For this column I have chosen two songs about different moments in the life of historical Buddha-to-be Prince Siddhartha. Even though these songs are musically very dissimilar, what I admire about each is the precision of the imagined lyrical details about Prince Siddhartha's decision to leave his wife, child and kingdom, as well as the training he underwent leading to his eventual experience of awakening. I hope you enjoy them!
This song took me by surprise and storm. Every so often I search iTunes for songs or musicians writing about Buddhist themes and a few weeks ago the album The Lotus of... entered my soundscape. It is terrific: well performed, tightly produced and lyrically thoughtful. Shambhala is a musical duo from Washington D.C. who also perform as the solo artists Born Infinite and Agua.
Listen to "Siddhartha (Leaving Everything Else Behind)" by Shambhala & American Music Club from the 2003 album The Lotus of...:
"Siddhartha (Leaving Everything Else Behind)" begins with a sample of strings playing an uneasy perfect fifth interval accompanied by light pizzicato on the downbeat and ornamented by two female Indian vocalists, who sing to each other in a seeming moment of musical questioning. A driving beat at double the initial tempo enters to build to the first lyrical moment: "On an evening under the stars / looking for internal methods to settle his heart," referencing the night Prince Siddhartha is said to have sat under the Bodhi Tree, vowing not to arise until he had vanquished ignorance. The words trip and fly by, but what is clear is the straightforward positivity and confidence Shambhala lyrically embodies while retelling this ancient story of awakening.
The chorus is rapped out by both Born Infinite and Agua, creating an aural character study of the Buddha as methodical, well-trained and, eventually, absolutely liberated:
Leaving everything else behind
He left his home to discover the depths of mind
And if his training could withstand the test of time
After the truth there is nothing more left to find
What this track evokes for me is both the mystery of what happened that night and a completely uncomplicated optimism regarding the results of Siddhartha's training. While the album title The Lotus of... appears to raise questions (the lotus of what? the lotus of whom?), Shambhala and their producer(s) have tremendous musical clarity on this track, combining sounds and styles in an interesting, compatible fashion, rather than simply running exoticized loops of Hindi film music to rap over. Try some other tracks from their album if you are inspired, and although Shambhala does not have much of a web presence, The Lotus of... is available on iTunes.
Listen to "Yashodara" by Rev. Heng Sure and friends from the 2007 album Paramita: American Buddhist Folk Songs:
"Yashodara" is also a really lovely song, though in a completely different vein. Even if 1960s folk music is not really your style, give it a listen because it will probably win you over with the rich picking and strumming of the two guitars and reedy, well-enunciated singing, musically inspired by the late balladeer Josh White. A jazzy violin played by Brian Godchaux slides into the second chorus to add color and some musical mischief to what is, in essence, a heartbreaking story about a young man leaving his beloved wife and child. I love the construction of these lyrics, even if I do not necessarily agree with Rev. Heng Sure's imagined framing of Prince Siddhartha's departure from his household. Rev. Heng Sure uses the verses to provide a simple narration of Prince Siddhartha's life around age 29: royal, married, a father, sheltered and yet deeply dissatisfied. The chorus is then punctuated by the calling of his wife's name, Yasodhara, and Prince Siddhartha's first-person musings that already bear the imprint of what would become part of Buddhist thought: an emphasis on impermanence, the dangers of the various forms of attachment, and renunciation.
Yashodara, Look out where life leads;
Yashodara, I'm gonna try to get free.
Yashodara, Death is haunting me;
Yashodara, love won't set us free.
Yashodhara, I couldn't love you more;
Yashodara, That's why I'm walkin' out that door.
Since the story of Prince Siddhartha slipping out at night while his queen, son and court slept can particularly strike the nerves of abandonment and even misogyny, I find it interesting that Rev. Heng Sure lyrically chooses to frame it as a choice the Prince made out of love for his wife. Much later, once the monastic order had been established and ordination of women approved (through the intervention of the Buddha's cousin Ananda), it is said that the Buddha did indeed ordain his former wife. But of her life in those intervening years we know nothing. I appreciate the idea that love for Yashodhara might have prompted Prince Siddhartha to pursue the life of a religious mendicant (in order, eventually, to escape the cycle of rebirth and death), but I would also be interested in pressuring how his departure was understood -- or misunderstood -- by those whom he left. A very thoughtful, provocative song!
Rev. Heng Sure was ordained in 1976 under his teacher Master Hsuan Hua and is now director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. You can read more about his album here.
As a bonus, here is a remixed version of the song "Kangyi Tengi" introduced in my last column. The beat artist is Boulder-based Benny Loco and it is a free download!