Wednesday, 2 July 2008


I called the album ‘Here’ for a few different reasons. Firstly because I had a brain haemorrhage a couple of years ago, and the odds of me still being here right now (and in a state which would allow me to make the album) were by no means in my favour.

But also, if I had to distil the Buddha’s teaching into one word, that’s the word I would choose. Being fully present, in this moment, where we are right now, is to be truly alive and awake. So it’s a word I say to myself from time to time as a reminder to bring my mind back from wherever it’s gone on holiday.

And finally, I move around a lot. I’ve lived in so many places, sometimes I’m driving a car and I can’t remember which direction I should turn because I can’t remember where my home is right now. Or I go looking for one of my books and then remember that it’s in a box on a mountain in Spain. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and there’s a couple of seconds where I have no idea even which country I’m in. Where am I? Here.

Some of the songs on the album have been in existence for 10 years or so. Many of them were written in the last year. So the subject matter is pretty varied, though the overall texture seems to me to be pretty constant. There is a kind of melancholy, which over the years I have realised is my ‘default setting’, and seems to be based on a view that rests deep in me. Life is futile and in the end meaningless. This view was not even shaken by my near death experience. At the same time, I also passionately believe that life is beautiful, the universe is amazing, and all humans have incredible potential. This paradox is at the heart of my perspective and therefore my music.

Us humans have woven many kinds of hell into our lives, as well as a few kinds of heaven. We have done this by using our intelligence and ability to shape our environment, combined with our stupidity, and inability to remain mindful and at peace, while the swell of emotions which rush and weave through us, drag our bodies this way and that, executing all kinds of action, both for good and for ill. The Tibetan Wheel of Life has, at its very centre, greed, hatred and delusion. It is these which spin the wheel which keeps us going round and round, and always with a sense of lack.

We can see this in our own lives, in our local communities, and also on an international economic and political level (for the personal is the political – right, George?). Our attempts to create a heaven for ourselves based on an ongoing mission to satisfy our sense cravings and eradicate that which we find unpleasant, has led to an economic system that can only survive through the exploitation of millions of people, including many children, in the so-called ‘developing’ nations; through waging war on nations with the resources we need to continue our economic growth; through the exploitation of literally millions of animals who live their entire lives in concentration camps (and for this the people of the future will look back on this period and consider us as cruel as we now consider those who thought slavery was ‘normal’); through exploitation of this beautiful planet and all the precious life that’s on it (quite possibly to such a degree that we have created a hell on Earth for our grandchildren and still we continue); and by keeping a significant proportion of the population, in Western countries as well as non-Western, uneducated and half asleep through boredom, too much work in jobs that do not inspire them, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, regular intoxication and an overdose of poor quality ‘entertainment’ in an attempt to drown out their protesting hearts. This is all necessary if we are to continue with our current economic model.

It is my hope that one day the economy will serve the people, not the other way around. And that economics will return to a sensible position in the hierarchy of political issues. Whilever we demand that all things make ‘economic sense’, we condemn ourselves to a host of social problems, which don’t make any sense at all.

I see how much things can and do change, even over a decade or two (from the rise and fall of empires, to the end of apartheid in South Africa, to the availability of organic food in supermarkets), and this fills me with hope and a desire to talk about possibilities.

In my music I tend to do this on a personal level, from the point of view of how this affects me in day-to-day life, since this, in the end, is the most real and direct. I don’t really choose this subject matter consciously – I don’t usually start out thinking ‘I’m going to write a political song about the inherent sickness and alienation of city-living’. I just mess around on the guitar, and ideas roll around my head, and this is what comes out. Sometimes it’s a love song, sometimes it’s a song about opening my eyes after meditating and watching the sunrise. And sometimes it’s a song about my own experience of the vibrancy of the ‘natural’ world, of my own lack of satisfaction with consumer culture, or the generally bland offerings of mass media and international corporations. I don’t really divide my head up into art, philosophy, politics, religion, science. I just do my thing, and try to be as honest and in touch with myself as I can.

Music and Buddhism
I see my music as my ‘spiritual path’. Both spirituality and music are central to my life. It’s taken me quite a while to realise that this is what it’s about for me. I’ve been a Buddhist for many years and have tried a number of different ways to practice as sincerely as I can, and in the end, it seems to me that this is my path. I once saw a video of Joe Satriani playing guitar (and I really am not into heavy metal) and I had an Insight experience similar to what I might get on meditation retreat. And I realised how music really is a way in for people like me.

In Buddhist circles there’s quite a bit of debate as to how Buddhism can be practised most effectively in the West – ie what is ‘Western Buddhism’? After all, it’s still only a few decades old here. It is so new that the first Western masters are still alive. Historically, Buddhism has transformed massively whenever it has arrived in a new culture. It transforms the culture, and the culture transforms it. The underlying message is still the same, but the way it expresses itself varies massively. Tibetan Buddhism is very different from Zen, which is in turn very different from the Theravadin Buddhism of Sri Lanka. So what is Western Buddhism?

The West encourages alienation from the self. Either we are completely disembodied and hypnotised by mass media until we don’t really exist as individuals at all, or we conceive of ourselves as objects - a product to be marketed. The market is more real and more significant than we are. We dress ourselves in ways that appeal to the niche we have decided to target, we learn the lingo, take up the hobbies, come up with catchy strap lines and hang out in the right places. And when ‘Who We Really Are’ protests, showing itself up as various neuroses, we drown it out with more TV, more shopping, more alcohol, more drugs, more therapy, more medication. The hollowness has been there for so long that we think it is normal. We think that is who we are! We have lost touch completely with our inherent beauty, our inherent completeness. And then we discover Buddhism and think that maybe this is a way to escape the pain, and we hear about ‘not-Self’ and think ‘yeah that makes total sense’. And thus Buddhism adds to our confusion.

It seems to me therefore, that the initial challenge for Westerners wishing to practise, is to reconnect with themselves. To heal from the alienation which is the almost inevitable result of growing up in contemporary Western society. You can’t realise the Buddhist ‘not-Self’ concept before you have realised who you are as a ‘self’. And music is excellent for this.

So music is a way for me to be connected with myself, and to communicate authentically with others. And if there is ever to be such a thing as Western Buddhist art, it will not be a standard image of a Buddha sitting in the full lotus. It will not be Buddhist mantras sung in the style of a Christian choir. It will be people who are genuine Buddhist practitioners, and genuine Western artists, expressing themselves without a conscious agenda. To the extent that they have realised the teaching, their work will be genuine Western Buddhist art. As Jack Kerouac, inventor of the practice of writing ‘spontaneous prose’ once said, ‘[if] mind is shapely, art is shapely’. That was before he rejected Buddhism, returned to his Catholic roots and drank himself to death, of course, and thus gave his own answer to my Zen koan. My Zen koan is not ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’, or ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’. It is something like ‘Your life is meaningless, beautiful, and passing. Now what?’