your punk rock buddhist lesson for the day

I had the following post rolling around in my head a couple of weeks ago before I got all caught up in that dharmic shit storm. Ah well, better late than never.

AC/DC was in town recently. Local “pop culture” critic Peter Hartlaub wrote a piece for the Chronicle about how cool AC/DC are because they never sold out. Somehow missing the irony of a mass-media newspaper critic lauding the accomplishments of a band who are signed to a major labor as “not selling out,” he included a ridiculous quiz to determine if your favorite band has sold out.

Questions five and six asked about “hip hop” artists “trying to sing” and “non-hip hop artists” trying to rap. I thought to myself, how would this guy categorize Erykah Badu? How would he deal with Public Enemy? When I got to question eight, which asked if the band had a covers album or Christmas album, I thought, has this guy never heard of Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook? Cat Power’s The Covers Record? James Brown’s Funky Christmas?

What a freakin’ tool.

What did come out of the experience, though, was the memory of that idea I’d had many years ago to write about the intersection of punk rock and Buddhism. I’ve already mentioned my reasons for not writing about it ten years ago. But there are at least two things about the punk scene or indi-music scene (a decidedly pre-Green Day scene, that is) that I think could provide valuable lessons for Buddhism’s survival in this country as a “minority religion.” And by minority here I don’t mean skin color; I mean the fact that Buddhists account for less than one per cent of the total U.S. population.

First up is the do-it-yourself ethic. Now, I know that DIY has been thoroughly and completely mainstreamed and commodified. And I am usually suspect of anything that foregrounds the “self” being used in a religious milieu that seeks to deconstruct the self. So I wanna be very clear about what the do-it-yourself ethic was really all about.

And I think it should be re-labled “do it ourselves.”

The thing is that punk rock started out as a response to folks being marginalized and stripped of power. If your community is marginalized and you have no access to power or mainstream media, so went the logic, fuckin’ do it yourself. Make your own music, art, media, ‘zines, whatever. But the important thing to remember is that all of this music and art and media and ‘zines were made possible by larger networks of local communities. Underground clubs provided a space for bands to play. Networks of independent bookstores and record stores distributed 45s and ‘zines. It was with this community support that people were able to express their voices and spread their work. (And this is why “selling out” is such a big deal. Selling out necessarily implies embracing the mainstream community and values which the community who supported you were working to undermine. It literally requires the rejection of the community that supported you.)

I think this community-based and supported model of spreading our “work” (i.e., assorted dharma and Buddhist practices as well as books, magazines, and even teachers and people) is something we should seriously think about for the larger American Buddhist sangha.

Our second punk rock lesson for the day has to do with access. One of my all-time favorite artists is Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi fame. The thing about MacKaye and the bands he played with was that these guys would never play a show where the admission price was more than five bucks. Why? Because they knew that their fan-base was mostly teenagers who didn’t have any money.

We’re in dangerous territory here in America. The identification of pop-spiritualism or spiritual materialism and Buddhism is drawing ever closer. People are beginning to think that the only path to enlightenment necessitates a hundred dollar zafu and a month-long retreat (or, worse, thousands of dollars [NSF]). Coupled with communities that are so narrow-minded, practice-wise, that they come across as a exclusive day-spas for a new bourgeois, cultural elite, and we’re fast approaching a situation where the Dharma is limited to those who can afford it. Which frankly scares the hell out of me.

The Worst Horse and company touched on this point in their forum conversation that started the dharmic shit-storm. And I really wish that they had dwelled there a bit longer. The simple fact of the matter is that meditation centers out in the middle of nowhere necessarily exclude those of us who (a) don’t have leisure time, (b) don’t have cars, or (c) don’t have jobs that allow us to go on spiritual quests. In short, they exclude those people who need the dharma the most — the poor and marginalized folks in our society, i.e., the ones who are suffering the most. (Ain’t that the whole point of the bodhisattva path? To help alleviate suffering?)

At any rate, I don’t really know if these ideas are worth the digital ink I’ve spilled on them. But I think American Buddhist sanghas (of any variety) need to seriously think about how they’re planning on carrying the dharma into the next generation. And truly inclusive, community-based models of practice may be where it’s at.

Or maybe I’ve just been listening to too much Fugazi today.

2 thoughts on “your punk rock buddhist lesson for the day

  1. Take a deep breath Scott: you see, what is old is new again! I can imagine a picturesque scene in 11th-century Japan, with a home with a big gilt Buddha image with cords tied to it to ensure the devotee’s ascent into the Pure Land, or a group of literati getting together to discuss the finer points of Buddhism over tea. No one with dirt underneath their fingernails (farmers and peasants) or blood on their hands (samurai or and hunters) need apply! They couldn’t afford the stuff anyway, or carry on an enlightened conversation. The amazing thing is that Dharma trickled down to the people anyway, but only thanks to those willing to ‘carry the message’ outside their comfort zone. What’s outside our comfort zone today? Is it thinking that people like non-college graduates, Marines, people who listen to Neil Diamond, can also appreciate the Dharma too? We’ll see eventually whether Dharma here will ever get outside 1% or just be the preserve of those who can afford the accoutrements.

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