Interview | DHARMA 樂隊 (Buddhist Death Metal - Taiwan)

Dharma (樂隊) was created by drummer Jack Tung (Stench of Lust, ex-Revilement, ex-Demise). For more than ten years, the pioneering Extreme Metal musician in Taiwan and owner of Jack's Studio, a renowned haven for Metal and music in general, dreamed of forming a band combining the ferocity of Death Metal and the teachings of the sutras. Buddhists. From 2018, he began collaborating with guitarist Andy Lin (Bloody Tyrant, ex-Demise). Together they began composing tracks incorporating various elements of Death Metal, Black Metal and symphonic music. The result, Metal with Buddhist sutras and mantras, sung in Sanskrit and Mandarin Chinese. In 2019, Jack Tung invited vocalist Joe Henley (Revilement, Stench of Lust, ex-Sledge City Slashers), to take the mic.

Before fully participating in the project, Joe Henley had to receive the blessing of the group's spiritual advisor, Master Song, a devout monk and professor of Buddhist studies in Taipei. For a few months in early 2019, the singer studied under Song, learning about Buddhism and the various Mahayana sutras he sang about. Joe eventually takes refuge in the Three Jewels, becoming a Buddhist himself, thus receiving Master Song's blessing and the right to recite sutras in public.

This is how the core of the band was formed, they were joined by rhythm guitarist Jon Chang (Bloody Tyrant).

Dharma (樂隊) claims Mahāyāna Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism which appeared around the beginning of our era in northern India and the Kushan Empire, from where it spread rapidly to Tarim and China. It will know its most popular form in the 5th century in Japan in its "Zen" form.


Hi Dharma! Could you introduce yourself ?

Dharma is a band which incorporates traditional Buddhist mantras and sutras as our chosen medium of expression. Our music is for people of all faiths, colors, and creeds, and for people of no religion at all.

A Dharma performance is more than just performing the songs. The band also incorporates ancient Buddhist rituals for the audience to experience.

Dharma uses the ferocity of death metal to represent the Buddha’s protection. The inherent anger of death metal augments the will of the scriptures to instill within the listener a sense of spiritual release and through the release of karma.

The concept of Dharma is a major element in Buddhism, why did you choose this term to designate yourself ?

Firstly, let us introduce “DHARMA” to you. DHARMA technically has multiple meaning, one that’s most known is conformity to religious law, custom, duty. Its core meaning is “to hold one's own quality”, holding one’s true quality helps us understand and connect to the world and it’s wisdom, through DHARMA we are called to keep the nature of all things unchanged.

“達摩” is the transliteration of DHARMA that’s known to mandarin speaking folks.

Searching either DHARMA or 達摩 both brings up Buddhism, which serves our goal of spread the Buddhist teaching, it works great for us in that way.

Buddhism has taken many different aspects and directions over time. I sensed elements from Japanese Zen Buddhism, but also from Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. Which current of thought influence you the most?  

Buddhism originated in Kapilavastu (now Nepal), the Indus Valley Civilisation of ancient India. Dharma band’s founder and drummer, Jack, first heard of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures around 2000’s and was shocked by the borderline screamo way of chanting, especially as someone that grew up in a Buddhist household (Most people in the East normally believe Buddhism and Taoism.) Jack was very much a metalhead at the time and he thought the way of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures chanted is a complete copy of black metal singing. Jack was immediately inspired to start working on rhythms and beats with tons of ideas.  

How do you mix all these influences ?  

In this modern society, with the advancement of technology and promotion of individualism, the moral and ethics are at its all-time low. As a full-time drum teacher that work not only in studios but also schools, Jack can especially feel the change in the younger generations. Jack is hoping through religion we can inspire the good in people. It is not necessary to be Buddhism, while it could be Daoism, Christianism, Catholicism or even Satanism. Jack believes that having a belief is good, not only religions but also a kind mind. Jack believes all religions are based on a foundation of peace and harmony. No matter what kinds of religion, most of them are based on kindness. Of course, Dharma personally hopes that people can start from Buddhism.  

People can get to know Buddhism from the name of Dharma. All our songs’ lyrics are from classic Buddhist mantras. If someone is listening to any Dharma's music, he or she can search and will have the chance to approach Buddhism. In the future, no matter whether those who hear Dharma’s name, those who cooperate with us, any audience, or any netizen, even though only one person gets to know the Buddhism and wants to know more about it, this is a big success for us. 

To continue further on this idea, how do you mix Death Metal with Buddhism ?  

Buddhism and Taoism are polytheistic. Each deity is in charge of Its own duties, and each statue takes on a different form, depending on the deity. Dharma represents the Buddha’s guardian stance and furious stance. Dharma utilizes blast beats and alternate picking to express the furious and dark side of the Buddhist scriptures. The inherit anger of death metal augments the will of the scriptures to instill within the listener a sense of spiritual relief and undeniable passion through the release of karma. Dharma uses the ferocity of death metal to represent the Buddha’s protection. 

You explained that you singer Joe Henley had taken an initiation to Buddhism so that he could sing mantras on stage. How did this go? How did he experience it personally?  

In Buddhist culture, chanting mantras is better done under the guidance of a master. In tradition, some mantras cannot be recited without the guidance of a master. 

Joe Henley is a writer who has been in Taiwan for 18 years. He has a certain understanding of Chinese culture. He agrees with the concepts and ideas of the Dharma Band. When he decided to join the Dharma Band, he did not hesitate to have taken refuge in the Three Jewels and become a Buddhist, in the hope to be more influence and spirit when he perform Dharma’s music.  

What do you think about the way Western bands use Buddhism?  

Whether in the East or the West, there are many music and bands with various religious themes, most of which are mainly based on praising the gods. Now we can easily find light music, crystal music, chakra music and even dance versions of religious music on the Internet, but it is rare to find in the field of heavy metal and even death metal, especially if it is original sutras and mantras. 

Personally speaking, music is just like movies, and the extreme metal groups are much like horror or cult films, it’s simply a genera. It’s true some in the scene are strongly anti-religious, anti-society and mainly sing about sex and violence but hey it’s a free world and who’s there to say you must sing about certain things or behave a certain way to enjoy or create extreme metal music? 

While we’re creating, we mainly wanted to make something that we truly enjoy ourselves and considering our background that’s probably why it came out in Death metal form. 

We’ve come across metal artist form different countries and background in the past few years. Lots of metalheads look intimidating and could easily scare kids, but once you get a chance to know them more, most of them are friendly and some of them are also vegetarian/vegan that care deeply for our planet and world. We often think that if people make religious music in order to let more people know and approach religion and find their own beliefs. Should people who like extreme music be forgotten? 

Religion’s tradition and culture needs updates as time passes, so does the heavy metal scene. 

So far people from the metal scene have been friendly so does the Buddhist masters, just a tiny portion of traditional believers that’s a bit old school and don’t seem to approve our music, we don’t let that bother us much though, it’s just music, plus we know what ideas we wish to spread. 

You just released your first album Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (正法眼藏). Are you thinking of releasing it in a physical format?  

We are about to release Treasury of the True Dharma Eye in physical format soon, and also we are preparing merchandise and touring! 

It refers to the Japanese Zen master Dôgen’s work Shōbōgenzō about a specific moment in the life of the Buddha. Were you inspired by the work or the moment of the Buddha’s life?  

Our inspiration is like what we answered you. We think it is a "fate" with the Buddha 

Death Metal usually deals with topics really far from Buddhism. How would you like to spread them? Do you create a more accessible form of Buddhism for those who are not familiar with it, or do you on the contrary keep a form very close to the sacred texts? How do you express it?  

Buddhism originated in India, therefore Dharma performs in Sanskrit, hoping to be as close to the original sutra as possible so the audience would be bathed in Buddhism/Taoism. It’s fine even if the audience doesn’t understand the sutra or cannot comprehend the pronunciation, as the sutras themselves hold the power and the blessings of the Buddhas. Sutras in Sanskrit are more than just sounds. They each have their own meanings. The meanings might be multi-dimensional. It’s the power of sound, and that’s why Dharma kept the original Sanskrit, hoping the audience can find inner peace and resolution after hearing Dharma’s music. 

Are the lyrics only mantras?  

Yes, only mantras, we would like to convey the original language from Buddha. As different regions have different concepts and pronunciations, we want to keep Sanskrit as original as possible. Since Buddhism is originated from India, Sanskrit was the language being originally used in scriptures and mantra, therefore we’d like to stay as true to it as possible. Sanskrit represents what the Buddha says, and those who listen to our music also listen to Buddha.  

Buddhist themes can be found in some Chinese bands, but it seems that you are the first in Taiwan to use them. How are you perceived on the island ?  

As far as we know, there are many similar religious musical bands or individual artist worldwide, but we may be the very first band to put Buddhist scriptures into Death Metal. Dharma focus on the costumes (wearing Haiqing clothes, a kind of Buddhist dress), makeup (All band members except for the master will put on black paint and fake blood during live performances. This represents the battle scars and blood from fighting the evil deities and karma), VJ vision ( Visual effects with Buddhist/Taoist imagery), the smell (sandalwood), and even combined with Buddhist rituals into each of our performances. Through our music and performances, we are very happy that more and more people are willing to approach the Buddhism and follow us on the spot to close their eyes, transferring of Merit to the suffering people in the world. 

Do you know other Buddhist bands you would like to tour with?  

We would love to have the opportunity to tour with other Buddhist groups, but we prefer to perform with more non-Buddhist bands. We hope that more bands and audience can come into us and find their own good faith through our music. This is what we hope to convey, and we hope to perform are music festivals 

We have a chance to see you all in Europe next year. Let us see. 

Any last word to conclude?  

Faith in and of itself won’t necessarily bring you anything, but faith can give you strength when you need it most. 

Questions : Morgan
Translation : Loucach