Lessons in expression from Japan: spiritual connection, personal style, and hospitality (Japan Trip Log: Day 3 continued)

In Japan, I had the honor of meeting with a Buddhist Monk and a Komuso each of whom plays the Shakuhachi. Each of these men had a profound impact on the way I think about music and enlightened my view of the Japanese traditions in their own way.

The monk told me that not many monks in Japan play the Shakuhachi any more despite the instrument’s spiritual history. The Shakuhachi came to Japan along with Buddhism and was originally used as a tool for meditation. Undergoing the struggle to learn to make a sound on the flute and then following the breath of playing it was once an important part of many monks’ Zen journeys. It is now used primarily for music alone. What was once transcendental has crossed over into the corporeal realm of “absolute music”.

There is a comparison that can be drawn between this phenomenon and the history of Western Classical Music. Music in our culture began as a means of religious praise. Some would argue that music as we know it in the West began with the vocal traditions of the Catholic Church. But the music of today is far-flung from early church music. It has become subjected to study and research and is now more of a subject of academia and scholarship than one of spiritual devotion.

The role of the priest used to be the leader of the singing that disseminated the Word of the bible. However, most of the sermons I have heard in my life have been mostly spoken and fairly erudite. The religious leaders that I have seen singing are mostly those leading African-American churches. And I guarantee that if you see one of these charismatic men preaching, you will see far more outward passion than with one who merely stands behind a pulpit and talks. This is not to say that one man is more or less religious or passionate than the other but when I’m looking for inspiration for my music playing, I don’t go see a professor giving a lecture.

And modern music is no more or less passionate than the church music of early history. But it seems like spirituality could be a factor of music that is more outwardly expressive. The apparent passion of a Shakuhachi performance (audiences report weeping at concerts) and my connection to this music may have something to do with this. Even modern Shakuhachi masters are highly aware of their craft’s history. In fact, Japan as a whole is intrinsically linked to its past. Especially in Kyoto, the citizens are literally living amongst their ancestry. Adjacent to the tall buildings, bustling shopping malls, and train stations are temples and shrines that are centuries old. There are many festivals throughout the year preserving traditions much older than all of the Western world (I will write in a later installment about a parade that was around well before Thanksgiving was even an infant much less Macy’s). And almost all traditions in Japan are highly spiritually charged. Behind every temple is a different sect of Buddhism, behind every festival is a deity or cleansing ritual.

The Monk taught me to find a spiritual connection with music: something that resonates with my core and speaks to my past.

The Komuso gave me an amazing lesson on the Shakuhachi. This was not like the lessons I have on my western flute in that there were very few words said. I essentially mimicked him for an hour and a half. But what he did say had to do with the tragedy of the rock-star teacher-performer. He said that Shakuhachi players used to play their own styles. But now there are famous teachers who are players and they attract many students who end up just playing like them and never finding their own means of expression. He said he could even tell who a player had studied with based on how they sound.

This was a cautionary tale for me. The flute world alone is saturated with superstar players and teachers. James Galway, Jeanne Baxtresser, Carol Wincenc, Marina Piccinini, Emmanuel Pahud, Mathieu Dufour, Jim Walker, Julius Baker, William Bennett, Leone Buyse, Michel Debost, Rhonda Larson, Gary Shocker, Marcel Moyse, Jean-Pierre Rampal, I could go on.  It would be very easy to get caught up in someone else’s personality and lose one’s self.

The Komuso said that I had to learn the style by imitation but that eventually I would have to find my own way. We learn how to live from our parents and people around us but we ultimately must find our own path.

To round off this life-changing day, the Monk and his wife showed me one more part of Japanese culture. They took me to dinner and insisted on paying for me. To recap, these kind individuals had arranged for a Komuso to come from out of town to meet me, drove to pick me up, opened their home to me, entertained me all afternoon including tea and snacks, and then bought me dinner at the end of the day. Had I not been exhausted and still a bit jet-lagged, they probably would have had me over after dinner as well. Furthermore, they gave me several documents about Shakuhachi as well as some calligraphy prints to take home. They invited me over and had given ME presents?!

I offered to pay for dinner to thank them for an amazing day but all they seemed to require in return was for me to bow and stumble over the word “arigato”. Their actions have showed me the level of kindness humans can be capable of. My flute teacher has a poster on her wall that says “Work hard and be nice to people” and this couple had shown me what it truly is to be nice to people. Their love of music extends beyond themselves: they were happy just seeing my interest in Shakuhachi.

If we cultivate a love for something so great that we can derive happiness from others’ love of it, it is that thing that we must pursue with our whole beings.

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