Sven Grünberg: Everything bad in the world comes from ignorance
Sven Grünberg says in a lengthy interview to Meelis Oidsalu that a person is obligated to develop themselves as everything bad in the world ultimately comes from ignorance. He also says that manly men have been suppressed in European culture of late and that weepy, soft and squashy men seem to be the latest fashion – the two sides seem to lack a sensible balance.
I'm interested in the theory of Samsara that springs from Buddhism and what it says about war. Will wars keep repeating for all time?
They are a condition of being. But I am reminded of a wonderful story the Dalai Lama himself told me of when he asked England's queen mother, who was 90 years old at the time, whether the world had become a better place in her lifetime. The queen mother thought at length before looking up and saying, well, I suppose it has. Buddha has also said that people dedicating their entire lives to spiritual pursuits will perhaps eventually get us somewhere after thousands of them.
You said before the interview that a person needs to develop themselves, that we're obligated to do so. What do you mean by that?
I have said time and again that no one has the right to be ignorant. It is very fashionable to talk about things one must and mustn't do these days, while there is one thing: a person has the obligation to better themselves because everything bad ultimately comes from ignorance. If only failure to realize that we are cells making up the organism of mankind. Destroying or harming these cells is effectively self-destructive. Unfortunately, Putin and [Patriarch of Moscow] Kirill do not realize this. We are destroying ourselves, the creature called mankind.
Is a Buddhist even permitted to take up arms?
Absolutely, if it is necessary. It counts as a so-called special situation. For example, I would do everything in my power were Russia to attack Estonia. This is where I take issue with retrograde thinking in Europe, the trend of repressing manliness. I'm not saying that a man should not have to look after the kids – of course he does. It is also great and necessary. But in a serious situation, what is happening in Ukraine, manly men have to do the fighting. Unfortunately, manly men have been suppressed in our culture of late. I'm not suggesting jumping to the other end of the spectrum, while weepy, soft and squashy men seem to be the latest fashion. There is no sensible balance.
Is the Dalai Lama a manly man?
Absolutely. Buddha was also a kshatriya, the caste of rulers and warriors. When Buddha was born, a great fortune teller told his father that he would either be a great ruler and military commander or a liberator of the world. By the way, what is today considered Buddhist music – for example, in Tibet where you have powerful horns and drums, a rather heavy-sounding ensemble – was initially Indian military music meant to deter dark forces. That is the only link it has to Tibet.
But the Dalai Lama is, of course, a very manly person. I am the only person to have helped organize each and every one of his Estonia visits and known him for over 30 years – even his handshake is manly.
Does the Dalai Lama work out?
Of course. He does not go to the gym, while he does get up early, around four in the morning, and spends several hours in thought. I have also had the honor of knowing a true martyr called Dzhokhar Dudayev. He also got up in the wee hours and did several hours of kung fu in the morning.
As to why I call him a true martyr – ours was an interesting connection. Dudayev, Linnart Mäll and I met with the Dalai Lama in Moscow and came back to the Estonian mission after the meeting. We got to talking with Dzhokhar when he suddenly turned on the TV that was showing Yeltsin giving a speech. The tug of war between Yeltsin and Gorbachev was still going on at the time. I remember suggesting things might turn out for the better, that Yeltsin is rather pro-democracy. Dudayev suggested Yeltsin would be big trouble still. But why bring it up – our conversation ended in Dudayev saying that he must go and serve as president of Chechnya. That the partocracy and the mafia would merge and rob the country blind otherwise. He told me back then that he knows he will be killed. But the council of elders had made the decision and it was something he had to do. This kind of frankly incredible manliness.
What has been the role of religion in Russia lately, in your opinion? It seems the Russian Orthodox Church clearly shares in the blame.
It seems people have failed to fully realize that the Russian Orthodox Church is first and foremost an extension of the Russian state, not a religious institution. One of my best friends in Moscow, whose name I will not share for security reasons, and who has been among the leaders of Russian church music and studied at the Zagorsk Monastery that is the most important in Russia, left at the start of the Putin era deeply depressed, saying that what was happening was terrible – the level of falseness, worldly greed, KGB-ism and hypocrisy involved. The Russian Orthodox Church is not a religious organization but a supporting pillar of political undertakings, a good way to throw off the scent so to speak. I must say that I believe a well-known Estonian politician (former Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar – ed.) committed a crime when he allowed the construction of another Russian Orthodox Church in Lasnamäe. It is clear that the line pursued there opposes the Estonian state and statehood. It is a great foothold for Russian intelligence and deserves far wider and more frequent attention. The same policy dominates in other instances of Russian Orthodox faith.
How viable is Buddhism in Estonia today? How many practicing Buddhists, so to speak, do you know?
I have the honor of serving as the director of the Estonian Institute of Buddhism and being an honorary member of the Estonian Academic Oriental Society. But the word "practice" is not a good fit, Estonian has a better word in "harjutama" (exercise). Doctors "practice." But I feel that almost all Estonians are Buddhist at heart as Buddhism is about understanding things and phenomena as opposed to believing in them, being thus similar to both common sense and scientific thinking. There are perhaps a few hundred who consider themselves Buddhist, but that is the state of all things – quality tends to be rare. There are few who penetrate to the heart of things. The latter is most definitely not found in ritual, bowing low or lighting candles. You can bow as low as you like standing in front of Einstein's portrait, it will not make of you a nuclear physicist. The same goes for Buddhism. Honoring the right people and valuing what they have understood is commendable. However, one's ultimate goal should be to transcend the level of consciousness.
Valuable attunement of self?
Yes, absolutely. We could also say that Buddhism teaches changing consciousness. It is not a religion in that it does not treat with the topic of God. There is a question in Buddhist thinking of whether God is above understanding. If he is, there is nothing we can say about him. And whenever something is said of him, he is not above understanding. Makes sense and worth thinking about. Talking about religion, we are usually referring to the Middle-Eastern concept – Christianity, Islam and Judaism that are all based on thou must believe. It is just the opposite in Buddhism. Buddha has said: do not believe my words because I was the one who uttered them, try to understand. The emphasis is on realization and the pursuit of understanding.
We invited Jaan Einasto to meet with the Dalai Lama one time (2011) and he later wondered why Buddhism seems like a good fit for Estonians. I said it must be the climate – in that common sense means you know when you need to plant the seeds, when you need to harvest the crop as opposed to believing it is the right time for those things. In short, the Buddhist cast of mind is very similar to our brand of common sense (talupojatarkus – peasant wisdom). Simply because those who go on faith alone tend to die out around these parts.
Young Estonian cultural intellectuals tend to scorn self-help in all its forms, even Buddhist self-help. It is often seen as esoteric.
There are colorful characters for sure. I even remember the venerable [historian] Jüri Kuuskemaa saying something along the lines of, "Sven Grünberg is otherwise a nice guy but, unfortunately, he is a Hare Krishna." I later told him that Krishnaism resembles Christianity much more than it does Buddhism and the two are completely different things. Because knowledge of Buddhism is in short supply, people talk all kinds of nonsense. It is easy for them to self-advertise, with experts with the capacity to unmask ignorance and rank illiteracy few and far apart. For some reason, being unable to recognize Mozart's Symphony No. 40 from the second note is put down to lack of education, while people having not the first idea about several powerful teachings is considered completely normal. It is a wider anomaly in the Euro-Atlantic culture and a persistent one.
Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen has also suggested we have a knowledge cramp in the West. That conventionally reading a book means obtaining its contents in the given form, from cover to cover and in the order of pages given. Whereas it is likely the reader will not have time for post-processing or contemplation because life is short and books abundant.
Talking about reading, I don't think it is necessary to read a lot. What we need is to read wise books, and not just read them, but also process them. There is a big difference. I know people who read an awful lot. But we do not have to be stuffing our heads with garbage. We need to delve deep in wise things to clear the mind. Today's superficial world is perpetually rushing through things and from one to the next. You can spend a lifetime reading a wise book. Our relationship to important books is significant and interesting. After reading it for decades, your relationship with a book profoundly changes. You come to value different nuances and emphasis. Things that seemed important yesterday might no longer be so today. Anxiety that one might miss the train of life often sends people drowning in multitasking. Buddha has said in one of the sutras that while a wise man is vigorous etc., he is never too busy.
Busyness often follows anxiety over being imperfect, failure to live up to certain situations or one's own life that leads to frantic attempts to improve things.
We live in an imperfect world and that is the key. The key to really calming down and realizing you can't do or obtain everything. It helps to quiet down, focus, because while there are good news and bad in our world, one relatively positive thing is that we are currently getting through many lives in one. To think about the times, the information about the world we have access to is many times what it used to be. We know a whole lot about life everywhere on the planet. Perhaps they knew plants better back in the day, but the global picture of mankind and where we're at constitutes the opportunity of the day. It is another matter to what extent we can tell the difference between important and unimportant information.
But free time is becoming increasingly valuable in our modern world where information is seeping through all the cracks and mounting. Seeing where we are and how we are requires distance. I remember well a period of making movies day and night for years on end. And then I remember waking up one morning and wondering, with my eyes still closed, whether it was summer or winter. Focusing on a single activity so keenly that you lose a sense of where you are or what has become of the world… I understood one needs to take a time-out every now and again, go walk in the woods and just be.
What is your opinion of the fear of old age in the West? What is the meaning of old age?
The Euro-Atlantic culture is afraid of old age – all this plastic surgery and obsession with youth. Estonia also used to be all about young people. When I was young, had a band and did all of those things, I tended to look for older and wiser people to talk to. I hardly mingled with people my own age, whereas various oriental teachings urge against communicating with the ignorant. That people should at least find peers and preferably those who are wiser to talk to, or just go alone. Other teachings have emphasized this. It is very prominent in Confucianism and other disciplines. However, old age occupies a prominent place in Buddhism. Shantideva tells us to go to cemeteries… and Indian cemeteries really looked horrible with dead bodies piled up, and contemplate the perishability of life. In Tibet, there is the tradition of sky burial where the deceased is eventually cut to pieces and the latter carried away by vultures.
What is the aim of these kinds of cadaver observations?
The aim is to see we're not perpetual and will eventually have to disappear from this world. In short – to adequately define life, realize the true way of things. The Western world is like an ostrich burying its head in the sand regarding various aspects of life, refusing to see the world for what it is. In Sweden, and other places that have ground burials, even the dirt is covered in carpets, so no one would see the dear departed swallowed up by the ground. On the contrary – we need to think about it often. This is not to say one should be in a perpetually morbid state of mind, while we should not emulate the ostrich either. The realization cannot be fully objective, it will always have a subjective dimension, if only because we live in an imperfect world. This too needs to be realized and the self forgiven in advance. Coming back to exercising, everything becomes easier if you exercise. The older the person gets, the more attention these topics require, and I have noticed that a person develops a more realistic idea of their own mortality, the fact that they have to leave at one point, on the other side of turning 50.
Is this fear of death, the era of plastic surgery and Botox part of the reason the West is somehow paralyzed in the face of Russia's cruelty? That something is holding us down, or that we're playing dead hoping death will not see us.
Fear is mostly ignorance. Threatening nuclear war, Russia is counting on us to get scared, fall in line and roll over on command if necessary. Unfortunately, they've found some success in night-blind Schröders, Merkels and Macrons going along with it. Luckily, change seems to be happening lately. It requires manliness and courage as opposed to conservative, feminine softness, weepy pacifists and heads of state that can be bought and sold – manly power that we have been suppressing for years. If what I'm saying comes off as unexpectedly forceful, allow me to remind you that Mahatma Gandhi's idea of non-violent protest was based on telling the Brits: you number 100,000, while we are three million strong. One can afford pacifism at those odds, while small nations like ours would simply fade into oblivion.
The West's excessive lenience but also rank cluelessness in the face of bullies is still evident today in failure to understand that phoning Putin is wholly unnecessary. However, I would say that the realization that brute force is required to stop a criminal terrorizing the world is slowly hitting home.
But back to timeless matters of the spiritual world. Buddhism is also called the teaching of the middle path, finding an optimal solution. We should find an optimal approach when tackling whichever phenomenon of life. At the same time, we need to be able to tell the important from the unimportant. For example, what is important in education? I believe that everything rests on creating a positive frame of mind. Years ago, my daughter came from her harp lesson and told me how beautifully the teacher had explained that the king comes from below, the queen from above and how they meet in the middle and become attuned to one another. That is where everything starts.
Have your works ever torn you apart from the inside? Have you had to put yourself back together?
Life is hard, while it is the role of the artist to light the way, including the way out and solutions. As an artist, you must not corner people. You cannot empty your chamber pot on their heads so to speak. An artist has more constraints than they have freedoms. There is great responsibility. Not endless rights. Yes, responsibility above all, as you influence others. Whereas it matters how you do it.
Have you watched Lars von Trier movies, is he one for emptying the chamber pot?
To some extent, but there are borderline phenomena – life is rarely black and white. A person oscillates between rising and falling powers, understands more at certain times and less at others. Depending on whether efforts are made in search of clarity of perception or to confuse the mind. I try to communicate in my work that while life is suffering, it has its opportunities and beauty too. Suffering has a reason, meaning that it is possible to be free of it for which there are eight rules: right understanding, right emotion, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, right mediation.
You are composing music for a Kim Ki-duk film that will be released posthumously. How did you land the job?
It is a strange story of how I saw the film "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring" that was an experience for me and that I still consider one of the best films ever made. We watched it again at the Buddhist institute and I caught myself thinking how grand it would have been to compose the music for it. Several years went by until I discovered, when searching for something on YouTube, that someone had downloaded music from my album "Milarepa" to go with the movie. Not the entire thing but parts of it, and I felt it was a very good fit. I liked it. Estonian producer Artur Veeber has had ties to Kim Ki-duk for years. We got to talking one time and he told me he had shown Kim the clips.
And then they came to Tallinn – unfortunately, I did not get to meet him then – and had watched Veiko Õunpuu's film "Viimased" that has my music. Apparently, he liked it. By the way, there are quite a few similarities between Õunpuu and Kim Ki-duk Let us say Veiko also takes a heightened interest in Buddhism.
Things got to a point where Kim Ki-duk and I were set to work together on his latest film "Rain, Cloud, Snow and Fog" the synopsis of which was sent to me. But he visited the Saint Petersburg International Film Festival and, passing through Riga, caught a severe case of the coronavirus and died. A year went by before I was contacted and told that his last movie "A Call of God" also needs music. It has a very interesting plot, a really top-notch story… and it's on my desk currently.
In the West, we tend to think of creators as suffering, with larger-than-life egos and more permitted to them compared to mere mortals. Does your Buddhist observer experience approve of such a treatment of creators?
I would like to be able to say that it's all well and good, while what I'm seeing is often the opposite – artists throwing tantrums and saying no one understands them. Much more seldom do we hear about the artist's responsibility for their actions. And as concerns everything being permitted if you're an artist – I think it is just the opposite. An artist is responsible for what they do, especially if it touches a lot of people. Reciting a poem to your neighbor is one thing, but if your poetry touches a lot of people – the larger the audience affected, the bigger the responsibility for what and how you do. Therefore, let us repent!
How to accommodate combativeness in a way that the struggle does not become a platform for hate? Is the Dalai Lama fighting for his country?
Yes, he is. But again, what he is fighting are primarily poor mental states that hold sway over people. The mechanism of Samsara. The matrix we live in. If a creature reaches moksha, liberation, they have the opportunity to exit the senseless cycle of birth and death. The older I get, the more I come to understand this wonderful possibility. How to learn from the process in which we exist. A true miracle.
Something along the lines of what happens to main character Neo in the Wachowski brothers' film "The Matrix"?
The first installment in the series is an important movie that somewhat miraculously turned out great. The second and third movies are, unfortunately, commercial nonsense for the most part. But the first film I have repeatedly analyzed with my students. It has jumping off skyscrapers that is borrowed from dream yoga. In the latter, things that take place in dreams are made so real that you go through them as you would in the waking world. You have no physical body in dreams, but if your consciousness is clear enough, you can perceive matter in various ways. Stone feels one way, glass another etc. At the same time, Buddhism ridicules miracles and miracle works. For example, Buddha is said to have seen a man walking on water and said, so much trouble for so little gain. Exhibiting miracle works misleads the viewer, as the goal [in life] is not to work miracles but to clear one's mind and consciousness and reach liberation.
How do self-actualization and nationalism fit into Buddhism?
Small nations need nationalism to survive, while it tends to morph into chauvinism for larger ones. That is why I consider myself a nationalist. By the way, I have realized that the Dalai Lama – surprise, surprise – is also a nationalist, even though he is Teacher to 400 million people. I very much agree that Estonianness should be established to a far greater degree in Estonia. The Russian side's spectacle of umbrage in Estonia is wholly unacceptable. On the contrary, it's the Estonians who have been wronged. Forgiveness is superior, while it is reserved for those who repent. But Russia and Russians have not only justified their crimes, they've idealized them, which is absolutely unacceptable. I hope we will finally establish ourselves and start expelling Putinist non-citizens at some point.
There is not other Estonia than the one we have. We speak Estonian here and should also think and feel Estonian. Talk of there being two communities here is peculiar to say the least. Yes, we have a Russian diaspora that needs to conduct itself in a civilized manner as they are here following their occupation of us. Polls in Russia before the Ukraine war surprisingly gave Estonia quite high marks. And I think it is not despite the fact we removed the Bronze Soldier (monument to soldiers who died in WWII - ed.) but because of it. We are respected because we had the courage to do it. I would take this opportunity to commend the people who did it, and I expect all other similar monuments to be moved to a suitable location.
What about political culture in Estonia? Have you thought of yourself as a diplomat or politician in communicating with the Dalai Lama and promoting Buddhism's case?
Man is political. Even whether to buy your kid soda is a political decision. Politics is the sphere in which everyone participates. Mahatma Gandhi was a politician. Even bums, when allocating garbage containers, are politicians. I had a meeting at the Rotary Club once that is made up of wealthy people. And one of the things I told them is that it is curious how the spiritual sphere has been enriched the most by people whom we would today refer to as bums. Both Jesus and Buddha were bums in the modern sense – with no permanent job or place of residence and very poor. However, being poor is not the goal, rather, it is ridding yourself of a colossal number of problems and dedicating yourself to what matters most. Happiness lies not in having many things but in wanting or needing nothing. Shantideva has put it brilliantly in that wealth is the most permanent nothingness as collecting, keeping and losing it are all sources of worry.
I have been invited to go into politics many times. The only reason I have refused is that if you decide to do something, you should aim to do your best. I would have to put everything I have into politics and be a decisionmaker there. It makes no sense to go as a voting machine as I have other challenges. But I am always willing to give advice as a citizen. Ask away.
Wouldn't that be a rather immoderate definition of a politician? Could you give a few examples of statesmanlike Estonian politicians?
I think not. The higher up you are in politics, the less you can speak your mind. Living in falseness like that is hard. Talking or staying silent is exhausting because the wrong choice could lead to unmanageable processes that could even shake the world order. Coming to Estonian politicians, I would name Mart Laar who managed to get a whole lot done back in the day. President [Kersti] Kaljulaid and I once discussed how the greatest challenge is just this realization, and understanding that you are no longer the person you hold yourself to be. Instead, you become an institution, and it is hard to reconcile yourself with that. I'm reminded of Paul McCarthy who has said that at first, they were the boys they thought they were, while they later discovered they were also what people held them to be. People are rarely satisfied with those in high places. Buddhism says that no one is fully satisfying, even winners, there will always be critics and opponents. Why? Because, once again, we live in an imperfect world?
Has it ever bothered you when people have been unhappy with you or held you to be someone you would not like to be? Have there been any such moments?
Plenty. Being too well-known and appreciated even had a detrimental effect at the start of my creative road. It caused great aversion in academic music circles in the 1970s. There were literal attempts to destroy me. But it largely failed thanks to the "Dead Mountaineer's Hotel" as it proved too much for them. It was hoped I would drink myself to death in a dive bar somewhere, but that also didn't happen. I had supporters, while there were those who passionately hated not just my influence but electronic music in general and especially the influence I had on young people.
There was a Composers' Union meeting last fall that started in the Forest Cemetery. It was a beautiful sunset and I happened to pass by the grave of a person who had walked up to me at the conservatory exam, stopped 15 centimeters from my face and hissed that they would do everything in their power to destroy me as they held my music to be utterly unsuitable. I'm writing a book right now one chapter in which starts with that incident…
A peculiar case of bullying where you were not allowed to attend the school?
There was no such concept as bullying at the time. Teachers could completely destroy you in private and there was nothing you could do about it. It was terror. But let us return to the cemetery… I stood in front of their headstone and was overjoyed that I felt no anger in my heart for that person. Why that is, and what helps one overcome anger, is understanding that the problem is not so much with the person but the anger one carries. It leads us back to no one being entitled to ignorance.
Luckily, life put me in contact with Linnar Mäll with whom I had the honor of studying Buddhism for over 30 years. And it was a real education, like in the old days, where students learned from their masters round the clock. I have led an extremely happy life that has afforded me the chance to spend time and converse on a deeper level with special people on top of their fields in music, film, science, literature, theater and religion – all the way to the first citizen of Earth, the Dalai Lama. I've thought that were we to be visited by aliens, the Dalai Lama would be best suited to represent our planet.
Sven Grünberg, born on November 24, 1956 in Tallinn, is an Estonian synthesizer and progressive rock composer and musician best known for his meditative organ and electronic works involving the concepts of Tibetan Buddhism. He has collaborated with the film director Olav Neuland and written the soundtracks for most of his films.
In the 1970s, Grünberg was the leader of the progressive rock band Mess, which was founded by him in January 1974 together with Härmo Härm. Despite years of the band's existence and many live performances, Mess did not release a single studio album because of the contradictions of their musical style with the Soviet ideology. Only in 1996 did Grünberg release a compilation from several surviving Mess recordings and a full remastered album in 2004.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski