Hou-u: Dharma Rain
Vol. 1, No. 2

Small Houu Kanji

Buddhist Taiko

by Reverend Arthur Takemoto (BCA Reverend Emeritus)

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Musical Instruments and Buddhist Ritual

Instruments such as percussion, strings, and flutes have always been a part of the Buddhist tradition. Of the many musical instruments that have played a role in the Buddhist tradition percussion instruments is the most notable. Traditional Buddhist temples, for example, all have a large Temple bell or gong. Even within the shrine or altar area one is certain to find a relatively large gong near where the officiant sits. Temples may also have a smaller, flatter, brass gong called a sawari in their altar areas. Some temples may even have a drum (taiko in Japanese) ornately decorated on a stand. At major gatherings, it is not unlikely to hear gongs and cymbals used to introduce the Sutra. The use of musical instruments, such as the taiko, is, therefore, common to the Buddhist tradition.

The early beginnings of Buddhist Taiko

Because musical instruments have had such an important role in the Buddhist tradition, especially as it relates to the ritual, an ambitious ten day retreat was held at the San Luis Obispo Temple in the early 1970s. The American Buddhist Taiko groups that sprang out throughout the United States owe its beginning as an offshoot of this program.

Although American Buddhist Taiko has become very popular, the retreat was originally criticized because it did not necessarily limit itself to Jodo Shinshu. Despite this initial criticism, however, the program was able to attract over fifty people of all ages. The retreat was held over a period of ten days in August.

The basic retreat program consisted of the following events. The day was started with a sitting and walking meditation that began at 6:00 a.m. This meditation session began with twenty minutes of sitting. After the first twenty minutes everyone rose from their seats and walked around the Dojo while chanting the sutras. Each word of the sutras was chanted deliberately and everyone walked slowly in unison until they returned to their original seats. When everyone returned to their seats, this was continued by the second meditation sitting.

Because Jodo Shinshu does not include meditative sitting as part of its practice or ritual, outside expertise was necessary to conduct this part of the retreat. This expertise was provided by a Rinzai Zen Roshi. Because of the presence of a Zen Roshi, the meditation sitting sessions included training in the proper sitting posture as well as having the Master strike you on the shoulders whenever you became tired or began to slouch.

Following the meditation session, everyone participated in helping to clean the temple. As in the monastery, it was the individual's responsibility to decide what and where to clean; no direction was given to the participants. Other responsibilities of the retreat participants included the preparation of meals assigned to the different work groups, the cleaning and straightening out of one’s sleep area, and attendance to all services and workshops. After breakfast, a gong was sounded to mark the beginning of the morning session. The morning sessions began with the chanting of sutras. Although sutras are chanted at all Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) temples, the sutras chanted during the retreat included many that are not familiar to most members of the BCA. These services were held every morning, late afternoon, and evening. After concluding the service, a two hour lecture was given by the ministers in attendance. Following the lecture discussions were held.

Other activities during the day included recreational activities such as flower arrangement, tea ceremony, archery, aikido, tai chi, and taiko. The taiko portion of the program consisted of two home made drums and under the direction of John Mori, now of the musical group "Hiroshima," George Abe, and a few others the retreat participants were able to get a feel for taiko.

From this initial experience, the interested supporters incorporated the group as KINNARA in August, 1970. The name KINNARA, a Sanskrit term, was selected because it represents a supernatural being of music. The Kinnara image that can be found at the Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan, for example, is depicted as a guardian deity playing the flute. The goal of KINNARA was to get the young as well as the old more involved in the Buddha Dharma. As the name of the group suggests, music was the initial medium used to try to meet this ambitious goal. However, KINNARA did not limit itself to music and also actively engaged itself in conducting seminars and workshops, finding and publishing writings on Buddhism, and other activities. The retreat program, for example, was continued for a number of years by KINNARA until the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) under the office of the BCA Youth Director took over the program. This retreat program later became the Institute of Buddhist Studies Summer Youth Seminar.

As an example of another project started by KINNARA, Kinnara Taiko was started about a year after KINNARA was officially incorporated. From this beginning, other temples became interested in taiko and groups were organized in San Jose, Ogden, Denver, and Chicago initially. Today, taiko has become very popular and many temples throughout the BCA have organized groups. Kinnara Taiko became the role model for many of the temple taiko groups that formed and directly assisted in helping to organize groups at Orange County Buddhist Church and Vista Buddhist Temple. Unfortunately, despite this widespread appeal some temple taiko groups have failed. One of the major reasons for this is of the many taiko groups that have been started some wanted to become performance oriented. This often resulted in losing the meaning behind Buddhist Taiko, which will be discussed below, disharmony and eventual dissolution.

The "Meaning" of Buddhist Taiko

The uniqueness of Buddhist taiko comes from its being developed by Japanese American Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, inculcating the Japanese, Indian, American Indian, and Afro-American influences into its pieces. Because of this background, Buddhist Taiko is quite different from Matsuri Taiko (Festival Taiko) that is commonly practiced in Japan.

As mentioned before, it is not unusual to find a drum at a Buddhist Temple. These drums are called "Ho-ko" or "Dharma Drum." These drums symbolize the "commanding voice of the Buddha."1 Given this "meaning" of the drum, the expression of Buddhist Taiko is also unique because it becomes a way in which one can enjoy the Buddha-Dharma, or what is referred to as "Horaku (joy or delight of the Dharma)." In Buddhist Taiko, the drum, from its "Ho-ko" meaning, becomes the Buddha, the true reality of Namo Amida Butsu or the calling name of Amida Buddha that sounds throughout the ten directions of the Universe. The drummer becomes part of the Sangha or the body of "players" that despite their delusions or attachments to the world of birth and death (samsara) become able to hear Namo Amida Butsu together. The bachi, or sticks used to hit the drum, becomes the Dharma or the link between the realm of enlightenment and the human realm of birth and death.

Buddhist Taiko, then, becomes the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha working and revealing itself to us. Because of this fact, the joy that can be found in taiko becomes the joy of hearing the Buddha-Dharma. To perform becomes an expression of one’s joy and gratitude at being able to hear and receive that which is most difficult to hear and receive. It is for this reason that this joy, Horaku, is accompanied by a sense of deep respect and reverence. For example, one notes that the beginning of a performance often begins with the blowing of the Hora (conch shell). This signals the movement of one’s entering into the path of the Dharma (the voice of the Buddha-Dharma), and the performers will put their hands together in gassho with the bachi held between the thumb and index finger and bow with reverence and repeat Namo Amida Butsu.

On the other hand, however, when one disregards the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, disharmony and discord result. This is reflected in the performance. The performance becomes filled with ego, and the harmony that can be found in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha disappears. Hence, Buddhist Taiko represents the beauty and joy of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha working harmoniously, or represents the discord that can result when the ego works in opposition to the Buddha and Dharma and becomes more important than the Sangha.

As a means of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist propagation, the primary purpose and goal of each taiko player and the listener is to teach and learn the Dharma by being embraced in both body and mind to the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.


1 Horaku Publication

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