If thrashing guitars and pounding drums don’t make you think of Buddhism, then you aren’t Paul Masvidal. A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for 20 years, the guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist began his career in the metal band Death. But over time, Masvidal’s music has matured into a unique genre-defying sound through which he aims to inspect the inner workings of his mind.
After playing in the progressive rock band Cynic for more than two decades, Masvidal is now putting out a solo record called Mythical Human Vessel. A vulnerable deep dive into the human experience, this collection of mini-albums experiments with varying the frequencies in the left and right ear as a form of sound therapy. Masvidal also writes about how his music expresses his dharma practice in his blog, the Metta Mind Journal.
In a talk with Tricycle, Masvidal discusses how he strives to create art that is both a reflection of his inner struggles and our shared nature.
When did your professional music career begin? My band Cynic formed when I was really young. We were making demos as early as elementary school. But my first professional experience was with the band Death. Chuck Schuldiner, the founder of the band who has since passed on, was like an older brother to me growing up. I became penpals with him through the underground tape-trading scene. His band became fairly successful and well-known, and he ended up bringing me in. Often, Chuck would let me play on tours with him when I was in high school.
In 1991, we made a record together called Human. I was suddenly in a well-known band and touring everywhere. I’ll always be indebted to Chuck for having brought me in.
Metal tends to be noisy and violent, while Buddhism idealizes quiet and peace. But one place that they do overlap is that both talk openly about death. Why do you think these two seemingly different worlds share a morbid fascination? Death, the band, is considered the progenitor of death metal. They were one of the first bands to influence a whole generation of bands. Death’s first records were out in the eighties. Chuck is called the “Godfather of death metal.” His early records were very much influenced by horror and gore.
For a lot of artists that get into these extreme forms of art, it serves as an outlet for their aggression and helps keep them out of trouble. These genres turn into an incredibly therapeutic place—a place to pour out all of the loneliness, confusion, and anger. All of that goes into the music, which is why it sounds so intense.
The place where this parallels Buddhism is in the willingness to explore uncomfortable topics, like impermanence. In those extreme metal genres, the angst around death is expressed through an art form. Buddhism takes it to another level by just sitting and contemplating our impermanence.
As a practice of getting comfortable with something that has freaked me out my whole life—the reality of impermanence—I have worked as a hospice volunteer since the mid-nineties. Working in hospice has taught me the importance of looking into our fear of death and having a willingness to be with the discomfort. To sit with somebody who is dying is not easy, especially if they are cognizant. But that experience can be a reminder of how precious this life is and how quickly it goes by.
Why did you name your band Cynic? The Cynics were like the yogis of ancient Greece. They believed that the source of happiness was internal. They were homeless, but content. The word cynic has come to refer to someone who doubts people’s honesty, which has its roots in a story of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes. He would walk around with a lantern during the daytime, and when people would ask him why, he would answer, “I’m trying to find an honest man.”
The Cynics were also very progressive. They coined the term cosmopolitan, which originally meant “a citizen of the universe—not from any place.” That answer is so forward thinking, even today. So that philosophy inspires the progressive music of Cynic. Progressive rock is often described as sui generis, meaning without genre. It’s about breaking down all the trappings of traditional style and being completely free to express yourself musically.
When did you begin practicing Buddhism and what initially drew you to the practice? From a young age, I was exposed to various forms of spiritual investigation through my mother. Her good friend, an astrologer, said that I was a seeker and that I had free reign to explore and create my own journey. The same astrologer friend gave me Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), which opened my eyes to a spiritual path.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I became interested in Buddhism. Your twenties can be a very challenging time; it’s a journey of figuring out who you are and what your identity is. Personally, I was unraveling in so many ways, and Buddhism—the dharma—spoke directly to my heart.
I began doing retreats at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and realized that our problems aren’t the outer circumstances, but our reaction to them. If I wasn’t a musician, I would probably go into retreat for the rest of my life and give myself completely to the dharma. What else is there to do?
What types of meditation do you practice? I’m a fairly long-term practitioner and have done different meditations over the years. I started with calm-abiding meditation, or sitting meditation. Then I got into Theravada insight [vipassana] meditation, which works well for me. I combine that with metta [lovingkindness] practices. Cultivating lovingkindness is everything. When asked, “What is your religion?” the Dalai Lama replied, “Kindness.”
I also do a listening practice, which is just what it sounds like—sitting and listening. Being a musician, I pick out and analyze miniscule sounds in a room. With listening meditation, I can practice hearing that level of subtlety.
My ultimate goal, which I share with most Buddhists, is to reach nondual states of pure mind or nonconceptual awareness. In Zen, this is called satori—experiencing flashes of enlightenment. But as blissful and beautiful as that is, I also can’t get too attached to that. It’s not just about finding a comfortable sweet spot in your mind—it’s about going back out into the world and helping your brothers and sisters.
These practices dovetail with my music because they push me to challenge my sense of self.
How does challenging your sense of self help you as a musician? Ken Wilber, a prolific spiritual teacher and pioneer of Integral theory, wrote in his book No Boundary, “Just when the circle’s drawn, just then the circle’s gone.” That line inspired an old song of mine; I was taken with the idea that the minute we’ve drawn a circle around what we’re doing, it’s our job to step outside of it—to keep pushing.
There are many things we use to escape the dark crevices of our mind. The reality is—and this is what Pema Chödrön discusses in her book The Wisdom of No Escape—that once we learn to not run, and to not go in the other direction, that’s where happiness is found. Instead of constantly trying to fill that gap, we have to realize that creativity exists in the gaps. In our meditation practice, there’s a gap between breaths. That’s where the moment lives, and all true creativity is inspired by the present moment. I believe that if we can really show up, it’s all right there for us.
Robert Venosa, the painter who has done all of the Cynic covers, said that the duty of any artist is to inspire other artists. I think the way to do that is by bringing something new to the table and honoring our own voices and all the peculiar aspects of our artistry. People connect with that.
Is there a Buddhist community in the progressive rock world? Not that I’m aware of [Laughs]. I’ve been somewhat of an outsider. What’s funny is that early progressive rock like Genesis and Yes had a spiritual component. But that doesn’t seem to be the case now.
Can you tell me about your upcoming solo acoustic album, Mythical Human Vessel? That album is a collection of music that I’ve had for a long time, but never did proper recordings of. I never finished them because they felt particularly vulnerable. But even though the songs are deeply personal and honest, they have nothing to do with me. By telling the truth, I think I ended up with something more universal that hopefully everyone can relate to.
There’s another component to these songs. I’ve been interested in binaurals, or frequency training. What you do is listen to different frequencies in headphones. In one ear, a certain frequency enters, and in the other, another frequency. Binaural frequencies tap you into various brain states.
Sometimes the different frequencies create a dissonant sound. But because they are going into the left and right hemispheres of your brain, the imbalance in the two frequencies creates a new frequency that affects your thinking. Binaurals can be used for many things—as a tool to boost memory, be more focused and alert, or increase creativity.
So I embedded binaural frequencies into each of the records. This component of therapeutic harmonic frequencies turns the album into more of an offering, because I think they can help people in a very concrete way.
You said your music is universal because it is personal. What do you mean by that? Artwork and music are imbued with vibration, which allows it to resonate with people. That has something to do with the level of attention the creator gave it when they made the work—but ultimately it transcends personality and identity, and it enters into the space of universal communication. Any great work does that, including all of the dharma teachings. They point to these truths that we’re all connected to.
In writing music, sometimes things come up to the surface like a deep sadness, and you don’t know why. All of a sudden you’re crying like a baby. But it’s not only a sadness from something that is coming up for you, it’s a collective sadness from this energy you are tapping into.
In both music and meditation, if you’re willing to show up completely and treat it with a sense of sacredness, that’s where its value lives. It’s rare, but there have been moments where I entered a complete meditative flow state—becoming one with the performance. There was no “me”; I became the process.
As with any art form, we can’t make music happen; we have to let it happen. It doesn’t have to go anywhere and it doesn’t have to arrive. There is no deadline; it’s just about showing up. In those ways, music and Buddhism are essentially one and the same for me.