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The life of a Buddhist musician and teacher

In 1985 I was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order) by my teacher Sangharakshita. I was given the name Bodhivajra, meaning “energy for enlightenment”.

The Triratna Buddhist Community runs Buddhist centres in many parts of the world. I’m one of the teachers of Meditation and Buddhism at the Norwich Buddhist Centre.

An important aspect of my life is trying to integrate musical activities with Buddhist practice.

A illustration of this is the 'Touching the Earth' project.

Also, the following article which I wrote recently (for Culture Vulture/NBC newsletter) will shed some more light on this:
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Sitting at the piano, fingers move, sounds emerge and disappear - what more is there to say?

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” as Thelonious Monk said. But we still try and do it, even though it’s as ridiculous as talking about enlightenment: words don’t quite manage to convey the experience.

I studied classical music at college in the seventies, but I found that Bach, Mahler, Stravinsky et al were not enough to hang a life on (to borrow a phrase from last month’s Culture Vulture). I needed some other context for my life, which I eventually found in the Dharma. As a teenager, the emotional turbulence I experienced was echoed in the symphonies of Mahler - one moment tranquil, then ecstatic, then chaotic and despairing. My life at that time lacked the expansive awareness necessary to deal with whatever arose in my experience. Despair - or at least, disillusion - took over and I dropped out of college not long before the end of the course, and I completely abandoned music for a few years. Then in my early twenties I discovered Buddhism and meditation, and threw myself into the structures that our movement offered - community, right livelihood, centre. But after three years or so something big was nagging at me: I had to get back into music. Previously, when still at college, music wasn’t enough, and now it seemed that Buddhism wasn’t enough! Of course, Buddhist practice had a huge effect on me, but I needed some kind of cultural expression, or cultural connection. Something which the myth of music did for my soul, some hidden structure which seemed to hold my life together, some kind of cultural patterning which came from my roots. Earlier I had uprooted my deep musical connections, but fortunately the music hadn’t died - just needed replanting in the fertile soil of the Dharma.

One of my first attempts at reconnecting with music was playing keyboards in a rock show based on William Blake’s poetry, and then I began to discover jazz and improvisation. A whole new approach to music - I thought it was freedom! Well it did free me up a lot, but I quickly realised that freedom didn’t just happen all by itself, I had to put in lots of effort learning structures, techniques, communicating with others in a playing situation, learning new ways of making music - big challenges after my classical background. People often mistakenly think that jazz is just a matter of doing your own thing, but actually most jazz musicians study and practice and learn the language, so that eventually freedom comes out of the form. Sounds like Buddhist practice to me - we spend years studying, working with meditation forms, practising precepts and eventually we learn freedom, but it takes time!
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The myth of music for me has been very much to do with the myth of the composer, especially the rather romantic notion of living out in some wild remote place and writing music. One of my heroes in this respect is Peter Maxwell Davies who, after finishing his music studies in Manchester in the sixties, went to live on a remote island in Orkney. He’s still there after all these years, still composing. I think if I’d done that it would have pushed me over the edge (there are some very high cliffs in Orkney!), I don’t think I could have handled the extremity of it. In my life now I try and live out the composer myth in only a part-time way, but that means it’s much more balanced with other activities.

Sometimes I write music which has a definite Buddhist theme to it - for example if I am setting a text to music, but perhaps there is a subtle Buddhist flavour in everything I write. Sangharakshita has said that Buddhism needs to speak the language of Western culture before it can become firmly established in the West. This raises a big question about what do we mean by “Western culture”, since cultural forms are changing so rapidly as the world becomes increasing global. There are many Buddhists who are actively engaged in this pursuit, whose art work in whatever form reflects their Buddhist practice, but even so it will take many years I think for the Dharma to be truly home-grown. To refer back to the Rollo May analogy in last month’s Culture Vulture, we need to build houses with new beams, new structures to live out our Buddhist lives. The mythic languages of music, poetry, writing, painting, sculpture, dance, film, theatre, are what will hold it all together.

But to come back to the piano: fingers move, sounds emerge and disappear - what more is there to say? As Ryokan said “Look around! There is nothing besides this.” (He’s not being nihilistic, just attentive.)