Music has long served as a bridge between the ordinary and the divine. And while the early vinaya [monastic code] required monks and nuns to abstain from listening to or playing music, the Buddha’s teachers were preserved through chanting and oral recitation of the canonical texts. As Buddhism spread across the world, methods of transmission changed, as did the way music was used as a part of the tradition—as mantras, offerings, and celebrations of insight. Today, music is used by various Buddhist schools to help cultivate focus, express devotion, reflect on life, or just to relax.
Tricycle has collected some of our favorite examples of Buddhist music, including music by contemporary Buddhists, music inspired by Buddhist thought, and music from centuries-old traditions. Some examples are surprising, while others are standards that warrant listening anew. They are all united by a common theme of drawing us in to contemplate awakening or encouraging us to enjoy the moment.
“Silly Boy Blue” – David Bowie
In 1966, David Bowie knocked on the door of the Tibetan lama Chime Rinpoche and said, “I want to become a monk.” But when Chime Rinpoche heard that Bowie’s talent was music, he advised “Don’t become monk; you do the music.” And that’s what Bowie did. He first developed a fascination with Buddhism and Tibet at 19. The song Silly Boy Blue was inspired by the description of Lhasa in Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 classic Seven Years in Tibet and the Potala Palace, Tibet’s traditional seat of government.
“Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” – Tina Turner
Tina Turner converted to Nichiren Buddhism in 1974 after an attempted suicide. She credits chanting with giving her the strength to leave her troubled marriage with Ike Turner and find peace. To show her gratitude, she recorded the mantra Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo on her album Beyond. The chant, which is central to Nichiren Buddhism, embodies the vow to embrace and manifest one’s buddhanature. Directly translated, it means “Glory to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Supreme Law,” referring to the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra. Turner brings her trademark soulful, resonant vocals to the monotonic chant, giving it an urgency and rawness that’s deeply moving and inspiring.
“Chöd – In Praise of the Sacred Feminine” – Ayya Yeshe and IndiaJiva
Chöd is a powerful tantric practice for cutting through ego delusion in order to reach liberation. Here Australian Tibetan Buddhist nun Ayya Yeshe chants praise invoking the 11th-century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön, one of the founders of Chöd, accompanied by music from IndiaJiva (Vicki Hansen and Ronni Ragel).
“Thank U” – Alanis Morissette
Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette gave a voice to teen angst when her alt-rock record Jagged Little Pill was released in 1995. But while keeping her lilting vocals, her subject matter shifted from the pure, unhinged anger of a woman scorned to spiritual insight with her 1998 single Thank U. This shift was catalyzed by a trip to India, which sparked a spiritual awakening. The cover for her fourth studio album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, even references the eight precepts of Buddhism. Morrissette has been described as “loosely practicing Buddhist” and credits meditation with helping her get back to the “fundamental truths.”
Honkyoku (original music pieces) are songs that have been played by Japanese monks since the 13th century, both as a practice for enlightenment and as a way to busk for alms. The long flutes on which the pieces are played require significant breath control, which makes playing honkyoku a type of meditation practice, a part of the tradition of suizen, or “blowing Zen.”
“Constant Craving” – k.d. lang
Canadian singer k.d. lang created waves in the early ’90s as an androgynously styled, vegetarian, out-of-the-closet lesbian with a sound described as “cowboy punk.” She later became a tantric practitioner in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. She says her song “Constant Craving” is a description of samsara, even though she wasn’t a Buddhist when she wrote it. The simple lyrics of the chorus offer a piercing insight into the cyclical nature of suffering as explained in Buddhism: Constant craving, has always been. “Constant Craving” is also a great example of lang’s country folk style, and the stunning vocal harmonies in the chorus beg repeated listening.
“Great Compassion Mantra” – Ani Choying Drolma
Ani Choying Drolma truly embodies her goal to express peace and compassion through music with her soothing yet hauntingly beautiful singing of traditional Tibetan Buddhist chants and mantras. Known as the “rock star nun,” Ani Choying Drolma has used her star power to bring these chants to a wider audience and promote humanitarian causes, such as her Nuns’ Welfare Foundation and Nepal earthquake relief efforts. The Great Compassion Mantra captures Ani Choying Drolma’s exquisite vocal skill and is a great example of the spirit with which she approaches her music and practice—for the benefit of all beings.
“Footprints” – Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter is a saxophonist, composer, jazz legend, and Nichiren Buddhist. Many of Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards. One of these is Footprints. The piece, which was famously recorded by Miles Davis, is here performed by Shorter himself on tenor saxophone with fellow Nichiren Buddhist and jazz musician Herbie Hancock on piano.
In December, Shorter will be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., alongside fellow Buddhist composer Philip Glass (below).
“Ashita e no Sanka” – Alan Dawa Dolma
Alan Dawa Dolma is a Chinese-born Tibetan Buddhist J-Pop star who aims to sing about “love and peace” in her music. Her single “Ashita e no sanka” is particularly remarkable for Alan’s (pronounced Ah-lan) use of the ancient “Tibetan wail” style of singing along with the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed instrument that Alan was forced to learn as a child as a punishment for behaving like a tomboy.
“Old Beach Road” – Martha’s Vineyard
A few years before he went to Thailand and shaved his head to become a monk, Sujato Bhikkhu sported an unruly mop of hair, played guitar, and wrote music in Australian folk rock band Martha’s Vineyard. The rich, upbeat, acoustic sound is reminiscent of summer beach vacations, and the video allows you to catch a glimpse of Sujato Bhikkhu’s past life. A student of Ajahn Chah and the former abbot of Santi Forest Monastery, Sujato currently resides at the Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia and teaches internationally.
Traditional Pali Chanting
Blasted over loudspeakers as early as six in the morning over the tea-covered slopes in Sri Lanka or chanted in methodic unison in the salas of Thai forest monasteries each evening, traditional Pali chanting unites Theravada sanghas around the world. The syncopated syllabic chanting elicits a comforting nostalgia for anyone who has practiced in a Theravada monastery. This recording is led by Ayya Vayama from the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, in the style of the Thai Forest tradition.
“Glassworks” – Philip Glass
Philip Glass is best known for his avant-garde compositions that captivate the spirit with their simultaneous simplicity and depth. His interest in Buddhism was sparked during a trip to northern India in 1966. He went on to co-found the Tibet House with Robert Thurman and Richard Gere in 1987 and serve as the chair emeritus of the Tricycle Foundation’s board of directors. Glass is the composer of numerous operas, musical theatre works, symphonies, concertos, string quartets, chamber music, and film scores. His album Glassworks is a collection of six movements of chamber music, intended to introduce Glass’s signature style to a wider audience.
“No Coming, No Going” – Plum Village
One of the most beautiful features of a gathering at Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village is the chance to sing one of the Plum Village songs as a sangha [community]. The songs are based on music from popular culture, poetry, and the sayings of Thich Nhat Hanh himself. The song “No Coming, No Going” is typical of the Plum Village style. It’s based on a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh called The Contemplation On No Coming and No Going and features simple yet powerful lyrics and an almost lullaby-like quality to the melody. Commonly heard at farewells and funerals, this song points to the reality that we don’t truly exist as separate bodies or egos but are joined and defined by our connections and interactions with each other.
“Anthem” – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen is beloved for his poetry and music, and yet when he became a Zen monk under the study of Joshu Sasaki Roshi at the age of 62, his name was Jikan, meaning “ordinary silence.” While his most famous songs include “Hallelujah” and “Everybody Knows,” “Anthem” has a characteristic Buddhist flavor, no doubt influenced by Cohen’s practice over four decades of his life. Cohen’s lyrics often focus on the darker side of life, and yet take a brutally honest look at the reality of human experience with a glimmer of hope. The lyrics in “Anthem” are reminiscent of Japanese kintsugi pottery, where cracks are mended with gold to highlight the beauty in imperfection:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in