Buddhists Take the ‘Gospel’ Music Path to Attract Youth

By Kalinga Seneviratne, Lotus News Features / IDN-InDepthNews, May 6, 2016

SINGAPORE  -- Buddhist ideas and wisdom are being increasingly adopted by the West as part of a 21st century modern lifestyle, but in the East, youth are increasingly distancing themselves from their Buddhist heritage becoming “free thinkers” or even embracing Christianity from the West. A group of young Buddhist musicians from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have now come together to reverse this trend by using music to attract youth.

Photo credit: Buddhist Fellowship of Singapore.

They staged a Buddhist musical show at the prestigious Esplanade arts centre here called “Sadhu for the Music” to mark the Vesak festival. The two shows on May 4 and 5 were a sell-out filling up all four levels of the large concert hall’s galleries.

The traditional method of getting the youth to come to the temple and listen to the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) is not working anymore argues Wilson Ang, President of the Buddhist Fellowship of Singapore (BFS), which organized the concert in collaboration with the Buddhist Gem Fellowship of Malaysia (BGFM) and Buddhist Fellowship Indonesia. The show was directed by the internationally acclaimed Malaysian Buddhist singer and musician Imee Ooi, who has recorded over 1,000 songs and 50 albums.

Ang told Lotus News, that at a recent conference here an academic has provided statistics, which showed declining interest in Buddhism in Singapore among the youth. “That caught my attention and I wanted to see how we can capture the interest of this younger generation as well as nominal Buddhists,” he explained. “Every youth today carry a mobile phone and they listen to music on it. Or watch movies. Probably we can use music as a starter to reach via the media they are closely associated with.”

Prof Victor Wee , President of BGFM agrees. “Before we can start telling people about Dhamma, our first challenge is to persuade them to come and listen,” he argues. “And good music certainly has the power of attraction.”

Buddhists in Asia are well aware of the power of Gospel Music that has helped to attract youth in the region to Christianity in large numbers. The production ‘Sadhu of the Music’ had a great influence of this genre of music in its presentation style but the lyrics were well crafted with Buddhist ideas and even chants from the sutras (Buddha’s sermons).

Songs were sung in English, Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia by youthful singers. Some of the accompanying dances had an interesting blend of East and West, with the ballet and break dance styles reflective of gospel music dancers blended at times with kung fu and tai chi movements. None of the dancers or singers wore any batiks, lungis or choeongsams.

Director Imee Ooi admits that she has been profoundly influenced by Christian gospel music because her family in Malaysia was very musical and at the time of her childhood there was no Buddhist music for her to listen to. “I think gospel music has gone a long way … because of the nature of religion. Buddhists are more inward and Westerners and Christians are more expressive in their religious activity… they are well ahead of us,” she said.

Buddhists in Asia are renowned for their conservatism and many older monks still shun the use of music in propagating the religion, fearing that it will dilute the traditional monastic chanting culture mainly based on Pali language of the Buddha’s time, which no one speaks today.

Prof Wee who was one of the first to pen Buddhist songs in the 1970s recalled in a message written for the concert program that when they started singing Buddhist songs at the Buddhist Mahavihare in Bricksfield, Kuala Lumpur, some temple elders had gone to the high priest and complained about them singing in the pagoda.

“They were roundly scolded by the late Chief (Venerable K Sri Dhammananda) who said that if they were not open to new ideas, the temple would soon be bereft of young people,” recalls Prof Wee.

Imee notes that because the world has changed, youth are very much connected with the world and they are exposed to high standards of music. “Their taste is different and if you want them to come and relate to religion you have to do it their way,” she argues. “My mission was given by the BFS to create a platform for youth to come and enjoy the music.”

In putting the program together Imee has “polished up some of the gems lying around,” some of these Buddhist compositions were written in the 1980s. “ The productions were not very professional as they did not have good facilities at the time and they were basically home made,” she notes. “I was given over hundred CDs to pick up good pieces and also lyrics to put up the show.”

Ang says that not all monks are opposed to using music to propagate Buddhism. “We approach older venerables for advice and many of them gave us examples of how in older days music was part of the promotion of Buddhism. They were supportive, only a few were not receptive,” he said, adding: “Buddha used different vehicles to get the message across to different individuals … there is no one vehicle.”

The show was put together in six chapters, each included about 4 songs and reflected a theme based on Buddha’s teaching, with the last chapter representing compassion with a wish “may you all be well and happy”.

“This is a very good platform for Buddhists of different countries to come together and experience Buddhism in a way that we don’t usually do,” said Kan Rong Hui, one of the Singaporean youth performers. “I also found out that Imee was involved and her standards are good. So I wanted to be part of it.”

“It’s not that we are backward compared to gospel music; it’s that we never saw music as a platform to spread the message,” argues Imee, who plans to transform the ancient sutras into songs. She says that there is a growing Buddhist musical movement across Asia and they need to start networking among themselves. “They are all disconnected,” she adds, “someone look at me and say oh Buddhist music has gone international.”

One of the biggest drawbacks Buddhist musicians face is that Asian Buddhists are not yet used to fund such cultural activities on a grand scale. They are more willing to fund building grand temples or huge Buddha statues.

“If it’s something physical you get money easily,” notes Ang. “When it’s something soft like Dhamma through music, (building) relationships is very important. That is why BFS team had to go to temples to establish relationships with abbots and businessmen. “We have to convince them that it’s important to reach out to the youth in a very contemporary manner … to give them a taste of the Dhamma and from there you can make progress,” he adds.

“Gospel music is effective but we need to use (the idea) wisely,” Ang argues. “In propagating (the religion) we are pretty strong in meditation, eventually that is where we want people to get into learning the Dhamma and practicing meditation.”

Addressing those who have reservations about using music to propagate Buddhism, Prof Wee says that in his four decades of producing Buddhist songs and music “many of my friends who sang with me have remained Buddhist practitioners, some going on to become serious meditation practitioners, Dhamma teachers and Buddhist leaders.”

*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic, teaching regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Please click here for the writer’s articles on IDN. [IDN-InDepthNews – 6 May 2016]

Lotus News Features cover countries and communities in Asia with a set of news values that are based on "mindful" concepts and ethics emanating from Buddhist values. Previous articles as part of the Lotus News Features can be accessed here.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.
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