A Buddhist Take on Michael Jackson’s Death and Popular Culture

While I’m not normally one for reposting other’s writings, I felt this article might be of particular interest to you.  With all the fuss over the recent death and funeral of Michael Jackson, it seems that some important lessons have been lost and, worse yet, some of the wrong lessons have been learned.  A Singaporean friend shared this article, by Shravasti Dhammika, a Theravada Buddhist monk of Australian heritage who writes and speaks extensively about Buddhism, especially as it relates to modern life.

MJ And Popular Culture

Shravasti Dhammika Now that the funeral is over I would like to make a few comments on the death of Michael Jackson. Some aspects of the whole business illustrate some interesting trends in popular culture. The first is what I call the exaggeration of emotion. Both here in Singapore and in reports in the foreign media I read expressions like ‘I am devastated’ ‘The whole world is in mourning’ ‘My family and I am in a state of shock’. Really? When I was in the Medical Corps in the army in the late 60’s I sometimes saw severely wounded soldiers evacuated from Vietnam, some of them in shock. Believe me, no one ‘is in a state of shock’ over the death of MJ. And the whole world mourning? I wouldn’t mind betting that a couple of hundred millions peasants in India have never he heard of MJ and even those who have are far more concerned about the fact that the monsoon is late. I suspect that hundreds of millions of poor villagers in South America, China and Africa have hardly given MJ’s death a second thought either, even if they have heard about it. Devastated? Now I saw devastated people on a recent news report of a bomb going off in an Iraqi market. None of the numerous reports I saw about MJ’s showed ‘devastated’ people. The problem with using absurdly exaggerated terminology to describe ordinary experiences, in this case a little bit of sadness, is that when something really shocking or devastating happens we don’t have adequate words to convey its true seriousness or impact. It diminishes it. This misuse of language also encourages people to ‘over-express’ themselves about what are actually rather commonplace events. Sobbing, huddling in weeping groups arms over each others’ shoulders, and gasping ‘Oh my God!’ over the passing of someone you have never met or even seen at a distance on stage, is completely inappropriate. It leaves you with nothing to do when some you are personally are struck by real tragedy.

Did you also notice that during the memorial concert and in the thousands of cards people wrote and left at the hall where it was preformed, that MJ was constantly addressed as if he were present. ‘We love you’, ‘We will always remember you’, ‘You enriched our lives’, instead of ‘We loved him’, We will always remember him’, etc. I find this sort of thing, very common in funerals nowadays, rather weird. And this is not just a matter of the proper use of language. It grows out of and reinforces a sort of pseudo-mysticism in which a vague sentimentality replaces more thoughtful idea about death and the after-life.

Another interesting thing about MJ’s passing is how quickly the recent deep concern and even disgust about aspects of his private life has been elbowed aside by an avalanche of accolades, A genuine and meaningful eulogy to him would include mention of his very real talents in some areas, his great generosity, but also the fact that he apparently made a mess of his life. On several occasions I read of or heard people say things like ‘His message will live forever’, as if he was some great prophet or spiritual teacher. I must say, I find this sort of thing to be the height of vulgarity. It also obscures an extremely important point. If MJ’s life conveys any ‘message’ it would have to be that talent, celebrity and unimaginable wealth do not guarantee happiness. The Buddha said, ‘Truly dire are gains, honor and fame. They are serious and difficult obstacle in the way of attaining true safety’ (S.II,226)


Bhante Dhammika’s interesting and thought-provoking writings, which are very accessible to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, are posted here.


0 thoughts on “A Buddhist Take on Michael Jackson’s Death and Popular Culture

  1. MJ wasn’t a big deal in my life. I think the media just went crazy over this. A lot of people seemed to have express emotions that would have been more appropriate for members of their family. Oh well… I was going to write something about MJ a few weeks ago. But I think this entry was probably the best I’ve read on it.

  2. Throughout the first 2/3 of the article, I couldn’t help but think, “Well hallelujah! Point on!” Then towards the last 1/3 or so, I started laughing. I don’t know if that’s the correct action, but I found the monk’s writing overall funny; although with very good points.It’s funny cause just the other day, I was thinking of people saying “I love you” so casually (e.g. leaving comments on Facebook). When it’s time to really mean it… it’s almost as if the phrase has lost its true meaning!

  3. Like Matt says (yet again!) MJ wasn’t a big deal in my life either and I completely fail to understand the media hype and why people are acting this crazy all over. I agree that he was talented and produced some of the greatest music of this century with some fairly strong social messages (cue All I want to say is that they don’t really care about us etc. etc.) and that’s about it! While I understand that music is capable of transcending all boundaries and stir up souls by giving them hope and what not, I really doubt if it makes sense to equate the power of the music someone created to the person itself. Anyway, thanks for cross posting this article- was an interesting read. @ElusiveWords –  Matt, I think I will have to be on xanga all the time so that I can comment on the posts before you do! You always steal my thoughts! Kidding.

  4. I absolutely agree with the article!!! One of the anchors on a National News Broadcast said something like “This is one of those watershed moments, like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK, you will ALWAYS remember where you were when you got the word the MJ was dead” My first thought was…”You are comparing his death to the horrible events of 9/11 or the killing of an American president??? PLEASE!!!!” I do not mourn the passing of this man…I am not applauding it..but it really doesnt effect me one way or the other. I am much more concerned about those poor children of his and what his greedy, grasping father is going to do in order to try and wring a couple of dollars out of them!!! Ruth Ann

  5. I think MJ was talented and I enjoyed his music. I felt sad that he died so suddenly, but then, that is life!  I did not mourn for him either.  It is more like a media bliss.

  6. This was a brilliant expose` of MJ’s life that he lived and the way America mourned him. While I liked his music and the fact that my children grew up liking his music and dances, and while I feel sorry that he had a life of sorrow etc etc, I think the whole thing by the media was over done. He was no saint. Thanks for posting this Chris.

  7. The blowback to the excessive media coverage is already becoming blase.Being a Buddhist doesn’t shield Mr. Dhammika from being an douchebag– belittling the sympathy and response of others. We all view the world through our own prisms. That we don’t share Mr. Dhammika’s experiences and grounded perspective doesn’t mean that our feelings and those of Michael Jackson supporters are any less geniuine.

  8. This really has very little to do with Buddhism. And considering he has no idea what other people feel when someone dies, he’s really in no position to make judgment. That’s not very Buddhist of him at all.

  9. While I do agree with him being appalled by the mourning of MJ, I beg to differ with notoriety of Michael Jackson.I was 3 or 4 in Taiwan and I know who Michael Jackson is.He is actually quite well known over in China.I am not sure if this Buddhist guy knows what he’s talking about.Another thing though…I actually find this phenomenon rather endearing.Humans, as you know, are social creatures; as such(this phrase is getting popular…) they are empathic.Even if people did not find Michael Jackson’s death sad, because so many people are mourning, it transmits from one to another.I forget what this concept is called, but it works the similar way as mass hysteria.It’s part of what made humans survive and thrive.I must clarify that news media/journalism is a powerful tool in transmitting this all around the globe. The primary conduit is not through people being near each other, but seeing it through live videos, internet, and paper articles.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!@CelestialTeapot – Thanks for adding your two cents’ worth to the conversation.  I respect that you don’t agree with the original author’s points.  Your argument isn’t strengthened by calling him names, though.@ZSA_MD – @yang1815 – @stevew918 – @choyshinglin – @Dezinerdreams – @ElusiveWords – @doiturselfer – @moijesuisfou – Thanks for participating in the conversation.  Certainly, Jackson was a talented man and his talents should be recognized.  How much additional glory is added post-humously is another question, the answer for which varies depending on your personal perspective.@Redlegsix – I agree; comparing his death to an event like the assassination of JFK or the attacks of September 11th seems empty.@RedStarr5 – There seem to be more and more examples of effusivesness.  I don’t know whether it means that those expressions water down the sincerity of the emotions or whether we’re just more comfortable expressing them.  Thanks for adding your thoughts.@BunnyParfait – Thanks for adding your thoughts.  Re-reading his article, I think there are several Buddhist themes that emerge.  If you’ll permit me to highlight them, the first paragaph is about exaggurated emotion, which clouds the mind to understanding.  Observing with a sense of detachment is a Buddhist ideal.  The second paragraph is about speaking about the deceased in the present tense, which may be an attempt to avoid confronting the reality of death.  The reality of birth, growth, ageing, decay and death is fundamental to Buddhism.  The final paragraph is about getting the wrong message from Jackson’s life, in which the author quotes Buddhist scripture about fame and wealth not leading to happiness.  While I respect your opinion, I think he is in a position to make observations about others’ actions and to critique the media.@Wangium – Thanks for that perspective.  I haven’t heard of that phenomenon but certainly with the omnipresence of media, those feeling are more easily transmitted.  As for people in China knowing or not knowing about Jackson, I think the important point is that for hundreds of millions of people, his death and the tabloid sensationalism surrounding it, are not very pressing issues.

  11. @christao408 – As a Buddhist myself I say he isn’t in the position. Him being a Buddhist has nothing to do with his social status. To suggest so is quite un Buddhist like in itself.

  12. I respect that you don’t agree with the original author’s points.  Your argument isn’t strengthened by calling him names, though.No, but choice words do texture my position and feelings.

  13. @BunnyParfait – I’m sorry we’re not seeing eye to eye on this.  I didn’t intend to assign the author a social status.  He is in a postion to observe others’ actions and critique the media just the same as you are.  Being Buddhist or not Buddhist doesn’t invalidate someone from making observations about the world – or people – around them.  From a Buddhist perspective, isn’t it exactly this type of observation that helps us evaluate which actions are helpful in helping us achieve enlightenment? 

  14. @BunnyParfait – I don’t think that the author said people are lying about their feelings.  You wrote that his entry has very little to do with Buddhism.  The contemplation of feeling is one of the four Foundations of Mindfulness.  The goal is to observe the feelings but not to be caught up in them because “I feel” is, in itself, an impermanent construct.  I don’t claim to be deeply knowledgeable about Buddhism, but that is one of its core principles, right?

  15. @christao408 – A core principle he’s clearly making the attempt to apply at an inappropriate and inaccurate time. You cannot observe a mass group of people like that; emotions are highly personal. Sorry to say it but he’s just flat out wrong on this one.

  16. With all due respect, I must say that although I can fully understand the point of view expressed in this article I disagree very strongly.As a person who has experienced the loss of a loved one, I understand loss and grief. As a Buddhist I try to keep death (and everything else) in perspective.As a person without a TV set, I was spared the greater part of the circus his death became.As a woman in my thirties Michael Jackson was a part of Life for me. Since childhood his highs and lows have been “news” in my life.I admired him as an artist and yet was not a “fan”. I was, albeit temporarily, devastated. Not a word I use likely. I was shocked. His death touched me in a way only one other death has.Do I grieve for me or for him? How can I miss a man I never knew? Why do I feel empty even though Michael Jackson was not that important to me in life? These are questions I cannot answer but please, respect that my feelings and those of countless others are genuine, the pain is real. Not imagined, not exaggerated.In love,emm

  17. @Emma041176 – Interesting thoughts and thank you for sharing them.  While your feelings may be wholly unexaggerated, my suspicion is that thanks to the media frenzy surrounding Jackson’s life and death, for many others they may have been a bit overblown.  Even if their feelings were really there, it would be helpful on the road to enlightenment for everyone to ask those same questions you asked yourself.

  18. I love Michael Jackson and that news knocked me off my feet literally.I love in Ukraine and everybody knows him here. He is not a Saint, you say? Well, may be he will become one in a hundred years. 🙂 People are strange creatures.I don’t believe tabloids and moreover I believe he is alive and everything that’s going on is a perfect staging.Let’s live and see.Thank you.

  19. This goes to show that even if you are a Buddhist monk you still can be a hater. Never accepted this kind of thing from a Buddhist monk. May be from bill o’reilly but definitely not from a monk. So sad.I think most of the people fail to recognize how popular Michael Jackson was. And how much he has influential the Music industry. His music has touched so many people more than any other artist in the history. Believe me Michael Jackson was the most famous human of the 20th century. I live in India and every one has heard about him. may be they have never seen him but believe me every one on the earth know who Michael Jaclkson is. Here is some of thing Michael has achieved.1. Biggest Selling Album of all time.2. Biggest concert tour in History.3. More awards than any other artist in music history.4. Artist of the century AwardThe list can go on for ever. for more check out wikipedia.Any one wonder why Michael jackson has more google results than any human in the history?

  20. @Arun – Thank you for your comment.  I don’t think the original author of the article was hating Michael Jackson, nor disputing his global popularity as a singer/songwriters/entertainer.  His comments, as I understand them, were about how the media and popular culture blew Jackson’s death out of proportion especially in comparison to other events that affect human life (and suffering) much more severely.  Please don’t confuse criticism with hate.

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