BUDDHIST MUSICIANS ARE BANDING TOGETHER TO MAKE MUSIC THAT IS AS MEANINGFUL AS IT IS APPEALING TO THE MASSES
BY GWENDOLYN NG & ELIZABETH SOH
ROCK music and Buddhism are an unlikely mix.
Buddhism is, afterall, associated with serenity, reflection, meditation and calm. Soothing chants are about as raucous as it usually gets.
But local rock band Reaching Jhana has managed to infuse Buddhist elements into its decidedly toe-tapping music.
Five young men from the 100-member-strong Singapore Buddhist Mission’s youth group felt it was time to inject a rock edge into the local Buddhist music scene.
Last June, they formed a five-men rock band called Reaching Jhana. The Buddhist concept of Jhana refers to a meditative state of great concentration.
The band includes a bass guitarist, drummer, rapper and two guitarists, one of whom doubles as vocalists.
“Buddhist music does not have to be all about slow-paced soothing music. We play more catchy music. Through the meaningful lyrics, we hope to spread Buddhist values,” says Mr Victor Teo, 20, a former Temasek Polytechnic student now waiting to enter national service.
One of their compositions, Extreme Homage, pays homage to the three gems – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The song even takes a chant in Pali – the language of the early Buddhist scriptures – and turns it into a rap.
The band has performed at two Buddhist concerts and hopes the music will draw young people to Buddhism. It eventually aims to record its music.
The band is one of about 1- - and rising – Buddhist music groups here which are trying to spread the Buddhist way of life through song.
Another pioneer on the Buddhist music scene, the Venerable Sik KWang Sheng, 57, abbot of the well-known Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, decided to go mainstream to make Buddhist music more accessible.
In 2007, he teamed up with local recording company Ocean Butterflies to produce a modern music album called Buddha Smiles. The pop album features local singer A-Do and past Project Superstar contestant Hong Jun Yang.
In the present day, ears are more attuned to modern music. Chanting is still an important part of Buddhism, but by using modern music, hopefully we can spread Buddhism to the masses,” says the Venerable.
Says Ocean Butterflies’ assistant general manager, Ms Yvonne See: “We believe music has no boundaries. When the venerable Kwang Sheng approached us, we though, ‘Why not’ ”
For free-thinker Hing, 28, the creative executive of Touch Music Publishing, getting involved in the project as a singer was a fulfillinf experience. His parents are Buddhists.
“Scriptures and chants are very cheem (Hokkien for profound) to a lot of young people, hence music is a really good way of bringing across Buddhist teachings to the masses in a simple and enjoyable way,” he says.
The CD flew off the shelves at Popular bookstore’s CD-RAMA. In the first week of its release in May 2007, Buddha Smiles became one of the top three sellers there, unusual for a religious album. It has since cold 5,000 copies there.
At outlets of Buddhist bookshop Awareness Place, the CD has sold 5,300 copies to date.
The Venerable Kwang Sheng, a music lover who has tried his hand at the organ, piano, Zen drums and violin, believes that music has a powerful effect on the mind.
“I learn music in the hopes of creating more Buddhist music in the future. Listening to the right music can help calm the mind,” he says.
Music is important at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, which has a huge music room on its premises at Bright Hill. The music room has instruments like Zen drums and a Chinese “singing” bowl called a qin.
Classes including Zen drumming, singing and dancing are held weekly at a subsidized rate. For instance, 12 lessons of Zen drumming cost $150. At the moment, it has two Zen drumming with about 12 to 15 students each.
“Music is a tool by which we hope to impart Buddhist values. Zen drumming helps them to learn how to concentrate,” says Mr Lim Siew Wee, 29, the programme executive of the monastery’s youth ministry.
Also infusing music with religion is the Buddhist Fellowship, located at Pasir Panjang. Its music arm, Soracco – which means “the gentle one” in Pali – has 20 members.
Soracco’s performances, which include musicals, music concerts and dramas, are more contemporary than traditional.
Two years ago, it staged a musical called passage of Time at Raffles Hotel’s Jubilee Hall, featuring local artists like Neo Swee Lin and Nick Shen. There was such overwhelming support that Soracco staged a re-run at the same venue in January last year.
The play’s music director August Lum, 24, contributed several contemporary songs to the show, alongside other songwriters from the Buddhist Fellowship.
“Our music is not much different from mainstream music. It’s the same message but through different genres of music,” says Mr Lum, a National university of Singapore arts and social sciences undergraduate.
The freelance music composer draws inspiration from Buddhist teachings. For the musical, he looked at highly respected British monk and abbot Ajahn Brahm’s book Opening the Door of Your Heart, and created a song with the same title.
Soracco is staging a concert at Jubilee Hall on May 23 and 24. Veteran singer Robert Fernando will be making a special appearance. Tickets are available at the Buddhist Fellowship office and will be given out in exchange for a donation of any amount.
Other Buddhists hoping to spread Buddhist precepts through music include Mr Nr Kang Kee, 34, an engineer and founder of OM Music Workshop, a Buddhist music group with about 20 members. The group will be releasing an album called Friends In Our Lives today.
The album includes songs of love and caring, and calls on the listener to do good deeds and hold friendships dearly.
At the end of the day, music is a means to an end. Says Mr Ng: “The important thing is to deliver the values. Music is just part of the scheme.”