"People were crowdsurfing in the lotus position." Dharma are a Taiwan-based Buddhist collective that play death metal and have a nun in their ranks. Chances are, you've never met another band like them

Dharma in 2022
(Image credit: Press)

A cloud of incense wafts through the air conditioning system and into the lobby of Legacy Max, a 2,000-capacity venue in downtown Taipei, Taiwan. After a few remaining ticketholders are ushered inside, the heavy doors swing shut and attention turns to the person responsible for all this smoke: a diminutive Buddhist nun, Master Miao-ben. She’s a member of death metal band Dharma, and is onstage swinging a censer as part of their signature ‘purifying act’ that takes place before every show.

We’re at Awaken, a Buddhist electronic music festival. Judging by the well-heeled audience, who are wearing designer labels like Balenciaga rather than metal t-shirts, many are waiting to see artists higher up the bill, such as EDM DJ Kenny Musik. No one knows how Dharma will go down as openers. As the incense wafts back to a terraced VIP area, complete with sofas and rosé champagne, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation and unease.

The festival organisers open the event with a brief English-language introduction to dhukka, the concept of suffering, explaining that all actions are connected. In other words, “every low is tied to every high”. Metalheads intrinsically know this: it gets quiet right before it gets loud. Having invited Buddha’s protection for band and audience via the purifying act, Master Miao-ben hits a chime and chants. Then the rest of Dharma appear, and launch into The Divine Mantra Of Avalokitesvara, a song based on the popular mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’.

The six robed members of Dharma crouch low, buffered from the torrent of noise blaring from the speaker stack. They are flanked by a zither player and a flautist from an all- female traditional Chinese orchestra – Dharma frequently invite special guests to play with them to demonstrate the concept of ‘anatta’, the idea that humans have no self, because we are constantly changing. Frontman Joe Henley, his face smeared with black paint and fake blood, emits primal growls. The audience are stunned. 

Formed in 2019, Dharma are one of about a dozen Buddhist metal bands around the world – and yes, it’s a genre, especially in countries that are predominantly Buddhist, such as Thailand and Myanmar, and China. According to the latest government statistics, Buddhists make up 35% of Taiwan’s population, with another 33% following Taoism. Both are philosophically aligned and draw on similar imagery. Buddhist temples dot Taipei’s cityscape, and monks deliver sermons on late-night TV.

While many bands reference Buddhism on album covers and in lyrics, few go as far as Dharma, who have a nun in their ranks. And the other five full-time bandmembers have converted to the religion. Dharma drummer Jack Tung was the first to be drawn into Buddhism. Prior to starting Dharma, he consulted Buddhist masters for their views and suggestions. They scoffed at him or told him to look elsewhere, until he found collaborator Master Song, who held the first rituals for the band, though later withdrew due to failing health. Master Miao-ben came onboard in 2020.

Jack’s relationship with frontman Joe stretches back 17 years, as they played together in death metal band Revilement and grindcore outfit Stench Of Lust. When Jack asked his friend to join Dharma, off the back of four demos, it was a no-brainer. “I said ‘yes’ right away, because the music was really good,” recalls Joe, when we catch up with the band before their set.

Joe was born in Canada, but moved to Taiwan in May 2005, following a suggestion from a journalism school roommate who had previously lived there. He never left. Proving their devotion, all Dharma lyrics are Buddhist sutras (ancient texts) and mantras originating from Sanskrit. “Mantras are usually too short to fit into a traditional song structure such as a verse and a chorus, so we have to repeat them over and over,” explains Jack.

Each song is layered over a cataclysm of cymbals. There’s a precedent: Taiwanese temple music, ‘Beiguan’, is played by marching bands who use cymbals and horns for a simplistic, ear-piercing melody to alert the public of a passing deity. Dharma’s whole sound is wrapped in death metal, and their take on Buddhism is darker than you might expect. They believe in avenging spirits, annihilation of self, and a fundamental emptiness at the heart of all things.

“We all come from a death metal background, and are inspired by bands like Cannibal Corpse, Incantation and others. We want to show people that within Buddhism there are spirits like vengeful deities who come back to right wrongs, and achieve peace through a multitude of annihilations,” explains Joe. “Our sound is dark and aggressive, but there is still an important message.”

Buddhism has always made use of music for ceremonies, with chimes, bells and gongs struck to mark the passage of time or to signify the changing of a sutra. “We do chanting in the morning, afternoon and evening,” explains Master Miao-ben. Despite having less than a dozen shows under their belt, Dharma are attracting attention. To promote Awaken, a photo of the band was plastered on the side of buses in Taipei. They have just been nominated for Best Band and Best Rock Album (for their second full-length, last year’s Three Thousand Realms In A Single Thought Moment) at the Golden Indie Awards – Taiwan’s equivalent of the BRITs.

However, they’re also facing challenges. They had to cancel their European tour due to exorbitant travel costs, and Joe has been denied entry into China for unknown political reasons – potentially because of his work as a journalist covering migrant worker issues, or his writing credits on songs by politically minded compatriots Chthonic. Joe credits Buddhism for giving him strength – or at least the belief that everything will work out in due time.

“To be honest, not being able to tour internationally really doesn’t bother me. Whatever happens is meant to happen. I would love to spread this music as far as I can in alive setting, but there are things way beyond our control,” he says. “Even if I can’t perform anymore, I hope the band can take it as far as it can go.” 

Back at Awaken, Dharma launch into their most popular song, Amitabha Pure Land Rebirth Dharani, which is about getting rid of one’s karmic obstacles and facilitating rebirth in ‘Pure Land’, a celestial realm. The riffs, fills and growls might be characteristic of death metal, but a backing chorus track makes the song more accessible. Jack is the undisputed leader of the band, sitting proudly behind his blood-red, 19-piece drum kit, complete with a full-size gong. A team of five people are required to bring this set-up to the stage.

As Dharma play Great Compassion Dharani – a song calling for the Buddha to rid them of their sins, and instil peace and joy – a pair of monks standing near the entrance to the VIP area seem amused. When asked what they think about a Buddhist music festival, a nun named Ching Guang says young people like “rock’n’roll”, and Buddhism needs more activities to attract them.

Buddhism might be an established tradition, but Joe also thinks “metal is like a religion”. There’s a strong sense of community, and gigs are like rituals. By fusing the two, the band could be onto something powerful. In March, they performed at Megaport – the festival started by Chthonic – in Kaohsiung, south Taiwan. Joe was blown away by the crowd’s reaction.

“Some people in the pit prostrated themselves and other people were crowdsurfing in the lotus position. We never direct the audience to do anything, it just comes about naturally,”explainsJoe.“By the end of the show, many people were in tears, and in fact, I was also in tears.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #381