Adam Yauch, aka MCA, died last week. He was a founding member of the Beastie Boys, also known for his Buddhism and social activism. He created the Milarepa Fund, which produced the Tibetan Freedom concert series and long promoted the cause of HH the Dalai Lama and the self-determination of the Tibetan people.
I never met MCA, but I was a fan. And I’ve been practicing Buddhism for many years now. As I’ve been reading articles and tributes to him in the past week, it’s made me think about my early introductions to Buddhism that have led me to where I am now, as well as a general ambivalence that often surrounds Buddhist identity.
While I wouldn’t say that I was a hip-hop devotee, the Beastie Boys are part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. I first heard “Licensed to Ill” on a rowdy and hormonally charged school bus in the sixth grade. The callow tone of “Fight for Your Right to Party” reflected the angst and concerns of my nascent teenaged world and the kind of flippant independence to which I aspired at the time. And as I matured, so did the Beastie Boys.
Their 1994 album “Ill Communication,” with the Buddhist-inspired songs “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow,” came out in my first year of college and accompanied my early encounters with Buddhism, along with The Dharma Bums and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Reading through recent tributes to Yauch, I came across an interview he did in a 1994 issue of Tricycle magazine, also one of the first issues of Tricycle I ever read. And rereading this interview after so many years (18, really!?), I hear a number of themes that once resonated so strongly with me and the spiritual journey of my young adulthood.
Yauch talked about his discovery of Buddhism in terms of a personal spirituality centered in compassion and an open mind and heart. He identified a divide or polarization between a dynamic spirituality of youth and a more conservative approach taken by an older generation. And when asked if he was Buddhist, he showed an ambivalence toward this self-identification, saying that no one had ever given him a solid definition of what a Buddhist is.
When I first encountered Buddhism, I was reacting against what I saw as myopic and repressive tendencies in the Christianity that dominated the Oklahoma of my youth. As I was negotiating the terms of adulthood, I wanted an alternative that was subversive and countercultural. And Buddhism seemed to offer that to me, with the key to an open mind and heart.
Yet, at the time, I didn’t know any Buddhists and didn’t really know where to find them. I only engaged Buddhism through books and, when available, popular culture. To hear someone like Adam Yauch talk about Buddhism or to listen to current music infused with Buddhist teachings made Buddhism seem contemporary and relevant to my life. At that point in my life, I thought of Buddhism as more of a spirituality and a philosophy than a religion. And, like Yauch, I didn’t call myself a Buddhist.
But fast-forward several years in my life-- through more formally studying and practicing Buddhism at Zen centers in Boston, New York, and now Austin, through years of working at an interfaith organization and engaging with many different religious communities, through years devoted to the academic study of religion , through marriage and children—and Buddhism is something different for me now.
It doesn’t feel subversive and countercultural to me anymore. Where I once focused on a contemplative spiritual practice for myself, I now think more about religious education for my kids. Buddhism shapes my identity and how I think about life, interact with others, and raise my kids. It encompasses my life and provides community and ritual. I now call myself a Buddhist. And, as a scholar of religion, I recognize Buddhism as a religion.
Eventually, Adam Yauch called himself a Buddhist, too. But notably, his Buddhism has largely been presented as a spirituality, especially in articles since his death. Religion and spirituality are not synonymous. Yauch hasn’t been portrayed as a religious musician or his music as religious music. When he and his music are described as spiritual, it’s in a way that situates them as still secular. This positioning suggests that Buddhist spirituality is transcendent and timeless, rather than part of a historically, socially, and culturally particular religion. It also suggests that Buddhism is somehow monolithic, that real Buddhists ought to appear a certain way and those who do not fit this mold are not real Buddhists, but just influenced by Buddhist spirituality.
So how do we define who is a Buddhist? Thomas Tweed argues that Buddhists should be defined by self-identification; one is Buddhist if one says one is. At the same, Tweed admits that the landscape of Buddhism in North America is far more complex than even self-identification can portray. It’s a landscape shaped not just by those who call themselves Buddhists, but by the “sympathesizers” as well.
This is all part of the story of Buddhism in North America. It doesn’t always fit into conventional categories of adherent/non-adherent. And it often defies the secular-religious binary. It’s complex and characterized by encounter and hybridity. And so is Adam Yauch’s place in this narrative. So, in the end, I’ll just say thank you to MCA as one of our many guides along the ancient way. May you realize the Buddha Way.
Photo attribution: (http://www.flickr.com/photos/daigooliva/284134666/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Tiffany Puett is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in North America, the ongoing construction of ‘religion’ in a liberal democratic society and the politics embedded in these processes. She’s especially interested in the intersections of religion with education, citizenship, and religious freedom.