Along with his group, the Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch, 33, has grown up in public. Since their days of dodging the local authorities in city after city on tour, the Beasties have become one of the most aesthetically adventurous bands of the Nineties. For his part, Yauch has embarked on a spiritual journey that has proved both deeply personal and the inspiration for his important work on behalf of Tibet’s struggle for freedom from the People’s Republic of China. Yauch describes how Tibetan Buddhism came into his life and how profound its impact has been.
What was your religious upbringing like?
I wasn’t raised with any religion, really. My mom was raised Jewish, and my dad was raised Catholic. Neither of them was too excited about the religious stuff they were brought up on, so they decided that they wouldn’t raise me with any religion. I got interested in it later. Around 1988, I started reading about Native Americans, shamanism, a lot of different things. That was pretty soon after the Beastie Boys’ huge success in 1986, with Licensed to Ill.
Were you confused by what was happening around you?
I wasn’t consciously aware of that, but I’ve sometimes thought that in retrospect. In a sense, what Western society teaches us is that if you get enough money, power and beautiful people to have sex with, that’s going to bring you happiness. That’s what every commercial, every magazine, music, movie teaches us. That’s a fallacy. Maybe there was some realization of that during that Licensed to Ill period.
Was the impact of your search immediate, or was it gradual?
It built gradually. The more I studied, the more I started finding different parts of it that made sense to me – things like reincarnation or karma. I took a trip to Nepal and India and Bali. On a second trip to Nepal, I met some Tibetans and I started getting interested in Tibetan Buddhism. Then I went to a teaching the Dalai Lama gave, and he was amazing. From about ’92 on, I studied Tibetan Buddhism exclusively. I became a Buddhist around ’96.
It’s one thing to learn about spirituality in Nepal, quite another to be a practicing Buddhist in New York. How does where you live affect your spiritual life?
It’s tricky, because New Yorkers have a real tendency to be cynical – especially about things like religion. In a way it’s warranted, because a lot of people just put forward a lot of selfishness under the guise of religion, and it makes people here skeptical. But people in New York have a tendency to make fun of everything, and that’s just a way of keeping their distance from things. I think it was when I was first out in L.A. that I started researching different religions. And I was very shy about it at first. Now I feel perfectly fine with it here in New York because I don’t really care if somebody makes fun of me. I’m not afraid of what people might think.
How do you respond to people who say that because you’re famous and rich, spirituality is just another luxury you can afford?
In a way, those people are right. I mean, it really isn’t my place to preach about this stuff. I’ve thought negatively of famous people touting religion or causes, and it definitely made me hesitant to talk about this – but I also came to feel it was weird not to talk about it if somebody was interested.
Western people do often say to me, you know, “How come there are so many rich white people interested in Buddhism?” But that’s a small percentage of the people interested, and it happens to be here in America. Buddhism thrives in Tibet, where, basically, the culture is Buddhist. If you look at it in its more natural habitat, all kinds of people are into it.
I’d like to add one more thing. There’s this monk, Palden Gyatso. He’s not any kind of high teacher, just a regular monk – I think he’s in his late sixties. He spoke at the last two Tibetan Freedom concerts. He was imprisoned for thirty-three years and horribly tortured – electrocuted, hung from the ceiling, fires lit under him, and on and on. And he’s so sane and so strong after everything he went through. When you hang out with him, he’s laughing all the time and joking around. He enjoys his life. He doesn’t even harbor any negativity toward the people who did that to his – he actually feels compassion for them. He’s a strong example to me of what Buddhism can do.
Is the approaching millennium making people more spiritual?
I think the millennium is a significant factor – it’s a real turning point to look back and see where we’ve been and where we’re headed. The Dalai Lama often says that this has been a century of war and destruction, of trying to resolve our problems through violence and bloodshed. It’s been an insane period of time. We’ve spent the last thousand years advancing our technology, maximizing our ability to destroy each other.
Are you optimistic that it can be turned around?
I’m optimistic, but I do feel we’re at a crossroads. We’ve been operating under these animalistic motivations of trying to overpower each other. We have to realize our interdependence and throw our technology back into balance. It’s going to take a lot of people thinking about things in a different way. I think spirituality can definitely lead to that.
This story is from the May 28th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.