Into the Mainstream-
Awakening: Buddhist music for 
Western people

Bhiksuni Heng-yin's album "Awakening: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Ears" interprets the Buddha's teachings in distinctly western musical styles ranging from pop to rock, to folk.

It will be released in July and is available through Wondrous Sound Music, Box 217, Talmage, Ca., and at the Copy Center in Ukiah.

The following interview was conducted by Susan Horowitz, Vice-president of Western Public Radio. In it Heng-yin talks about her ideas, her music, and her life as a Buddhist nun.

Bhiksuni Heng-yin was born in Seattle, studied philosophy and drama at the University of Washington until, disillusioned by the university system, she moved to San Francisco in 1968. There she began intensive studies of Buddhism and Chinese language.

In 1969 she received full ordination as a Buddhist nun Bhiksuni in Keelung, Taiwan and returned to the United States to begin translating Buddhist texts. A founding member of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, she has twelve volumes of translation to her credit at present.

In 1976 Heng-yin became a founding member of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talmage, where she resides today, acting as Vice-president of Dharma Realm Buddhist University and head of the College of Translation. 

Susan: You became a nun in 1969? 

Heng-yin: Yes

Susan: And before that—did you play the guitar and sing?

Heng-yin: I studied philosophy at the University of Washington and, like a lot of people in those years, I learned to play the guitar, blues and folk.

Susan: Did you continue when you became a Buddhist nun?

Heng-yin: When I started studying Buddhism I concentrated on meditation and the

teachings Later, while translating, it occurred to me that these principles could be put into songs, so I tried it. It turned out to be exciting, and so I have continued I started writing songs because I had something to say and it seemed to me that music was an excellent vehicle.

Susan: When you write, which comes first, the music or the words?

Heng-yin: I translate Chinese, spoken lectures based on ancient texts, and I work with tapes. As I hear the Chinese I type it directly into English. Sometimes I will hear something so inspiring, I will take out my manuscript and type it as a poem. Later on I’ll find a tune for it and so it becomes a song. In Buddhism there are many technical terms and things for students to memorize. If you can put the information into a song, then it's no trouble to learn it.

Susan: Listening to your songs, they sound very Western, not Eastern as one might imagine. There are no drums or bells as one might expect—why?

Heng-yin: I guess it's because I am Western' Although we do mantras and other forms of chanting in Chinese, Buddhism doesn't belong to any particular nationality. Consequently, there is nothing strange about "Western" Buddhist music. Buddhism appeared in India and went to China where the teachings were adapted to the Chinese culture. Now that it has come to the West and the teachings are being translated into English, it is appropriate for it to take a Western form in order to reach Western people. Buddhism belongs to everyone. One of the major teachings in fact is that every living creature has a Buddha nature and can realize Buddhahood, that is, the perfection of the spirit. The Buddha himself expressed the wish that wherever his teachings went, they be put in the language of the people.

Susan: Do you prefer singing songs for Buddhism to mantras, meditation or other activities?

Heng-yin: In Buddhism, essentially the work is to purify your own mind to get rid of greed, anger, and delusion. There are many ways to approach this work—through mantras, meditation, study, etc., but (hey all serve the same purpose. I don't think that any one method is higher than any other. It depends on the disposition of the person. One person may use several methods. The songs are obviously a more popular form, an inspirational and teaching device, but I wouldn't say I preferred them to other forms of cultivation.

Susan: What would you tike to have happen to your songs? You've got a songbook published, you've made a tape and now an album. What would you hope for them?

Heng-yin: When I decided to study Buddhism, It was because I saw that everything in this world was false. Even though you may enjoy yourself for a while, it's only temporary, and that means it's painful. People have to be born and they have to die and they don't really know where they came from or, when they die, where they are going. That's a big problem. The Buddhadharma recognizes this problem and furnishes us with tools to help us break through our confusion, to break our attachments to ignorance and desire. When I first heard the Dharma. It sounded very true to me. I felt a great deal of enthusiasm for wanting others to hear it too, so that's probably the object of my songs—it there is one.

      One thing I noticed very early in life, maybe when I was nine or ten, was that, "Wow. All these songs are about love-love, love! Aren't there songs about anything else?" I wrote the songs because I would like people to consider a different viewpoint on the world, and not feel compelled to live just for the satisfaction of their desires. The more you run after objects of desire, the more pain you must undergo. Basically within the natures of all of us is everything we need.

Susan: Could you describe a little bit of your day? You're busy constantly, I imagine. Just give us an idea of what you do.

Heng-yin: We get up at tour in the morning and chant (or an hour. Then there's meditation. Afterwards I translate or teach. Most of the monks and nuns eat only one meal a day. The Buddha recommended this as something especially good for cultivation.

Susan: When do you get a chance to compose?

Heng-yin: When I take the time!

Susan: Would you perform?

Heng-yin: Probably.

Susan: With a back-up group? 

Heng-yin: Sure.

Susan: How do you think the American public is going to react to your music? 

Heng-yin: I really don't know. When the time is right for something to happen, it can happen, but I haven't really thought about the future. I'm just doing the music like I do my other work—because that's my job. I do think the songs—not necessarily my voice, but the message in the songs, could be helpful to people Hopefully they interpret the Buddhadharma correctly Music has a tremendous power to move people, and I hope to move them in the right direction, away from greed and anger towards wisdom. What happens in the future I'll just have to deal with when it happens.

      When Buddhism went to China it was several hundred years before it hit the mainstream of the population, but now in Asia its principles are all pervasive Everyone knows about the laws of cause and effect and the six paths of rebirth, filiality, and so on Buddhism is just getting started in America, with people actually doing the work of cultivation and translating the teachings into English. It may be a while before it reaches the popular level, but the songs can be a stepping stone in that direction.


AWAKENING: ancient wisdom for modern ears 12" stereo 1p
$7.00+$1.00 postage and handling use order envelope or write:


Box 217
Talmage, Ca. 95481


Now you know
It’s not going to last
Why do you hold on?
Why do you seek bliss
In things that can only bring you pain?

Birth and death
It happens very fast

No place solid to stand on
It’s just emptiness
Nothin’ but a springtime’s dream

Watch the silkworm spin
The shroud he’ll soon die in
Whe're you going my friend?
You can’t avoid life’s bitter end

You can be free, you know
It’s your life
It’s your show
Just let your wisdom grow
Just let your false-thoughts go

Turn the Light Around

Turn the light Around
Shine it on the mind-ground
Listen to your own sound
That's where joy can be found

In people's faces I can read
A book of endless misery
Turn and run 'till I can run no more
The Buddha's wisdom is a. treasury
The Dharma's light shines bright on me
Head in the clouds
Feet on the other shore.

Turn the light around
Shine it on the mind-ground
Listen to your own sound
That's where joy can be found

Morning sunrise
Clear in blue skies
Over mountains filled with golden light
Wisdom's real prize.
"Within yourself lies
Cultivate it here
By day and night

Turn the light around
Shine it on the mind-ground
Listen to your own sound
That's where joy can be found...

(Two songs from the album Awakening. Lyrics and music by Bhiksuni Heng-Yin)