The Righteous Threefold Path of Joe Henley
One of the noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering is an innate part of life, and I admit that when I have to listen to death metal it certainly feels that way! But I’ll make an honorary exception for one band, Dharma, possibly the only Buddhist death metal group in the world. With their face paint, robes, and trippy lighting, they look as if the classic glam-band KISS just got back from a few years in a Nepalese monastery. But Dharma’s vibe is more than just theatrics: they have a bona fide Buddhist nun with them on the stage. Their frontman is Joe Henley, a tall, gaunt, figure screaming out actual sutras. And if you can’t make out the lyrics, that’s because they’re in Sanskrit.
If you talk to Joe after the show, (once your ears stop ringing) his persona changes considerably, from otherworldly to down-to-earth, from a screamer to reserved, unpretentious and even a bit shy. But still a Buddhist. In fact, it’s the calm focus of this spiritual path that helps him keep his head together. Joe says that his inner life has had some serious downs, and that the practice of Buddhism helps him stay on an even keel. His occupation hasn’t helped. Having been a fulltime freelance writer for the past ten years, the stress of this notoriously unstable line of work have caused their wear-and-tear on the emotionally sensitive Saskatchewan native. “Sometimes I’ve had to wait months to get paid. It made me very anxious and angry.” Buddhism has caused him to quit drinking as well, which has also improved his quality of life.
As fine as all that is, however, Buddhism is not simply about improving one’s own life. “Selfish Buddhism” is an oxymoron. The creed advocates embracing the world with compassion, actively seeking to reduce the suffering of others. This Joe does according to his three righteous ways.
Number 1: Buddhist Death Metal
Joe has been involved in death metal since college, and got into it in Taiwan years before Dharma was formed.
“My first band was called Revilement and I was doing vocals. It’s not a band I started. It was just a bunch of Taiwanese guys. They met me at a festival called Formoz. They had just recently lost their vocalist and I had hair down to my ass and a big beard. I looked like a metal guy so they just picked me out of the crowd,” Joe recounts.
He joined Dharma in 2018, and although was unsure at the time if he could pull it off, has gone on to front the group to great effect at local music festivals.
Joe’s onstage Dharma persona is actually a feature of Buddhism, where certain demon-like deities scream and terrorize away evil spirits that plague the earth. What’s more, the intensity of the death metal sound is apparently also soothing for people with inner angst. So that’s not screaming, that’s helping!
Number 2: Writing for Noble Causes
With a degree in journalism and finding himself not a good fit for the local ESL teaching scene, it was not long before Joe was writing a music column for the Taipei Times.
Then one day he got a lead that would change his life. “A woman called Jasmine Bonang Sanchez contacted me on Facebook in late 2014 or early 2015. She had been involved in the punk underground scene in the Philippines so she thought maybe we had some common ground. She said we’ve got a bunch of people and we’ve started an advocacy organization called MKT. So, I went to Taipei Main Station and she had 15 or 20 people with her,” Joe says.
“There was one woman in particular. She’d had 3 or 4 employers and with each one she’d endured some form of sexual trauma. She wasn’t the only one who told me stories like this. But for it had happened at each and every place she had been transferred to since she’d arrived in Taiwan. It was basically her employers thinking it was OK to offer her a bonus for some sort of sexual transaction.”
This would be creepy and traumatic enough for a western expat. But it’s worse if you have the wrong passport and visa. For migrant workers in a bind, there’s not a lot they can do. “If you raise your voice, you’re probably going to lose your job, your means of income, your means of supporting your family back home. You’re talking to somebody who is probably holding your passport, your ARC, all forms of identification. You can’t go anywhere; you can’t run away without running afoul of the law. If you just leave your employer, you’re a runaway, then you’re in the country illegally and you’re facing deportation,” says Joe.
This and other encounters led to him writing a series of articles in the Taipei Times and other publications about the mistreatment of the overseas migrant workers (OMW) in Taiwan, who are overwhelmingly from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This cohort of blue-collar expats numbers above 700,000 people – about 30 times the total number of white-collar foreign workers in Taiwan – and compose about 60% of the industrial workforce. They’re a big part of what drives Taiwan’s impressive economic engine. But according to human rights groups, these factory workers, farm laborers, fishing fleet workers, and domestic caregivers, routinely face a litany of abusive practices, including excessive brokers’ fees, dangerous working conditions, bad food, very long hours, having passports withheld, poor accommodation, being locked into dorms, as well as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.
Joe’s research on this issue took him all the way to slums of Manila, and eventually led to the publication of Migrante, (Camphor Press) a 2020 novel about the sad life journey of Rizal, a young man who grew up in a cemetery slum in Manila. Rizal’s story is based on the accounts of real people so poor that they live where no one else will – in the mausoleums of other people’s families in urban cemeteries. It’s a dangerous and unhealthy life without basic services, and with little chance of escape through education or gainful employment.
With few prospects at home, Rizal signs up with a broker to become a “migrante”, an overseas migrant worker in Taiwan. He’s assigned to a fishing boat, where a violent and callous-hearted captain treats him and the other migrant fishermen abusively, abetted by the ever-watchful police, there to stop the migrant workers from running away. Rizal’s strange and turbulent life intertwines with other migrant workers in a story that reveals the dark underbelly of endless labor, futility, and exploitation, which is hidden beneath the bustling, brightly-lit surface world of Taiwan’s prosperous democracy.
It’s an important story that needs to be told. What’s more, Joe is dedicating 100% of his share of his book royalties to various advocacy groups that help migrant workers. But despite these chivalrous acts, he insists that he is no white savior.
“The people at the forefront of this movement are of course local people such as Lennon Wong of the Serve the People association. He’s been fighting this fight for a number of years,” says Joe.
“Another is Allison Lee of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union based in Nanfang-ao Harbor. She’s been heading up that union for a number of years as well. And she’s been doing so entirely selflessly and without salary. She’s been doing this because it’s something that she cares about.
“And another one who I will mention is Julia Mariano who is a young student here in Taiwan, she’s from the Philippines. She’s become the spokesperson for the Taiwan chapter of Migrante International, which is a labor rights advocacy group. She’s politically aware, incredibly intelligent, and she’s a great orator and a great leader. I think, in terms of the future of this movement, she is the future.
“These are the people who lead the charge. I’m just somebody who reports on what they do. I’m an ally. And I think that’s where my role in this should be, not a leader, but as somebody that provides background support.”
Humble words indeed. Coming from someone else I might groan and suspect them of insincerity and virtue signaling. But with Joe, I’ll buy that he means it. However, as an actual point of fact, I disagree. In my opinion Joe is a leader in terms of bringing this issue to light. Maybe he’s not a general in this fight, but he’s certainly a field officer leading the awareness mission into the world of western expats. And beyond: It will be very interesting see the reaction from some Taiwanese when the Mandarin translation is published next year. His stark critique of Taiwanese society is probably going to piss some people off and he should be ready for a possible backlash. Maybe, says Joe, but: “If it doesn’t incite people, what’s the point?”
He would, however, like to make one thing clear: “I am not trying to make Taiwan look bad. I love Taiwan, it’s where I was able to live my dream. I just want Taiwan to be as good as it possibly can.”
Number 3: Caring for Stray Cats
Joe and his wife Jill – who he calls his “partner in crime” – are habitual cat burglars. That is, they do a process called “trap, neuter, release” (TNR) in an area on the side of Elephant Mountain where there are lots of stray and feral cats. His wife is a certified animal behaviorist specializing in cats. She has her own business where she helps pet owners out who might be having trouble with their cats it’s called Pet Buddy. Joes says that Jill’s “A cat whisperer and she’s extremely dedicated and really good at what she does.”
When they noticed the problem with feral cats in the neighborhood, they decided to intervene. After the TNR, “if the cats were friendly to people, we would get them adopted out to suitable families,” said Joe. “Or if they were just happier being where they were we would just put them back after they had surgery and had recovered. The total that we’ve helped is around 50 in the past few months.”
In Buddhism, there is a type of enlightened being called a “Bodhisattva”. Guanyin, the “goddess of mercy” so beloved in Taiwan, is one such entity. Although there are a few subtly differing definitions of Bodhisattva, the most common one is someone who is capable of achieving true enlightenment and Buddhahood, but delays taking this final step, choosing instead to remain on the earthly plane to help those who are suffering.
Now Joe’s no Bodhisattva. But he is consciously on the path of enlightenment. What’s more, he’s a relentlessly humble do-gooder trying to alleviate suffering on the spiritual, human, and animal levels all at once. I bet Totoro would take an immediate shine to him. So let’s call him a Buddy Cattva! Joe Henley, ladies and germs: a fine Canadian fellow who through his interpretation of Buddhism in daily life, has made Taiwan his Om! away from home!
Please buy a copy of Migrante: It’s a great book for an excellent cause.