Monk(ey) Business Part 15: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

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Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of warm summer days at jazz festivals with my family, as my dad played bass with some of the best in the industry. I remember the music, the laughter, and the barbecue. The arts always played a central role in my family, and my mom and dad sacrificed a lot to pursue their careers. When my mom taught dance I would often accompany her, playing the drum as she and her students floated across the floor. Looking back I remember feeling the rush of performing to the room, experiencing my first taste of raw wordless emotional expression.

I started piano lessons around age 6 or 7. I hated it. There was something in the linearity of it that turned me off. I also struggled a lot with learning to read music, something that plagued me all the way into my time at the Berklee College of Music. After a few years of frustration, my parents thankfully let me choose another instrument. I chose the drums. Maybe it was those early days accompanying my mom’s dance class, or maybe it was the power and style of the drummers that I met through my dad’s jazz gigs, but something just felt really natural for me in picking up a pair of sticks and hitting a drum skin. My body craved rhythm, and each time I went into our garage to play I had so much fun. 

My dad being an accomplished Jazz bassist, I was exposed to a lot of great music. My earliest musical heroes were masters like Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Elvin Jones. Jazz being a lineage that is passed down, my dad passed it on to me. I remember some challenging moments in lessons with him, as he was pretty tough on me. Paying his dues in the New York City jazz scene in the 1970’s, he knew the blood, sweat, and tears it took to be competent and skilled at an instrument. Though inspired and dedicated, I don’t think I was ready to be as serious as he wanted me to be at that age, and I eventually became more interested in just having fun playing in rock bands with friends. Growing up with a pretty eclectic taste in music, I eventually discovered bands like Metallica, Faith No More, and Guns N’Roses. Winding my way through the grunge era, I eventually became obsessed with punk rock. My mom would graciously drive my friends and I over the Bay Bridge so we could hang out at 924 Gilman (a punk rock club that made bands like Green Day and Rancid famous) to see our favorite bands. Getting deeper and deeper into the local San Francisco Bay Area punk scene, I joined more serious bands, and toured the West coast while still in high school. 

Things really changed at age 16, and after my mom died, as I became much more interested in exploring a spiritual path. This also influenced my musical choices, and I began to study African, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban percussion. This eventually led me to enroll in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Once there, I had a renewed interest in playing Jazz, and I dove deep into Jazz drumming once again. Having met the Dharma, and towards the end of my time at Berklee, I was living with Geshe Tsulga, splitting my time between cooking for him, classes at Berklee, and my Buddhist studies. 

I felt an immediate conflict between my musical and Buddhist paths. Music was my dharma up until that point, and meeting Buddhism completely changed that. I became less interested in jamming with friends, and more interested in sitting on the meditation cushion. Though this changed towards the end of my time at Berklee, as I started to discover electronic dance music. There was something incredibly uplifting, fresh, and inspiring within electronic dance music. I was a little late to the game, as when my friends in high school were attending Bay Area raves, I was going to punk rock shows. Though late to the more cultural and communal aspects of the electronic dance music scene, I was generally more interested in the music behind it. Around this time electronic music production was also becoming more democratized, as anyone with a few thousand dollars could get a laptop, computer program, and a midi keyboard, and make professional electronic music. 

Learning to record, mix, and make electronic music was incredibly time consuming at first. It was directly conflicting with my Buddhist path, as I had less and less time to meditate. I was also staying up late to work on music, and having to wake up early to cook for Geshe Tsulga. Geshela could tell I was getting distracted, and in a very gentle and kind way asked me what was going on. He didn’t judge or probe, but let me forge my own path with it. When I eventually became a monk I quit music completely. This wasn’t that hard at the time as I had mostly stopped playing drums, and was focused more on recording and producing other peoples music. What I didn’t know is that without a creative outlet, things eventually became very dry for me as a monk. I struggled a lot with this, as one of the things you give up as a Buddhist monastic is engaging in music for pleasure. This eventually became too hard for me, and one day in I picked up a friends guitar and started writing Dharma folk songs in the breaks between formal meditation sessions. This was incredibly therapeutic at the time, and helped me to process what was coming up emotionally, and in my meditation practice. It also helped to brighten the more lonely days in solitary retreat. Like a conversation that needed to be spoken, the songs eventually exhausted themselves. It wasn’t until 5 years later, in Crestone, that I picked up an instrument again. Though this time was different.

Electronic dance music was incredibly addictive for me. Companies market very sexy looking digital gear, programs, and interfaces. It’s a massive industry that mostly feeds off of bedroom producers who’s music will never see the light of day. One day I was poking around the internet, and I noticed that electronic dance music had exploded into the main stream. Having mostly been in retreat as a monk, I completely missed it, and I now became completely obsessed with the innovation that was happening. At first my new Spotify subscription added juice to my days, and inspired my afternoon walks in the mountains of Crestone. Though eventually it lead to picking up a few computer programs and playing around with music production again. Attachment is a very slippery slope, and as a Buddhist monastic there is a reason certain boundaries are in place. Looking back now, what started off as seemingly innocent, eventually became one of the contributing factors in returning my monastic vows.