THE FREIGHT AND SALVAGE is the oldest acoustic music club west of the Mississippi, but when the MC introduced the headliner, she was a bit baffled.

“We’ve been presenting the best in acoustic and traditional music since 1968,” she said. “But what you’re going to see tonight isn’t acoustic, and it isn’t traditional—I don’t know what to call it.”

The audience helped her out, shouting in unison: “Dharma folk!”


Commentaries on Perfections of the Heart was conceived in 2003, during Eve Decker’s three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. In the spring of 2005, Decker enrolled in Bonnie O’Brien Jonsson’s “A Year to Live” course, inspired by Stephen Levine’s book of the same title. Faced with the notion of imminent death, Decker realized that her priority in life was to create an album based on her retreat, where she practiced the ten paramis, or perfections, of Buddhahood.

The paramis (or paramitas, in the Mahayana tradition) are the attributes of an open, awakened heart. “When a being is perfectly enlightened,” the CD liner notes explain, “these ten qualities are fully ripened and realized.”

There are over five hundred Christian rock radio stations in the U.S., but not one, so far, showcasing dharma folk. If there were such a station, Decker would be a mainstay. Many of the songs on her previous albums, with a female trio called Rebecca Riots, had Buddhist themes; but Commentaries cuts to the chase, stripping away metaphor and diving directly into the basics.

There’s a disarming literalism in the ten songs (one for each parami), which begin with “Generosity” and continue through “Equanimity.” The refrain to “Virtue,” for instance, seems like a teaching set to music:

Do no harm to other living beings
Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t use
Hurt no one with your sexuality
And you’re on your way to virtue.

Lyrics always seem flat on the page, yet Decker’s melodies, and her luscious, inventive phrasing, give them the power of a transmission. I try to imagine my own lama getting up in his robes and singing about formlessness and practice, but it’s easier to visualize him in a karaoke bar, belting out Hotel California.

AT THE FREIGHT AND Salvage CD release concert, I saw almost no one between the ages of twelve and forty. It makes sense; people in the breeding window would rather hear ballads about bouncing in the back seat of a Chevy than Buddhist odes forbidding sexual misconduct. But a few of the songs on Commentaries cross over, and could be covered by anyone from The Postal Service to Emmylou Harris (whose songs are sometimes covered by Decker).

One of these is “Wisdom,” a haunting song adapted from the thirteenth-century Genjokoan of the Zen master Dogen. Another is “Patience,” written by Decker’s younger brother Joe. (Joe’s twin, Ben, is her bass player and co-producer.) It’s as beautiful a ballad as I’ve ever heard, and definitely deserves a few weeks of national airplay:

Here I go on another road to nowhere
Try to learn that patience is not just quiet despair
If I can bring the storm into my open heart
It won’t have the strength to quietly blow me apart

Decker has terrific backup support, from the sharp, powerful accompaniment of Lisa Zeller on guitar to the rich harmonies supplied by singers Kathy Kallick, Andrea Prichett, and Patty Spiglanin (whose own band, the Naked Barbies, doesn’t shy from those backseat ballads I mentioned).

While cuts like “Wisdom” and “Equanimity” are almost dharma lullabies, some of Decker’s tunes will have you bouncing on your zafu—even when they address the toughest nuts of dharma practice. “Renunciation” is one example: it’s the kind of song that even a career cynic like me can sing along with (in the privacy of my own home, of course). And listening to “Determination,” you can’t help but admire the stark simplicity of unadorned Buddhist truth, coming at you in 4/4 time:

Listening to wisdom, enduring the body’s pain
Careful investigation of whatever’s happening
Peace is not our birthright,
But it’s not a siren’s call
It’s in unwavering dedication
To the welfare of us all

Commentaries is honeyed fare, and its simple, direct treatment of the pleasures and pitfalls of practice may be too sweet for some. But though I missed the self-reflective ironies I’ve come to expect from Buddhist troubadours, I found it to be a beautiful song cycle that improves with every listening—and whose message might even, eventually, get through my thick skull. With any luck it will prove to be a groundbreaking CD, hoisting the paramis into the popular music mix along with the Kabbalah, Christian love, and Baha’i.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see other musicians following Decker’s lead. If they do, there may yet be hope for an all-dharma radio station within this kalpa. t

Contributing editor Jeff Greenwald’s last piece for Tricycle was “All That Zen” (Spring 2006).

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .