Zen and the Art of Punk Rock

Since the age of six, I have had a fascination with punk music. I was born in the early 90’s and began my musical quest in kindergarten with mostly popular music. Boy bands like the Backstreet Boys were particular popular at that time. I listened to pop music at a very young age and it quickly lost its appeal. In retrospect, I realize how deeply advertising can affect young minds. I listened to popular music as a young kid because it was the only music that was well-marketed. A six-year-old can’t drive to a record store and go album-hunting.

And so, thankfully, punk rock came to the rescue shortly thereafter in the form of a band called NOFX. They were outlandish, offensive and profane (in a sardonic funny way) and their songs were incredibly short. I don’t listen to them anymore, but they were the gateway to a world I’m still discovering and participating in to the best of my ability. As a child, I loved the idea that I could spend $10 of my parents money on a CD and get 30 songs instead of 8. Punk rock music was fast and frenetic; it appealed perfectly to the ADHD personality I developed after being raised on 90’s cartoons and Nintendo 64 video games.

Punk also had a real simplicity to it. Later, when I started learning drums, I grew to love the frugality of punk musicianship. I could learn to play drums better on a $100 set than my friends who could barely keep a beat on their $1500 fancy maple kits. But, beyond that, the irreverence and anarchic of punk is what drew me in.

The covers of the records didn’t look like the pop covers. They were hand-drawn, fun and insane looking. The recordings were rough and real, not mixed on a $400,000 board by ten separate recording engineers. The musicians were weird looking and often ‘ugly’ by popular standards, but beautiful in their proclamations of uniqueness.

Punk, to this day, simply feels so right because it was wrong by popular standards. The punk, like the monk, is a pariah. Through the lens of such an individual’s rejection of society, society in turn has no choice but to reflect upon itself. It may continue chugging along as usual, but not without the nagging recognition that there’s another way. All forms of art and theory, from painting to physics, have always served the purpose of jogging people out of their conventions. There’s no progress without deviation.

This is the same attitude that drew my to Zen Buddhism through a book of Zen jokes and koans I found at my grandmother’s house when I was 10. The Zen masters responsible for the oral tradition of these koans were sarcastic and contrarian. They were real rebels through their mastery of self-discipline. Great punk pioneers like Richard Hell, Ian MacKaye and Lou Reed saw through certain veils preventing creative activity. They destroyed boundaries to create a revolutionary art form. They followed their own paths and were always inquisitive, much like the classic Zen masters.

I bring up the topic of punk rock on The Daily Zen because I see correlations between the part of my life I spend devoted to punk music and the part I spend reading and practicing Zen Buddhism and exploring other philosophies. I play drums in a punk band. And I often post quotes from my favorte punk musicians on this site. The two parts of my life are inseparable. Like reading good books or meditating, punk rock is fun and engaging. The people who choose to make a living at it do so often painfully conscious of the sacrifices they will have to make. The original owners of SST records, who produced albums by Black Flag and the Minutemen, two personal favorites, each rationed themselves a single candy bar a day for months at a time so they could afford to glue records together and pay rent.

They did it not because of the sterotypical (and often extreme inaccurate) portrayal of punk musicians as drug addicts and junkies; they did it because believed in their work. Like the cliché goes, they starved for their art. And it worked. Zen monks get 3-4 hours of sleep per night and toil excruciatingly to conquer both their minds and bodies. In playing punk music, a musician is always conscious of human animality. The fast-paced rhythms and chaotic melodies mirror the order we can find through chaos elsewhere. The act of playing punk music is intense and takes over one’s entire field of perception due to the sheer strenuousness of it. Imagine playing a song like the one below on drums; all limbs are moving at full speed. The only comparable feelings of exuberance I’ve found to playing drums at a punk concert are yoga, meditation and weightlifting.

As the 21st-century drags along, we seem to be moving further and further into a technologically-induced rejection of certain core human traits, as well as an unintended war against the natural world itself. The symptoms are everywhere, from the rise in obesity rates to the success of inane websites like Buzzfeed and TMZ and post-90’s influx in the prescribing of psychiatric drugs, not to mention the obvious contender of global warming. The list goes on. Rejecting certain parts of the herd-mentality backing mass culture, a classic punk ideal, is no longer the refuge of the angsty teens and drugged out James Dean wannabes of the world– it’s a necessity for survival.

Just as I can go to a Zen center and meditate in a distraction-free atmosphere for an hour, I can go to a punk venue and have the joy of bashing away at a drum set to a crowd who knows I’m not trying to sell them anything other than a chance to let go of all worries for a few hours and feel like a real person. I can go to someone else’s show and value both the intensity of the music and the wonderful positive human energy of the room. I’m often reminded of the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, when Guy Montag discovers the rebel book-memorizing drifters who’ve abandoned society for the sake of preserving the books it’s decided to burn. The catharsis of surrounding oneself with positive creative activity and people who value such work is immensely gratifying.

I’m not writing this to ask you to start listening to punk music. I highly recommend it, but I’m mostly just giving a personal example of what I hope everyone who reads this can find subjectively in their own lives: a viable venue through which to create and work hard unimpeded by all the forces at work that seem to be trying to take all the fun out of those activities. Your venue might be Zen, which, if you live in America, would make you less than .3% of the population. Or it might be entrepreneurship, which would put you at < 12%. The value is not in subscribing to an ideology or cultural norm, but in doing your own thing with confidence and love. Mike Watt, the bassist from my favorite punk band, the Minutemen, said, "Punk rock is whatever you make it to be." The same goes for happiness. There's a soulful bliss in forging your own path. Do what you want, be present, mindful, kind and healthy. The rest will fall into place.

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5 Replies to “Zen and the Art of Punk Rock”

  1. This is so perfect! I often have thought about how similar punk and zen can be, and how my interest in both came from the same place.

    I’ve also noticed how in both how there is the tendency to make it more about the ritual and “look” and loose the essence of what it meant in the first place.

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