Buddhism may not be the first topic listeners think of when listening to Scottish band Belle and Sebastian’s new album A bit of precedent (Matador Records), released today. But a discerning ear will pick up references to past lives, endless Renaissanceuniversal compassionand impermanence. (Read the album title again.) Tricycle sat down with Stuart Murdoch, the frontman of Belle and Sebastian, about his Buddhist practice, his daily mindfulness in his lyrics, and how they come together in the the beloved indie pop group’s first album in seven years. .
Tricycle: Speaking of your new album, A bit of precedent, you refer to certain Buddhist notions such as past lives, infinite rebirth and universal compassion. These seemed more than recurring motifs, but almost unifying themes. Can you tell us a bit about the series of events that brought Buddhism into your life and your music?
Stuart Murdoch: Well, it’s been flowing for a long time. Spiritually, my past is not in Buddhism but Christianity. I have been a Christian for a long time, but about eight years ago, just after the birth of my first child, I was going through a difficult time and decided to study meditation. So I went to my local Buddhist center, the Kadampa Buddhist Center, seeking to meditate and clung to the Buddhist teachings. I was really surprised because at that time I was 45 and I didn’t expect something to happen that would change me so drastically. But he did. It changed my way of thinking. I think it changed me as a person. It helped me cope with everything I was going through at the time. When something goes in that deeply, it’s only natural that it will eventually come out in your writing and in your music.
Your music does so many things. Your songs are beautiful, they are touching, but they are also funny on a daily basis. They have this really “everyday” quality. What happens to your music when your “everyday” is shifted in the sense you describe?
For me, it would be hard to sit down and write a song that’s only about higher things. I don’t think that would be my style at all. And so I stick to the daily, I stick to the daily. I stick to my daily experience. And, you know, normally I just let the songs flow to me. I don’t need to try too hard. But what’s interesting is that I can’t help but go back to the kind of principles I learned in the temple. I’ve noticed now that I tend to incorporate a lot of Buddhist advice into the song, and it really comes out in the way I talk to the characters in my songs.
The single “Unnecessary Drama” unfolds in this kind of beautiful flurry, and then we hear the line, “Enjoy the fervor of your love life, because it doesn’t last.” It is a very beautiful Buddhist feeling, almost like a line of the Dhammapada.
[Laughs] Absolutely. And it’s probably the least Buddhist song on the LP because it’s a real rocker. But there is a bit of dharma in there.
Have you noticed that your community around you, overtly or implicitly, has changed with you?
Two years ago, when the pandemic first arrived in Glasgow and everything stopped and we couldn’t make music anymore, the most natural thing for me was to start giving lessons online. I gave a class every Sunday evening where I led a meditation. Initially, it was mostly Belle and Sebastian fans who were curious and people who were kind of stressed out about the pandemic. But that was precisely why I thought it would be helpful to try to meditate with people and offer them a path to a peaceful mind. I have continued with this for the past two years.
What an amazing thing to have this both for yourself and for others. It must have really centered you during the first part of the pandemic.
Absolutely. It was as much for me as it was for anyone else, because if you’ve ever had the opportunity to lead a meditation or teach Dharma, you’ll know it’s very rewarding. Sometimes you only find out what you know when you try to pass it on to other people.
Of course. Especially for beginning Buddhists, you often hear, “I’m so excited about these ideas. But how does this apply to my life? And I seem to hear you say like this from the very beginning that you found your studies immediately applicable to your daily life, and immediately informing your daily life. How did you make this connection so quickly between these ancient texts and your daily life, these daily things that concern us all?
I think the Kadampa lessons, the Lam rim [“stages of the path”], are all about finding a peaceful mind. We dig and try to calm the mind. In the past, I got angry and frustrated with many aspects of my life or what was going on in the world. You know you can get angry reading the news, or if someone hits you on the street, or if someone makes too much noise or drives you crazy at work. So one of the things I’ve learned is to re-imagine those issues. There’s this metaphor of looking at the world as if it’s covered in broken glass. Broken shards are all the problems in the world. You could walk around and try to cover up all the broken glass, but you never will. It’s impossible. So the best thing is to put on a good pair of boots. You have to change yourself, and only by changing yourself, by having this armor for yourself in dharma, are you going to be able to deal adequately with the problems of the world.
Are there particular styles of meditation or techniques that have been most effective or that you find yourself coming back to over and over again as your type of armor?
On the meditation side, I keep it very simple. I feel like when you are quiet in your mind, you can bring anything into your heart center. And then it naturally becomes a part of you. Once you focus on that, you can really meditate on anything. In the sessions I lead, we usually start with a breath meditation just to get everyone involved. And then once the mind is calm, once the mind is focused on a more singular object, you can bend the object – whether you’re just using bright light, positivity, or focusing on health and compassion . It’s quite simple. Also, one of the other things that I like so much about Buddhist practices is that they are very scientific. If you don’t want to, if you don’t have faith in the things you can’t see, you are welcome in a Buddhist center, because you always start scientifically and practically – with the mind. If you say meditation to a lot of people, they might think, wow, this has something to do with faith or God or something. But really, meditation is just being able to focus on a virtuous object, which means focusing on a good emotion. And then that emotion will grow in you and become part of you. It’s very, very convenient.
You have discussed some challenges you have faced in your life that have led you to explore meditation and Buddhism. How was the process of transforming the challenges that presented themselves in your life?
The elephant in the room for me is that I still go to church, and I’ve been going to church for 14 years. I am not a practicing Christian, but I have certain beliefs. My teachers at the Buddhist center, they’re very cool about it. And they always explain that everyone has different things karma. Everyone has different people and things they take refuge for. Even the other day my teacher was saying I was going to Buddha, but you could go to Jesus or God or even your Aunt Agnes – who was the wisest person you ever knew. I like that it’s very open. Even a little further, when it becomes a little more “Buddhist”, it’s not so much that there is a contradiction but rather that the practices begin to become very precise. And I feel the minute my karma doesn’t lead me in that direction.