Sad, but true. The once great genius of the avant garde who blended pop and performance art, Laurie Anderson has retreated into her post-Lou Reed years as a Buddhist devotee. Anderson is putting out an album with Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal and composer Jesse Paris Smith called Songs from the Bardo. This piece of religious piety has Anderson reading passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The first release from the album, “Lotus Born, No Need to Fear”, is dripping with the kind of gooey flute solos that you hear on every other ‘music for meditation’ track on Insight Timer. It offers no new perspectives on the subject of death or the afterlife. It’s like reading from the Bible. It offers nothing new or challenging in terms of musical composition or performance. It’s a tedious work of religious piety, that’s all.
Compare this piece of pious schlock with the apex of her avant garde career, Home of the Brave. The video below is Anderson’s “Language is a Virus (from outer space).” This piece could be interpreted from a Buddhist perspective as a comment on the arbitrary nature of language and its meanings and how it “infects” human consciousness. From the perspective of Buddhist dharma, it yields far more insight into the accidental and constructed (thus ’empty’) nature of language than medieval Buddhism. One line from the song, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much, much better” says something more relevant about the non-dual nature of samsara/nirvana than reciting the Bardo Thodol.
The phrase “Language is a virus” comes from William S. Borough’s book The Ticket that Exploded, a novel about aliens who invade Planet Earth and attempt human mind control by psychic, electronic, sexual, pharmaceutical and subliminal means. Referencing that work, Anderson’s piece makes a compelling statement about the deranged state of human consciousness under late techno-capitalism. In her video performance of the piece, Anderson dances with Boroughs, her artistic hero and muse.
If there is anything to be gained from Anderson’s performance of piety in Bardo, it yields a cautionary tale about the seductive power of contemporary Buddhism to suck the brains out of even the most subversive individuals who would otherwise resist all kinds of religious conformity.
Perhaps Buddhism is a virus from outer space. I’ve had a hunch about that for a while. Now that’s something worth exploring with an Andersonian twist.