Musical Instruments and Buddhist
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
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 ones 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
ones 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
ones 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
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.
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