practice of storing a short recorded sound in a synthesizer to use as part of another, new song) is ubiquitous in our musical culture. The Amen Break is one of the most sampled sounds in history.
Websites curate enormous lists of songs with the break. It’s in Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” It’s in a song by Gilberto Gil, the legendary Brazilian musician who was once the head of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture. It’s in the “Futurama” opening credits. It’s in a song called “Zen” by someone called Ice Minus. One website mentions, “Hoo boy, it'd be easier to list songs that don't have this break in some form.”[v]
There’s an entire musical genre, Drum and Bass, almost entirely built around deconstructions of the Amen Break. Of course there’s also hip-hop, a genre that has used the Amen Break nearly as long as either as existed, in songs like NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”
The “clean” version of “Straight Outta Compton” has a surprisingly large portion of the words changed, by the way. This relates to the point. The Buddha was straight outta Kapilavastu, of course, not straight outta Compton. But setting aside the aesthetic differences, classical Buddhist thought is like “Amen Brother.” Buddhist thought, as it is understood in America, is sampled like the Amen Break.
“Amen Brother” became a foundation of thousands of things that never existed in the original song. The Winstons, who wrote it, never intended to found a couple unrelated musical genres.
Mahākāśyapa never intended to found Zen. The Buddha himself would likely be enormously surprised that over 2500 years later, we would maintain his tradition—and subject it to neurological research, too.
We are musicians, sampling his breaks, writing our own songs hundreds of times.
There is another meaning to “Baidu,” the Chinese search engine name, by the way. It can also be transliterated to mean “making a religion of gambling.”
That’s North American Zen Buddhism, too: an alternative translation, and a religion built on risk-taking. Unintended meanings are our foundation—and the future, too.
The Buddha’s last words before he died were instructions to repurpose his teachings in our own lives. The Buddha wasn’t saying “Home Taping Is Killing Music.” He was saying this.
He was saying, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.”
“Practice, practice, practice, Buddhists are always talking about practice. But I want to know: when is the performance?” I think I do know: it’s whenever we put old practices into our new context.
Rigorous, precise meditation can pay off, even if it’s improvised. Doubt is unnecessary, in the end, because we can judge meditation the way we often judge music—in a sensory way, by how it soothes a burning ear, by how close it is to Mahākāśyapa seeing a flower.
In the words of Zen Master Miles Davis, who still makes me cry: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
M. Sophia Newman is a writer and Zen Buddhist. She is currently completing research under a Fulbright grant in Bangladesh. You can visit her website at msophianewman.com. A version of this essay previously appeared at KillingtheBuddha.com.
[i] Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005). Zen Buddhism: A History (India & China). Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, Inc. p. 9.
[ii] Thurman, Robert A. F. (2006), Inquiring Mind 13, Fall. Cover; quoted in Aronson, Harvey. Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology (2004). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc., p. 199.
[iii] ---. “The Baidu Story,” Baidu, Internet: http://ir.baidu.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=188488&p=irol-homeprofile. Retrieved September 2012.
[iv] Levitin, Daniel (2006). This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession. East Rutherford, NJ: Penguin Putnam. p.7
[v] ---. “Amen Break.” TVTropes.org, Internet: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AmenBreak. Retrieved April 2012.