Listen to music like a Buddhist monk
Harness the joy of music to experience transcendence
I am sometimes asked why Westerners like me, who follow Buddhist practices, can happily enjoy chocolate cake, movie watching, wearing nice clothes and listening to favourite music, while Buddhist monks in various Southeast Asian countries shun all such indulgences.
Isn’t it wrong for Buddhists to allow themselves to be caught up in worldly pleasures?
Part of the Buddha’s genius was his ability to offer different teachings to a variety of people to suit their different temperaments. On occasion, those teachings can seem contradictory, even though they all get us to the same end result.
Liking or disliking things was never flagged as a problem by the Buddha. Rather, he revealed that problems arise when we see the like-ableness or dislike-ableness of things coming from the things themselves, rather than from our own minds. Such a misperception leads to craving at one end of the spectrum, or hating at the other, setting off a cycle of delusion and karma that only ends when we finally get to see where we’re going wrong.
Some people he advised to steer clear of worldly pleasures until any attachment to them wore out. Culturally speaking, this approach seems appropriate when we look at the simple lives of Thai forest monks, for example.
Others, like me, would find a life of such austerity quite miserable. And I am guessing it would be the same for most readers. Who would want to give up the dopamine hits that accompany the sensory indulgences we enjoy throughout the day?
Well, you don’t have to, said Buddha. For you, grasshopper, there is another way!
In texts, this other way is sometimes described using the metaphor of a log consumed by insects. The insects represent our cravings, desires and attachments – all those things that arise because of the misperception that whatever we desire is seen as coming from the thing or person ‘out there’. The log symbolises the false self-existence we attribute both to ourselves as well as to those things outside us, the ingrained habit of ‘self-grasping’.
Our default mode as humans is to assume that I am a separate and inherently existent person who, if I can only get my hands on that separate and inherently existent desirable object or being, will enjoy happiness.
So, how exactly can our desires and attachments – the insects in this analogy– consume the great log of self-grasping? I have heard this metaphor unpacked in different ways. But the way that most appeals to me, because it is so practical and efficient, is by using pleasurable experiences as triggers to remind us of the true source of happiness – our own minds.
The Buddha taught that our own consciousness is where happiness comes from. Specifically, a previously-created positive, or virtuous karma that is now ripening in our mind stream, is the true cause for us to experience happiness. The apparent cause – the chocolate cake, or person sitting opposite us – is merely a contributing factor.
This kind of recollection, especially when made often in our lives, has the effect of constantly correcting our usual misperceptions and reminding us that what we experience is, more than anything, a product of our own mind. We not only recollect shunyata, or the way that reality is really working, thereby helping loosen the habit of self-grasping. We are also incentivising ourselves to create more virtuous karma.
So much for the theory. When it comes to practice, it helps to begin with pleasurable experiences that last for more than just a few moments. This affords us the time to get used to rehearsing the steps outlined below until we can move through them swiftly.
If you get joy from listening to music, for example, this is an especially good object to start practicing with. The delight we get from a piece of music can go on for many seconds, even minutes. And if you ever feel spine chills or other such sensations while listening, that movement of energy or prana at a subtle level is especially powerful to work with.
I have outlined the steps to follow if we want to have those insects take a good chunk out of the log of self-grasping. Listening to music is the example used here, but we can substitute any pleasure-giving sensory experience.
Step 1: Recollecting that the joy isn’t coming from the thing itself but from my own mind.
As we savour the joy of the music, we remind ourselves that our pleasure isn’t coming from the music itself, although it seems that way, but from our mind.
If a piece of music was inherently pleasurable, then everyone would have the same, exalted experience that we do when listening to it. We know this isn’t the case. We can easily think of people who would immediately switch off this music if they heard it.
No, the joy isn’t coming from the music. The music itself has no quality to automatically evoke joy. And yet here I am enjoying it – because the pleasure is arising in my own mind stream at this moment!
This recognition on its own can be enough to make the music even more wonderful! The more we really ‘get’ that the joy isn’t coming from the sound we hear, the more wonderful it seems. And the more wonderful it seems, the more heartfelt our recognition that it isn’t coming from the music but from our mind. The two amplify each other forming a virtuous upwards spiral.
Step 2: Feeling gratitude for the virtue in our mind stream.
Why are we, personally, finding such joy in the music at this moment? It is an effect arising from a positive cause. Happiness can never arise from a negative mind but only from a positive or virtuous one. How fortunate are we, in this moment, to be the inheritors of such beneficence? Allow gratitude to flower from this recognition, as well as the joy of the music along with its absence of any inherent qualities.
If we consider that the virtuous cause for our happiness may have been created in a previous life, by a being inspired by his or her guru to do good, then our gratitude can quite naturally expand to include the gurus and their lineage teachers, as well as the Buddhas who inspired them.
Combining gratitude to our already heightened state of pleasure intensifies it even more.
Step 3 Offering our joy to benefit all beings, including all Buddhas.
Now we offer this feeling of happy rapture to all living beings, with the heartfelt motivation: I offer this happiness to all living beings including all Buddhas! May this be the cause for them to experience ever-increasing bliss!
Such an offering uses whatever joy we are already feeling to create the cause of future joy. If we include all Buddhas, who are karmically-speaking the most powerful of all objects, and our offering is sincere, we create the cause for an incredibly virtuous karma to ripen in this lifetime.
I feel sure that you will find it highly rewarding to put this example into practice. Even if you have doubts about it – try it out. Why not? It’s not difficult and it can only bring you greater happiness.
There’s no question that the continued reminder, throughout the day, that the objects of our attachment have none of the qualities we assume, and that we’re constantly colouring the world in with our own projections and tastes, does have an effect on how we experience the world. We start to realise just how much we are the ringmasters of our own particular reality show.
So, time to fire up the speaker and check out your playlist. Would Meat Loaf’s, Bat out of Hell be a good place to start, or perhaps something more along the lines or Exsultate Jubilate by Mozart? \
So what? Who cares? It has never really been about the music anyway!
By way of a personal offering, here are two, very different pieces of music that bring me joy:
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This week I received a photo of the adorable Wilhelmina, a bushbaby (Galago) at Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary who your subscription is helping support. Bushbabies are also called ‘night apes’ - being nocturnal, they have those cute, big brown eyes!
Remember, dear reader, any cuteness you see in her is coming from your own mind!