When death metal becomes one of 84,000 ways to practise Buddhism

Taiwan’s Dharma takes the raw energy of the genre that emerged in the US in the mid-80s on a new, more blissful turn.

The five members of Dharma pray on stage before their performance
Dharma prays before unleashing their death metal 'peace' machine [Courtesy of Joe Henley/Dharma]

Taipei, Taiwan – In the past few years, many of Taiwan’s largest music festivals have seen the unlikely ensemble of a shaven Buddhist nun introducing a band of five black-clad musicians whose faces are smeared blood red.

When the first riffs break through the sound system, their hard yet atmospheric music immediately sounds like death metal – an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal that emerged in the United States in the mid-1980s and is characterised by guttural vocals, abrupt tempo and relentless, discording guitar riffs.

But the beastly growl of the band’s Canadian singer is not conveying the genre’s typical lyrics of sickness. He is actually chanting genuine Buddhist mantras, blessing everyone in the audience.

Taiwan’s Dharma are probably the first band in the world to combine ancient Buddhist sutras in Sanskrit or Mandarin Chinese with the contemporary sound of death metal. Since their beginnings in 2018, they have stood out from thousands of other heavy metal bands around the world with their distinctive style, and have even had two Buddhist nuns, Master Song and Master Miao-ben join them on stage.

Last month, the band played its first overseas show – at the International Indie Music Festival in Kerala – and is ready to bring Buddha’s message further afield after receiving offers of interest from North America and Europe.

“We believe that in the 21st century, both heavy metal and ancient religions need to change,” said Jack Tung, Dharma’s founding member and drummer, a pivotal figure in Taipei’s underground music scene.

Heavy with spiritual strokes

Dharma is unique because the group subverts most people’s understanding of metal music and its fans – an obnoxious, loud genre for degenerates.

Since the 1990s, heavy metal has been often associated with Satanism and delinquency – think of the second wave of Norwegian black metal, with bands like Mayhem, Emperor and Burzum, whose alienated teenage musicians shocked the world with their behaviour – from burning churches to murder – in the name of “musical authenticity”.

A fan crowd surfing at a Dharma gig. The fan is in the lotus position and the crowd is holding him up. The band are playing on stage. Everything is bathed in blue light
A Dharma fan crowd-surfs in the lotus position [Courtesy of Joe Henley/Dharma]

For heavy metal and its subgenres, these events constituted the climax of what British sociologist Stanley Cohen described as “moral panics” in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a 1972 study on the then-emerging British subcultures of mods and rockers. Cohen argued that moral panics were characterised by an intense feeling of fear, largely exaggerated, about a specific subcultural group that a community perceives as tarnishing its core values.

Thirty years later, with heavy metal and its derivatives underpinning music scenes in countries from Botswana to Egypt and Iraq, Dharma believes the genre’s globalised tropes can be changed into an effective vehicle for Buddhist teachings.

Founding member Tung had his spiritual awakening back in 2000, when he was greatly surprised to hear the Lion’s Roar of Buddhism “as it was completely different from the Buddhist scriptures I had heard since childhood”, he told Al Jazeera. In the Mahayana school of Buddhism prevalent in East Asia, the “Lion’s Roar” is a metaphorical principle signifying the awe-inspiring power of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas when expounding the Dharma (which means, in a nutshell, the Buddha’s teachings and practice), bringing peace and auspiciousness.

At the time, Tung was already a metalhead and a drummer and sensed a connection between the chanting style of the Lion’s Roar and the driving rhythms of a metal band. For him, death metal’s stereotypical imagery and lyrics were just an outlet to release emotions and a form of representation not dissimilar to the way Buddhism spread from India to China and other places using Buddha statues with angry features.

“From my understanding, this angry appearance was used mainly to protect monks and believers, and we think that it is somewhat similar to how death metal musicians propose their messages,” said Tung. “We hope to use the tremendous energy of death metal music to increase the power of the spells and use music and costumes to manifest the anger or protection of Buddha and Bodhisattva. […] We have not changed the essence of Buddhist scripture mantras, but rather hope to strengthen them [with death metal].”

A special kind of dedication

It took Tung about a decade from conceiving Dharma’s concept to finding the right people to form his “enlightened” band because being a member also meant being highly involved with the teachings of Buddhism.

In 2018, Tung recruited a former bandmate, guitarist Andy Lin, to start working on Dharma’s first songs, and in 2019, welcomed Canadian singer Joe Henley, a freelance writer and long-term Taiwan resident, on vocals. Prior to making his live debut, Henley spent months studying the sutras he would sing on stage under the guidance of Master Song, a devout Buddhist nun, until he entered the Three Jewels, becoming a Buddhist himself and receiving Song’s ultimate blessing to perform the sutras in public.

Master Song, who due to health reasons can no longer perform on stage with Dharma, passed their duties to Master Miao-ben and discussed the issues extensively with Tung before endorsing the band.

She hopes they may play a subtle role in spreading Buddhist beliefs among young people on the self-ruled island and beyond.

“Through music, we hope to influence the younger generation, especially those who like different music genres, as we are born equal, and no one should be abandoned because of their preferences for any specific music style,” Master Song told Al Jazeera. “We believe that faith does not necessarily have to be Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Catholicism or Islam, as it can also be the sheer belief in goodness and love for the world.”

Master Miao-ben on stage in their roves. Lead singer Jon Henley is behind with his head bowed
Master Miao-ben and Joe Henley, right, on stage [Courtesy of Joe Henley/Dharma]

Given the general reluctance of heavy metal fans to accept bands that deviate from metal’s well-defined style, Dharma’s successful reception in Taiwan came as a huge surprise to Henley.

“It seems that from day one, and our very first show, opening for [Swedish black metal band] Marduk, we were welcomed with open arms and minds,” he said only a few weeks after Dharma was nominated for Taiwan’s Golden Indie Music Awards, one of the country’s top music honours, although ultimately they did not win.

“In many ways, metal is just repeating many of the same tropes over and over again,” Henley told Al Jazeera. “Now, those tropes exist because, by and large, humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes. […] In reaction to that, the ultimate message of our music, to me, is that in order to change the world for the better, you need to start with the individual, which is to say, yourself. And one of the core tenets of the Buddhist philosophy is that there really is no self.”

Henley explains that what we imagine to be the “self” is nothing more than an often flawed projection of our own thoughts. “Buddhist practice is, in a nutshell, letting go of the concept of ‘you’ as you know it, in relation to those thoughts, and the answers to this lie in the sutras that we transform into the type of music that we, as lifelong fans and devotees of metal music, as well as followers of the Noble Eightfold Path, can relate to in both the theistic and musical sense,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Let go of the self, let go of the ego. Embrace your being as part of a larger collective consciousness. If this can be achieved, I believe we would have a much more peaceful world.”

Spreading the blessings

At home at least, Dharma’s new style of metal has inspired thousands of Taiwanese fans.

“Our shows developed their own culture, with fans crowd-surfing in the lotus position, prostrating themselves in the mosh pit, and it all happened completely spontaneously,” Henley explained. “We didn’t guide or push them in any sort of direction whatsoever. They did it wholly on their own. I’m not sure if that would happen anywhere else but here.”

At the same time, Henley says Dharma tries not to preach.

“We are not here to force any system of belief on anyone nor to preach,” said Henley. “We provide the message based on the teachings of the Buddha. It’s up to the individual to choose whether that message is meant for them or not.”

Dharma's 2021 line-up, from left to right: Andy Lin (guitar), Bull Tsai (bass), Joe Henley (vocals), Jon Chang (ex-guitar), Jack Tung (drums). They look like they are in a room in a temple. They are wearing black robes and scowling.
Dharma’s 2021 lineup, from left to right: guitarist Andy Lin, bassist Bull Tsai, vocalist Joe Henley, rhythm guitarist Jon Chang, and drummer Jack Tung [Courtesy of Joe Henley/Dharma]

Physical copies of its most recent album, Three Thousand Realms in a Single Thought Moment, released at the end of 2022, were blessed by Buddhist monks to reflect positivity and good, and Master Song adds that, because Dharma’s lyrics are scriptures and mantras of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, each time the band is paid to perform, 15 percent of their fee is donated to charitable organisations.

“Amitabha Buddha said that there are 84,000 ways to practice, and perhaps [death metal] is also one of them,” said Tung. “Therefore, we believe that Buddhism and death metal do not contradict each other, at least in our hearts – and everything starts from the heart.”

Source: Al Jazeera