Dharma are the first Buddhist metal band from Taiwan. Emerging in 2018, the band has been making waves ever since due to utilizing the brutal musical style of death metal with a compassionate message. The band consists of four practising Buddhists who are accompanied on stage by the orange-robed Buddhist nun Miao Ben in live ceremonies. They recently released their new EP Bhaisajyaguru, (the medicine Buddha) and with it bring a message of positive energy, good health and healing to the world.
Dharma began when drummer Jack Tung (also of grindcore band Stench of Lust), accidentally heard Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. “He was shocked by the borderline screamo way of chanting, especially as someone that grew up in a Buddhist household,” says vocalist Joe Henley, who also sings for Stench of Lust with Tung. “He was immediately inspired to start working on rhythms and beats with tons of ideas. But it was too difficult to make the desired music. So it took many years for the band to form into what it is now. We tried a song and performed it in 2007. It was very difficult but we tried it. Finally in 2018, myself and our guitarist Andy Lin finally settled down on some ideas and begin to produce solid songs based on mantras.”
According to Henley, some of Dharma’s creative inspiration stems from mantras such as the six-character Great Ming Mantra, consisting of deep throat chanting.
“This isn’t the exact song but it’s quite similar, if you’re a metal fan I’m sure you’d probably see where the inspiration came from.”
The band’s goal is to highlight Buddhist and Taoist cultures using the style of death metal to perform ancient Buddhist mantras. They hope that their message will have an influence, even if subtle, on the younger generation. Miao Ben has said that she believed integrating metal with Buddhist mantras might link faith to younger individuals who wouldn’t have been interested in Buddhism otherwise.
“You’re asking us questions now, so perhaps even you’re learning something about Buddhism,” says Henley. “Our music is for all types of people, as well as for those with no religious affiliation at all. If we make you want to explore Buddhism, that’s great. If Dharma could affect one person for the better, or help them find their own beliefs, we are successful.”
Presently, a Dharma concert experience feels like a trip to an incense scented shrine full of chanting monks. Wearing black haiqing robes, the band on stage is spattered in blood, which does tie in with the death metal aesthetic, though has a distinct purpose. “There are many gods in Buddhist and Taoist cultures that appear to have a terrifying appearance. Part of the reason is to protect believers and monks with their terrifying appearance and powerful abilities. Our makeup and stage blood represents the battle scars and blood from fighting the evil deities and karma.”
One feature of the concert which adds authenticity and sincerity to the experience is the audience themselves, who are encouraged to chant along to the mantras presented on a screen behind the band. Because the band sings in Sanskrit, subtitles on the screen help them follow along.
Dharma play a form of death metal, which may be the last genre that comes to mind when thinking of Buddhism, though it fits the band like an orange robe. “There are all kinds of Buddhist music in the world. For us, music, and metal specifically, is a way of expressing emotions, and even the common language of the world. Metal music is angrier music. It allows people to express their emotions appropriately. We play death metal because we love it and think we’re pretty good at it.”
Bhaisajyaguru is Dharma’s new three-song EP, which ties in with the current health crisis the world is in. The name refers to the medicine Buddha and the band selected it specifically to help heal the world at this trying time. The band hopes that they can provide positive energy and eliminate pain from the pandemic to the world through this release.
Grant us refuge, Bhaisaijyaguru (Master of Healing), in Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (highest perfect awakening). Bless us with your healing medicine. Rescue us from pain and send us toward enlightenment.
As for what aspects of Buddhism the band hasn’t touched upon which will be explored in the future, Henley says “In the future, we plan to add more Buddhist masters and rituals to the performance and let more people have the opportunity to learn about Buddhism and Taoist culture through our performance. Buddhism has spread for over 2,500 years. Dharma does play a small part. We will continue to create more music.”