Interview: Yoko Dharma’s Buddhist-Influenced Music Rouses Compassion; Her Divine Voice Touches People; Music “inspired by teachings of the Buddha and my precious Guru”

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    Yoko Dharma is best known for her divine voice and evocative musical Buddhist mantras (previously released as Treasury of Jewels available here>>). A soon-to-be-produced, more “mainstream” album — never-the-less influenced by Buddhism and her teacher — and produced by well-known producer Marty Rifkin, we requested an interview with Yoko.

    Brilliantly vocalized tracks from her new project, Freedom Reign, not only carry a sense of hope and joy but also an eclectic and beautiful mix of musical styles from around the world. Judging by these distinctly beautiful tracks, it should have wide appeal outside of her Buddhist fans.

    The title song from Freedom Reign is very inspirational:

    Interview with Yoko Dharma

    BW: In what ways was your new album, “Freedom Reign” inspired by Buddhist Dharma?

    Yoko: There are many ways that the Buddha Dharma has inspired my new album. A lot of the songs I have written for this album are inspired by teachings of the Buddha and my precious Guru. Love and Compassion are like the bases. I feel like, in my own life the more I am reminded of this over and over, it becomes more solidified and spontaneous in my being.

    Compassionate action is a big theme on the album because I feel that in our present day world with all the climate and other challenges we are facing, there is a huge need for us to take massive action out of great love. If we don’t stand up and act from the compassion that we feel in our hearts, then who will?

    I don’t think waiting for someone else to do it is the answer. It takes a lot of courage — and a lot of my own fears, doubts and old limiting beliefs seem to come up ready to fight a battle as if they feel threatened, when I try to do this even in small ways in my own life. This has been my own experience.


    From the lyric video for Yoko Dharma's new album Let Freedom Reign.
    From the lyric video for Yoko Dharma’s new album Freedom Reign.


    BW: You sing and write both music and lyrics for your album? As creator, was there a moment of clarity, an inciting incident, that motivated the strong theme for this particular album?

    Yoko: Yes, I saw that our world needs a lot of help and I realized how true it is that we need to transform from inside of ourselves and then work our way out. I really began to realize that the more I started working with my own mind and on myself, instead of trying to blame or change other people, the world seemed as if it was shifting around me. The album title Freedom Reign is really referring to freeing our own mind from the bondage and limitations that we believe to be true and that we have somehow created for ourselves. When I sing the chorus Freedom Reign what I mean is, let the natural beauty, wisdom and compassion that is the essence of our own mind shine forth, let it reign.

    This is true freedom and it is already within us, we just need to uncover it. Let this natural freedom reign and “rain” in our midstream, washing away any delusions. That’s what this song Freedom Reign was inspired by.

    This album is really about my own internal transformative experiences and personal growth. Many of the songs for the album have been quite a journey for me already, arising from different experiences and life events that have happened in the last couple of years. I feel this immense growing has been going on for me even since we first started recording this album and the songs I feel reflect this (sometimes intense) growing that has been happening in my life lately.


    Risin’ Up carries the same sense of optimism but a “potent message”:


    Why so much hate?

    Instead lets choose love

    Let’s choose Oneness

    Together we’ll rise up

    Yoko Dharma in the studio with producer Marty Rifkin, who has produced for Elton John and Springsteen.
    Yoko Dharma in the studio with producer Marty Rifkin, who has produced for Elton John and Springsteen.


    BW: Who do you hope will be the audience for your album?

    Yoko: I am aiming to reach a very large audience with this album, from teenagers all the way up. For this reason, I’m planning to put some songs on the album that are more about everyday life, love songs and some upbeat songs with catchy choruses. This way a wider array of younger people can easily resonate with it and the album will be able to touch more people.

    I must say though, I think more and more young people are really searching for deeper essence and meaning in their lives and are starting to search for this in music. I do think songs with potent messages are becoming more popular among younger age groups. This is just what I’ve experienced anyhow. I would also like to reach Buddhists from all over the world, because I think they’ll have a special appreciation and deep understanding of my music.

    BW: If you could achieve only one thing with your albumn, what would that be?

    Yoko: To touch billions of people’s minds and hearts with empowering, powerful music, leaving positive imprints in their mind streams of deep love, compassion and wisdom, creating a karmic connection to the teachings of the awakened ones. I don’t know if this is just one thing (she laughs) but it’s my deepest aspiration and intention for this album.


    Frame from the lyric video with Yoko Dharma.


    BW: In what ways do you think music, and specifically your music, can contribute to positive change?

    Yoko: I think music is a very powerful tool. It has potential to move us on many different levels and can “transport” us into deep states of experience and feeling. Music seems to really spontaneously open up people. It’s almost like it opens up your heart to let the light in, like when you open a window blind and the beautiful sunlight shines in. That’s how I see it and that’s what I have experienced myself as well as from watching what happens to other people when they listen to music. We are kind of hard wired for it in a sense because sound, vibration and music are surrounding us all the time. The language we speak, the sound of your knife chopping vegetables, the birds singing , the sound of the soft rain falling on the leaves outside…..all these sounds are around us all the time and we don’t really even notice. They are no different from music in a sense and they have a vibrational effect on us .

    So, I think when this potent delivery system “music” is used to deliver powerful messages and has strong positive intentions embedded in it, it can be an extremely effective way to create healing and transformation in the body, speech and mind of whoever is listening.

    I fee that by healing and transforming our own minds in this way, we directly have an effect on those who are around us and with enough people, this could start a ripple effect out into world. Music can be potent medicine with the right intentions and words in it. This is how I think that music and the music I’m creating can contribute to helping people and create positive changes in the world.


    From one of the lyric videos.
    From one of the lyric videos.


    BW: Your other goal in this new album is also to “break through cultural barriers using music.”

    Yoko: We have been drawing from many diverse world styles of music along with a strong, prominent influence from hip hop, R&B soul, blues and pop music. We’ve created a very unique and captivating sound, that is grounded with a mainstream appeal.

    I am very inspired and moved by the beauty and diversity in different kinds of traditional world music.

    The next song that we will be recording for the album is called “In The Fire.” This song has an upbeat Middle Eastern inspired rhythm and a very catchy chorus hook. I’m really excited to record this song actually, because I have this strong feeling that this song will be one of the radio hits off the album. The overall expansive sound of this album, is kind of like we are saying, ”Hey look, it doesn’t matter what your culture, race, religion or sex is, it’s time to come together and transform our minds.” Music itself has always brought people together. I think it is a powerful tool for healing our minds and hearts, especially when embedded with powerful messages.

    One of the recorded tracks from Freedom Reign:


    The track “Teacher”, embedded above, is the most overtly “Buddhist” — a touching tribute to her Guru — her teacher since she was three years old, the most Venerable Zasep Rinpoche (review of Rinpoche’s autobiography here>>):

    Teacher walk beside me, and show me how to go

    Nourish me completely so that I grow

    Light the path forever, blazing wisdom flame

    Light the path for everyone till suffering has tamed


    BW: Who is your Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and how did he or she influence you work?

    Yoko: My precious and very holy teacher is Venerable Acharya Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. I feel like I would have probably walked down a very different path if it wasn’t for Rinpoche. How can I say this? He changed my life from the very beginning.

    I met Zasep Rinpoche when I was 3 years old and he has been there for me through everything in my life up to this very day. Everything I have become and everything I aspire to be and do, is because of his immeasurable kindness, guidance and blessings that he has bestowed on my life.

    Soaking in his teachings into my being has greatly influenced everything I write about and how I sing and perform, I am sure. It’s hard for me to put into words how much he has moved me, inspired and influenced my deepest creative expression to flower. I feel like I am able to write, give and perform from a very deep, authentic and honest place without holding back, especially in the last year, I have really opened up to this place a lot.


    Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche is spiritual head of several Mahayana Buddhist centres in North America and Australia.
    Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, a well known teacher from Tibet, first met Yoko Dharma when she was only three. Yoko said, “Everything I have become and everything I aspire to be and do, is because of his immeasurable kindness, guidance and blessings…” Rinpoche is spiritual head of Gaden for the West, and several meditation centres in Canada, U.S. and Australia and teaches in other countries around the world.


    BW: Can you tell us more about your song “Teacher”. It almost feels like a gentle “teaching” with a lot of inspiration messages such as “You have the love you need.” and “You have the courage to succeed”

    Yoko: “Teacher” is a very special song for me because I wrote this song for my precious Guru Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. It embodies the strength and empowerment that I feel when I’m with him and the vast love, strength and tremendous courage that he has given me in my life. His great love and strength has ignited my own and I hope one day to be capable of giving this to others. I trust him completely, with every part of my being. This is what this song is inspired by.



    BW: Your song “Risin’ Up” feels slightly more provocative with lyrics like “Rise up” and “Together we’ll lead the world” What was your goal-theme with this song?

    Yoko: You know, it’s funny, often times a hook or line will just come to me and I spontaneously will have to start singing it. It’s not planned often times and sometimes the lyrics and tune come together and I’m just singing it, but I don’t even now what the song is really about yet. This actually happens to me a lot. I don’t know if this is just some strange way I write music. (She laughs) But it’s always happened and I tend to go with my first intuition more now.




    For Risin’ Up I didn’t start out with a strong theme or goal of writing a song about a particular subject. It kind of evolved like a lot of my songs do into what it wanted to tell. It grew into a strong song about the need for people to unite and stand together in these difficult times that we are facing right now.

    It’s about being able to keep strong compassion and peace in our hearts through all of the corporate control and craziness that is enveloping the world right now, and at the same time standing up and saying no we don’t want this for ourselves or our for our children.

    Externally that’s what it’s about, internally it’s about never giving up on the path to Enlightenment. “Risin’ Up” out of our own delusions into Awakening, as I encourage with the lines: “ Rise Up, Don’t Stop, Warriors Of Love Stay Strong.” I seem to write songs that often have multiple layers of meanings that could be interpreted differently depending on who is listening. I tend to do this a lot actually when I write. I am not sure why I do this, It’s just the way it comes out of me.


    Frame from Yoko Dharma's lyric videos.
    Frame from Yoko Dharma’s lyric videos.


    BW: In your first album, “Yoko Treasury of Jewels” you sing “Tibetan and Sanskrit mantras. on your new Freedom Reign album Will you be singing some mantras?

    Yoko: I have a new song I’m writing right now, which is inspired by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava). For this song there is a place where I hear his mantra being woven in for a particular part in the song. I would like to put this song on the album, but I’ll have to see where the album goes from here. I definitely want to keep this album more mainstream, so I am not totally sure if this one will be on the album. I do plan to record another album of just Mantras in the near future though, hopefully not to long after I finish Freedom Reign.




    BW: Your producer in L.A., Marty Rifkin, has worked with Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. How did you connect with Marty Rifkin?

    Yoko: I Met Marty through my friend Leah West, who told me during dinner one night that I have to meet her producer Marty Rifkin. Leah told me that she thought Marty and I would work together really well. It was one of those magical moments in my life when I felt like a guardian stepped in to help me. Looking back now on the event, it was really like that. I was about to record with a different producer at the time, when Leah called me up out of the blue and asked me to go to dinner with her. I remember I almost didn’t go because it was hard to squeeze in the time that week to have dinner with her.

    That dinner and one phone call later changed the fate and direction of my entire album! I am so grateful for her taking the extra time to care so much about my life. Leah is a very special person and extremely kind. I feel like she stepped in like a dakini or a guardian angel when I was so sure I had it figured out and showed me the right path to take instead. So that’s how I met Marty Rifkin.


    Yoko Dharma’s Links


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    Lee Kane

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
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