"Buddhism and Music" Class at Orange County Buddhist Church
A Report by Peter Hata

Several months ago, Orange County Buddhist Church's Rev. Marvin Harada approached me and asked if I'd be interested in being an instructor in one of his Buddhist Education Center's lecture series. In listening to my reply, I think he may have sensed my hesitation (it was pretty obvious) and so he said something like, "No hurry, take your time and think about it." A long time seemed to go by and I didn't hear from him. I wondered if maybe he had changed his mind, or if the class was postponed or something. I had been really busy with a series of deadlines in my work and hadn't really been able to sit down and give the class idea much thought. I was starting to think (hoping?) that maybe I was "off the hook." Then, seemingly out of the blue, he called me and asked me "how my decision was coming along." I asked him when he needed to know by. I wish you could have seen my expression when he said, "Actually, Peter, I need to know right now." After my shock, I realized I should just say "yes," because I had just been procrastinating all along. But maybe I also even looked forward to the challenge. Well, now that my classes are over, I'm very grateful to Rev. Harada because, without his "push," I wouldn't have had the great experience that I did working with him, with the OCBC Sangha and with the Lotus Band.

My classes were held on the Tuesday evenings of February 12, 19 and March 5, 2002. I taught three 90-minute classes at OCBC's Buddhist Education Center, which is located in Anaheim, California. Over a year ago, OCBC established the BEC, and has offered many classes there on topics ranging from introductions to Buddhism to in-depth studies of the Larger Sutra. The three classes I taught were part of a particular lecture series entitled, "Buddhism and Music: Traditional to Contemporary," which aimed at examining the role of music in Buddhism, from the most ancient forms of sutra chanting and gagaku, to forms such as American taiko music. It also aimed to cover the expression of Buddhism in contemporary American music. Rev. Masao Kodani was the instructor for the first five classes covering the traditional aspects, and I was the instructor for the last three, which dealt with contemporary expressions of Buddhism. Here are a few highlights from each class.

Class 1
Though this particular lecture series was titled, "Buddhism and Music," I got permission from Rev. Harada to take a slight detour and discuss "Buddhism and Movies," and show clips from three Buddhistic movies. I felt viewing these recent American movies would be a good way to communicate the basic teachings of Buddhism, and be in keeping with the "contemporary" focus of my classes. Also, I wanted especially to examine the Buddhist awakening itself, and movies, with their dramatic power, might actually be a better medium than music for this particular purpose. Then, when Rev. Harada demonstrated the state-of-the-art projection system in OCBC's beautiful "Mini Chapel," which is where the BEC holds its classes, I was definitely sold!

The movies we watched were Little Buddha, The Empire Strikes Back, and American Beauty. In all three movies, we saw what Dr. Haneda has clarified are the "two aspects of awakening." One aspect is negative; it is a truth or power we encounter in our lives which negates or challenges our ego-self. The second aspect is positive and is the resulting positive appreciation of the vast world beyond the self, a world "awakened to" when the ego-self is negated. Most importantly, we learned that experiencing this positive aspect first requires the negative aspect. It is only when our limited "ego-self" is challenged or negated that we can then experience this larger world of oneness.

In each of the movies we viewed, we observed the central character encounter the first negative, or self-challenging, aspect. In Little Buddha, we saw Siddhartha cry at his first meeting with death, with the truth of impermanence (the story of the Four Gates). In Buddhism, we say that impermanence negated or "crushed" Siddhartha’s ego-self, which up to that point had been thinking the leisurely palace life he was living was permanent. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw Luke's shock at seeing the dark side within himself in the famous "cave scene." And we saw Yoda, the teacher, knowing that any enlightenment without encountering the darkside could not be authentic. In American Beauty, in the beginning of the film, we hear Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) acknowledge his messed-up life, that in a way, he was "already dead," and that he has this nagging feeling that he's lost something, that it's as if he is "sedated."

But we also watched great examples of the positive aspect of awakening. In Little Buddha, we saw that, at the moment that Siddhartha awakens to the Dharma and becomes Shakyamuni Buddha, a kind of glowing aura emanates from him. I think that glow symbolizes the positive aspect of awakening. In our Shin Tradition we might use terms like "Being Reborn in the Pure Land," "Encountering Amida Buddha," or Becoming One with the Dharma" to describe the "reality" that opened up to the Buddha. And, in terms of how he actually lived his life, we know that after his awakening at age 35, Shakyamuni was a dynamic, creative and compassionate teacher all the way until his death at age 80. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw Yoda passionately describing the unseen but powerful "Force," the interdependence of all life that is the realm of the Jedi. And, in American Beauty, we saw the great scene where Lester grins and utters, "Man oh man…man oh man oh man," as he examines a photo of his family and suddenly realizes that he already has a great life. In the ending voice-over, he says: "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me…but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

I feel that these movies do express the Buddhist teachings. But let me clarify that I'm not saying that becoming a Jedi is identical to the Buddhist awakening, or that viewing American Beauty is a replacement for coming to temple and studying the Dharma. What I am saying is that, in viewing movies such as these, we hopefully are encouraged to examine our own lives and discover the true nature of our own self. And that, ultimately, this reflection—this self-examination—can lead to the positive aspect of the Buddhist awakening we viewed in these movies.

Class 2
In the second class, I discussed the importance of acquiring the "beginner's mind" (or shinjin), and that this "mind" is really the central issue in Buddhism. Acquiring this mind essentially means "discovering the student within." I related to the class an account of how I've grown to deeply appreciate the students I teach, that paradoxically, through my students, I have discovered the student within myself.

I also talked about "applying" the beginner's mind. By "applying" I wasn't referring to deliberately "using" the beginner's mind for "problem solving." Rather, that creativity can flow naturally through us as a result of deep study. And, I emphasized the need for creativity amongst American Shin Buddhists to revitalize and present our Jodo Shinshu tradition in fresh new ways here in America. If we deeply study from our Buddhist teachers, we will naturally gain inspiration to not only live more fulfilling lives, but also to help promote our tradition and share our understanding of it with others. I tried to show in a concrete way how this might be done through a demonstration of some of the changes jazz music has undergone in the last half century or so. Like Buddhism, jazz is also a tradition with a rich history of great teachers and, also like Buddhism, is impossible to get without encountering a teacher who both inspires and guides us.

Peter Hata and Amy Sakaue played bebop-style jazz over swing, funk-jazz, latin-jazz and hip-hop grooves to demonstrate how the jazz tradition has been constantly revitalized yet remained true to itself

In the performance segment of this class, The Lotus Band's talented saxophonist Amy Sakaue and I demonstrated that the essence of the jazz tradition, which we could arguably say is the "language of bebop," can be played over any number of different kinds of styles or grooves, and still sound like jazz. We began by playing bebop over a traditional jazz swing groove, very much like the kind of jazz one would have heard in the 1940’s, around the time bebop was born. We then played the jazz standard Misty, one of the greatest songs of the core tunes of jazz. Then, following Misty, we fast-forwarded a couple of decades and played two uptempo examples of what I call "backbeat jazz," Ronnie Laws' Always There and Herbie Hancock's Chameleon. These songs represent what happened to jazz in the 70’s and 80’s as younger jazz musicians of the time began to be influenced as much by James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and Earth Wind and Fire, as by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. I invited the audience to get up and dance to these funky tunes if they wished (they were a good audience, but not that good!).

Peter and Amy played Misty, one of the great traditional jazz standards

Then, at the end of the performance segment, I played some traditional bebop improvisation over a contemporary hip-hop dance track that my older son, Dean (a senior at the University of California, Irvine), had composed. I related that I was really surprised at my recent performance of this song in UCI's Bren Events Center (with Dean on turntables) to hear that the young, college-aged audience seemed to enjoy the jazz. But I'm certain they probably were able to relate to it at least initially because it was presented in a new, contemporary style, or you might say in a "recognizable container."

Peter played bebop guitar over a contemporary hip-hop dance groove

Following this demonstration of the revitalizing changes the jazz tradition has undergone, I then encouraged the participants to study the Buddhist tradition. "You have some great teachers here at OCBC," I said. "And, since creativity flows naturally from studying the tradition, maybe some of you will even be inspired naturally to contribute your creative energy to reinventing the expression of Jodo Shinshu here in America, rediscovering anew the timeless essence of the Buddha-Dharma for yourselves."

I quoted Dr. Haneda, who has said, "Being a student is the only goal, the highest goal in Buddhism." I think that if we have the "beginner’s mind"—if we can become a true student and receive the bowing attitude of Namu Amida Butsu—we can learn from everything and everyone around us. Such a person is able to deeply appreciate the beauty that life has to offer.

I closed the class with another great quote from Dr. Haneda, "We are liberated, not by an external being or force, but by the bowing that is realized in us."

Class 3
In class 3, I shared some my favorite examples of Buddhistic songs. First, I talked a little bit about the lyrics of these songs, and then in the second half of the class, the Lotus Band performed them live for the class participants. But at the start of the class, I talked a little bit about the Lotus Band itself, because on one level, the band represents an example of exactly the kind of new "American container" we had discussed in the previous class.

There are several levels on which I relate to the Lotus Band. First, as Rev. Kodani has said, the connection between Buddhism and music is vitally important but has unfortunately often been overlooked in our temples. He once said, "Art is the expression of our religious connection. Take art seriously. We cannot live without it." Since Lotus plays Buddhistic songs, the band is meaningful on that level alone, as a vehicle for the artistic expression of the Dharma.

In another sense, the Lotus Band, being comprised of teens, symbolizes the changes that must take place and are taking place in our temples. New styles, new sounds, instruments, etc. It happens naturally as new generations come to the temple. And certainly, one of the initial motivations for forming the Lotus Band was to try to have some new gathas in our services. There was an almost universal dissatisfaction on the part of our temple members with our old, seriously out-of-date "gathas." Why not try having a live band (a first at our temple) perform the gathas, and try to work in new gathas? Another first at the temple is that, even though most of their songs aren't "gathas" per se, Rev. Ken has encouraged Lotus to perform them alongside the gathas in our services, since they also express Buddhist teachings. In fact, Lotus has performed many of their Buddhistic songs before predominantly non-Buddhist audiences, like at our Obon, and will again in May when they open for the talented singing group, the Acafellas, at a special concert at Cal Poly Pomona. So, this idea of a youth band is something all of our temples should consider sponsoring.

Of course, the name "Lotus" is itself meaningful. After the group was formed, one of the teens suggested the name "lotus" (actually, it was Amy). The lotus is an important symbol in Buddhism, since it typically flowers amidst muddy and impure pond water. Applied as a name for a group of musical youths, in one sense, it expresses all our hopes that our youth can "flower" and reach their full potential despite the troubled times we live in. In another sense, the lotus is a symbol in Buddhism for the Buddhist awakening itself. As a symbol for awakening, the interesting aspect is that the Lotus blooms in muddy, dirty pond water. In other words, if the lotus symbolizes awakening, then the impure pond water symbolizes our ego-self. In that sense, it really illustrates Shinran's teaching well. We cannot through "jiriki," through self-purification kinds of efforts alone, try to become "good people." It is only through awakening to the darkness of the self within that we can be liberated from the delusions of the self. Thus, without delusions, there can be no awakening.

Next, we looked at the lyrics of several Buddhistic songs, such as Time of Your Life, by Green Day, which talks about impermanence ("Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go") and Colors of the Wind, which talks about the interdependence of all life ("Can you paint with all the colors of the wind" or, in other words, "Are you bowing deeply—namu—and seeing all of life as your teacher?"). Colors in particular focuses on the problem of the ego-self, which tends to not realize its own skewed and self-centered focus.

In my discussion of the lyrics of these songs, I focused again on the two aspects of awakening contained in the phrase, Namu Amida Butsu. For example, in Colors of the Wind, I think Pocahontas is trying to help John Smith "see" his arrogant and egotistical attitude, to gain an insight about himself. This is negative. As Buddhists, we bow because we encounter a negative truth—our heads are really made to bow—but then when we are emptied of the self, we can then be filled with the infinite creative power of the Dharma, which is tremendously positive. To me, Namu Amida Butsu—or "bow to the Dharma"—is our humble expression as Buddhists of this insight into the true relationship of our relatively small ego-selves to the greater reality of oneness that surrounds us.

When this insight is gained, the "Buddha-spirit"—the spirit of the true student or seeker of truth, the "beginner’s mind," if you will—is awakened inside us. When we have this awakened spirit, everything can teach us, the bobcat, the wolf, the rainstorm, river, heron and otter. Ultimately, I think that this is what Pocahontas teaches us.

I also discussed the lyrics from a haunting ballad from a Quincy Jones album called, Everything Must Change. I'm fond of it because it seems to express, in a very moving way, the Buddhist teaching we had talked about, the two aspects involved with the Buddhist awakening.

This song starts with a negative truth, which is the truth of impermanence we all know, that everything changes. In the 2nd stanza, the lines, "The young become the old...And mysteries do unfold," are interesting from a Buddhist standpoint. I think this is referring to the natural process that occurs as we get older, where we gradually become more and more attuned to the truth of impermanence. Eventually, we become ready to truly hear or receive the teachings. Dr. Haneda once related the Buddhist saying, "The more ripe the fruit, the lower the branch bows." I think this is what the song is referring to by saying, "mysteries do unfold." As we get older, we gain, though numerous encounters with the Dharma of impermanence, a kind of sensitivity to this teaching. Through the negating power of the Dharma on our ego-self, we begin to acquire humility. This humble understanding is, I think, what we call "wisdom" in Buddhism.

But then in the chorus, the lyrics say, "There are not many things in life you can be sure of…Except...Rain comes from the clouds…Sun lights up the sky…And humming birds do fly." I think the meaning here is that, yes, on the one hand, "The young become the old," which we of course think of as a depressing truth. But the other side of the same coin is that many wonderful things happen also, "Rain comes from the clouds, sun lights up the sky and humming birds fly." These are all a part of the same process of life; while death is occurring all around, life is also going on. I think the song, by juxtaposing these two thoughts in the way it does, is trying to get us to see that it is really our limited, dualistic way of looking at things, that makes us tend to always judge things as either "good or bad," and always from the relative viewpoint of our ego-self. Buddhism teaches us that life is not comprised of good and bad elements; life just "is." If we are finding life difficult to deal with, it is because of our self-attachment and sense of self-importance, it is not to due to life, or to death, which is a natural part of life.

Some of you may think Everything Must Change is a depressing song, and I agree, it is. But I personally appreciate this song's message because it shows me the resistance of my own ego-self to the Dharma of impermanence. It shows me my own attachments, which are many. And our Buddhist teachers tell us that it is our attachments that really are the cause of our suffering. When we encounter the truth of impermanence in a direct way in our life, perhaps through the death of a loved one, or through the facing of our own eventual mortality, what happens is, all the "ideas," pretensions, attachments, beliefs, etc., that our ego-self has built up over the years get wiped out. Suddenly, the entire "house of cards," which the ego-self has painstakingly constructed, collapses. As Dr. Haneda has said, this encountering with impermanence—or more specifically, this seeing of the ego-self as itself being impermanent—is a kind of spiritual death. But out of this "death," or emptiness, arises a new, fresh appreciation of life. In one sense, it's like returning to one's infancy. Have you ever witnessed the incredible joy and curiosity a newborn baby has at just discovering the simplest of things? This is the tremendously positive aspect of awakening. As Dr. Haneda has asked us, "Don't we all want to be creative, and to enjoy the freshness of each moment?" In terms of this song, don't we want to appreciate the rain falling from the clouds, the sun lighting up the sky and the humming birds flying? I think this is the greatest truth in Buddhism.

Lotus Band (l-r; Kevin Hata, Lindsay Ogino, Allison Haraguchi, Kyle Kagawa, Amy Sakaue) sounded great at Orange County Buddhist Church's "Buddhism and Music" class on March 5, 2002.

In the second half of the class, Lotus Band took the stage and performed great versions of these songs:

I Want It That Way
Time of Your Life
Everything Must Change
Colors of the Wind
Dream of the Sirens
Never Had a Dream Come True

I give a lot of credit to Lotus for making Class 3 a huge success. Lotus sounded great, and the audience was extremely receptive. I think one reason the OCBC audience was so great might be because they don't have a "Lotus Band," and therefore they really appreciated Lotus’ music. The other reason OCBC responded so favorably is obviously because Lotus does in fact, sound pretty great! When you hear people going, "Yeah!" and "Wow!" in the audience, they're doing that spontaneously, because the band really got to them. The tight, punchy ensemble ending of Kevin's and Kyle's guitars and Amy's sax on Dream of the Sirens had them on the edge of their seats. And, by the end of Colors, Lotus had the audience in the palm of their hand. The perfect harmony of Lindsay and Allison, then the haunting melody of Amy's sax...the listeners were totally enthralled. So was I.

I'd also like to give special mention to Amy, for coming on not one, but two (school) nights. The class #2 that we did on "Bebop, Buddhism and the Beginner’s Mind," really seemed to impress Rev. Harada! The class also touched on the importance in both jazz and Buddhism of finding a teacher, through whom we can directly experience the tradition, so I really appreciate Amy's special contribution.

Overall, I got the sense, with Rev. Harada's tremendous support and encouragement, that some new ground was broken at OCBC. No, watching movies and listening to live music is not a replacement for Sunday sermons, but I firmly believe now, after my OCBC experiences, that these kinds of "contemporary focus" classes are a vital part of our Buddhist education. Unless we are making the connection between the teachings of Shakyamuni and Shinran and the experiences (including film and music) of our daily lives, we are not truly listening to the Dharma. Furthermore, I believe that making this vital connection then really encourages us to further study say, the Larger Sutra, the Three Dharma Marks or Tannisho. I believe that ultimately, out of this kind of studying and listening process, we American Shin Buddhists can revitalize and even recreate anew our Jodo Shinshu Tradition.

Again, many thanks to all the members of Lotus for their participation. I'm very grateful for their help. I would not and could not have done this without their performances. Many thanks also to Rev. Ken Kawawata—without your support over the last two years, we couldn't have a Lotus Band. I'd also like to thank the Lotus parents for the encouragement they've given to their sons and daughters. Finally, to Rev. Harada, your energy, creativity, and warmth are an inspiration! In all of the classes at OCBC, the Lotus Band and I were extremely well taken care of. It was also great making many new friends amongst the OCBC Sangha. Thank you all so very much!
-Peter Hata

For more info about OCBC's Buddhist Classes, visit OCBC's website.

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