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Buddhism’s Influence on Rock and Roll Essay Sample

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Buddhism’s Influence on Rock and Roll Essay Sample

Introduction

Controversy on whether to classify rock & roll as a music genre has always been rife among music analysts. While some insists that this kind of music deserves to be recognized as a genre despite its diversity, some maintain that the music is better recognized as a cultural practice (Decurtis 119). What they fail to answer or tell the music lovers is what culture rock & roll should be credited to.  Just like country Music and Jazz, rock & true borrows heavily from world cultures, but with the advent of recording industry in the 1950’s, the different kinds of music have changed considerably. The cultural influences on such music, though lost to the modern music lovers, are still evident to music analysts.

In the early stages of rock ‘n’ roll music, it was considered an abomination by religions in America. As a result, rock ‘n’ roll in the 60 has rejected all form of organized religion in the United States (Harris 181).   Still, the resulting secularization in the youth culture yearned for something to replace the religious believes in an effort to capture human spirituality (181). As such, they embraced new believes and myths that penetrated the American culture at the time.  Buddhist music is slow and is mainly intended to induce a meditative state in one’s subconscious. The music is characterized by percussion practice and chants.  As such, the music differs greatly from rock ‘n’ roll music, which is not only different in form, but also in the music’s organization, cultural meaning and aesthetic function. Figuring the effects of Buddhism on rock ‘n’ roll is therefore not a straightforward thing. Rather, this paper observes the different contribution that Buddhism has had on the American society, individual rock bands and even persons who influenced the rock ‘n’ roll industry. 

An overview of rock & roll Music

Rock n Roll became popular to the general audience in the 1950’s, just as electronic media became a new fad in the American society (Decurtis 119). Initially it was in folk form. With time however, neither the composers nor the musicians were able to tame the music. As such, it took a life of its own, which the youth not only loved, but also saw as a way of life.  According to Decurtis (119), rock n Roll developed as it did because it had a wide appeal among the youth and also because it addressed the social conditions facing them with the use of technological advancement such as electronic media.

Rock n roll is not only popular music, but with the forms of behavior associated to it, it qualifies as a lifestyle too. This is where the Buddhist factor comes in. Lovers of Rock n roll understand that they are the most important objects that the music subjects are addressed to (120).  In order to get an understanding of the function and meaning of the music, the rock n rolls lovers are supposed to have a self-understanding that resonates with the music. According to the Buddhist doctrine, a person is well able to condition his or her mind to have a deeper understanding of whatever he or she wishes through the six senses (Robinson 103).

            Buddhism places large significance to the empirical by calling to its adherents to break free of their imaginary bonds by understanding and transforming how the six senses work. In addition to the five ordinary senses that convention claims (touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell), the Buddhist also believe that the subconscious mind is a human sense. According to Decurtis (120), rock n roll is a discursive system that combines both the sign system and the practice. The practice session is when the performers of such music engage with their listeners.  The effects of rock n roll on thus are unique to each individual. Just like the Buddhist teachings, they touch the very core of the human soul. According to Ehrich (1), Buddhism deals with all aspects of the human. The Buddhist teachings address all forms of human experiences such as pain, anger, shame, love and happiness among others.

Buddhism strives, not to convert people to Buddhism, but to help people become better Christians, Muslims or better at whichever other religious groups they adhere to (Ehrich, 1). These ideals have been passed on to rock n roll, whereby unlike other forms of music, rock n roll not only qualifies as a legitimate form of art, but also as a coherent and central ideology that competes for dominance on the world intellectual platform.

Just like Buddhism, rock n roll has been described as a self-contained movement, whose adherents join by their own volition.  By joining rock n roll, the musicians or composers choose to abide by the terms of music composing and presentation.  Despite the different offshoots and strains of the music, all adherents recognize a common unifying origin (Townsend 20).  Another similarity with Buddhism is that rock n roll does not have a set of written ideologies and thus is able to embrace diversity with ease.

Buddhism believes in the limitless abilities that a human possess but which he is not able to use because of limits set by the self. As such, the Buddhist teachings advocate for a freer, carefree spirit that conforms to what the human standards are, but to what the being can achieve (***p). Rock n roll composers and singers have borrowed this approach to life. According to Decurtis (122), rock n roll does not value virtuosity as some forms of music genres does.  As such, rock musicians do not value the mastery of music instruments much. This is because to them, music lovers should not only listen to the tunes, but also participate and be part of the performance.

Perhaps the biggest influence that Buddhism had on rock n roll was the introduction of the modern thought to the western culture.  The evolution of secularism in the west coincided with thriving Buddhism in the west. This affected not just the society, but the philosophies adopted in the western culture as well as the governance approaches (Gach 36). Buddhism took root in the western culture just at a time when many people were suffering scarred hearts for loosing loved ones in the Second World War, just when the western cultures were experiencing rising secularism. Many people embraced it as a modern form of inspiration (37).

History has it that most music is a reflection of what the society is. At the exact time that Buddhism was gaining popularity in the west, so was rock n roll. It was thus inevitable that the musicians would borrow from the spirituality that was represented by Buddhism.  The first sign that Buddhism had penetrated the inner core of the rock n roll music was the 1976 Indian tour by the Beatles, who while on tour, declared that they had taken up discipleship of the Maharashi M. Yogi (38).

Drugs, Buddhism and Rock n Roll

In the Western culture, it was an open secret that that drugs were to rock n roll what marijuana was to reggae music. Buddhism was not against drugs and in fact, a large percentage of the baby-boomer population that adopted Buddhism in the western culture adopted the religion through chemical experimentation (Gach 38). This gave the approval to rock n roll musicians to continue with the drug doping habits. Incidentally, it is to the same religion that the older population turned to as they sought to access the tranquility of mind without psychedelics (38). 

Aleister Crowley

Among the prominent Buddhists renowned for his influence on rock n roll bands was Aleister Crowley.  Having studied Buddhism, Crowley set to popularize the tenets of this religion in the west. Being a rock ‘n’ roll fanatic, the rockers naturally were his first target group (Reynolds & Press 127). The Beatles, was among some of the prominent rock groups that idolized Crowley.  He was however more influential as a drug fiend, magician and occultist. Among the rock bands that picked his influence was the led Zeppelin (127).  Crowley also published a book title the book of the law, which dispelled of the scriptural tenets of other religions. The book especially countered biblical passages in a move that was meant to discredit Christianity.

The book by Crowley was popular among the rock lovers and taught them the strength of individualism. In one of the pages, he stated that every person is a star and should thus do whatever they wanted to do since they law was within them.  He also stated that nothing is accurate and therefore people should consider everything as permissible (Reynolds & Press 127).  His defiant attitude penetrated the rock ‘n’ roll culture and the culmination of the same was that music bands as well as the music lovers wanted to be sovereign in both believes and articulation. 

George Harrison

While many organized religions dismissed every aspect of rock ‘n’ roll as outright blasphemous, Buddhism, which advocated for a liberation philosophy believed that the beats, the lyrics and even the lifestyles adopted by rock bands was well within the boundaries of personal freedom and expression.  In return, rock bands followed people who made them feel accepted. One person who had a clear following from rock bands was George Harrison.  A staunch Buddhist (albeit the fact that he was never initiated into Buddhism), it was inevitable that Harrison would pass some of the Buddhist teachings to the bands that accompanied him on world tours.

George was amongst the first rock composers who featured Hare Krishna Mantra in his music thus playing a vital role in promoting Buddhism.  Harrisson took up Buddhism because he found it hard to adapt to Christian rules (****).  He disliked the complexity of the life proposed in Christianity and instead loved the easygoing nature of the life as proposed by Buddhists.  The fact that the Buddhist mantras were to be chanted musically, further appealed to his musician senses. Buddhist teaching empathized with the suffering, the slow progress, poverty and frustrations faced by quite a significant number of youth in the 1960, further fuelled the rate at which the topic was picked by rock bands.

            The message of Love in Buddhism is straightforward. Besides the search for a meaningful life and enlightenment, Buddhists believe that without love, life is incomplete (Harris 188).  As such, Buddhism strongly advocates that its adherents loves all humankind unconditionally. In Rock ‘n’ roll, the love theme has been picked by composers and propagated world wide through the bands.

            The natural order of things is also a central teaching in Buddhism. The same found a place in rock n roll because the rock bands no longer composed music in order to fit the acceptable norm s in the society. Rather, they created music that challenged the norms in the society.  According to Altschuker (48), rock n roll, broke down parochial promotions of the national culture that drew a line between music done by different racial groups. As such, rock ‘n’ roll and its Buddhist influence helped people open up their minds and embrace integration and racial tolerance.

            The Buddhist ideology of loving all humankind regardless of the personal, ideological or racial differences as mentioned elsewhere in this paper was embraced by rock bands and in turn managed to lessen the rifts between black and white youths in the United States (148).  Due to the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll music; band performances regardless of the location where they were performing would draw mixed audiences thus challenging the racial stereotypes that were still common in the American society back then.

            To understand the extent of Buddhist influence on rock ‘n’ roll however, one would have to look at the three basics of Buddhism. The ideology is that nothing is permanent in the world. As such, Buddhists believe that all things change with time. Secondly, the religion believes that the self does not exist and that the aspect of a person that humans label as the ‘self’ is just a collection of different features that change. Third, is the belief that every stage in life exposes a person to suffering. Notably, Buddhism believes that birth, age, bad health and death are all different forms of suffering that one must endure (***7). According to *** (13), music has the ability to reveal the dynamics of all forms of suffering. As such, music can act as relief to human suffering albeit for brief moments. To continue enjoying the relief, one hence has to continue singing or listening to more music. This in turn creates an addiction (Morris 13). 

John Cage

As observed in the introductory part of this paper, rock ‘n’ roll is completely different from the chants and slow rhythms that one would refer to as the Buddhist music. Since rock ‘n’ roll is unlike other form of art where images and manifestations of Buddhism can be observed, the effect of the same on music of any genre can only be observed by analyzing the content of the music. Rock ‘n’ roll musician John Cage for example has Buddhist themes in his music having learned Buddhism from a Japanese Buddhism scholar named Daisetz Suzuki (Morris 15).

            Since Cage took up Buddhism, music analyst claim that his music took on a controversial and radical aspect, which differed from the music he had done between 1940 and 1950 (15).  His music has been described using a variety of adjectives in various music websites. Such descriptions include bouncy, mischievous, playful, mysterious, dissonant, freaky, sophisticated, dreamy, rhythmic, trance, exotic and even heavenly.  He usually uses a mixture of prepared piano, Kalimba and Marimba as his main musical instruments.  Cage’s influence on rock music is undeniable and thus by extension, his newfound faith had an influence on rock and roll. In 1951 for example, he composed music specifically for radio frequencies. A year later, he composed music that could use multi-media interfaces in a computer, and composed an electronic collage, which was made up of hundreds of random noises in the same year. During the water music concert, perform in the same year, Cage instructed his performers to include non-musical gestures in their performance. All this contributed to the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll from its rather conservative nature to a more vibrant and diverse type of music.  In 1958, Cage became the first rock musician to perform electronic music to a live audience.

            Music analyst terms John Cage’s conversion to Zen-Buddhism as the most important artistic development in his career (***). It is claimed that most of his quasi-random decision were as a result of the Buddhism teaching he received in the 1940’s.  As such, Cage was able to venture outside the conventional boundaries of western music.  His aim was to compose music that would be free of individual psychology, traditions, art and taste and hence the wide mixing of random noises in order to form a unique and unconventional music (Pritchett xii).

Another influence that was evident in Cage’s work was the use of the phrase “Ten thousand things”, which is a Buddhist phrase that denotes the infinite.  The phrase also denotes the diversity of the universe. In 1953, Cage first used his never-ending music structure composed of 100 units, each with 100 beats to form his first music arrangement (Pritchett 97).

The Buddhist influence on Cage’s work was also evident in the content of his music compositions.  He would use cultural cross-references to reinforce his observations.  Because he also studied Taoism in addition to being born and brought up in the United States, Cage had diverse sources of information. He would however relate all observations to the Buddhist or Taoist teachings (Nicholls 52).

According to Nicholls (54), Cage further believed that a composition did not have to be dictated by the composer. As such, he would compose and give his performers  a free-hand in conditioning the sounds.  Because of such approaches in his compositions, he was renowned as an inventive, humorous and strong composer. 

Conclusion

            It is evident that despite the indirect influence that Buddhism has had on rock music, the effects are wide spread and can be felt to date.  However, just like there is no absolute saint in Christianity, Judaism or Islam, the people who had a  great influence on rock and roll as mentioned in the examples above are guilty of not fully embracing the tenets of Buddhism.

In a poem written by Eihen Dogan  (quoted in  Gach xvii), Buddhist should:

“Study Buddhism and hence study the self,

Study the self and forget the self

Forget the self in order to be awakened by all things

And, the awakening will continue endlessly”.

Clearly none of the three examples as listed in the example above had attained this level of ‘awakening’. Yet, the influence their beliefs, actions as propagated through music is undeniable.  The rock music has however continued gaining audience worldwide irrespective of age, since the composure forgot the self and included themes that were beyond their expectations. This aspect gives Rock and roll music its never-aging content and relevance making it arguably timeless. The impact of the same therefore continues throughout all ages in the world.  As such, this paper concludes that just as indicated by the Dogan poem, the awakening continues endlessly.

References

DeCurtis, Anthony. Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture.  Duke University Press: London. 1992.

Gach, Gary. The complete idiot’s guide to understanding Buddhism. Ed. 2. Illustrated. Alpha Books: New York. 2004

Nicholls, David. The Cambridge Companion to John Cage.  Ed. Illustrated. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 2002.

Pritchett, James. The Music Of John Cage. Ed. Illustrated. Cambridge University press; Cambridge. 1996.

Morris, Robert. “Toward a “Buddhist Music”. Precursors East and West.” Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. May 2006.  May 2009. http://lulu.esm.rochester.edu/rdm/pdflib/Morris.BudMus.pdf.

Harris ,James, F. Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm: themes of classic rock music.  Ed. 2. Open court publishing: London. 1993

Townsend, David. “Changing the World: Rock ‘n’ Roll Culture and Ideology”  Synopsis.  January 2004. May 2009. < http://www.dntownsend.com/Site/Rock/rcksum.htm>

Koskoff, Ellen. Music Cultures In the United States.  Ed. Illustrated. Routledge: New York. 2005

Reynolds, S & Press, J. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Ed. Reprint. Illustrated. Harvard University Press: London. 1996.

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