I got to wondering yesterday, as I was listening to a great (if strange) psychedelic album that featured a song called “Sold To The Highest Buddha,” to what extent Buddhism became the subject of pop and rock songs during the 60s, as Eastern musical and cultural influences exploded in the West. I decided to dig through my music collection to see what I found—which was surprisingly little, and virtually nothing from the 60s. I did, however, hit upon an interesting mix of mega hits and lesser-known numbers spanning about three decades of music. Before I go into it, a disclaimer about my search:

  • I relied entirely on titles rather than listening for any mention of Buddhist themes in songs that did not reference Buddhism in the title, because: a) I am terrible at hearing lyrics; and b) it would take more than an afternoon of research to listen to go through all of the songs on my iTunes to see which ones mention Buddhism. And I’m not that bored.
  • Sadly, most of these songs either have nothing to do with Buddhism (beyond the title) or evince a more or less complete lack of understanding of their subject matter (i.e., so far off that even I recognize the treatment of Buddhist themes to be terribly wrong). But a couple show some familiarity with Buddhist teachings and most of them sound great!

So, for better and worse, here’s what my hunt uncovered:

  1. “Karma Man” by David Bowie, Bowie At The Beeb (1968):

    Bowie only recorded this song for a BBC radio broadcast, and never revisited it in the studio.  It has no discernible connection to Buddhism, and its cheesy fake strings are over-the-top. But the chorus is pretty catchy.
  2. “Instant Karma!” by John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band (1970):

    Written, recorded, and released within just 10 days, this was the first single from a member of The Beatles recording independently as a solo artist to sell a million copies. Lennon predominantly relied on the notion of karma for the purpose of trying to get people to worry about the spiritual and social consequences of not loving others and embracing efforts to promote world peace. What Ono is doing in the music video, however, remains a mystery.
  3. “Sold To The Highest Buddha” by Gong, Angel’s Egg (1973)

    Gong is a criminally forgotten psychedelic-prog rock-space rock outfit from the late 60s and early 70s. This song shows their command of both rock and jazz fusion, with an addictive saxophone intro line and tremendous guitar and sax work throughout. It also shows that they dropped an enormous amount of acid and were not all that invested in lyrics making any sense (the song touches upon spaceships, visions of strange faces, one’s head floating away, and so on and so forth).
  4. “Bodhisattva” by Steely Dan, Countdown To Ecstasy (1973):

    Steely Dan is essentially the only jazz fusion band to get airplay on mainstream rock radio stations. You can see why they bridge the gap on this track, which features energetic and fun verses plus a spectacular guitar solo. While the lyrics are silly, at least they seem to conceptualize the bodhisattva as a guiding figure (“Bodhisattva, won’t you take me by the hand . . .”); recognize the importance of giving up earthly goods (“I’m gonna sell my house in town . . .”); and identify the bodhisattva with Japan and China. That’s better than most of the other lyrical efforts on this list.
  5. “Shambala” by Daniel Moore, as covered by Three Dog Night, Cyan (1973):

    Two versions of “Shambala” were released a week apart from each other in 1973, with the Three Dog Night lighthearted pop number being the more famous of the two (the other was a country music rendition by B.W. Stevenson). Three Dog Night’s take on “Shambala” peaked at #3 on the Pop Singles and Adult Contemporary charts. Moore’s “bubble gum” lyrics describe someone reveling in life and human kindness while traveling on the road to and within the mythic Tibetan kingdom of Shambala. There’s not really much doing substantively in the song, just pop with a Buddhist trope. But it’s inoffensive musically and at least not completely misguided in its use of Buddhist imagery (unlike the next entry . . .).
  6. “Nirvana” by Robert Plant, Manic Nirvana (1990):

    Robert Plant has had a successful and often excellent solo career following Led Zeppelin, but he has also recorded a few duds. Manic Nirvana contained a mixture of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the pseudo title track demonstrates all three of these qualities. While “Nirvana” has passable rock credentials with some decent riffs, it also has the overblown feel that was typical of late 80s and early 90s hair rock, and terrible lyrics. Plant invokes nirvana to describe exactly the opposite of what it stands for, to celebrate desire and physical pleasures. Even for a die-hard Zeppelin (and Robert Plant) fan like myself, it is a tough listen.
  7. “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow” by the Beastie Boys, Ill Communication (1994):

    The Beastie Boys, far beyond their sometimes-reputation as annoying white punk rappers, were talented musicians with an enormous breadth of cultural influences and intelligent lyrics. “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow” are great examples of the other side of the Beastie Boys: “Shambala” moves from baritone chanting into a funky rhythmic groove and back again before transitioning seamlessly into “Bodhisattva Vow,” which especially showcases the Beastie Boys lyrical prowess. More so than any other entry on this list, they seem to have studied (and embraced) some Buddhism before sitting down to write a song about it. Here are the lyrics, which can be difficult to understand as they rap quite quickly. The song discusses committing oneself to the task of enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, aiding others as they too struggle with this undertaking, and exercising patience and universal love while doing so.
  8. “Karma Police” by Radiohead, OK Computer (1997):

    One of Radiohead’s most popular songs off of its landmark misanthropic album OK Computer. Apparently Radiohead had an inside joke about calling the “karma police” on one another, and that gave rise to this song. Lead singer Thom Yorke later explained that it was meant as a “Fuck the middle management!” screed against life in a corporate bureaucracy. Frankly, I am not really sure what they’re talking about in the song, and it certainly has nothing to do with Buddhism. But musically, it’s one of their best efforts, and helped propel them from mainstream rock to the forefront of avant-garde rock. 

Know any other songs to add to this list? Post them below!

Editor’s note: This playful review of all things Buddhist Rock came our way from a friend of the magazine, a recent graduate of Yale Law school, who emailed us this list in March purely for fun—and also because he was on spring break, and he was bored. Though he is not a Buddhist, his enthusiasm for music—and musical trivia—borders on religiosity. With enjoyment, we present: “A (Incomplete) Guide to (Sort of) Buddhist Rock.”

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