Big-ass Buddha: inspiration from Nara (Japan Trip Log: Day 5)

On my second morning of practicing the flute at the river that flows through Kyoto, a woman rode up on her bike and asked me what I was playing. I told her I was playing the Aviary movement from Carnival of the Animals and she smiled and asked if she could listen. I told her she could but I was bewildered by this. When I went there to practice, I tried to find a place that was as out-of-the-way as possible so I wouldn’t disturb anyone. But to this woman, my (probably poor) attempt to play that excerpt was entertaining and something to stop and listen to. After a while, she thanked me and rode off down the walkway. I never thought someone would thank me for listening to me practicing my articulation exercises but here she was. That experience had an immeasurable effect on my self-confidence and I wish I could find that woman again to thank her for what she did for me.

Music is not, as I think some people view it, a one-way street. The listener and the performer have a lot to gain from each other: more so than we realize. The listener may just be getting a nice soundtrack to their morning bike ride or they might be gaining inspiration to be creative. Subsequently, the performer gains immeasurable confidence just from someone stopping to listen for a while. So to all the listeners in the world, seek out ways to hear more music and in doing so acknowledge the creative journey of a fellow human even if it is just a street musician. And to all the performers out there, don’t undervalue any opportunity you have to play for other people. You might think that you will just be getting on people’s nerves but you never know when you might brighten someone’s day or turn their life around.

My destination for the day was the historic city of Nara. The historical park there contains some of the oldest and most important structures in Buddhist culture so I had to go see them for myself if I was going to make sense of the mysticism of the Shakuhachi flute.

The first place I went was Kasuga Taisha, a shrine just off the main street in the historic park. Even today, one can immediately see why a holy place was built there. Stepping onto the grounds, as it was in so many spiritual sites in Japan, was like stepping back in time. That is if you could look past the souvenir shops, large banners proclaiming who-knows-what, and the signs every 50 feet or so reminding us that smoking was “forbidden not allowed”. This shrine was particularly set apart from the bustling city by nature of its environment. It had a completely different climate from the streets surrounding it. The trees were very old (and apparently historically important, it was unclear on the translated signs) and covered with moss. I have always admitted (at risk of sounding like some kind of new-age nut job) that I could sense it in the air when I was in an older forest. You can literally sense it in the air because the temperature and humidity is different in old-growth woods but there is also a sense that some ancient knowledge resides there. To further set the mood, the shrine is surrounded by countless stone lanterns which are as moss-painted as the trees which are their backdrop.

It seemed a shame that the mood was disrupted by modern signs telling where the nearest restroom was located, where the food shops were, and how to get back to the train station. But all of these things are certainly necessary if lots of people are to experience these historic sites and I am definitely a proponent of connecting with one’s heritage. This intersection of old and new is what makes Japan so special.

And as far as connecting with heritage goes, no site comes close to the one I visited next. Tōdai-ji houses the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world. I claim ignorance when it comes to most of the fine points of Buddhist culture but I will give them this: they have a flair for the dramatic. The statue stands nearly 50 feet tall and weighs 550 tons; that means you would be eye-to-eye with it on a fifth-story balcony. It sits in a building that matches the statue in grandeur and is flanked by other depictions of Buddha which are almost as massive. The building itself is 57 meters long and 50 meters wide meaning it is more than half a football field long on each side. The truly crazy thing was, THE BUILDING WAS RESIZED TO BE SMALLER AT ONE POINT! The ancient monks loved them some Buddha.

Photo Jul 14, 1 11 10 AM (1)

(The small dot-looking things at the bottom of the frame are people’s heads)

And the best part about all of these ancient buildings and statues is that I keep reading that they were built “for the good of mankind”. Not for the good of Buddhism, or the good of Japan, or the good of the immediate neighborhood, but for the good of the WHOLE WORLD. They legitimately thought they were doing everyone on earth a favor by building a ridiculously large bronze statue.

If the rest of the world started building Statue-of-Liberty-sized monuments because they thought it would improve the lives of all of humanity, the world would probably be a better place.

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