Category Archives: east-west

Thoughts on Service & Spirituality

The Shinto- Buddhist philosophy on life is that all sources of good, evil, and spirituality come from within. If you read between the lines it is also true of the Judeo- Christian traditions.

… After all it is the well known Buddhist guru of the west who spoke of the way to the kingdom. ” The kingdom of heaven is within.”
The evolution of the east and west spirituality each have their own diversions. It is worth noting them as integral parts of who we are and where we’ve come in this age of east-west harmonic convergence. And we need only see inside our self for clarification. What does our heart tell us in the midst of this age of distractions? Do we affirm we live in a time of spiritual and natural reconciliation, recovery, and renewal.

Life has its choices. In my own life, in every hour of the day, I have the choice to make good decisions for myself, and to be a positive presence in other people’s lives. I have the ability to take the right intuitive spiritual path. We have the opportunity to keep the whole of our self intact and yet take a chance on giving a part of it away; sharing a part of the soul and spirit with another person (giving and risk taking).

While volunteering has been a lifetime service goal for me, in the 90s, I spent 3-5 days per week over a 6- year period volunteering at homeless shelters and soup lines. I had the good intention and idealism of good ol’ fashion American apple pie volunteerism. It was exhausting. Part of me was subconsciously competing with my siblings for my jesuitical dad’s approval (a Stockholm Syndrome-esque co-dependency). I had a sister who spent two years in Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer, a brother in the Air Force and now works for the Army, and another brother whose professional life is working to service Asian American communities at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). Tough competition. My error among many, was that I subconsciously saw it as competition. Service is never competition. If anything, it is antithetical to competition.

While I may have done some practical good servicing the needs of others through my own volunteerism (I’ve been volunteering since I can remember), my belief about doing good in the small world of which I’m a part is now more centered, more spiritually focused. After all, how really good is volunteerism of any kind without imparting the long term permanence of the spiritual food we all seek and need? At the time, despite all the volunteer service I was doing, I failed to connect with people and truly give them what they may have needed the most; what all of us need the most — spiritual food.

The physical handing out of food that I did almost robotically, had its limitations. It is the giving of food that “dies at the vine,” and unfortunately, my way of giving as I did in the 90s also died at the vine. I learned this hard spiritual lesson/experience by my own ‘re-experiencing’ the food bank in my own life as a receiver on the other side. In my own time of need, I went through food bank lines and saw the empty, blank, almost fearful stare from a number of people handing out food to people like me struggling to make ends meet. It felt dead and full of judgment. The experience of going through a soup kitchen felt dead, demeaning, humiliating. It was something I never want to do again.

It matters how I showed up (in my case how I failed to show up) so many times at various soup kitchens, drop-in centers, food banks as a young aspiring volunteer in my 20s and 30s. This is not to say I didn’t do good. It is to say that in my current healthier spiritual state today, without the drama and the big ideals and sense of ego-boosting purpose behind my charitable volunteering in my life, my volunteerism is doing just fine. I am absolutely certain I am bringing more to the table of brother/sisterhood today in my daily life walk, than I was ever capable of during my younger idealistic years of volunteerism.

So I guess the message here, to circle back to the Buddhist- Shinto message (not a “lesson”, but a “message”), is that we must be wary of where the thinking resides when “we do charitable deeds”. Do we “do our charitable deeds before others to be seen by them?” Do we do our volunteerism to self- congratulate, or to self- nurture (huge difference)? It all does have its own built-in rewards. But when we do our good, do them in secret (meaning free and independent of our ego states and self-congratulating), and the good “Lord who sees in secret, will reward us openly”. The bottom line is, can we simply give and love in our own, simple day to day lives? That has to be enough for the Lord within.

I can only only speak for and represent myself (nothing like a statement of the obvious, but it’s amazing how so many of us today try to speak for/ represent others), I must first and foremost seek the spiritual place of centered Love within, this kingdom of the Creator, and if I do so sincerely, “all things will be added” to me – the physical, emotional, the spiritual food that sustains life.

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Koto Jazz 17: Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”

Although I have added a few new music samples to the Koto Jazz blog, see “Sample Sounds” and “Buy My Music” pages of this web site, here I take another brief break from the Koto Jazz theme to honor an artistic genius in the film medium.

Here are some Koto jazz and related music about flying and the wind:

  • KotoJazz 8: “The Wind and The Spirit”
  • Koto Samples (“lightness of flying butterflies”)
  • “Matsukaze” (”wind in the pines”), by Taiga Yamaki III (also known as Yamaki Kengyō), and Matsukaze
  • Koto House Flying Sword Music
  • Tori No Yo Ni (‘Flying’ Like A Bird, by Sawai Koto Ensemble
  • Breeze, by Mitsuki Dazai
  • Tori No Yo Ni (Like a Bird on piano), Kotojazz by Kenji

  • Also, have a listen to my newly posted short sample tracks while reading on about my take on “The Wind Rises” by Hiyao Miyazaki:

  • Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor, George Winston style
  • Springtime in the Dead of Winter
  • Black Pine Bonsai, and
  • Wandering Kabutomushi

  • I had the opportunity to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s final movie (admittedly, I may be the final Miyazaki fan to actually see his final film), “The Wind Rises” (for sound track, see The Wind Rises by Kaze Tachinu and other items about “The Wind Rises”). Despite the apparent limitations of the anime platform, Miyazaki proves again the seeming unlimited capacity for creativity and beauty. His presentations offered magically colorful and stunning scenery. Miyazaki’s art team presents a realistic natural world, and adds a bit of Shinto magic, with the actors revering, honoring, praying to Nature throughout the movie.

    The movie speaks of love and innocence in the midst of the global turmoil surrounding the world wars. Miyazaki deliberately steers the movie away from the darkness of the day into a dreamland of gorgeous flower laid meadows, and shimmering streams. Poignant was the time Naoko prayed to the forest pond for Jiro to appear. As Yoda would say, “appear he did.”

    Even Jiro’s ongoing dreams about flying and building planes showed reverence to the nature of the wind’s powerful energy, and his building planes pays honor to the wind. We join as active participants in Jiro’s flying dreams. In the film, Jiro’s dreams feel as real as real life. Jiro is the main character in the movie, based loosely on aerospace engineer, Jiro Horikoshi. Miyazaki again nails it with his unique ability to interweave near realistic dreams into the surreal reality of the characters’ life experiences– more realistically than any director (I would argue), and again, more realistic to the real life experience.

    It definitely hits a chord with the integral role dreams play in our lives (see Carl Jung’s work on the “Interpretation of Dreams.” While his colleague Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams focused more on the “retrospective”, Carl Jung’s dream approach is and I quote the above link, “‘prospective’– it treats dreams like a map of the dreamer’s future psychological evolution towards a more balanced relationship between his ego and the Self.” This approach is very apparent in Miyazaki’s film.

    The story may have glossed over the pain and suffering of his dying lover (Naoko), dying communities during wartime, and the insane violence surrounding war, but this was intended and done so elegantly as the story was not about death and war. In fact, it provided the back drop necessary to evoke the story of a champion of perseverance and Zen-like focus in a world where, at times, there appeared to be none. It brought out the true authentic, peace-loving nature and Shinto spirituality of the Japanese people. In real life, war deceptively shrouded this fact by the blind powers of Japan’s relatively small military industrial complex (small at least compared to America’s own still lingering military industry). There is a message for each of us again, to look inward rather than outward for reflection and resolution.

    Given Miyazaki’s place of prominence with this final movie, it is appropriate to comment on this masterpiece and the majesty of his life’s work.

    Koto Jazz 16: Bonsai

    As a child, I always believed the work of “bonsai” to be the art of imitating natural mountain scenes above timberline. My images were of wind-blown pines standing tall alongside alpine lakes. Growing up partly in Colorado, I spent many days and nights 10k or above traversing the Continental Divide, contemplating the wonder of the crystal clarity in glacial lakes, rushing streams and falls suspended below jagged cliffs. Here are stunning, iridescent meadows interrupted only by the howling wind, or the sweet melody of mountain birds and squeak of pica. The pine trees are shaped and formed into a perfect flowing angle of branches tilted forward to bend but not break, by the powerful, magical hand of the wind. While I’d love to say this is true, it’s not true.

    I never imagined it to be an art form which has swept across the Pacific into the creative hands of artists and gardeners across America. As so much of Japanese culture, the art of bonsai can be sourced from China, specifically “penjing”, the art of Chinese landscape. I had the opportunity to see this first hand during many visits to various parts of China. There were featured “penjing” gardens in the areas I visited, of which there seems to be a greater emphasis in the coupling of “penzai” (Chinese bonsai) with uniquely shaped pumice-like stones. The word bonsai does in fact come from the word penzai, both of which are translated to mean tray or pot (bon) and plantings (sai). China doesn’t appear to be as set on miniaturization as does Japan, and it reminds me how so much of Japan’s early ingenuity stems from their unique skills in miniaturizing most all things.

    It is likely that “penzai” made its way to the Island of Japan from China somewhere between 600-800 A.D. when Japan initiated a number of Imperial missions to mainland China. However, bonsai first appeared in Japanese paintings in the medieval period (1100-1200, according to Wikipedia).

    Here are some nice explorations of bonsai koto jazz style music:

  • Black Pine Bonsai, by Kenji
  • Bonsai Garden (album), by Midori
  • My Tree, My Bonsai – Feng Shui Garden

  • Other:

  • Bonsai Bop, by The Ryoko Trio
  • Bonsai Juju, by Bonsai Garden Orchestra
  • Hunting Bonsai from World War Tree (album)

  • Bonsai as an art form may be of interest to you. You can find additional information about bonsai at the following sites:

  • National Bonsai Penjing Museum
  • Bonsai Gardener (good introduction)
  • Bonsai Northwest
  • American Bonsai Society
  • Bonsai Kits
  • Bonsai on Wikipedia
  • Penzai on Wikipedia
  • KotoJazz 14: The Serendipity in “Order Out of Chaos”

    I know I’m not alone in this. I know that many people, artists, designers, engineers, express their deeper, at times darker, life experiences through their art or trade of choice. My big lesson while playing the piano, is facing and overcoming fear. The first step is to know how fear is present in my life. It helps me face them. I find it is often tied to something that happened so long ago that I have unconsciously carried it with me unresolved over years, decades. So much of it stems from childhood trauma.

    So often I sit in fear of imperfection, fear of sweet imperfection; not playing this or that tune or melody just right. I at times become paralyzed, as if it is better to not play at all if it can’t be played perfectly. My piano playing experiences are a microcosm of life’s lessons.

    There will always be imperfection, and through that imperfect journey, that stumbling, prodding, and wandering into the unknown and uncertain, I have the opportunity to learn its innate perfection. It is the imperfection of the journey that makes it perfect; at minimum, it brings out perfection. The imperfection carries with it uncertainty and chaos. Out of the uncertainty, unclarity and chaos, inevitably comes the impeccably clear Mastery of Serendipity (discovery by accident).

    It reminds me of “chaos theory”. Just like 1977 Nobel Prize Winner Ilia Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ book titled, “Order Out of Chaos” states, “the two great themes of classic science, order and chaos”, which coexisted in near conflict since science began, scientifically and mathematically coalesce into a “new and unexpected synthesis”. As Edward Lorenz puts it in his definition of “chaos theory”, chaos occurs “when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

    More reading about creativity and chaos theory is available here at Creative Chaos. If you dare to venture into a story line about “chaos communities”, how about a book on the Burning Man event?

    Out of Spontaneous Serendipity comes the rare and unique, the innovative and delightfully unknown perfect masterpiece. When music lets go of the predictable, releases, or liberates itself from certainty of pattern or predictable stroke, only then does it venture into the unknown; only then may the genius of Serendipity coalesce into the uncharted territory of the perfect Masterpiece.

    When we consider the great masters and creators of jazz, rock, or classical music, for example, we see that the great musicians follow the “chaos theory” in music quite profoundly. And when they have taken a slightly divergent course as proposed by “chaos theory”, only then did they reach a place that transcends what JFK called “the stale, dank atmosphere of normalcy”. Only then did they re-direct and advance the currents of our time. When that happens, profound spiritual, social, and cultural changes occur.

    We live in a time of rapid, often chaotic change. Perhaps, we live in a time where science and art, where the technical and creative, where the image, the design and the real, where “The Head and the Heart”, truly converge into an harmonious co-existence of “order out of chaos”.

    East-West Nation & The Next American Revolution, Part II

    A continuation of the last “East-West Nation” blog, equally alarming is how much even some of the more progressive elements of our society choose to ignore Asia in the global discussion. For one example, so much is talked about health care in other countries, now at the highest level due to recent health care reforms. But the statistically healthiest country in the world is completely absent from the discussion.

    So much is talked about the health care systems of Canada, the UK, France, but not an ounce of discussion about Japan or China, even though Japan maintains a more technologically advanced and advancing medical industry and health insurance system similar to that of the U.S. (in comparison to the aforementioned countries). I wrote in my book published by the National Conference of State Legislatures on Japan’s health care system. The WTO’s designated healthiest country in the world, Japan, has the world’s highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality, but was never part of the health care conversation! Not much more you can say about that . . . . wow!

    Take for example, Jon Stewart’s humorous but astute observations about CNN’s coverage of the Malaysian Airlines crash. CNN has effectively turned it into America’s favorite pastime of “CIS”-ification of finding “possible” airplane parts in the ocean.

    And yet we have a twisted way of creating paranoia around the rising power of Asian countries; first, Japan in the 80s, and now China and India. We speak of them stealing our livelihood as if they are responsible for decisions U.S. and international businesses are making to use their know- how and hard work. This seems to be the only way we can give credence to the Asia Pacific region.

    The problem lies in the fact that even the parties intellectually attuned to Asia, find little incentive politically or otherwise to recognize or acknowledge Japan, China, India, Korea or other Asian influence. The United States establishment is too deeply entrenched in a Euro-centric world such that most international relations and comparative analysis occurs only in relation to our European partners and/or conflicts in the Middle East. The oddity and insanity of it is that all of Europe is more focused on Asia! The result is we keep banging up against the same boring ideas, theories, solutions, and angles. The extremism in the west bangs up against the extremism of the Middle East. But notice that when we turn east to Asia, there’s no more banging!

    The banging up of egos become tempered by cooperation and conciliation, and it’s deeply rooted in eastern mysticism and spirituality. Even the Muslim conflicts with the west which are filtered through the conflicts in the Middle East are suddenly sifted through the more rational, less extremist and more conciliatory nature of Asian Pacific Island countries and people (e.g., Indonesia, India and Malaysia; Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim country).

    I’m not so sure there’s a point to banging my own head on this subject, but someday it will not matter, even though in today’s environment, there is a critical need to shed light on the subject. What I’ve learned from my amazing, physically tiny but spiritually giant Japanese mother is, “Dai jobu dai yo. Shimpai shinai de; shi ka ta ga nai” (it’s ok, just let it go. Don’t worry; it can’t be helped”). Time to get back to piano playing. I just posted my version of the famous “Kodomo No Hi” (Children’s Day) theme song, “Koi Nobori”. I also have a few koto jazz gigs coming up this summer at a venue near you. Keep coming back if it works for you. 🙂

    East-West Nation & The Next American Revolution:

    This blog entry departs from talking about music for a moment of reflection I wrote about back in the 90s at a boutique publication, “The Asia Pacific Economic Review“. For a nation so attuned to new frontiers since its revolutionary founding, few people here really see the next revolution transforming our country in our everyday lives. In many ways, it is more an evolution since so many influences have been taking place over a number of decades.

    It is sometimes subtle, sometimes “in your face” blatantly obvious. It’s in our food, media images, our tv virtual reality shows, our music, our children’s comic strips, toys & tv shows, our very way of life.

    When was the last time you and your family went to dinner for sushi, kalbi, dim sum, or teriyaki? Or stunned to see your very American as apple pie next door neighbor design a beautifully polished Japanese garden in their back yard? Or to find out your former U.S. Marines buddy is deeply immersed in daily Buddhist meditation?

    When was the last time you found your children couched like potatoes in front of a popular Japanese anime tv show or Japanese video game? Or your child begging for the latest Transformer, Pokemon or Hello Kitty toy? When tv surfing for the next tv show, did you land on a virtual reality show; more specifically did you stop to watch Iron Chef or the next American Idol? All of these things have one thing in common. They all originate from Japan, China, and other parts of East Asia. The original virtual reality shows were on televisions in Japan long before they washed onto the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean.

    We might have been threatened by it in the 80s when the Japanese corporate “invasion” of buying up landmark American properties was in full swing. Or the popular conversations about new business management approaches, such as those of UCLA scholar William Ouchi’s “Theory Z”. It was a threat then to America’s political, business, intellectual, and media establishment, but less so to the masses on the street. To put it bluntly, it threatened the American intellect, but not the heart of America.

    In the 70s and 80’s, we saw the long term and permanent impact of martial arts and eastern health care, yoga, eastern meditation, naturo-pathic medicine, physical therapy, eastern spirituality (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Asian Islam, Confusionism) take its place alongside western culture. Even before this time, Japanese anime began to influence the American psyche as early as the 50s. Then, we saw the longstanding Asian influences in modern architecture and landscaping take hold, beyond Frank Lloyd Wright in the 20s, then I.M. Pei, and an ongoing toying with the influence of Zen-like, minimalist thinking to modern architecture, landscaping, art, and culture.

    The Next American Revolution is more psychological and spiritual than physically tangible. Remarkable is how much our western cultural origins cloud our vision to be almost completely oblivious to this next American revolution. If it is brought up in general to the mainstream media and leaders, even those known to be the more progressive leaders, completely trivialize or only quietly acknowledge its impact.

    A good majority of our media and American consciousness simply ignore it, but it’s turning American culture upside down, or should I say it has already turned American culture upside down. For that matter it has transformed all of western society. It is equally pervasive in European countries, even parts of South America. Talk to the American media, including Hollywood, and they might give you a blank stare. But talk to them about all the things that make up our modern society today and you will find a high awareness of all things Asian as long as the west can claim it as their own. It leaves a deep streak and indelible mark at the core of our society. Things of Asian origin and the Asian influence has become so much a part of American life that it’s Asian origin is almost indistinguishable from it’s American-‘ness’. It pervades our entire society and our entire way of life. It goes well beyond our children’s obsession with Pokemon, Mario, and Hello Kitty. It leaves a permanent imprint far broader than our teenagers’ obsession with anime tv shows or video games. The song “I think I’m turning Japanese; I really think so” is no longer a joking mockery; it is an omnipresent, all pervasive occurrence from the main streets of our rural towns to the high rises of our largest metropolitan cities.

    So what is behind this oversight and what lies within these insights?

    This week I plan to visit North America’s first sanctioned Japanese Shinto Shrine, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, Washington (a suburb of Seattle). I hope to be lead back to the Shinto spiritual nature- immersion into the beauty within the leaf of a red maple tree, blooming cherry blossoms, the flow of crystal clear glacier water, a stone lantern reflected upon still waters embellished with garden flowers, and possibly the serene sound of koto music in the background summoning the mind, heart and spirit to let it all go. 🙂