Being a musician and a Buddhist

As a lifelong musician, I’ve always been concerned about 7th precept, a prohibition against music, dancing, etc. I wrote to Ajahn Geoff about this and asked him if it was a problem being a musician AND a buddhist. His answer was that there was nothing wrong with being a musician per se, but he suggested keeping the 8 precepts on Uposatha days. I wonder how those of us whose lives are intertwined with the arts feel about the 7th precept?


The precepts are not a list of rules to follow.

The precepts are about developing skillful behavior. They are not about convincing oneself one must adhere to some set of higher laws, or deprive oneself of things they enjoy that are not unskillful, especially if you are a lay person.

Many people from the modern West impose this innate bias from Christian culture and puritanical styles of thinking onto Buddhist thought.

Also, as I presume you know five precepts is what is recommended for lay people, yet many Buddhists still drink. And this question comes up ALL the time … “what about if I have a tiny little glass of wine” … I think if anybody goes a bit too hard on this idea of precepts, they will drive themselves mad.

PS I have literally seen Bhikkhu Bodhi play a keyboard, like, come on. We can have a little fun once in awhile.


The precepts are not an ordinary list of rules to follow. They are a list of rules for disciples to follow given by a fully enlightened Buddha that provide an optimal condition for happiness in this life, a fortunate rebirth in the next life, and the possibility for putting an end to rebirth once and for all. To the degree that we follow these rules we will get the chance to experience these results. Following the precepts is always wholesome.

Judging other people for not following the precepts is not wholesome. Feelings of restlessness and remorse from not following the precepts is not wholesome. Aspiring to keep them, even if we are not able is wholesome.

The eight precepts include training in renunciation. Playing music is not, in and of itself, an ethical issue.

Could you say more about what your concern is? Are you concerned that without giving up music you won’t be able to really practice the Dhamma?


Ding ding ding. Unfortunately, much of Buddhist practice in the West has turned into some silly contest that looks a lot like sports. Those with the most resources and most time brag about attending 30 day retreats all the time, and meditating 23.5 hours a day, yet they are afforded this due to their privilege. Little do they know, they are going nowhere fast, due to delusion they themselves cannot see.

It is important to note, that this is a concern many people I have known over the years have. And for me, I am not cut from the neoliberal wellness propaganda kinda cloth, so I will add something here. Many monastics will tell us lay people that we have very little, if any, hope of achieving enlightenment in this lifetime. [I removed a quote that was quoted out of context, and substituted with my own context. Sorry @Snowbird]

So, we should do the best we can. And stop looking at Buddhism as some type of therapeutic system where if we just follow the steps or the rules it will work. Because, at least from my experience, this is just not how it functions in the actual world, only in the world of packaged and sold false hope.

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I absolutely did not say that! I said that all three benefits come from following the precepts.

And when I asked " Are you concerned that without giving up music you won’t be able to really practice the Dhamma?" I was not giving an answer. It was a question.

You are correct. I pulled a political pundit-style context erasure quote, with my own context added. For that, I apologize.

This came up in a retreat that Ajahn Geoff did in France. Some asked “What if it is a special occasion and a really great glass of wine?” Ajahn Geoff’s reply was “This is why you aren’t further down the path.” :slight_smile:
I do take the 5 precepts very seriously and I both love to drink and come from a culture where drinking is encouraged, when I was a kid, anyone who DIDN’T drink was looked on with suspicion. So giving it up was a significant choice for me and I do look on it as a strict rule not to be broken (the other 4 precepts I never had a problem with).

The concern of course is: can I really follow the path while ignoring one of the main precepts. Is it something I’m too attached to and thus keep me from reaching the goal.

On the other hand, playing music keeps me mentally and physically sharp (something important as I head into my 7th decade) and is really part of my being. I would find life pretty dull and depressing without being able to play music. I justify it by saying…I don’t GO and see others perform ( I really play for myself and record my progress on my youtube channel), and I really don’t listen to music other than to have something to play along too. It is a personal discipline. However, the Buddha does bring it up a lot. So, I think about it, even though I ignore it.

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Drinking I agree is one of those things we really do need to have a red line on if we choose to not drink. Because of its addictive qualities, and how easy that habit is to reenter into.

As for music, I have found as a musician myself, that you certainly become more disinterested in music as you “progress” down the path. I have played guitar since I was 9 years old, and am 34 now, so don’t plan on giving it up anytime soon. But, I rarely make it out to live music or anything like that just because loud music and the amount of people gives me anxiety, HA.

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This hits it on the nail as well. I also become less interested in music when I was doing 5 hours a day of meditation. But I also felt pretty empty and directionless. If I don’t have this, what do I have? Gave me a great sense of loss. I actually stopped meditating for a while just to be able to have an interest in life again.

I think you may have a misunderstanding of how “main” the music precept is. It’s a renunciation precept that lay people are encouraged to practice as often as possible, particularly on the uposathas. I’m not clear if you find keeping that precept even one day a month onerous. I’m not judging either way, just trying to see where you are at.

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No, not at all. My concern is more along the lines of NOT finding it onerous to stop playing. As I mentioned, when I was meditating many hours a day, my interest in my former life started disappearing. I stopped playing music completely, And it was THAT that scared the hell out of me.

Well, I have to say I have heard this many times as well. It is easy to get caught in that state of being, and feel this strong attachment to it. In my sutta study group, which COVID eviscerated, we used to actually not have meditation because so many people came to the group wanting this rigid Buddhist meditation, similar to an Insight center or something, and I used to say we are just here to study the suttas, and they would ask what ‘suttas’ were. It drove me a bit mad if I am being honest.

This is a good sutta if you haven’t read this one: SuttaCentral

Just to kinda get this feel for being too tight or too loose, and the impacts of that.

“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attunethe pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”


That sutta was helpful. Thanks.

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Isn’t the precept against music only for nuns and monks?

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I think a useful question to ask is, Why is the 7th training rule there? What exactly are we training?

There are a couple of thoughts on this that I’ve had over the years of thinking about the relationship between Buddhism and reading/writing fiction.

One is that over time Buddhist practices lead us to more and more emotional self-sufficiency. We no longer have to have all these activities and things and stimuli going on in our lives to feel contentment. Eventually just watching our breath is enough. So one aspect of the training seems to be to develop that peace and contentment that does not require external inputs. That seems like a great reason to practice the 8 precepts on Uposatha days - even as lay practioners we want to train that sense of emotional peace and joy that does not depend on external stimuli.

A second reason is that for many artists their art becomes rather all-consuming. I’ve heard Ajahn Sona, who was a professional guitar player before he became a monk, talk about this. It’s very easy to focus on your art at the expense of your Buddhist practice.

Anyway, those are the things I think about in terms of my own relationship with the 7th training rule.

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Wonderful! “Viraga” (dispassion) is indeed a great result! :slight_smile: I’d just balance out that Vipassana-bhavana with “wetter” practices as well: generosity, service, loving-kindness, samatha-bhavana… Things that will keep the mind happy and full, even as you “descend into emptiness.”

Indeed! It can be quite scary to feel the practice transforming us. Recollection of the Buddha and his accomplished disciples (from Ven Sariputta through to the excellent meditators around today) can help dispell this fear, and remind you that it’s not such a bad thing to become more Buddha-like. :blush:

Both of the above (service to and mudita in the spiritual development of others) can be difficult to do at home, and are easier to practice at a monastery or a meditation center. So, I’d recommend finding one that inspires you, and trying to spend some time there as a volunteer, if you can. Remind yourself that there are many good things you can do for others besides playing music. :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:


Here is another discussion on the subject.

Music and right livelihood