Inspiration Journal - Body - Mind - Spirit
Issue 46 Inspiration Journal, January - February - March 2011

Spiritual Transformation Grammy Award Winning Taiko Master Koji Nakamura's by Koji Nakamura

Prologue

When I was a member of Shumei taiko Ensemble in Japan, I had performed at various events around the world. I played in concert in many cities in Japan, and in New York and Los Angeles in the United States, and in Hong Kong. However, the highlight for me was when we played for two world peace events: The Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, and the Millennium World Peace Summit at the United Nations building in New York in 2000.

Through these events I have experienced how we could help contribute to the transformation of the world through taiko drumming. I would like to share with you my passion for taiko and spirituality.

First, let me explain that I will be using terminology related to Shumei, which is the spiritual organization I belong to.

My first transformation within Shumei

It was in the summer of 1977 that I encountered Shumei for the first time. I was 18 years old and was studying very hard for a university entrance examination. While visiting my friend's home I happened to find a book covered by a white envelope with the word 'Gift' printed on it. I was curious and asked him, "What's this?" He explained that it was Seikyousho, the teachings of a spiritual teacher named Meishusama. Then he shared with me a type of spiritual healing called Jyorei.

I was already somewhat interested in spiritual things, and had recently been contemplating the meaning and purpose of life. I soon became a member of Shumei and started sharing Jyorei with people in 1978. At the same time I entered the university with the goal of becoming a school teacher.

As a member of Shumei I began to learn more about spirituality. The energy created by Jyorei was so powerful that I became convinced that hidden forces affect people's destinies and felt I now knew what we should all do with our lives. The many spiritual experiences I had during this time completely transformed me.

Especially knowing about the existence of the divine spirit and the spiritual world, which includes the world after death, changed my life completely. Since I was just 18 years old, I had not thought about that so seriously. But the more I learned and experienced about these invisible things, the stronger I came to know about what I should do in this life.

I was supposed to be a school teacher after graduation from the university. But now that I grasped the real and more profound meaning of life, there was no longer any reason why I should become a school teacher. Finally I made up my mind to devote myself to working for the spiritual enhancement of people through the Shumei organization. This was in March of 1982 when I graduated the university.

This is the background of my spiritual transformation that became the basis for my drumming afterwards.

Starting taiko drumming

I became a full-time staff of Shumei in 1982. It was the year that the centennial birthday of our founder, Meishusama. The historical celebration would be held in December 23rd in 1982 in Misono, Japan. Sokichi Koyama, who was at that time the president of Shumei, had a vision that we should celebrate the 100th anniversary with a 100 taiko drumming performance. Seven young men were sent to the taiko group Ondeko-za. Ondeko-za was founded in 1971 by Tagayasu Den and was one of the most famous professional taiko groups in Japan. And I was one of those seven who were chosen.

After I joined the Ondekoza group, I first had to make taiko sticks and also practice long distance running to build up physical strength. Nobody within Shumei had any experience of taiko drumming. I couldn't ask anyone to guide me or help me. However, I was sure that Meishusama was always watching over me from up within the spiritual world. Ondeko-za was an ensemble consisting of several players. But only one player took the main role to play the O-daiko, the biggest drum in the center of the stage. My passion was very materialistic. I just wanted to be an O-daiko player if possible. But I didn't know how to do that.

An inspiration came to me that taiko drumming was a sacred service to perform for Shumei. Therefore running must be also sacred. I was sure that Meishusama would bless us through our running. I decided to run extra distances, more than was expected.

Two weeks later my senior encouraged me to run together for seventeen kilometers. I had never run seventeen kilometers before in my life. At that time, unfortunately, I had a stomach problem and had not eaten enough food before running. But I felt inspired by what my senior was saying to me, so I went ahead and I tried to do it.

After sixteen kilometers, I could barely run any more. I got extremely hungry and felt no energy left in my body. It was like driving a car with no gas. I was just unable to run any longer. So I rested for a while and then walked a little. Like this, I continued to walk and rest and walk and rest. Finally I found a small pond near the road and drank some water that was not clean. But I had no choice because I desperately needed something to fill my stomach. It took me about one hour to move the final one kilometer.

When I returned to the lodging house, everybody had already finished their dinner. Mr. Den was anxiously waiting for me because I was so late. I was so hungry that I couldn't move any more. As soon as I got to the lodging, I immediately began to eat my dinner. Mr. Den was smiling at me and said, "I am planning the upcoming December 23rd performance for Shumei. I think you are the one who should play the big O-daiko drum at that event."

I was so happy and honored to be chosen to play the O-daiko at that historic event and felt intuitively that Meishusama had given me his blessings. This touched off my career playing the O-daiko.

The tour around Europe

As an Ondeko-za member, I went to many places to perform, not only in Japan but also overseas. The highlight of our travels was our visit in 1984 to six countries in Europe: France, Holland, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. We played 106 concerts there. We went to most of the cities in Holland and 28 of the cities in France, including Paris. In Germany we performed in Munich and Hamburg.

Our most unforgettable concert during that tour was at the jazz festival in Montreal, Switzerland, a world-renowned jazz event held for two weeks. We were that last performance on the last day. They had 24 hour jazz marathons on that day. The theater had a full house, and toward the end it seemed that people were tired of watching the same style of performances and were bored from listening to so much similar sounding music.

Ondeko-za started playing at 5 a.m. in the morning. When we came up on stage, the atmosphere of the hall changed completely. Our style was very Japanese, which was probably rather exotic for this place. I suppose that Eastern culture and spiritually must have inspired them because we were applauded many times during our performance. Maybe they felt something new.

Someone wrote a marvelous article about us in the newspaper the next day. It said that the festival was becoming more and more routine each year but that this year Ondeko-za saved it at the last moment. It was a very interesting article.

Taiko drumming is very different from jazz. In short, jazz is horizontal in nature and gives the audience a feeling of freedom, relaxation and enjoyment. On the other hand, taiko drumming is vertical in nature, with its strict discipline and spiritual underpinnings. Also, the taiko sound gives off a particular vibration that can touch people's souls and heal them of their pains. This is one of the keys to transformation through drumming.

The spirit of Ondeko-za, "Air"

Where does the spirit of Ondeko-za come from?
Mr. Den often taught us about the element of "air". What is air? He said, "It is the silent energy that comes from the taiko drummer. It can make the audience feel something special even before the music starts, just from your standing there. That is "air".
How can we get it?

Character

Mr. Den's main philosophy was that the taiko drummer must have a superior character because the audience can feel his personality through the sound of drumming. He used to teach us how important it was for us to polish our personalities and make them refined and clear.

Running

A main part of the training for Ondeko-za was running. Ondeko-za became famous because immediately after participating in the Boston marathon race in 1975 they started drumming with great intensity. People were so surprised at their incredible stamina.

Here is Mr. Den's philosophy of running. Why do we run? Because we train our bodies as well as our spirits. Physically, running can strengthen our hearts and build up our lung capacity. Taiko concerts often last for two hours. We need to have enough stamina, strength and endurance to play for a long time without getting out of breath.

Posture

Mr. Den also taught us how important it was for the taiko drummer to have good posture on stage. Our backs must be straight all the time. And in the performances, I wore just a loincloth for a costume. I had to tighten the muscles and remove the flab.

We ran every morning and every evening for over 10 miles a day. Even if it was raining or windy or even snowing heavily, we went running. He used to say that, "Nature can polish us."

Intensive running

I will share one of our unforgettable training through running. It was in the summer of 1984 near Amsterdam, Holland. We underwent intensive training for one week. Mr. Den forced us to do the following tasks: a 100 meter dash while blowing the flute. After we finished, we went back to the starting point and did it again. We were forced to repeat this cycle 100 times. The whole thing looked crazy. It took me three hours to complete it. Some were not able to finish. Nobody knows about our running ordeals. It was as if were we were making these huge efforts behind closed doors.

Establishing Shumei Taiko

We established our taiko group, called Shumei Taiko Ensemble, in Misono in 1985.

1. Taiko for prayer

Since ancient times in Japan taiko drums have played for spiritual ceremonies at both Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples. This is one of the most significant purposes of Taiko. That is why the taiko drum has always been considered a sacred instrument.

Also, within Shumei, we have been playing a lone taiko drum for over thirty-five years now as part of the rituals within our ceremonies to express the highpoint when God responds most strongly to our prayers. It is a very sacred moment. Taiko is a non-verbal prayer. This is the original meaning and purpose of drumming for Shumei.

The spirituality of the taiko drummer is crucial. They must have an exemplary character in order to do this important and sacred task, which means that they need to polish their souls first.

2. Transformation through taiko drumming

Mikotosama, who was one of the former presidents of Shumei, told me that through taiko drumming, sharing Jyorei, and supporting Shumei, we could contribute to people's spiritual transformation throughout the world. This became my sacred dream.

As a Taiko group we worked our way up very slowly. For the first twelve years, we had focused on just practicing drumming and running. We continued in the same way as Ondeko-za. We ran, practiced drumming, and exercised very hard.

Here is one of Meishusama's teachings entitled "The Role of Art".

"Through the art, man's nature can be elevated and the animal part of it removed. Of course, we can pursue this aim though literature, through painting, through music, drama, the cinema and other art forms. The soul of the artist calls to the souls of the people from all of these kinds of arts. To put it simply, the mystical power which springs from the artist's soul passes through the written word, through the picture, the musical instrument, the song or dance, and plucks at the strings of the soul of all mankind. In other words, this link between the artist's soul and the souls of his fellowmen is very strong. Because of this, if an artist's character is bad, he will debase his fellow men. And, of course, if an artist's mind is fine and pure, he will elevate the characters of his fellow men. There is the noblest aspect of art, and the artist must use his art to become a worthy guide for the rest of mankind."

In addition to practice and training, we did spiritual practices such as daily chanting, reading and studying teachings of our founder, shared Jyorei and particularly did lots of Hoshi.

What is Hoshi? Hoshi is volunteer service done for a sacred purpose. Often cleaning, such as sweeping, mopping and scrubbing, is called Hoshi. But Hoshi is not just cleaning. There is more to it than that. For us, cleaning has a deep spiritual meaning. By cleaning, we can purify not only a particular place but also our souls. And also by doing Hoshi, we can be enlightened by God and Meishusama.

For example, when you are cleaning the restroom alone, nobody can see you doing Hoshi, but Meishusama can always see you. Then later, when somebody comes into the restroom and uses it, he or she can feel, "Oh what a clean and beautiful restroom this is! I wonder who cleaned it?" At that moment, you will receive God's blessings, whether you know it or not. You can be satisfied in your mind even if nobody has outwardly admired you.

Here is a one more thing I want you to remember. When we do Hoshi, we had better not expect any rewards. Offering to God is receiving from God. The most important thing is to do Hoshi with a sincere heart. Meishusama is always noticing our Makoto, our sincerity. To do Hoshi is truly just like having a conversation with Meishusama.

As you can see, our founder, Meishusama, is at the core of Shumei's spirituality. Each of us feels like we have a personal relationship with him, even though he is no longer present in the physical world. Actually, we feel that he is present everywhere, and so is always available to help us. Considering the above background, you can see how by our combining taiko drumming, running and spiritual training, we created a unique style of drumming based on Shumei spirituality.

Shumei Taiko throughout the world

In 1996 we had our first overseas concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After this occasion, we began to perform at other places around the world. As a leader of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble, I experienced great excitement when we attended and performed at the Parliament of World Religions in 1999 in Cape Town, South Africa, and performed at the United Nations in New York in 2000 where we opened the Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders there. I was convinced that the mission of the Ensemble would soon become more important as a good-will ambassador for interfaith activities, and that Mikotosama's words were really coming true.

Following inspirational guidance, I moved to Pasadena, California in 2005 to help realize my sacred dream. Fortunately, I participated in the recording of the Crestone CD album by Paul Winter, which resulted in a Grammy Award in 2007. I now teach 48 students in Pasadena, 20 in Crestone, Colorado and 6 in New York City.

How can I contribute to the spiritual transform of people through drumming? I think I have already done so to some extent. And I feel more and more possibilities for doing that, especially in other countries. The future possibilities seem unlimited.

Birth of a spiritual song

Kaishusama, the former spiritual leader of Shumei encouraged me and helped me when I was having a hard time. With Kaishusama's blessing, we also started learning flute under the guidance of Maisho Tosha, who was a master of the instrument, because we needed something to make a soft, musical sound during performances. We learned the basics of flute within half a year. Also, Meisho Tosha started composing a new piece for us.

One event that touched me very much occurred when he started composing for the first time. When he came to Misono to teach us, he was not feeling well. At that time, he was suffering from high blood pressure and was often hospitalized for treatment. Before practice, I gave him Jyorei. While receiving Jyorei, he felt very strong energy coming into him. After that one session of Jyorei, he began to feel better and appeared inspired by the experience. After he finished writing the first part of the song, he said to us, "This is a song about the beginning of the universe. While playing taiko, imagine that you are very happy and grateful about receiving something wonderful from the universe."

Transformation throughout the world

This became our first original song. It was called Kaiko, which means 'opening drum.' We performed it for the first time for a local television program in July of 1990 in Kyoto, Japan. After that, we had played it many times and in many different locations. Most notably, we played this song at the closing ceremony of the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, and for the opening at the Millennium World Peace Summit, at the United Nations, in New York, in 2000.

These were both international world peace events. Many spiritual leaders gathered there form various religious backgrounds from all over the world.

Kaiko was the right song for these kinds of spiritual events. In Cape Town, while Kaiko was being played, all 8000 participants were united in their efforts to overcome differences of religion, races, languages, cultures and nationalities. At the United Nations building, one of the spiritual leaders within the General Assembly Hall received a vision that many sacred spirits had gathered around us as we were playing Kaiko.

Epilogue

Nowadays there are many taiko groups and taiko drummers not only in the U.S. and Japan but also in many other countries. But most of them are more concerned with having fun and entertaining themselves rather than with expressing something spiritual.

Taiko drumming is a performing art that can spread to many locations, both locally and globally. Also, the Taiko drum itself is a sacred instrument that is best played by drummers who have polished themselves both physically and spiritually. After having polished our souls, if we then unite together and aim for the same high purpose, there are huge possibilities for contributing to the transformation of world.

I am ready to devote myself to this sacred work, along with any volunteers who wish to help, to take action for this ultimate goal through taiko drumming.

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