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Buddhism to Be Murdered By

Eminem dropped a surprise album recently called, Music to Be Murdered By- Side B  The first half of the album was dropped in January of this year,.  In both recordings he took on the entire music industry to prove his continued dominance of the rap game.

He went after his his haters, music critics, new-school rappers, old-school rappers, and anyone who might have blinked at him wrong in the last 10 years.

Imagine a man screaming, "Get off my lawn," at a bunch of kids while he torches his neighbor's car with a flamethrower.  That was Eminem on the Music to BE Murdered By LP .  And I loved every minute of it.  To be fair, I'm a little biased.  Eminem aka Marshall Mathers and I have a long history.

I've never met him in person.  Be there's some common ground.  We both grew up in dying, rustbelt towns, we both got picked on in school, and we both have an unreal amount of family drama.

The biggest difference is that Eminem expressed his childhood anger by climbing the charts as a Rap music legend.  And I expressed my childhood anger... By listening to Eminem.  That may not sound revolutionary, but keep mind that  this was back in the early 2000's when the economy was good, school shootings were rare, and congress was so bored that they had hearings to determine if Rap music was corrupting the youth.

And I was an evangelical Christian kid who feared damnation was one lustful thought or F-bomb away.  I didn't know how to talk about my feelings.  In fact, I thought I was a bad person for having them.  So, I stuffed them deep inside of me in the hope that they'd go away.

Listening to albums like The Slim Shady Show  and The Marshall Mathers LP was my only outlet.  I'd sneak down into my family's basement and listen to them when no one was home; marveling at the complex lyrics and letting the syncopated beats wash over me.

Looking back, I realize those were some of my first spiritual experiences. Despite the violent imagery in the songs, it was healing to know that someone was hurting in the same way that I was hurting.  It was cathartic to listen to my anger shouted back at me:

We don't do drive bys, we park in front of houses and shoot
and when the police come we <expletive> shoot it out with them too!
That's the mentality here (here) that's the reality here (here)
Did I just hear somebody say they wanna challenge me here??

~ Eminem, Amityville (featuring Bizarre and D-12)

It would be more than a decade until I found something else that gave me that same catharsis.  It was called Buddhism, and obviously, there were differences.

When I first started practicing at a Buddhist temple, the thing that kept me coming back was the kindness of my fellow practitioners.  It didn't matter if I showed up late for a service, or forgot the words to a chant, or asked a bunch of questions during lectures.  I was always welcomed back.  I was accepted exactly as I was, and that meant the world to me.

This acceptance was also reflected in the Buddhist scriptures that I studied. I was told that my true-nature was essential goodness, that I was a Buddha, and that the purpose of the training wasn't to "fix" me per se.  Rather, all of the bowing, chanting, and meditating was designed to bring out the peacefulness that I already possessed.  

But this wasn't just them trying to make me feel good.  The teaching was reflected in various Buddhist scriptures.  For example, the Nirvana Sutra states:

For this reason, I make this remark, "All sentient beings have Buddha-nature." Great compassion and great benevolence are called Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is called Tathagata. Great joy and great abandonment are called Buddha-nature. Why? Because if bodhisattva mahasattvas were unable to abandon the twenty-five states of existence, they would not be able to realize highest, perfect enlightenment.  Because all sentient beings ultimately and surely attain it, I say that "All sentient beings have Buddha-nature."

 Kyogoshinsho, p. 106 (BDK English Tripitaka)

So, not only did I have a sangha that refused to turn its back on me.  I also had a religious figure, Buddha, reaching across time and space to tell me that I was a good person, and that it didn't matter how much I screwed up... I'd eventually figure out this enlightenment-thing.

As a child, I found acceptance through Eminem's lyrics.  He said it was okay to be angry because he was angry too.  As a man, I found acceptance through Buddha.  He said it was okay to be angry because he'd sit with me until I calmed down. And then he'd teach me more about compassion.

Both teachers were excellent.  In different ways, I'd say each of them saved my life.  But as the years progressed I spent more time studying the sutras, and less time listening to Eminem.  Then 2020 happened.

In the span of a few months, there was a riot in my city, a pandemic swept the globe, and there were shortages of food and toilet paper across the country.  Worse yet, the temple where I'd go for practice shut it's doors due to lockdown orders.

In times like these, we're called to look to the Dharma for refuge.  But I couldn't do it.  All of the loneliness, anger, and doubt that I experienced acted as a glass wall that kept me from the practice.  I could see Buddha, but I couldn't reach him.

I sat on the cushion, but I couldn't meditate.  I stood in front of the altar, but I couldn't bow.  I opened the sutras, but I couldn't chant.  

There was just too much happening in the world.  My emotions were too jumbled.  I knew intellectually that Buddha would be there for me.  But I couldn't feel it.  I'd lost my faith.

I languished like this for several weeks until I stumbled upon Music to Be Murdered By.  I listened to one song, and then I listened to another, and another one after that.  It transported me to the days of my youth, and I felt once again, like Eminem was rapping my life back to me; validating my experiences one metaphor at a time.

He reminded me of when I first started practicing the Way.  I loved it from day one.  But many of my so-called friends, weren't too thrilled.  They liked the drunk Alex who tore things up on the weekend.  But when I got sober and started spending my Saturdays in a Buddhist temple, they weren't supportive.  So, I had to find new friends:

Yeah, they miss the old me
I think they want me to OD on codeine
They want my life in turmoil like in '03
They want front row seats
I give'em nosebleeds

Eminem, No Regrets (featuring Don Toliver)

Unfortunately this isn't uncommon.  The sad truth of living in this Saha world is that we are often celebrated for doing the things that harm us, and denigrated for doing good.  Spending money on a Dharma book is weird, but spending that same money on drugs and alcohol is just having a good time.  

More than that, however, listening to this verse reminded me of the loneliness that I was feeling due to the pandemic; quarantined and cutoff from my family and friends.  As I pondered this loneliness, I was reminded of the following passage from the Nirvana Sutra:

The Buddha said to Bodhisattva Kasyapa, "If there are sons or daughters of good families who always sincerely perform the exclusive practice of the Nembutsu, whether they dwell in mountain forests or in villages, whether they practice it in the daytime or at night, and whether they do so while sitting or lying down, Buddhas and World-honored Ones always watch over them just as if they were before their eyes, and are ready to accept their offerings and endow merits to them:

Kyogoshinsho, p. 127 (BDK English Tripitaka)

This verse is a beautiful reminder that it doesn't matter where we are in the world.  When we reach out to Buddha, he reaches out to us; every time, without fail.  Buddha accepts us exactly as we are.  

I must have read and re-read that passage 100 times.  And when I was finished, being stuck in my 1 bedroom apartment didn't seem so bad because I knew I wasn't alone.

The next song that jumped out at me was Leaving Heaven, which Eminem performed with Skylar Grey.  In the song, he goes after his late father; lambasting him for disappearing when Eminem was a child, and only making a reappearance when the rapper had become a success.

What's interesting is the song uses heaven and hell as metaphors to suggest that Eminem is in a good place physically, financially, and emotionally (heaven), but he has too turn his back on his good fortune in order to hold on to the anger that he has towards his absent father (hell):

I couldn't see your <expletive> goin' to Heaven

So I'm asking for a pass to go to Hell
So I can whip your <expletives>
I hate that I'll never get to say "I hate you" to your face
No coming back from where I'm going
Sky is dark, my soul is black, hand on the shovel
Dig with the blade up, and then I step on the metal
Vendetta to settle, tell the Devil

~Eminem, Leaving Heaven (featuring Skylar Grey)

Later on in the ballad, Eminem decided that he's better off letting his anger go, so he can move on with his life.  This led me to think about some of the anger that I was holding on to, and what it was doing to me.

I was angry at the government for failing to control the pandemic.  I was angry at myself for not being better prepared.  And I was angry at life in general for letting this happen.  

But Buddhist scriptures are clear that anger, even when it's justified, is a poison.  It can help stir us to action in the short-term, but if we hold onto it for too long, it will destroy us.  In fact, the Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa spoke of anger by saying:

By doing this, you are like a man who wants to hit another, and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand, and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.

~Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification

When I read this passage from Buddhaghosa, the message was clear; by holding onto my anger regarding the bad parts of life (hell) I was missing out on the good parts (heaven).  

In spite of everything that was happening, I still had a cat and a fish that loved me, houseplants that were growing beautifully, and a body that allowed me to move freely through the world.  As I shifted my attention towards the good parts of my life, my anger subsided.  And I was able to find peace in the midst of the chaos happening around me.

The song that struck me in the deepest part of my soul, however, was Lock it Up, which Eminem performed with Anderson Paak.  For the lyrics to this song to make sense we have to go back to 2017 when Revival was introduced to the world.  On the Revival album, Eminem did the unexpected. 

He took a somber, down-right humble stance in his lyrics.  And the man who once crowned himself a Rap God discussed his fear of failure:

It's the curse of the standard
The first of the Mathers disc set
Always in search of the verse that I haven't spit yet
Will this step be just another misstep
To tarnish whatever the legacy, love or respect, I've garnered?

~Eminem, Walk on Water (featuring Beyonce)

Unfortunately, the song turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the Revival album was largely panned by critics; with many people saying it was time for Marshall Mathers to retire and let the younger generation take over.

Fast forward to 2020, however. and the story changes.  Eminem was two years removed from the wildly successful Kamikaze album, which debuted at the top of charts and sold nearly 500,000 units in its first week.  The album marked a return to form after the Revival mishap with the "angry Em" that fans loved making an appearance on songs like Lucky You and Not Alike.

On the Music to Be Murdered By album, Eminem used Lock it Up to take a victory lap; poking fun at the critics and disloyal fans who said he was washed up.  In the song, Eminem admits that he doubted himself for a while, but then he took a deep breath and remembered who he was:

I almost lost it, I had to reach back
Back, and lock it (Lock it, lock it)
You almost got me (Stop it, stop it)
I had to reach back, back, and lock it (Lock it, lock it)
You almost, you almost, you almost, but I got it (I got it)
You almost, you almost, you almost, but I got it (I got it)

~Eminem, Lock it Up (featuring Anderson Paak)

Similarly, I was suffering from my own self-doubts at the start of 2020.  The pandemic had turned my whole world for a loop and people were fighting in the streets.  It was overwhelming, and for a time, I didn't know what to do.

But as I listened to the lyrics to Lock it Up, I realized that I was falling into the same trap that Eminem had fallen into.  I'd allowed outside influences to get into my head; causing me to doubt myself.  Buddha hadn't gone anywhere, but I was looking for him in the wrong place.  I had to reach inside of myself and "lock it".

So, Eminem brought me full-circle; to the quote in the Nirvana sutra that made me love Buddhism in the first place:

For this reason, I make this remark, "All sentient beings have Buddha-nature." Great compassion and great benevolence are called Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is called Tathagata. Great joy and great abandonment are called Buddha-nature. Why? Because if bodhisattva mahasattvas were unable to abandon the twenty-five states of existence, they would not be able to realize highest, perfect enlightenment.  Because all sentient beings ultimately and surely attain it, I say that "All sentient beings have Buddha-nature."

 Kyogoshinsho, p. 106 (BDK English Tripitaka)

In the midst of the pandemic, I'd lost faith in both myself and humanity.  I'd forgotten our true nature.  But a mix of rap lyrics and Buddhist scriptures reminded me that it doesn't matter what happens.  We all have Buddha in our hearts.  And even when we struggle, even when we fight amongst ourselves, our true nature is one of "great joy and great abandonment".

With this in mind, I did something that I hadn't done in a long time.  With Eminem blasting in the background, I put on my Buddhist robes, stood in front of my altar, and bowed to the Buddha within each of us.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Buddhism to Be Murdered By


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