popular songs with Zen/Buddhist themes?
November 6, 2008 9:37 AM   Subscribe

I want to find popular songs with Zen/Buddhist themes, such as living in the moment, rejecting materialism, desire as suffering, non-attachment as freedom. The artists themselves need not be Buddhist and the entire song doesn't have to have a consistent theme. I know I'm using a loose interpretation of Buddhism. Any genre is fine; prefer pop/hip-hop. No chanting. Excerpted examples inside.

[bold parts are most resonant to me]
There's Gotta be More to Life by Stacie Orrico (yes I'm aware that she's a Christian pop singer but the theme fits) (complete lyrics here)

I've got the time and I'm wasting it slowly
Here in this moment I'm half way out the door
Onto the next thing, I'm searching for something that's missing
I'm Yours by Jason Mraz (full lyrics here)

Well open up your mind and see like me
open up your plans and damn you're free
look into your heart and you'll find love love love

I guess what I'm a sayin' is there ain't no better reason
to rid yourself of vanity and just go with the seasons

it's what we aim to do
our name is our virtue

I won't hesitate no more, no more
it cannot wait, i'm sure
there's no need to complicate
our time is short
Little Wonders by Rob Thomas (complete lyrics here)

Let it go,
Let it roll right off your shoulder

Don't you know
The hardest part is over
Let it in,
Let your clarity define you

In the end
We will only just remember how it feels

Our lives are made
In these small hours

These little wonders,
These twists & turns of fate
Time falls away,
But these small hours,
These small hours still remain

Let it slide,
Let your troubles fall behind you
Let it shine
Until you feel it all around you

And i don't mind
If it's me you need to turn to
We'll get by,
It's the heart that really matters in the end
posted by desjardins to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also: Beautiful Day by U2 (pretty much the whole song fits the theme, but just excerpted here for space - full lyrics here)

It's a beautiful day
Sky falls, you feel like
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away

You're on the road
But you've got no destination

What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
Don't need it now
Was a beautiful day

posted by desjardins at 9:41 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Float On by Modest Mouse?

A fake Jamaican took every last dime with a scam
It was worth it just to learn some sleight-of-hand
Bad news comes don't you worry even when it lands
Good news will work its way to all them plans
We both got fired on exactly the same day
Well we'll float on good news is on the way

And we'll all float on, ok
And we'll all float on, ok
And we'll all float on, ok
And we'll all float on, alright

Might be more Zen Buddhism.
Also, their Ocean Breathes Salty is quite Zen-toned...in parts.
posted by eralclare at 9:49 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of Rebecca Riots songs, like Gardener or Cut Through the Sugar. One of the Riots, Eve Decker, has an explicitly Buddhist album.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:52 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Live's song Lightning Crashes is about reincarnation - a Buddhist theme, although not exactly what you asked for.
posted by elendil71 at 9:54 AM on November 6, 2008

Check out the Sutras album from Donovan.
posted by mikepop at 10:19 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Several NIN songs *could* be interpreted as Buddhist instead of gloomy. Like Only deals a lot with the idea of emptiness and initially seems defiant/angsty but maybe not:

I'm becoming less defined as days go by
Fading away
And well you might say
I'm losing focus
Kinda drifting into the abstract in terms of how I see myself
Less concerned about fitting into the world
Your world that is
Cause it doesn't really matter anymore

and then in same song this seems very much like duhka (suffering) from our perception of things as being seperate entities:

Yes I am alone but then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it's because
Because you were never really real to begin with
I just made you up to hurt myself

posted by wolfkult at 10:29 AM on November 6, 2008

Joni Mitchell- "Refuge of the road"

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
"Heart and humor and humility"
He said "Will lighten up your heavy load"
I left him for the refuge of the roads

Doobie Brothers- "what fool believes"

But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing
Theres nothing at all
But what a fool believes he sees...
posted by jade east at 10:32 AM on November 6, 2008

Thematically, you might be interested in the Microphones / Mt. Eerie -- as he's aged, his works seem to increasingly parallel / be influenced by ("Buddhist poet") Gary Snyder. Musically, it's not really like anything you've listed.
posted by one_bean at 10:32 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Alanis Morissette has a song called "Joining You" that might fit...? Here's one excerpt:

"if we were our nametags
if we were our rejections
if we were our outcomes i'd be joining you
if we were our indignities
if we were our successes
if we were our emotions i'd be joining you"
posted by onoclea at 10:50 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

All We Are by Matt Nathanson

I kept falling over
I kept looking backward
I went broke believing
That the simple should be hard

All we are we are
All we are we are
And every day is a start of something beautiful

A Comet Appears by The Shins

But with each turn,
It's this front and center,
Like a dart stuck square in your eye,
Every post you can hitch your faith on,
Is a pie in the sky,
Chock full of lies,
A tool we devise,
To make sinking stones fly
posted by aebaxter at 10:57 AM on November 6, 2008

not just a song--but a whole album--called forest for the trees
posted by lester at 11:13 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Waterfall - James

My mirror's laughing at me, says boy are you getting old
There's so much junk in your life what you've got you don't even know
Don't take a phone company to tell you life's pay as you go
I wonder how much of life is set up in utero

Under the waterfall
It's cool and cold and clear

Watching too much TV, I'm an actor in a puppet show
There's so much stuff in my life, no room for me to grow
One day I'm going to break from my life due south to Mexico
I'm going to burn down my house, it's the only way to let go

Under the waterfall
It's cool and cold and clear

Run your hand along the flanks of a horse
Feel the pulse of blood, the heat and the force
It's an antidote to a life spent on the beat
The beat of concrete, the beat of machines
Of mobile phones and plasma screens
How much junk in my life do I really need
posted by Ruki at 11:34 AM on November 6, 2008

A couple of Flaming Lips songs come to mind:

All we have is now
Do you realize??
Feeling yourself disintegrate
posted by o0dano0o at 11:35 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I like:

Indigo Girls, Galileo ("How long till my soul gets it right?")
Patrice Pike, Temple ("Love is the lesson")
Joseph Arthur, Too Much to Hide (I find its "Be here now" refrain at the end to be hopeful)
Ani DiFranco, Joyful Girl ("I do it for the joy it brings, because I'm a joyful girl")

I guess, on reflection, a lot of these deal with going through difficult times and trying to remember how to prevail.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:46 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

What, no Van Morrison mentioned yet??

Enlightenment, for starters: "Chop that wood/carry water/What's the sound of one hand clapping?"

Or from 'Cleaning Windows':
I heard leadbelly and blind lemon
On the street where I was born
Sonny terry, brownie mcghee,
Muddy waters singin Im a rolling stone
I went home and read my christmas humphreys book on zen
Curiosity killed the cat
Kerouacs dharma bums and on the road

posted by mattholomew at 11:52 AM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

John Vanderslice's Nikki Oh Nikki

You know that guy
who stole your girlfriend
Away from you
in the summer of '95?
He's going to die

You know her name
You know her name
Sits in your brain
like a tumor
Her eyes still shine in your memory
She's going to die

Well, you can carry that grudge or you can let it go
But as sure as I'm singing this song, you know
You're going to die
You're going to die

And five'll get you ten, so just let it go
And she and he and I will hear the final chord
Just let it go
Just let it go
We're going to die
We're going to die
posted by ausdemfenster at 12:01 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lungfish - "Broadcast". "Put Your Halo On." Lots of pretty out-there mystical stuff from Lungfish that could relate to what you're looking for.

Tons of stuff from Quasi:
The desire to disappear, yet remain here:
It is clear, dear - ape self prevails in me still.

There ain't no hand, there ain't no eye
Just sweet nothing beyond the sky
Nothing to lose, nothing to fear
You climb the moutain, it disappears

There ain't no here, there ain't no there
Just sweet nowhere everywehre
It's like taking off your clothes
They fly away like hungry crows

Drifting wide, from nothing into nowhere
Inside, someone's dream is admired,
the cardboard panorama
In an empty void
Stars and diamonds shining in an endless sky

Close your eyes,
See how clear the darkness is
This time, we shake hands and we smile
Preceeding back to where we came from
Before the war
Nothing, Nowhere
Meaningless and beautiful

and more and more
posted by zoinks at 12:02 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

You won't like the country-ish tune but the words are gold.

Spanish Pipedream by John Prine

Blow Up your TV
Throw away your papers
move to the country
build you a home
plant a little garden
eat a lot of peaches
try to find Jesus
on your own.

On second though, the Jesus reference might not be what you're looking for.
posted by Brodiggitty at 12:27 PM on November 6, 2008

You need to start listening to Stuart Davis. He's on iTunes, Pandora, and Amazon:


There were free songs on his website, but he's retooling everything:

posted by zeek321 at 12:36 PM on November 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Anything and possibly everything by Cat Stevens.
posted by tugena13 at 12:52 PM on November 6, 2008

Circulatory System has quite of few songs like this. "Now" in particular comes to mind.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:50 PM on November 6, 2008

Leonard Cohen, definitely. Here's a bit from Anthem:

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
posted by Kafkaesque at 1:52 PM on November 6, 2008

"Breathe" by Anna Nalick, one of those "oh, is that what this song I've been hearing everywhere is called?" songs, may suffice:

But you can't jump the track
We're like cars on a cable
And life's like an hourglass glued to the table,
No one can find the rewind button now
So cradle your head in your hands,
And breathe, just breathe...

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:04 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tool's entire album Lateralus.
posted by Roach at 2:38 PM on November 6, 2008

Fugazi, "Runaway Returns":

Out of the ashtray, into the ashtray.
Out of the ashtray. there's nothing living,
There's nothing given,
Weekender's vision turns to working shoes.
There's nothing living, there's nothing given,
Weekender gives in, puts on his working suit.
There's nothing waiting, there's nothing imminent,
Nothing forgiven for the young idea.
There's nothing waiting, there's nothing imminent,
And nobody seems surprised,
The runaway returns.
Welcome home son,
Guess what we we're doing while you were gone?
Cocktail party's in gear and we were
so glad that you're here,
Why don't you sit down?
Out of the ashtray, into the ashtray,
Out of the ashtray, into the family car,
Out of the ashtray, into the ashtray,
Out of the ashtray, into the family's arms.
There's nothing waiting, there's nothing imminent,
Nothing forgiven for the young idea.
There's nothing waiting, there's nothing imminent,
And nobody seems surprised,
The runaway returns.
Welcome back.

Fugazi, "Merchandise":

When we have nothing left to give
There will be no reason for us to live
But when we have nothing left to lose
You will have nothing left to use
We owe you nothing you have no control
Merchandise keeps us in line
Common sense says it's by design
What could a businessman ever want more
than to have us sucking in his store
We owe you nothing
You have no control
You are not what you own
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:02 PM on November 6, 2008

I'm surprised these haven't been mentioned already.

Tomorrow Never Knows, I Me Mine, and Within You Without You by The Beatles. Probably some others, too.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:00 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Beastie Boys.
posted by dubitable at 10:46 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

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