Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Gyosen Asakura, a Japanese DJ artist-turned-Buddhist priest, created a 23-minute techno-light and sound memorial. The Show-On-G Memorial Service on the TECHNO was peformed in Japan, at Fukui City’s Shō-onji temple, on 2016/10/25. I mark this as the birth of Buddhist Futurism.
Original story curtesy of Open Culture
[Note: the video is a live video recording of Asakura’s performance as a DJ-priest, filmed in the temple. If you look carefully in the right lower corner of the video, you will see Asakura with his headphones on, live-mixing the music.]
The monk has his own religious justifications for his creation drawn from Pure Land Buddhism, as explained by Colin Marshall (see below), but I would like to explore it from the standpoint of my experience of the work.
The first thing that strikes the viewer is the utter weirdness of it. I liken that to the experience that a westerner has when first encountering Buddhism (beyond the first ‘learn to meditate’ session). My preference is not to accommodate Buddhism for the West by making it look, sound and feel ‘western’. I would rather experience Buddhism in all it’s exotic and alien weirdness, as a way to shatter the somnambulence of being encased in one’s own culture. My suspicion is that when Buddhism arrives in any culture, it always arrives as ‘alien’, shocking and strange, and then a process begins of ‘nativizing’ Buddhism to its host culture.
Furthermore, Asukura’s creation does not resort to popular forms of sacred music, like western kirtan, or popular forms of techno-dance music to ‘popularize’ the transmission. Instead, he goes even further into the techno-future by employing micro-tonal chants filtered through a vocoder; drum-n-bass tempos, glitch and atonality, forms of techno that are even more strange and futuristic than would be heard in a club setting. The music combined with the intense polychromatic light show transports you to an altered reality. You do not get the sense of being in a dance hall: you get the sense of being in a sacred otherworld that transcends quotidian experience.
I see Asakura’s creation as a new way to imagine the Mahayana. Instead of using ancient ecstatic poetry, chant and ritual to induce the expanded consciousness of the Mahayana, the work employs futuristic psycho-ecstatic beats and lasers to dissolve perceived boundaries of space and time and induce an expansive mind state. The rhythms of the chant are familiar to anyone who has done Buddhist chant in an Asian language. But the vocoding effects and techno-glitch give you the sense that the chant is emanating from deep space, from para-dimensions of our reality, from distant galaxies of the Buddha realms.
Asakura’s performance takes place not in a dance hall or art gallery, as one might expect for this kind of display. It takes place in an actual Buddhist temple. So this is moreover not the “Protestant Buddhism” that the West has shaped and privileged for over a century. Western forms of practice privilege silence, mediation and an atomized interior experience. This is not the utter silence, unthinking “emptiness” and sensory asceticism of western Buddhism. It is not a Buddhist practice stripped of voice, sound and colour that Westerners presume is ‘authentic’ Buddhism. It is rather an explosion of light, colour, vibration, sound, rhythm and embodiment in material forms. Its effect is not to empty the mind or induce a state of deadening calm, but to stir the imagination and invigorate the senses. It is the opposite of a static and sterile “emptiness”; it radiates energy and the possibilities of fantastic creativity.
When westerners encountered Buddhism in the 18th century, they became obsessed, as westerners often do when encountering a non-western culture, with constructing a ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ Buddhism. They artificially produced this form by stripping Buddhism of what they considered to be ‘enculturations’, layers of pre-modern and contemporary Asian cultural forms that ‘obscured’ the ‘true meaning’ of Buddhism. This de-culturation was justified by reference to supposed ‘original’ texts and ‘faithful’ translations. The movement to strip Buddhism of its polysemic cultural forms and reduce it to a rationalistic and pious ‘protestantism’ was also an attempt to tie Buddhism to an irrevocable past, to capture and embalm a form of Buddhism that could be trusted as ‘ancient’, ‘original’ and ‘authentic.’ As such, some forms of Buddhist practice that westerners have been exposed to are mere artifacts, romanticized relics of Buddhism preserved in religious museums. Asakura’s creation, which explodes the romanticization of ancient forms, may seem shocking and bizarre to the western practitioner.
Asakura’s creation is unequivocally futuristic. It is highly experimental, a techno-avant garde of the Buddhist sacred. It opens up new realms of what can be experienced as the Buddhist ‘sacred.’ It signifies a Buddhist future that is possible to imagine, create and experience in the now. With this work, the Buddhist future is instantiated and brought into the now. It signals the arrival of a techno-Buddhist future, a Buddhist culture that takes shape in material forms of culture that are emerging in a transhuman world, that blends advanced technology, ecological holism, and signalized hyper-interconnectivity with transhuman forms.
It has long been argued by the West that Buddhism is the religion most compatible with the scientific worldview. Asian Buddhists, such as Anagarika Dharmapala and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, also imagined Buddhism as congruent with scientific knowledge, a movement which became known as Buddhist Modernism. I affirm the idea that Buddhism has consonance with a scientific worldview; I am myself unabashedly modernist.
What I see in Asakura’s work, however, is a Buddhist futurism, a form of Buddhism that comes to us as an imagined future world. Buddhist futurism is a new movement that may prove to be essential for mapping Buddhism onto the techno-ecological landscape that is emerging around us. Buddhist Futurism may also prove to be a way forward, a pathway through the nihilism and necropolitics of the Trump era to a liveable future. Buddhist Futurism expands the ways we imagine that Buddhism intersects with the world, the cultural forms it interacts with, the material practices it can utilize and transform. Certain traditional forms of Buddhism and Monotheism may not be able to imagine a liveable future. They seem limited to romanticizing and reproducing a feudal (and futile) past. Buddhist Futurism may be a form of religious practice that is capable of ushering in a life-affirming techo-future.
A Buddhist colleague of mine, Monty McKeever, offers a “To Do List” of futurist cultural achievements. The list portends a future that is both technologically advanced and holistically integrated with all forms of humanity, species and the biosphere. This “To Do List” was posted on February 18, 2017, another sign of the arrival of Buddhist Futurism.
-Planet-Spanning Subway Systems
-DIY Solar and Wind Power
-Global Universal Healthcare
-Stem Cell Everything
-Green Super Cities
-Green Space Stations
-Settle Mars and Titan
-Automated Tree Planting Drones, Ocean Cleaning RoboFish, CO2 and Methane Consuming Upper Atmosphere Jellyfish Kites, and Anti-Radiation Gnomes
-Vertical Urban Farming
-Curriculum for Mandatory Public Education on Navigating the Pitfalls of Media and Online Propaganda within the Constant Sensory Onslaught of the Information Age
-Buddhist Applications for Transhumanism
-Artificial Intelligence Programmed to Always Find New and Creative Ways to Not Give Up on Humanity and Kill Us All
-Free Market Capitalism as a Subsystem within Future Renaissance Democratic Socialism (enough freedom for hustle, bustle, and innovation, but a big enough leash to keep corporate pigdogs from eating the planet and waging class warfare).
-Atomic 3D Printing
*to be completed at earliest possible convenience or upon completion of the 21st century barbarian culture wars. (by Monty McKeever, 2017)
Gyōsen Asakura frames his techno memorial services, however incongruous they might at first seem, as in keeping with the traditions of his branch of Pure Land Buddhism. “Originally, golden decorations in the temple are expressions of paradise light,” he told THUMP. “However, the light of a traditional temple has not changed its form from 1000 years ago to use candlelight, even after electricity was invented. I felt doubtful about that, and then I thought about expressing paradise with the latest stage lighting such as 3D mapping.”
After all, as he said to Japankyo, “people used to use the most advanced technologies available to them at the time in order to ornament temples with gold leaf,” so why not harness today’s technology to evoke the Buddhist “world of light” as well? And in any case, ecstatic sensory experiences are nothing new in the realm of faith, though ecstatic sensory experiences of Gyōsen Asakura’s kind do cost money to put together. And so he, in the way of most religious projects the world over, has asked for donations to fund them, using not a bowl but the crowdfunding site Readyfor. Judging by 383,000 yen (more than $3300 U.S. dollars) he’s already raised, quite a few techno-heads have seen the light.