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Zen Meets Techno: The Formless Track (or, “How Psy and I Didn’t See Eye-to-Eye”)

About 21 years ago, when I was active in Korean society, I was invited to join a monthly gathering of people in the worlds of arts and media in Seoul. I was invited to become sort of their spiritual guide or friend or something. They would meet together in a nice restaurant in one of Seoul’s posh neighbourhoods (it was, after all, more a social gathering for them all, and I was the exotic attachment that was added to the evenings for some sort of depth or color.) One member of the group was the mother of the Korean pop star, Psy. (Yes, the guy who wrote “Gangnam Style”.) In those days, he was not nearly the internationally recognised figure he is today. But he was definitely super-famous in Korea. He was known for his theatrical performances and expression, but he also bent the rules a lot, and flagrantly broke others, and that is a quality I have often liked in a person, especially in artists. In his youth, Psy had spent some years at the Berklee School of Music, one of America’s preeminent music schools, so I respected that he came from a deeper background in musical understanding than your average pop star. The man very much has a brain, and a very, very interesting one, at that.

A little background is helpful for what comes next: During years of trips to one of our Zen Centers in Hong Kong, I was struck with how much there was Buddhist music in restaurants and stores, at juice shops and gift shops. Now, of course, I was always around Buddhists when in HK and China, monastics and laypeople, and we were often taken out to lunch offerings in vegetarian restaurants that were, by default, nearly always Buddhist-themed. So there was definitely this sort of “selection bias” in my sampling. But I noticed the Buddhist music enough for it to make a big impression. It was often ancient Buddhist chants or mantras or dharanis that had been reworked with synthesizers and cheap-ambient tech to present a nice (if extremely kitschy) atmospheric, reminding people — people who knew Chinese, of course — of the waking-up technologies of the first psychotherapist in human history, Shakyamuni Buddha.

For a fresh new Buddhist to experience, it was liberating hearing the teachings “out in the open”, in the public marketplace. Yet at the time, I was mainly based in Korea, and one never heard such music in the place I had chosen to engage in meditation training. So this led to a question: “Why doesn’t such a culture of Buddhist music exist in South Korea, the land of a tradition which was saving my life?” I wondered. “Why, in the land of my Teacher, with a 1,700 year-old Buddhist tradition, are the only spiritually-suggestive songs encountered in Korean popular culture the cheap, schmaltzy songs you hear on Christian channels in the U.S., promoting a shallow tradition which was only present in Korea for 100 years?” Why were the Christians in Korea so effective at slipping biblical myths into peoples’ brains through the diffusion of endless American-style gospel music — and that always-extending Christmas season, with its ubiquitous flooding of Christmas carols — with seemingly zero effort on the Buddhist side to add their own far more reasonable, rational, even scientific and effective methodologies, in the realm of popular, low-brow culture? I felt how lucky we Westerners had been — I had been — to have received such clear and direct instruction, and yet Korean Buddhists were not making a sufficient effort to update their own means of transmission, for the continuance and vitality of their own ancient tradition.

In short, as in other areas, so with this, I felt compelled to bring seeds of Zen teaching to Korean society, by “high” means and “low”, whatever it takes.

So, one night, after our regular meeting in her wonderful restaurant in Gangnam (yes, THAT Gangnam!), I handed Psy’s mother a CD of traditional Korean chanting, obtained from one of the Buddhist stores that line the street in front of Chogye Sah Temple. “Would you please pass this on to your son? It has been my dream to bring Buddhist teachings out into popular culture, and music is the best means of accomplishing that. If he would be interested in ‘sampling’ some of these chants into a danceable remix, I would be very happy to collaborate. Even if he can’t do it himself, I would be happy even to have the introduction to someone who could help me to realise this vision.” Looking back, it was a brash request. But I was considered to be famous then, and had lots of confidence that I should use this ill-earned public status to advance the teachings of meditation that my Teacher had transmitted to us, as deeply into the culture of modern Korea as possible. As he had “seeded” the West, I felt compelled to use my talents and gifts — and my immense gratitude and some modicum of faith — to seed these teachings before the field was paved over forever with the superficialities forced on them by my own culture. I believed that Dae Soen Sa Nim would have wished that. (Years later, when one of his earliest American students was visiting him in Korea, the visitor marvelled at the large amount of Western monks and nuns then practicing at Hwa Gye Sah Temple. “So many bright lights that will bring your Dharma to their countries all over the world! How proud you must be!” To which Dae Soen Sa Nim replied, without hesitation, “Their job not that. Their job is come here, hard training, then HIT Korean Buddhism. Korean Buddhism WAKE UP necessary!“)

And here’s an important note: When I made the proposal to Psy, I did not dare think of making some recording with my own voice, or even have my name attached to it. I would never have imagined that it would be something to front “me” or “my” views or insights, raw and meager as they then were. I cannot even sing! I deliberately chose a CD of already-existing Buddhist chants, by senior monks with compelling voices grounded in a spiritual depth that I was not capable of at the age of thirty-six or thirty-seven years old. I was already managing, at the time, a mega bestseller and all of its attendant insanity. The last thing I needed was more renown and exposure. The whole experience of fame was already making me (literally) sick.

The mission, rather, was to bring these ancient wisdom-seeds of the inner-life to a rapidly-modernising Korean culture, before they forgot them in the rush to become more, and more, and more “American” Koreans. (This last point was my Teacher’s own view: He once said, “The difference between you Westerners who practice Korean Buddhism, and Koreans who practice Christianity, is that Westerners who choose to sit for many, many hours in silence do this to attain True Self, to attain truth, whereas most Christians in Korea have adopted this as window-dressing, to be more acceptable in modern Korean society, and have more chances with life in the West.” That was his laser-clear eye! But that is another point.)

In the end, I never heard back from Psy. And it didn’t really surprise me. I don’t mean this in any cynical way: Why would one of the biggest pop stars in Korea — and from a nominally Catholic family, to boot! — have time in his busy creative flow to put some moldy-seeming Buddhist chants to techno, simply at the request of this American monk? (Although I thought I’d had at least a little chance at succeeding, since Psy’s sister had come to one our group’s meetings because she had recently begun meditation practice, and had questions for me about meditation. So I had assumed that Psy could at least be open-minded, which he very much is, though with other matters to consider.) I let the idea go.

But the idea never let me go.

Eventually, the idea disappeared from conscious view and imagination, and I transitioned from Korea to the West, and founded this Zen Center where we practice and teach today. A few years ago, my students and I captured some of our chants on tape, and I thought vaguely about resurrecting the old vision, but there were, by then, many other responsibilities to attend to, and I always just put it off. Guiding a residential Zen Center is, after all, more than a full-time job, in addition to balancing a travelling teaching schedule throughout the year.

About three years ago, I was contacted by Arman Ray, an artist in the UK. He asked if he could put pieces of my public Dharma talks to music. “Would you permit me to do this, if I check everything with you first before releasing?” The idea was strange to me — a bit of “a bridge too far” — but also deeply sincere. Arman Ray had been involved with Zen for several decades, practicing under the eminent teacher, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, the Founder of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, a Soto tradition started in the UK over 50 years ago. She died some years ago, and he felt left without the guidance of some teaching. His wish to make an album of Dharma teachings was guided by the same vision I had had: to put seeds of Dharma out into the digital ether, to see if they could help anyone get opened to some dimension of the Dharma that might lead them to look deeper, and possibly — hopefully — sit down and practice. Arman Ray said that he searched around on the Internet to find some Dharma expression which would serve this vision of his, and apparently the algorithm caused him to encounter some of the videos we were then pumping out on YouTube. It was the beginning of the pandemic, so, we had started a twice-daily livestream of Zen practice, and there was an increasing amount of my talks (“detritus” is the appropriate Latin word for it) that our team was pumping out.

I did not think much of his proposal, at the time, because one often gets very interesting dreams and proposals from people, in this line of work. And the vast majority of the proposals, however well-meaning, do not align with either my style or character. For example, just the latest interesting idea: Recently a very rich businessman in Korea proposed to buy, disassemble, and reconstruct perfectly a beautiful 19th-century tiled-roof Korean manor house — and situate it in whatever mountain location I wished — and then gift it to me if I would just agree to return to Korea to become active there again. (Answer: No, but much thanks!)

A short time later, during the start of the pandemic, I received a downloadable link from Man Ray. He sent a simple, yet beautiful rendering of my “What is Zen?” video. He titled the new, reworked video “Right Here, Right Now.”

Right Here, Right Now /// Arman Ray

From the first pump-beats, some doubts disappeared. The sound was really inspiring, even infectious, and the graphics were really great. I felt a sensitivity in the care with which he treated the words and the flow of the teaching: He did not just randomly sample-in, helter-skelter, some cool or catchy Zen phrases from my talk, but his editing actually remained surprisingly faithful to the actual flow of the “argument” I was making, the way I was making it. And even his syncopated editing and pausing of word and video-gesture showed that he was really making a point — which only a true Dharma-heart could strive for — that the listener’s attention is brought to a stop, if necessary, even nanoseconds long enough for some Dharma-possibility to bloom in the consciousness of the listerner.

I was blown away by the final video. I am still blown away by it. This was such an effective, even catchy way that the artist married my own deep passion for waking people up, with the natural human need for stimulation, movement, transport, even edification, and hopefully, evolution.

“I like this guy,” I thought.

Some months later, Arman Ray pitched a new idea: Would I grant permission to him to make a full-length album of some 12 songs, all designed around the themes and content of other Dharma talks of mine that he was then watching on YouTube? He would try out a few songs, and if I didn’t like them, he would abandon the effort. He actually said that the work of creating this was acting as a “practice” which connected with his old Zen roots, so he felt fulfilled whatever the outcome or end-product.

I was a bit hesitant: Yes, one techno-video — and an excellent one, at that — is great to have, to serve the work of transmitting teachings. But a whole album? An entire fucking album of me? More and more and more “me”? We needed to have a few more discussions.

Suddenly, I remembered the story from twenty years before about trying to get Psy to help me to spread Zen teachings through techno. The memory of my former striving for that goal had died a quiet demise (though I always kept it lightly in my breast, its heart barely beating — only my hope of realising anything there had seemed to pass away). I told him the story, and as our conversation progressed, I realised that this dream’s time had probably — finally! — come. Could this man be providing the reply to the question which I had attempted to present to Psy, back in that restaurant in Gangnam? I always teach my students that, when we plant a karmic seed, or aspiration, through practice, we cannot know (nor should we calculate) the seed’s blooming, its transition into useful fruit. Was my old vision then coming to pass, but for my hesitancy? There were good reasons for hesitating: I had labored long and hard to down-shift the intense fame I had experienced in Korea, and was sensitive as an allergy to its eruption again. Would this sort of thing blow my solitudinous stability all wide open again? There is a saying in America: “Once the toothpaste comes out of the tube, it is impossible to put it back in again.” Shit: here we go again.

After some days of silent practice, during one sitting, something happened. That morning, as every day, at the start of practice at 4:30 am, we recited aloud together the Four Great Vows, the first of which is familiar to every student of the Mahayana path: “Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.” Some bubble felt like it was rising in my heart as we proceeded through chanting, this bubble somehow “married” and germinated with the recitation of that daily vow. Several minutes after we dimmed the lights and turned to face the wall for sitting meditation, my mind shot open.

“Fuck it. Let’s do this.” Damn the torpedoes.

Arman Ray spent the next two years plus labouring on the music. He told me recently that he spent literally two years of the pandemic-period listening to my voice every single day, without a break, all day, from early morning to late into the night. He said that he listened to my voice so much that my phrasings even appeared in his dreams! His wife grew a little worried about him: he seemed like a soul obsessed. His focus was singular, laser-like, exclusive of other concerns — I think he used the word “possessed” (or his fabulous wife did) to describe his life during those years. He once told me: “Sunim, if I end up going crazy one day, and losing my wits, it might be traced back to spending basically two years or more listening exclusively to the voice and words of one single person. I spent more time with you than with my poor wife!”

Such is dharma-devotion.

The fruit of our efforts are being released today.

“The Formless Track” might be the first time (at least Man Ray thinks so) that an active living Zen practitioner/teacher’s words have been committed to this art form — techno — that whole generations, across many cultures, flock to for some throbbing approximation of the state of “trance”, some body/mind crossing of the limiting walls of conceptual thinking, of worry and fear, of angst and even the terror of life in our crowded, competitive, materialistic, even easily retributional or even vindictive (social media mobbing?) samsaric flow. I have always argued passionately, in public and private, that it is no mistake that modern clubbing — especially rave culture — was born, and first thrived, in the old European cities which had long ago loosed the bonds of organised religion, of dogmatic belief and empty spiritual ritual, of scripture-based control and oppression. I tell my students often that the masses crowding rave festivals today are simply and purely enacting much the same mechanism in their souls as their ancestors who flocked to religious festivals and pilgrimages, these religious revivals and festivals filled — as they were — with transporting song and dance, with sublime art, with experiences of oneness, of cosmic meaning, of a collapse of the artificial inner/outer divide, of time and space unbound from their quotidian framework, etc. And make no mistake about it — modern ravers also have their own sacraments, too: The fact that psychedelics and Ecstasy are the fully transubstantial bread-and-wine of choice at raves and clubs, as opposed to, say, well, fruit-wine and its fallen co-Satanists, tells you something about what people are searching for. It’s religious pilgrimage 2.0. I have met many, many clubbers and ravers who speak of their experiences of “oneness” with such passion and sincerity that, if you changed just a few words around, you could be capably believe you were actually hearing reports of a religious revival.

“The Formless Track” is a Zen choral for the modern pilgrim. None of this content was created or imagined for the purposes of this project: They are exact samplings (some re-recorded) from talks I had given long before I had heard of Man Ray, from talks I had not even given for a present audience at all, in most cases. Sitting (usually alone, or with Ioannis) in our Zen Center shuttered by lockdown, these lyrics are sampled directly from content that was recorded for inspiring the practice of unknown locked-in folks across the globe who had implored us to keep a link open to our practicing life here, for the support of their mental and psychological health during the most trying period of our recent lives. This record didn’t come from a plan; it came from a virus.

Now, it is a fairly ironic enterprise for a monk who forbids the playing of music in the kitchen of his meditation center, to engage in such a project. I am so especially disdainful of the culture we live in that pumps pop songs into our head every time we enter a coffee shop, an elevator, a gym, a supermarket, doctor’s office, bar, restaurant, or taxi (and a zillion places in between). I chide my meditation students who wear headphones habitually on the street, robotically pumping long-familiarized shit into their heads while there are true living birds singing around and alongside, a whistling sad wind curling with messages just overhead, a lonely church bell in the distance calling us back to Moment, the random bark of a dog, or rusty bike-chain cranking slowly past from out of view. In Germany, when a song or tune gets stuck in your head, and repeats, it is called Ohrwurm (“ear worm.”) What a great word! As a meditator, as one who treasures the infinite breadth and depth of what silence can teach us, what real-Moment wishes to reveal, I am especially suspicious of anything that produces any kind of “ear worms” in my own practice. I change places from a cafe where I have gone if the music is too intrusive, or too sticky in the lighter layers of deep memory, in the same way a non-smoker avoids a smoke-filled room. Sometimes I wear noise-cancelling headphones (set to the top-cancellation level) when circumstances require me to sit in particularly challenging environments that cannot be avoided. I ask taxi drivers to please turn off the radio, if it is set to some pop station that’s going to leave “You Can Go Your Own Way” or Madonna (much as I love the latter) reverberating lightly in my soft tissue recesses. No, I limit even listening to my passionately beloved Mahler or Beethoven to a few times per year, because even their sublime messages become trailing phenomenal filaments of distraction, beautiful fine-silk threads wafted from mere memory to veil the vast, wide-open door of Now. (And for me, not listening to them would be the equivalent of asking the Pope not to go to Mass or read the Bible but for a handful of times pro annum.)

This is a contradictory gesture, this album-release. There is no hiding that. So you can probably appreciate, now, some of the other, finer roots of my hesitation when Man Ray broached this idea the first time. And I am not yet absolutely settled in what I am allowing to be brought into the world, even if its high-minded (yet true) wish is to deliver people — that however few — someday deep into the silence of Zen. But as my hero, William Blake, once said: “Without contraries is no evolution.” And this is how I live and practice and teach.

So, in the end, what is this for? I have explained ideas of reaching some masses of people. I dare to imagine if, one day, a crowd of people seeking group-transcendence in a club or rave, would taste some of the power of what the Dharma can be for them through these Dharma words sprinkled so intelligently in the pulsing tones. Maybe some number of people could go from a phrase or two, to looking into some books on Dharma, or a video, maybe find a good teacher (not me, please) somewhere, or a community where they can practice. That is on the mass-level. That fantasy is there.

But I think, rather, of some individual, somewhere — a teenager lost in depression somewhere in the Midwest of America, or an Iranian in Qom who has seen the hollowness of blind theocratic “faith” but has no replacement for it, or a Greek kid stuck in generational trauma considering suicide in Heraklio, or a trans-maybe kid in London wondering alone about the nature of “identity” (“Eyes Wide Open,” on the album!), or some woman in a rude Sao Paolo favela confused about the true ground of Being amidst the noise and squalor and crime. These songs are for each one of them.

I remember, as a youth, the phrases of popular songs which posed some new idea that broke open my conceptual worldview from its fear-based Catholic trammelling, and caused me to seek fuller answers in literature, and then philosophy, and even theology, until I was intellectually convinced to trust the infinite silence off my Being, in wordless Zen. I remember especially the opening words of “I am the Walrus” causing a major conceptual logjam:

I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together.
See how they run like pigs from a gun,
See how they fly.
I’m crying!

“What the hell does this mean?” This was an “ear worm” that burrowed so deeply into my Catholic soul, and it acted like a sort of kōan (Kor.: kong-an). I could not think conceptually about it, and yet it challenged everything. What teachings and traditions in those years could not withstand the intellectual challenge — and there other, similar lyrics doing the same deconstructing job alongside, and the poetry of Blake, and of Rilke, et al. — simply fell by the wayside. The entire hollow superstructure of monotheism crumbled irretrievably, I could say, beginning with the constant nibble-nibble-nibbling of a few choice, genius “ear worms”, phrases or things that caused me to ask deeper questions. (I guess that’s why the nuns at school railed against the “evils” of rock-and-roll so much.)

Well, those “ear worms” cleaned out my ears. They cleared them out for silence. They cleared them out for Zen.

My sacred vow is that these techno-Zen “ear worms” inspire worthy creatures to work through the dirt of their own deluded thought-patterns. I release now this record, as an offering to the liberation of beings, and in gratitude to the Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn — Founder of the Kwan Um (“perceive sound”) School of Zen — who brought me to TRUE hearing in this life. “Hearing” through the silence of Zen.

A link to “The Formless Track”: https://www.theformlesstrack.armanraymusic.co.uk

One more point: This record is for paid download. Any small profits that accrue to my name will never be possessed by my person. We are putting an understanding in writing which dedicates every Euro of sales directly to the official account of Zen Center Regensburg e.V., a transparent, government-monitored non-profit account, which only pays for rent and staff expenses. There is zero personal gain involved for me, and there never will be.

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