While I was in Japan, I was discouraged from practicing where I was staying because I was residing in a temple. Usually when I travel I just practice in my hotel room and hope no one complains. But I found out that in Japan, the walls are basically paper so making loud sounds is often frowned upon. People in the city, as someone at the temple residence told me, often practice their musical instruments near the river that flows through the center of the city. While I was skeptical about practicing in public like that, I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be rather enjoyable! There are long stretches of walk-ways next to the river and in some places these open up into larger, grassy areas. I always tried to pick a shady area in one of the grassy parts when I practiced there.
On the first day I traversed the 3-mile walk in order to practice, it was raining so I stood under an overpass to play my scales. While I was playing, a group of girls began to assemble next to me. Apparently this was a popular place to gather on rainy days. They didn’t seem to mind that I was there but they also kept staring at me (“Why is that gaijin standing there?” is what I imagined them saying). I finally asked (and mimed at) them to ask if it was alright if I stayed there. They just giggled and went about their business. Yet another successful interaction for me…
So I stayed. But I was terrified. I have played scales in my parents’ house, my apartment, hotel rooms, horrible practice rooms with no sound-proofing, and in auditions. Nothing has scared me as much as playing scales with a gaggle of Japanese pre-teens standing next to me. This required a whole new level of confidence. I was in a country that spoke a language that I knew nothing about, surrounded by a culture I knew little about, and playing scales in the open air for all the world to judge and to top it off, here, just a few feet away was a pod of the most judgmental species that exists. Playing scales in my lessons has never seemed so easy after that experience.
After my practice I headed out to explore the city. My first official temple visit was that day. I had been staying at a temple but my access to it was restricted due to it being a private residence. This would be my first chance to freely explore a large temple grounds. My introductory temple is called Chion-in. Chion-in is the headquarters of Jōdo-shū the most widely-practiced form of Buddhism in Japan. Accordingly, the temple was quite a bustling place. It is also situated near the eastern part of the mountains surrounding Kyoto and thus the temple grounds extend into higher altitudes and include many steep staircases. I took advantage of the average temple-goer’s aversion to hard climbing and accessed parts of the temple grounds that were not so populated.
When exploring, I would highly recommend leaving the beaten path because life-changing experiences rarely happen in the places where everyone can go.
I climbed up to a place where there was a shrine and a devotion room that I could sit in (after removing my shoes of course). Not a single person was around so I was able to sit and admire this holy place in peace. Here I was struck with a profound sense of reverence. I have been in large cathedrals in the United States and Europe (I was practically raised in one in Durham, NC) but I had never experienced anything quite like this. The feeling I was experiencing was something steeped in centuries of devotional practice. The Monk whom I had met earlier on the trip had spoken to me about the vast number of rules he had to follow when training to become a monk at a temple like this one: the silent eating, the hours of meditation, the standing for long periods of time during important ceremonies. I could feel that sense of purpose hanging in the air here. When you enter one of these temples, you leave your shoes at the door and with them all of your worldly problems. Sitting in that shrine room, it almost felt impossible to worry about how to navigate to my next destination or if I was going to be able to communicate with the proprietors of the next place I tried to eat.
I wished that I could have pulled my flute out of my pack right then and just started playing. This was the secret I had come here to find: the reason why I find it so easy to connect with Japanese music. The secret is that the music of the Japanese tradition is tied intrinsically to this reverence. The hymns I had sung in church growing up were all well and good but this Buddhist temple had been built before Chris Columbus’ ancestors were even twinkles in their parents’ eyes. This reverence was one that was far older and more storied than any in the United States. And it does not exist in time or in a realm of the universe to which I am accustomed. To play Japanese-inspired music is to leave your problems at the door along with your shoes just as I had done in that shrine room. Indeed to play any music should be a transcendental experience that transports you away from the corporeal world.
I had known this somewhere in the back of my mind but it had never been so palpable as this. I actually experienced the transcendence in Chion-in in such a way that I should now be able to recreate it in the future.
I almost started playing my flute in that moment but the image of some angry monks materializing from the depths of the temple and yelling at me in Japanese stayed my musical inclinations. I would have to be content with just bottling up my feelings so I could release them back in my practice room at home.