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Clarify Your Stances and Ride the Waves with Prajna Murdaya
A lifelong "card carrying" Buddhist, Prajna brings us along on his journey from discord to harmony, from unhappily running a shoe factory, to joyously building the largest concert hall in Indonesia. His work in the international music industry is vast in scope, ultimately for the purpose of helping people align with their life force, and for the upliftment of humanity.
Tell us about yourself.
I guess I could say that I would consider myself a career card carrying Buddhist.
I think from a very young age, I thought that it was really important to understand how life works and how the universe works. A lot of the things that I do I always think about how to relate to the big scheme of things and how everything fits together. I was recently sharing with a friend of mine, one of the things I guess is a gift I have, is that I can go through a lot of suffering and share wisdom from that. Whether it's like micro microtrauma, like beating myself up inside for things that I think are not right, to just big life events and stuff like that. It's always been natural for me to understand that I can learn from it, and then share with people in a way that can relate to them. In a more worldly sense, I was born in Indonesia. I moved to the United States when I was five with my siblings and I spent my entire childhood in San Francisco.
My first exposure to Master Hua was when I was in kindergarten. At that time my parents drove me up to Ukiah, and they would have really long conversations with the Master while we were just sitting on the floor playing with random objects that were around because we didn't understand anything they were saying. I remember Master Hua was very nice and he gave us haw flakes. We thought he was the coolest monk because he gave us candy.
Later in life I went to Stanford and co-founded the Buddhist community with Shari Epstein from DRBU. We brought speakers like Marty Verhoeven, Gil Fronsdal, and some other interesting monks. We kick-started a student-led eccumenical Buddhist society and it's still going today.
After a few years in San Fran, I came back to Indonesia where I ran a shoe factory that made Nike shoes for about 15 years and ran our sportswear company. Through that time, I learned a lot about how to be a filial son - the perils and the pleasures of being filial, under a matriarch that ran the business with an iron fist. I ran that business for a while and when Nike left our company, they left us with like 15,000 workers with no orders and that was pretty ugly.
I dealt with a lot of angry labor unions and corrupt government officials. It was definitely a stressful time in my life and I had a lot of run-ins with my mother in particular. Ironically, one thing that kind of kept this relationship really okay was my meditation and the recitation of the Great Compassion Mantra. I guess throughout those times I began to understand how Orthodox practice was the key to getting progress. I remember after graduating from university, we founded the Dharma Realm Buddhist Youth group. That was a time that I really enjoyed and reconnected with DRBA and DRBU. I felt that proper practice and Orthodox views really have a place. Rather than feeling stifling or old fashioned, it really added the beautiful rigor that would help when we stand in the crucible of life, personal growth, struggle, and that in the moments of intense discomfort and suffering you can somehow transcend that from the mind. The Buddha’s Dharma is a pathway that you could walk; That was something that I really started to appreciate around after I graduated. To this day, that is the reason why I really appreciate what DRBA is doing, because they aren’t ashamed of it.
I know it's very difficult to balance orthodoxy. On the one hand you can go off the deep end and go straight into fundamentalism, reading everything by the book and being extreme about a lot of things. On the other hand, you may just completely give up because it's too hard. You may not know how to incorporate a lot of this stuff into the world that is very relativistic and very, you know, me-oriented and very desire-driven. But with practice, it comes together.
When I read a Sutra I feel like not a word is missing and not an additional word is needed. Translations may have different choices of words or whatever, but typically, you know, when you listen to the Sutra or you read a Sutra, it is magical.
It's a dance between you and the Sutra. It just opens up a space where mind and heart can dance and commune with reality. A Sutra oftentimes deals in the realm of the intangible and the mental phenomena, and it really doesn't come to life unless you practice.
And when you practice, then you get to feel, and you don't even think the same way. You feel and experience and witness. You don't really have any way to describe it. No normal sentences would give it justice. And so, when you read the Sutra, the words on it resonate with the dynamic that's going on through the practice. Then you feel a certain sense of solidity and guidance.
I think the idea of having DRBU create an environment where people are engaging texts and then at the same time talking about Western philosophy with the desire to be a good human being is a very precious thing.
What inspires and motivates you as an individual?
Finding a center right now is good. Like just finding a home base. Connecting to the source, connecting with emptiness.
That is what I'm aiming for. Creating the conditions, the environments and the habits to connect with emptiness. A lot of people think that emptiness is nihilism, but actually, emptiness is pure potential to me. Without emptiness nothing would be here. If there's no space there's no nothing. Emptiness is actually pure potential and if you’ve got pure potential, wow, all the fun we can have. But then maybe it's fun just to sit in your potential, I don't know. There is back and forth between that.
What does a meaningful or fulfilled life look like to you?
To help people understand to engage in this life is the whole concept of purpose. Purpose is something that you have to actually deliberately look for.
It's not like it doesn't fall into your lap because if you just kind of go with the flow, you're basically following condition patterns most of the time. A lot of them are from your parents and the people that you meet while growing up that aren't necessarily reflecting what's going on inside you. To actually build a boat and build an engine and start learning how to steer where you want to go, you need that purpose.
It takes effort and deliberate action. And it takes a little bit of time, but that journey is interesting. But once you do, as you find it, there's clarity that starts to appear and people start to see that clarity and they start to change their behavior around you in a way that is more conducive to who you are and what your purpose is.
You start to resonate with the surroundings and the surroundings begin to resonate with you through the activities that you do that resonate with other people. And in some ways, it's a way of dissolving the ego. Your actions through your life resonate with other people in some way, and that increases your connection with others. I think that starts practically and in a consistent way, when you start thinking about your purpose. And as you start to develop that purpose, you realize that your agency starts to amplify and you get access to a lot of the forces of the universe that push you in that direction. Then, rather than driving things, you just clarify your stances and ride the waves.
My purpose in life is to create space for creatives, meaning anyone who wants to do something new, who has an idea they want to clarify and then get traction with it. This way, they can feel like their life is in alignment with their life force. As I discovered that, I built a music studio and then after the music studio, I became a concert promoter. Then I wanted to build the creative hub to be a bigger version of my studio, and then some people got interested in it, like The Apple store designer, Lucasfilm Immersive, and Spotify. Now I'm planning on creating the largest creative hub in Asia. Music is that art form that brings people together. There is a quote that resonates with me: “Even though we're beings of light, it's sound that makes things real.” We ultimately became the largest independent musician community in Indonesia. We had more than 1,500 artists into our studio and won three Indonesian Grammys. Then we brought Yo-Yo Ma to Indonesia last year for his first solo recital in South East Asia and became good friends with him.
I wanted to create an environment where people can have an idea and meet other people that can support their idea and turn their creative spark into a passion and then into a livelihood.
And then the Singapore government said, “Why don't you look at this decommissioned power station?” So we looked at it, and my friend Tim who designed the Apple store loved it. So we decided to propose to the government what we had in mind for this 22-acre facility.
We're in the process of doing a lot of focus group discussions, understanding the needs and the aspirations of people in the creative industry, in fashion and design and music, film, wellness, and even startup ecosystems. We want to build business models within our project that can service these people, then go to the government for grants to support and offset the costs of development. We're in the process of raising about $400 million to build it, and I just have a very strong feeling that people will find it attractive.
We've got the vice president of Google product on the advisory board as well, as there is a whole bunch of people who are supporting this because they feel like it's an unprecedented opportunity to bring all these creatives together - For the elevation of humanity.
And it's just going back to pure potential. So a lot of people may feel like this meditation stuff is very dry, but when your own practice comes into the realization of your purpose it becomes beautifully real.
When we go to school or try to learn something, oftentimes we just want to be good, we want to perform, we want to do well. And then it becomes very stressful, somewhat toxic, or sometimes feels like a dead end.
To see the beauty of what you're learning you have to have a discussion with yourself on purpose. You will have to play in illusion in order to get to the truth. So if you read in some classics about how through spiritual practice, achieving worldly success is very trivial, I'm actually beginning to understand the context of that. It's not putting it down, it's just telling the truth. I’ve discovered that when I do the contemplative and spiritual practices, exercising presence, accepting periods of suffering with gratitude and compassion, and continuing to refine and pursue my purpose, worldly success appears like flowers on the tree.
What is a meaningful life or a fulfilled life?
I began to realize that no matter how you go, there's always even we can go higher and I'm not saying like, well, you'll never be perfect so then don't aspire.
After the three Indonesian Grammys we worked our asses off and Yo-Yo Ma came. I was literally on stage with Yo-Yo Ma and he expressed his gratitude for me in front of almost 2,500 people including ambassadors and ministers and everyone. The whole industry saw, and I was like, “okay, all right.” And right now, we're engaging with the government on a daily basis to find out how to create this massive hub. It just goes bigger and bigger and bigger. But it's funny. The thing that I find absolutely satisfying is to find a way to get back into the present. Just like getting back into my body, breathing in mindfully, breathing out mindfully, is the best. It is really the best.
That's what I'm trying to do, I'm just trying to create more niceness. Maybe there's a more Buddhist description. Maybe you're following your Dharma or you're engendering skillful action, or you're generating good karma, all those things.
I just find it really cool that the practice that I've been holding throughout my life has that kind of profundity. It's like, that's what it's about. It's a true nice-ness.
That is just part of everything, there's the hurricane, and there's the peace. You're working past your old conditioning, and every uncovered layer needs commitment to work at it. That's what cultivation is. The transformation happens automatically. I think the responsibility I had in the beginning was to really just recognize what made me happy.
It almost seems very opposite and to some degree, hedonistic, especially in the context of the monastic environment where people often misconstrue detachment with self-denial.
I think that oftentimes what we do is automatically deny ourselves. And so, we engage in activities, both out in the open and in private that may not necessarily be good for us, but because we can't access what we really want, we do these things to numb our pain or to escape or to get a temporary high. That becomes addictive because that's all you have, as the thing that you really want has never been attained. So you just get stuck in that, right? This addiction is actually a stuckness. And so, when I started to get out of the whole mess of my "previous life", I left the world of shoulds. That was a very frightening thing to do because the shoulds were supposedly giving me safety. They're giving me security. They're giving me acceptance. If I did this or that, my parents would find me worthy. If I did this or that, I would get their love.
What message would you share with today’s world?
When I started to ask myself what made me happy, I found it really difficult in the beginning. When I started actually taking steps toward getting what I wanted, I got it. After, I always asked myself, was that it? And then the answer was partly yes and partly no. And so, now that I have this, what makes me happy now? And then I did the next thing, and then after a while my compass got a lot more clear. Along the way, I realized that reality started becoming very negotiable. Miracles started to happen. I think that's actually a symptom of coming into your purpose. And when that happens, then you can go back into these spiritual practices that typically seem like self-denial, and you find them incredibly enabling. When you find this power to manifest external reality, it's the Dharma that maintains beautiful order. So, my message is just take a little moment to ask yourself what makes you happy for the time being, and in doing that it will help unlock something inside me that makes you see how everything fits together.