Wednesday, March 18, 2009


In spite of my desire to make this blog about the run-ins and massive potholes that happen while I attempt to attain enlightenment, very rarely do I bring it back around to where it stands in the scheme of things. You see, I know when I'm ranting that I am not putting myself in another's shoes and being compassionate. When I'm angsty over something, I know that I am trying to hold on to a certain future, where anything in the universe doesn't change at every second. This is probably why I don't bother to say it, because already I am mentally chastising myself for the act before it is even submitted as a post. So there's a lot of bitching, and not a lot of Buddha in here.
That's probably a good thing, because Buddha wouldn't want to be my focus, the extinguishing of suffering would.
There are times when I feel a bit cocky for being able to take half a step back further and see a big picture, know that the people who are freaking out on the other end of the telephone in my ear are unable to realize that if they don't get their emails, the world isn't going to grind to a halt in tragic entropy and destroy themselves. They only see that at this immediate moment something has changed in how their daily life goes and CHANGE IS BAD GOD DAMNIT! NONONONONO!
And I tell them, calmly, that I'll fix it. Because I remember what it's like to be those people. I was actually acting that way on Monday. So I know what they're going through and I've got some empathy. But I can't help but think it's a bit funny, and in these moments where I recognize what's going on, I get a little smug.
I just assume I'm further along than most people and...perhaps I am, BUT... what's great is when it's brought home just how much longer the road still is.
Last night we went to see the Kodo Taiko Drummers. Kodo is their name (Children of the Drum/Heartbeat depending on which translation you go with), and Taiko is the style of drums. The o-daiko, aka The Big Muthafuckin' Drum in the Middle, is hollowed out from a tree trunk, and the one they used was 4 feet tall. That means the tree trunk was a minimum of 4 feet in diameter, and that in and of itself is impressive.
We watched them open with a very rousing deep toned song that resonated and bounced in the sternum, felt it in the floor and our feat, and it was wonderful.
And then mid-song, my brain started flitting around. This concert, which I had waited a good portion of a decade to hear, was being completely preempted by these random thoughts that just started flying around in my brain. It was completely unbelievable.
Was it the fact that the drum music was so strong, I wondered. Was it forcing my brain to shut down and go in to hibernation because it couldn't handle all the noise and the movement? That couldn't be it, because I knew what that felt like, and it was the sensation of staring at something for a long period of time, but without much else going on. Certainly not so many thoughts!
I kept jerking my brain back in to focus like trying to manhandle a Great Dane on a leash, forcing myself to breathe deeply and focus. After doing this half a dozen times and realizing it wasn't working, I gave up, disappointed in myself.
After another song where I caught myself wandering, I found myself looking at the players on the stage. Even in the midst of all of this hard work (and they were sweating) they smiled. They always smiled, at every point. They were there, not thinking about the fact that they had blisters or their thighs were cramping. They were in the moment and just playing the hell out of their drums. There was nothing to them but that performance and that music, and the next drum stroke. Followed by the next.
I was sitting in front of a giant mirror, which was reflecting everything back at me that I was throwing out there. I've had this happen before with other individuals who were in the moment, acting as a mirror as is described often in Buddhism.
I was bouncing off these guys. Instead of sitting there and being a set of ears, I was being Me, throwing all of My Junk out there as if it had some kind of importance. And it was being shot right back at me, to rattle around with the music while I was distracted.
Upon this realization I nearly laughed out loud, then settled in and accepted that I wasn't paying attention. I was not in tune with the moment and the energy. So be it, I would get out of it whatever I could manage.
And from that point on I remember nothing else but the show. :)
It was completely magnificent. At one point I had to cover my ears as the sounds of a simulated thunderstorm crashed in and made my eardrums literally buzz with the vibrations. I focused on this discomfort, and found my mind immediately wandering again. Ahh, but this sound, I told myself, is also you. It's only because you think you are separate that it's hurting you so much. And once this was brought to the forefront, I relaxed and accepted that my eardrums would buzz and I would be a bit deaf tomorrow. My mind returned once more to the performance.
There is something driving and primal about drums. They say that we as humans resonate with percussion because the first thing we hear is our mother's heartbeat. This may be so, but I think there are other things we feel that we aren't aware of. The pulse of electromagnetism that goes by from the earth. The pull of the tides. The slow scrape of rock and stone past each other at fault lines. I think that though we may not "hear" these things, we feel them in our body, a thousand little percussions a day, every day. And this is why when it is made physical, when some slight Japanese man takes something the size of a baseball bat and hammers the HELL out of the drum braced before him, we stir. It ignites those fires and sparks those neurons way back in the lizard-ancestor parts of our brains, reminding us of our connection.
On top of this primal excitement, there was the blur of beaters and sticks as they flew, wielded with martial-arts precision, so fast you only saw the afterimage of it like a bad samurai arcade game.
When the o-daiko was brought forward it was played by two gentlemen who came out in loincloths and....that was it. The audience shifted uncomfortably for a moment, but as he got in position and began to play, they forgot and fell back in love with the beat. The necessity of his attire became apparent when, halfway through playing, his back was streaming sweat.
It allowed for a fascinating insight in to what it must take to play a drum, though. From that vantage point we could see that every single strike actually came from the players core and hips. He turned his entire body in to it and used the leverage to deliver the blow.
I've seen martial artists do a worse job of using their body against their target in that fashion.
I couldn't help but stare at the o-daiko players and marvel how very much their backs resembled a doitsu koi.
For reference, a picture:

There was a ridge of muscles on either side of the man's spine that looked like the scales on the doitsu's back. You could see his trapezius pretty well defined as well, along with all the other muscles of the back. And you could tell exactly when he used them with each swing, as they all moved under his skin. The poor guy was totally out of breath at the end, although he had to have been familiar with playing these drums regularly.
Something else I thought that was interesting, the o-daiko had a design painted on it of a 3-armed star circling outward in a spiral. The drum had been played so much that the paint had worn off over the design in two very even strips... like this:

In some later reading, I discovered that this was because the drum was 10 years old. That is certain long enough to wear the design off of one drum head, although I suspect that wasn't the original.
In a moment of self-amusement I stopped to ponder what they did if there was a blown drum head. it wasn't like a guitar where you could just restring it, tune, and keep playing. There would be a breaking-in period. I gigged at the thought of someone back stage furiously hammering away at a new drum head skin to try and get it to loosen up a bit.
There is a trick I picked up from spending time in seedy bars with certain best friends listening to the local music of my region; if you have a shoe with any sort of air chamber in the sole, be it Doc Martens, sports sneakers, or highly cushioned slip-ons, by raising the ball of your foot it creates a resonating chamber. I took a moment to do that in the middle of one of their louder songs so that it was not only hitting me in the ears, chest and abdomen, but right on my foot. It was a slightly different sensation than the beat traveling through the floor. So one foot intercepted the sound shockwaves as they crashed through the air, and the other as they rippled through the earth.
I checked often with Bob to make sure that he was enjoying himself, as I had hoped the combination of vibration and tone might appeal to his particular sensibilities. He assures me that he really did enjoy it. So much so, we went and grabbed a CD off Amazon afterward from the performance.
There were so many other elements to the evening; watching the people in kimono and haori hand out pamphlets to the Philadelphia Cherry Blossom Festival, something I have wanted to see for at least 2 years now and finally got the heads-up for. The Kimmel Center itself with its odd, relaxed architecture somehow brought out of curving steel and glass. The lights and murals on the Avenue of the Arts. The cute little bistros we passed on the way back to the parking garage.
I'd already liked Philly. It seemed like a nice, homogeneous city with its own beat. But somewhere in the middle of that evening I fell in love with it and wanted to know more and see more. I really wish we were closer so it wasn't 45 minutes to get in and see everything. I could spend days exploring everywhere, seeing the neat little non-national-chain shops, and the local touches. Philly seems proud to be Philly and I want to learn why.
If you haven't yet seen them, I would suggest a live show over the DVD. While you can tell the quality of their playing, it won't have the same drive to it as the live beat does. Unless you can't stand percussion, you'll enjoy this type of music.

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