[Opinion] Sound of EDM or Buddhist Enlightenment?

“Pain(Pain) from the high prices! Pain(Pain) because Monday arrived so quickly! Pain(Pain) because my friend is so well-off!”

1 belted out ancomedian turned EDM DJ, clad in the robes of a Buddhist monk. It was a surreal yet the mostcaptivating moment amid the bustling atmosphere of the 2024 Seoul International Buddhism Expo, set upon the stage at SETEC (Seoul Trade Exhibition & Convention). The ceiling-shaking,electrifying beats and the euphoric symphony of synthesizers and heavy basslines immediately quickened our pulses, yet they could make anyone wonder if it was not an oxymoron. In this public venue, designed to entertain while promoting Buddhist beliefs and cultural values, a perplexing juxtaposition unfolds. How can a faith tradition that has long vehemently emphasized detachment for its soteriological path, denouncing anything that could lead to self-indulgence, allow such a sensory-stimulating and impulse-inducing form of music and art? How could anyone have imagined, at least in a traditional mindset of Buddhism, the sound of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra being channeled through this vulgar, impious, and even blasphemous medium called EDM?

Reception could vary depending on the respondent and how effectively the musician or organizer communicated their intended message to the audience. I think, regardless of the outcome, this perplexing scene and its associated intellectual curiosity unveil a much larger issue than merely the legitimacy or applicability of a musical genre for the Buddhist cause. In the public eye, this bizarre, eccentric, and mind-boggling presentation of Buddhism is often dismissed as mere entertainment, devoid of deeper reflection. Yet, to scholars like myself, heavily equipped with theoretical resources, this incident represents an encounter with “secularization” or “pluralization,” in a sociological sense, challenging or advancing conventional modes of religious communication. It raises the question of how willing each participant in the communication of religious teachings is to embrace and positively interpret a creative or, in some cases, norm-breaking medium.

What is the nature of the problems I found in this musical performance that pleases the ears but puzzles the mind? Actually, it is my personal uneasiness derived from religious sensibilities. Like many others, not to mention my professional expertise in religion, I know, at least in principle, that the type of music, EDM, used on the stage is not suitable for the core message of Buddhism. Its particular features of hyper-stimulation and escalating tension can lead people into unwanted physical pleasure and indulgence through its sonic rollercoaster and infectious rhythms, controlling/manipulating the mind in ways contrary to Buddhist teachings. But does this matter? Who cares, and who can actually discern the alignment between faith and practice? It may be my overthinking. Nonetheless, I still think that serious issues can emerge and deepen especially when communication fails. Those who guard tradition and orthodox practice may resist, misunderstand, or outright reject innovation and creativity, fearing they compromise their faith. Similarly, communication can falter when the audience fails to grasp the genuine intention behind such creativity, focusing on “the finger” rather than “the moon,” as the famous Koan instructs. In other words, a positive reception demands an exquisite balance of understanding among all stakeholders, including the performer, the audience, and the religious host or authority—in this case, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

Whatever motivations may be behind this venue, if all stakeholders are satisfied with the performance, I think it is good to go for a new stage: the stage where the faith community can further engage with and reach out to the unreached. The use of EDM music may seem like a small step at the moment, but it could be a sign of a significant leap in innovating the old, albeit ineffective, means of communicating Buddhism's central tenets on liberating humanity from suffering. Of course, this incident is not unprecedented. Throughout history, religious communities have grappled with innovations, either embracing, discouraging, or outright rejecting efforts to modernize the means of their spiritual messages. Gospel music, rooted in African American cultural and musical heritage, initially faced resistance within the mainstream church. Likewise, Contemporary Christian rock, metal, hip-hop, rap, and worship dance currently pose challenges for conservative communities. In Buddhism, early monastic codes prohibited monks and nuns from performing or indulging in music. Similarly, Sufi music has long faced criticism and sometimes violent attack from conservative Islamic communities, who deem it haram. The real question is not the medium of communication itself but the successful delivery of the intended message. Religious communities can select various outward means—whether music, film, literature, or sports—to promote and realize in history their ultimate Truth, much of which I believe to be summarized as “love” and “justice.” Referring to the Buddhist concept of upaya (skillful means), I think that we can utilize any possible means if it helps alleviate humanity's suffering. Echoing the wisdom of the first century’s prominent Jewish Rabbi Hillel, the fundamental essence, or what we hold dear until death, is “love.” All the rest—be it theology, doctrines, institutions, philosophy, or EDM—is just commentary!

The author is a Professor at Seoul National University's Department of Religious Studies. --Ed.