This past weekend, my two boys and I went camping with some of the Strong Hearts Vegan Power crew. One night, I was talking with Sam Hartman (SHVP team member and keyboardist for Anagnorisis) about music and stuff and it reminded me of an old article I had written showing the parallels of heavy/ death metal and Buddhism. I’m not sure how many of you knew this, but from 2000-2008-ish I was one of the founders and vocalist for a death metal band called Leukorrhea. The last recorded album I was involved with was titled “Breeding Salvation.” we had done a full length previous to that as well as a split CD that was released in Japan and one that was released in Italy. We also did had songs on a variety of compilation cd’s including one in rememberance of Chuck Schuldiner of the band Death.
Anyway, I dug for the article and with the help of my old friend Rod Meade Sperry (editor of Lion’s Roar Magazine) and I wanted to share it with you as I feel myself being pulled back to a life filled with mindful behavior and intention. Of course, being vegan you would think that it would come naturally. Of course it does when making food choices, but in making other decisions I find myself just existing to co-exist. I hope this article gives you some enjoyment, it is long so please bare with it; I promise it’s a fun story.
WHAT COULD BUDDHISM HAVE TO DO WITH HEAVY METAL? If you’re not into metal, I guess the answer would be “nothing.” But if you’re me, the answer would have to be “everything.”
In 1983, at the age of 9, I went into a local department store. This was way before CDs, iPods, MP3 players, etc. (Now that I’ve completely dated myself.) I was perusing the music section and a cassette jumped out at me: it was Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark At The Moon. I took it home and was hooked. I knew right away that someday, somehow, I had to be involved with this music.
As things went on I was exposed to more bands. In 1985 I got Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and the metal bar had been raised. Next was Slayer’s Reign in Blood and it was all over: I had to have metal at all costs. I know the Buddha taught about attachment and how we should try to rid ourselves of it, but I had no idea about that then, and was immersed so deep I never wanted to come out. I still haven’t.
Over the years friends showed me stuff from bands like Megadeth, Death Angel, Death, Napalm Death, Rigor Mortis, Sanctuary, Morbid Angel, and on and on. We’d go into music stores, allowance in hand, and try to find the nastiest, grossest album-cover art we could find. One of us found Carcass’s Reek of Putrefaction, and we were in disbelief; what was this stuff, and how could anyone listen to it? But after hearing it over and over it grew on us — like a gangrenous infection. We would stay up late and watch Headbangers Ball on MTV (this was back when it was good), and soon we all picked up instruments and started learning Metallica songs and anything else we could get tablature for.
Ever since that first day I heard Ozzy, I knew I had to be in a band, and in my 20’s I did just that. We cranked out some songs, put out a demo and almost immediately a small label wanted to finance our first disc. How awesome was this, right? Our first CD got some decent reviews and people started writing letters and e-mails to us. (Yes, the internet had been invented by then). We were offered the opportunity to tour, and it was in Detroit, Michigan, that I realized my goal had been achieved: we were playing the I-Rock Cafe and on the wall was a picture of Ozzy standing in the same damn club, playing with Black Sabbath. I knew then and there that I could never give this up.
And while this was all well and good, it still felt like something was missing. I was entering my 30’s and reality had hit.
WHAT WAS IT I WAS LOOKING FOR, THOUGH? I have a wonderful wife and two great kids. I had a hobby that made me happy, a job that was going well. Still, we were just barely able to make ends meet, so we moved from Massachusetts (where I’d lived all my life) to Knoxville, Tennessee, where the cost of living was relatively low. We got settled in, found jobs and decent day-care, and really enjoyed Knoxville.
I worked during the day and my wife worked at night. I hadn’t met many people in Knoxville, so after my son was in bed for the night, I’d spend a lot of time on the internet. I honestly don’t know how it happened, but I got onto a Buddhist web-forum and started reading posts and checking out websites. One thing that kept coming up was karma: I knew that if you acted like a jerk you would get negativity back, and the same went for good deeds coming back as positivity. My interest was peaked and I started reading a lot more. It all felt right to me, like the part that was missing was filling up.
I started buying up books, reading them almost as quickly as it took me to pay for them and bring them home. One of the members of the forum mentioned a book by Thubten Chodron called Buddhism for Beginners. I went out and got it, and it helped me out so much. Rather than just being a book of plain text, it was in a Q&A format, and a lot of the questions were the same ones I’d started asking myself.
The big question was, What is the basic idea behind this thing called Buddhism? I learned that the answer was found in things that were easy to do: be a good person, don’t harm others, and be a help whenever possible. This was one of the simplest things I could hear, but also one of the most profound. There was no dogma, no over-zealous hypocrisy; just plain and simple guidelines on how to live a better life for myself and for everyone else around me. I read some more books and started getting into meditation. Almost immediately I started noticing changes. One of the biggest was that I could stay calm now when something major was affecting my life.
Eventually, the wife and I started to miss being with our family and friends. The hardest thing for me was that my daughter was still living in MA and we were in Tennessee. She had stayed when we moved because her mother (my first wife), understandably, didn’t want her to switch schools. We had worked out that I would get her on vacations and stuff, but that was harder than anticipated. It was difficult coming up with airfare, especially while still paying for food, rent, car payments, etc. We spoke often, and I sent her gifts via FedEx (that’s where I was working) but it just wasn’t the same. I was beginning to get discouraged about the whole move-thing. After my wife’s mother visited, bringing my daughter with her, we all decided that we had to do what we could and go back to MA so we could all be together.
All this time I was still learning as much as I could about Buddhism, reading books like a madman and absorbing the teachings as best I could. But I was running into issues here and there, and there seemed to be no one else into Buddhism where I was. Hell, I was in the Bible Belt of the US — where was I going to find another Buddhist? I started seeking out temples and centers but they were all over two hours away. So I kept seeking my answers online. The people on the forum I mentioned were helping me out more than they know.
One day as I was leaving work, I pulled out of my parking spot. By the time I had put it in gear to go forward, another car was already coming at me in reverse. I slammed on the horn hoping they would hear me, but they were either occupied with something else or not hearing me because their music was way too loud. (The bass was slamming me in the chest, it was so loud). I heard a crunch. We had an accident on our hands.
Normally I would have gone berserk, cursing and yelling (maybe even frothing at the mouth a little), but not this time. I took a deep breath, got out of the car and assessed the damage: the other car was more hurt than mine, which had just a couple scratches. I asked the woman who was driving if she was ok. She was, but she seemed astounded at my reaction, as if she was expecting the reaction of an insane person. I was aware, though, that acting that way would probably just elevate the situation to one neither of us would want to deal with. I attribute this to nothing else but the things I was learning about Buddhism and mindfulness. There were of course plenty of other events that “tested” what I was learning. But my ability to change seemed real.
THE FUNNY THING ABOUT BUDDHISM AND METAL is how, in my life, one’s taught me about the other. Being a metalhead I’ve heard more than my share of songs about death, pain, misery, etc. How can I draw a parallel with Buddhism, you ask? I can do it in one word: impermanence! Buddhism teaches how to cope with things like death by reminding us that everything in life is impermanent — including life itself. Death is always around the corner. And we don’t have to be scared about it. We can embrace it by realizing that all beings, no matter who they are, will eventually expire. In this way, metal helped prime me for my path.
You might ask, though, how can I still be a metalhead, writing lyrics that maybe talk of harming another person, or consist of morbid horror stories, and also practice Buddhism. Some might even say I can’t do both at the same time, but I very strongly disagree. Just because I want to be a good person doesn’t mean I can’t listen to “Hammer Smashed Face” by Cannibal Corpse. Yeah, the lyrics are WAY over the top, but they’re just lyrics. It’s just a song, and if you can come to terms with reality and non-reality, I don’t think it’s an issue at all. Some might even pose a similar question to Richard Gere or other well-known celebrity-Buddhists: How can they, in a material world like Hollywood, overcome the very obstacles that Buddhism teaches about? And, look at Gere’s movie, “Pretty Woman.” It was about a rich and powerful real-estate guy and his “relationship” with a hooker. Yeah, there was more to it than that, and it actually was a good movie, but you would think a Buddhist couldn’t do a movie like that and still have some sort of clout, right? But look at what he does off-screen. He has taken teachings from many prominent lamas, including the Dalai Lama. He donates money to various causes, he’s a chairman on the International Campaign for Tibet, and that’s just some of the good things that he does. So why would being involved in metal music, if it doesn’t compromise one’s contributions, be any different?
My answer: it isn’t. If you’ve got the right mindset about it, nothing has to be a “bad” thing. I’ve written most of the lyrics to my band’s songs, and every now and again have strayed from just gore lyrics: I’ve written songs about the Iraq War and about the Catholic Church Scandal in Boston and the rest of the US. I’m concerned about real issues, big and small.
Still, people have this idea that metalheads couldn’t possibly do any good. I think differently about that. Even before starting my practice I liked to think of myself as a compassionate person, and thought the same of quite a number of metalheads around me. I’ve been to many shows that either donated the proceeds to a good cause like the Hurricane Katrina Fund, Autism Now, or other charities. I’ve seen many shows that were dedicated to people that had something to do with the metal scene over the years but who had passed on. We don’t take life and death nearly as lightly as some seem to think.
PERSONALLY, with Buddhism, I notice positive change, especially to the areas that need it, every day. Even in the seemingly-most mundane ways. Like, nowadays, I won’t be so quick to give you the finger; I’ll say hello back and smile without judging or thinking you’re a freak. Hell, I may be a freak to you, right? And I’m more apt now to pick up the sponge and just wash the dishes. My wife used to hate that about me — I was a lazy prick. But after reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, I realized that doing the dishes was a great time to just be with myself, and just do the dishes. To be able to slow down and just take time to be with my mind.
See, being a metalhead doesn’t make me a primitive thug with a one-track mindset. And it doesn’t mean I want to rip your head off cause I wrote that in my lyrics, or that I want to see your guts exposed on the sidewalk. It’s an art! Writing a song is very similar to writing a horror-movie script, just a lot shorter. And just because some may not understand it, it doesn’t mean it’s sick, or demented. One song idea I am working on has some potentially very gruesome overtones, and could easily be misunderstood — but I’ve been trying to steer clear of typical gore lyrics, and instead relate actual events. Example: in Tibet there is a form of burial called sky burial, or jhator (bya-gtor) in Tibetan. It’s actually not officially considered a “burial,” more a gift of alms to the vultures. Of course, Buddhists know that when we die the body is pretty much useless from then on out. So the Tibetans offer the corpse to the birds. A man comes in after the body is laid down and works to cut it up into several pieces. This sends the vultures into a feeding frenzy and, very quickly, the body disappears. And while this may seem somewhat normal to Buddhists who understand it, someone unfamiliar with this practice would probably be horrified by the whole process of sky burial.
Likewise, I hope people won’t jump to the conclusion that I’m a bad person (or a “bad Buddhist”!) for writing horror-inspired lyrics. Can I not practice compassion and kindness because I wrote a song that was based on Ted Bundy? Reality is scary sometimes — people die, people get killed by other people. The news reports it. Movies are made about it. Books are written about it. Lessons are learned from it sometimes, too. Just because my music is loud and my lyrics are over the top, does it mean I can’t feel love for all sentient beings?
I say, no; there doesn’t have to be a conflict of interest. It’s not hard being a good person and still living a subversive lifestyle. We can all be good people, no matter who we are. We can all have hobbies, or things that make us feel good without compromising the other important things in life.
I contend that being a metalhead helped me become a Buddhist. It took lots and lots of practice to achieve the things that our band did. And to achieve the things I want now, like a better life for all sentient beings — whether they are metalheads, punks, hip hoppers, goths, ravers (do they even exist anymore?), or just regular Joe Schmoes — that’s going to take practice, too.
That basically sums up Buddhism for me, it’s practice.
And as I get better at it, those around me will be better off as well.
ps. The image attached to this post is copy-written, I had it commissioned for my old blog and permission is needed to use anywhere other than here or on my old blog, Precious Metal.