Come join a celebration at the end of the Chinese New Year on March 6th, 6-8pm, Friday, Dragonfly Holistic Healing across from the Fremont bridge is having a “Chinese New Year” celebration open house, featuring koto jazz piano by Chris Kenji at Dragonfly Holistic Healing, 760 N. 34th Street, Seattle, WA 98103; Fremont neighborhood. Website: DragonflyHolisticHealing.com. Come join us for a Free Admission party. Gang Xi Fat Cai!
The Way of Zen and Zen values of simplicity (kanso), naturalness (shizo), and refined elegance are similar values expressed in the Japanese garden, and defines Japanese rock gardens. Stones and rocks derive from the natural banks of rivers and creeks. They provide accents for distinctive garden areas, including walkways, waterfall bases, creek borders, ponds and lakes, and garden sections. Rocks and pebbles of rock gardens are raked into patterns of flowing streams, undulating waves, and accents around larger stone island or bonsai trees, and other features. Other patterns can be checkered or angled or alternating lines.
Large feature stones are grouped by themselves or they are grouped in threes with a taller boulder standing regally behind two shorter boulders, presenting balance. All three stones are generally vertical, with the taller stone in the center representing The Buddha (one who has become enlightened), and the two other stones on each side representing two Bodhisattvas (one who is “bound for enlightenment; the two stones are called sanson). They are placed next to water, a body of water or water feature, as images of water features, natural hills and/or mountain scenes.
Bodies of water are represented in the Japanese garden by a pond or lake. In the case of dry Zen rock gardens where sand and gravel represent the sea or ocean, the stones would be placed next to or in the sand/ pebble garden. The scene of ocean and sea occupying the majority of the garden space (“chisen”) originates from China, as does the garden aesthetic and spirituality of Zen Buddhism. Groups of rocks on one or more sides of the body of water in the garden may represent the seashore.
My Alpine Winds (Storm) piece has an interesting origin. Much of my years growing up in Colorado were spent in the Rocky Mountains and its hard coming away with anything short of awe at the power of Nature.
Though written in the summer of 2014, Kozan no Kaze (Alpine Wind (storm)) was inspired by a camping trip I took with my childhood friend Rex off the Peak-to-peak highway just west of Boulder Colorado. Our plan was to hike in at timber line and wake up to a glorious view of snow-capped mountains and a winter wonderland. The camping trip/ hike up was magical with tranquil lakes and flowing springs from snow laden summits.
A winter wonderland we got. As we were hiking in we were literally stopped by a blinding wind storm. Nevertheless, the trip was stopped short by an abrupt blinding wind and snow storm, which forced back to “civilization”. Since we could only see a few feet ahead, we decided to try to stake down the tent and call it a night. That didn’t happen either, as the wind blew over our tent and rolled us around inside the tent, and so we succumbed to the power of the wind storm and headed back to the trail head.
The Alpine Wind tunes came out of this glorious experience.
This energetic Koto jazz piece I wrote this summer (2014) is reflective of the spring season mating patterns of the hummingbird. To attract its mate, the male hummingbird scales up and down the keys of the sky as a kind of mating dance to attract the attention of female hummingbirds. I observed this odd mating dance at Discovery Park in Seattle during a hike in the summer of 2014.
This melody also reflects the playful dance tunes of hummingbirds flying from flower to flower, which is the translated name of the song Hatchidori Wa Hana Kara Hana E Tobu. Purchase preview is available on Amazon music at Hatchidori Amazon.
In my last performance at the Royal Room November 30th, I told the stories about how each of the Koto jazz songs I played came to be. The following I hope serve as a glimpse into the koto jazz process as I reflect on a particular part of the natural world and seek to bring out its natural majesty and beauty in a musical tune. Tide Pools l & The Wind, for example, I wrote a few weeks ago.
Shiyodamari To Nami (Tide Pools & Waves) – This smooth jazz song was inspired by viewing tide pools on the Oregon and Washington coasts, feeling the motions of wind dashing upon tide pools and waves; their undulating patterns; their graceful dance on sandy shores. When we leave our world whatever it is and enter the world of the majestic wind, we see that the Wind breathes the Spirit of life onto our world and we can be left with nothing but awe and inspiration.
The anime story about “The Charcoal Feather Federation” (Haibane Renmei) sends a deep spiritual message. The setting of the story resides in the idea of a purgatory type of state for lack of a better term (although this does not necessarily reflect the intent of the author nor is it wholly representative of the true translation).
This state is more psycho-social spiritual than an actual physical place or state that are often associated with western ideas of purgatory. The mindset of the main characters are all about relationship, giving and receiving, and letting go of the thinking that holds us back from attaining a place of spiritual freedom- freedom from the trappings of our mind’s thinking, such as self blame and guilt, and lack of self- forgiveness.
This is what makes the Haibane Renmei a must see. Every one of us has a place or part of our life- story and life- thinking that we struggle to come to terms with; we struggle to forgive. It comes in a form we may have long buried and forgotten. If we find ourselves being dismissive when reading this, we most absolutely have something we imperatively must find, face, and forgive.
The first step is to find it and face it. Haibane Renmei emphasizes the important messages we may gather from our dreams and memories. Then, having found and faced it, can we muster the courage to forgive?
This is the ultimate aim of a spiritual life, and I argue each of our lives. If we have not forgiven our self, we are not able to forgive the same in others. Thus, that part of us is projected out; becomes a cancerous toxic presence in our own life, and therefore among our circle of friends and family. The creator of Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi Abe, has a gifted way of bringing the spiritual life, including the progression into the next life, as interwoven with the life of here and now, a notion very appropriate for the Shinto tradition. However, it presents the current life we lead and the progression through spirituality into the next life, in terms foreign to western concepts of life and death. These are Shinto- Buddhist concepts, though Abe-san handles it masterfully.
Once we have forgiven the self, we free our self from our own mental trap and become empowered with the capacity to forgive. Often the “forgive process” comes from someone else, as was the case with Reki in the Haibane Renmei story, the girl who could not remember her dream, nor forgive her self. The story suggests a need for a loving catalyst, a loving person in one’s life who reaches and makes the “forgiveness connection”. I’ve needed more than one person to help me make my “forgiveness connections”.
That is the means by which we obtain freedom to reach a higher spiritual presence in this life and the next.
Ike (池), or garden pond, has been accepted as an assumed part of the Japanese gardens, symbolizing a larger body of water, such as the sea or ocean. There are no restriction as to the size a pond can be; it really depends upon space availability. The pond or still body of water in a garden originates from China, where it is thought to represent feminine elements in the natural world, or the “yin” of yin-yang. Adding koi to the pond may presents a dramatic natural feel to wataer garden.
The spiritual pond or body of water, or kami-ike (divine ponds), represents the Japanese Shinto spiritual belief that the pond in Japanese gardens are sacred. It has been a special place of prayer and meditation. As mentioned in KotoJazz 9: Islands of Japanese Gardens, the scene of ocean and sea occupying the majority of the garden space (“chisen”) originates from China. Groups of rocks on one or more sides of the body of water in the garden may represent the image of a seashore and/or mountains. If an island or stone island is placed in the pond, it represents a special divine place from where the kami came hahaguni (妣国).
The pond is the centerpiece of numerous other Japanese garden features, including the following:]
As mentioned in my last blog, Kotojazz 42: Shapes in Design & Music, I visited a number of Chinese gardens which featured rounded garden entry gates outside of Shanghai and Shenzhen.
These pedestrian passage ways, often entry gates to the garden, are known as Moon Gates. There are a number of spiritual meanings behind each part of the Moon Gate, such as the symbolic image of the moon in Chinese culture. Just as the moon rises out of the sky, the Moon Gate rises out of the earth. The harmonious shape of the moon creates an inviting spiritual, Zen-like feel to your garden entrance.
Historically, the Moon Gate had been relegated to the gardens of the wealthy, as an entry to a special place. The circle is a symbol of perfection in Chinese culture. The Moon Festival celebrates the moon at its fullest and brightest illumination. Today, the Moon Gate is available to everyone. 🙂
Songs about the Moon and the shape of the full moon:
Shapes in designs are key to our expression and creativity. There are the sharp shapes, sharp angles such as pyramids and squares (see the above photo’s stone walk way behind the water feature). Traditionally, this is associated with the manhood and the west. It is common to find square stone walk ways, squared off gate ways, even pyramidal shaped trellises, and square- shaped garden areas. Substantial changes have taken place in the modern era to include rounded shapes and designs. This is not something you think about in the daily neighborhood dog walk. You don’t pass by the Jones’ house and say, “my, what a nicely manicured, squared off hedge outlining their nicely square-shaped yard.” However, it does influence your psyche over time, and if this is all you see and all you grow up with, it influences how you see things and see the world. I would argue, it narrows your vision.
Then there is the circle or rounded shapes. Traditionally, this is associated with the Buddhist circle of life and the yin- yang symbol of the east. The rounded water features (see above photo) rounded walk ways, rounded stone steps, rounded gateways (more common in China), rounded bridges, are not commonly seen in North America but are more readily available garden features in Asia. For example, I visited a number of Chinese gardens which featured circled garden entry gates outside of Shanghai. This is a generalization of course, but it offers insight into the role of shapes in garden design that can provide you options on how plan your own garden.
The Shapes of Music:
Likewise, music presents its own shapes. There are the common, chordal structures perfected by the west featuring linear patterns, and melodies that take sharp turns. Then there are the often meandering, circular flow of chords and progressions, even non-chords and non-progressions, and musical patterns of the east. The synthesis of the two are at times attempted to be expressed in modern jazz. However, western jazz maintains its biases from its origins and while it proposes a best effort to synthesizes the two, it tends to de-emphasize the meandering nature and musical flow of the east (e.g., traditional Koto and east Indian music) without even knowing it. Thus, the concept of koto jazz rears its creative head– a melodious journey, but not beholden even to modern jazz progressions!
Thus, koto jazz tunes can often fit more appropriately into the genre commonly known as new age. While new age has taken a popularity hit with the closing of society and its mis-representation of new age as being connected to some type of religious agenda, even cult, this is only a temporary passing misappropriation. From what I’ve observed of the new age movement, there is no agenda, except to offer people some peace of mind with soothing sounds and melodies! How’s that for an “agenda”. That said, eastern styles of music are finding their way into the North American and European music worlds quite independent of the new age trends.
Take for example, my friend Prashant’s Bollywood Dreams Entertainment and the dance style of modern east Indian Bollywood music. I could not help but notice the circular and meandering motions of this invigorating, high energy dance style. This is consistent with the musical melodies of many popular Bollywood songs (see Bollywood Dreams Entertainment), which likewise meander, wander and move in circular melodic motion.
While this koto jazz blog does not concern itself with business achievements, it’s no accident that the likes of Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs admitted to having strong eastern influences in their lives. This, I believe, is where there is a collision of creativity into real world situations, such as high end physics, engineering, architecture, and various sectors of business ventures.
Everything in life can have its duality.
Personally, it’s engrained in my blood and DNA. I am bi-racial, bi-cultural, once bilingual (not currently), and definitely bi-spiritual, among others.
In addition to “bi-“, there’s a duality in general, a duality of perspectives, a duality of existence. There is a duality in the political arena, a duality in social arenas too. You walk down the street and some people are more interested in suburban convenience and others are more interested in access to the entertainment, arts and culture that the big city provides. There is a duality of east and west. There is a duality in science- one that believes in a supreme order and the other believes that all sources of life derive from chaos and chaos theory.
For me, the great experience of life is its collision of the unknown into a synthesis of something more, which in its social form could be the defining characteristic we call “the great American experiment”. It doesn’t offer answers to the unknown, but it does offer freedom from needing to have answers. It is in the “process” of life that we achieve complete immersion in the present moment; that we achieve “understanding” which is quite different from “knowing”. Knowing has definition and finality; understanding neither seeks nor achieves either.
In gardening, the minimalist Zen garden contrasts with what we can call “maximalist” English garden. The maximalist English garden style offers a plethora of colors and floral varieties; mostly perennials. I love low maintenance, constantly flowering perennials (see the above photo)! At the same time, too much variety and color can be overwhelming.
On the other end of the gardening spectrum is the minimalist Zen garden. Again, a minimalist Japanese Zen influence can be settling with the scene of open space, simplicity and elegance. It offers room for the eye to appreciate the simple elegance of a single stone, a purple iris, or bonsai tree. It offers the opportunity for the mind to experience space, and fill the gaps with one’s own creative options conjured up in their own minds; and yes, even freedom from the need to fill in the space and find the beauty in open, uncluttered, undefined space.
In music, Koto jazz is in itself a bi-cultural duality. It proposes a piano synthesis of eastern influences sounds, melodies, and themes with western style jazz embellishments, rhythm and beat. Traditional Japanese nationals and westerners may be offended by their perceived in-authenticity of koto jazz as it takes from the purity of traditional music and modernizes it with new sounds, rhythm, and embellishments. In these cases, koto jazz music is not a fit for them. For those interested in exploring this duality in music and collision of two cultures and musical styles, koto jazz is an ideal genre for you.
The “winding stream garden”, otherwise known in Japan as yarimizu– is a key part of Chinese and Japanese gardens. The stream represents in Taoism the permanence of impermanence, ever flowing water that still remains the same. It has also been part of the other creative arts, such as poetry and painting in China and Japan. An important element of the stream garden are the creek rocks on the creek beds and aligning the shore lines, as well as stones and occasional bonsai- shaped pine trees and bushes, as shown in the photo above. This is an excavated and revived archaeological site of the Kyuseki stream garden in Nara, Japan. A natural stream or one recycled by a pump naturally leads into a pond, the image of a larger body of water such a lake or the sea.
The Kyuseki stream and pond garden near the Imperial palace in Nara (Japan’s original capital), dates back to the 8th Century, according to the Bowdoin University website (see Bowdoin’s Japanese garden website. This suggests the origins of “a stream banquet” (kyokusui no en) during which guests attempted to come up with an original poem before cups of wine, set floating from a point upstream, and arriving at their position along the riverbank”, according to the Bowdoin University Japanese garden website.
The Japanese garden is also derived from Buddhist divination principles, with the intention of carrying away evil while attracting good. To do this, the original Japanese garden design publication, Sakuteiki (Records of Garden Making), says the stream should cross the garden from East to West.
In college at Sophia University, I remember reading Genji-monogatori (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji), about the Heian period festival which featured the kyokusui-no-en, the Feast of the Winding Stream. It is an annual springtime event even today at Mōtsū-ji Temple, Hiraizumi.
More often than not, the Japanese garden stream is not a raging force, but a soft and gentle water flow for the contemplative nature of this type of stroll garden. Again, this offers a more meditative environment for reflection and connection to nature.
Here is sample song I wrote with the same intention called Kuriku Iwa No Hamon.
I saw a lot of old faces in the crowd at my performance at the Royal Room (Columbia City, South Seattle) and a lot of new faces.
I can’t thank the old faces enough for coming out to see me play the piano (thank you, thank you, thank you). As we grow in our understanding and expression of koto jazz, it is not possible without your support. What an opportunity to play before a full house on a Monday night. 🙂
I’m also curious about the new faces and why they came. So I went out and talked to them. The feedback I received is that people are interested in the music, but more than the music. They are interested in the flow state and the connection to a spirituality with Nature and the Shinto and Zen Buddhist origins that these Koto jazz pieces introduce to the listener.
I’m surprised I received as much feedback as I did about the spirituality that creativity offers us. On the music side as predicted, people loved certain songs, all the comments came from one of the Koto jazz pieces I wrote (Hatchidori and Kozan no Kaze) and a few endorsements of the variations on known Koto melodies I jazzed up. But it was also the energy they like.
My music is an attempt to re-connect with the spirituality about and around Nature. This spirituality is not locked up in the closed doors of any institution or church, or temple, or shrine. My music serves as a simple offering of our attention to nature and invitation to be present to it in whatever form it takes before us; whether a hummingbird or ripples on creek rocks. Music is one of many vehicles that can unleash that spirituality.
The Shinto influence of it is so much more than the political environmentalism of our time. It’s really not enough for me to say “I drive an electric car”, or “I’m saving up to put solar panels on my home.” Sure, that’s all good, practical good. But it’s not spiritual. It is the essence of the natural world we tend to overlook. We forget that we come from this Natural state and we tend to take it for granted. When do we say thank you in the language of the Creator, that we are grateful for everything created for us in this world? The Creator does not speak a specific human language; not even English. It’s Not just about the stuff We create, but the stuff of Life that’s been here almost forever.
In other blog entries here, I talk about the science of the flow state or Shinto spirituality, ions and all that. Clearly it’s that, but more. I’m interested in all that, because I like science and I like proof, but I’m also interested in the “more” part. There will always be more, and I’m tired of the polemics and ideology that rend our age. I want more, don’t you? I choose today, to pay honor and reverence to that which is “More”; was here long before I came into existence, and most certainly will be here long after I pass on.
The presence of the Natural world in our lives is not a religious proposition, it’s not profound at all, it’s really simple. We can be changed and transformed by it if we “tune in”, if we choose to listen to the language of the Creator. Seek this first, my friend, “and all else . …. ”
Yes, my next big challenge as a musician will be to write a koto jazz piece about the “Sea Slug” (pictured above). If I can write a song about a sea slug, I’m getting somewhere. 🙂
Here is my first effort at creating a simple zen- “inspired” garden in a narrow side yard of our family home on the coast of Oregon. Since this is a vacation spot, it is intended to maximize simplicity in beauty without the maintenance required for most zen gardens (e.g., raking highlights around the featured rocks, watering, and pruning). More may be added later, such as a tall pogoda toward the back and a sumac to commemorate our family roots in Colorado (which grows wild in Boulder’s green belt, and light up the Flatiron’s Green and Bear Mountains with their fiery- orange and red color images in the fall.
Sumac in Fiery Red
It includes the Torii gate, where the objects of its true meaning frivolously dance and sing, “where birds dwell”. It is very common to see birds in our bird house and among tree branches in the back yard, including finches, chickadees, robins, but also hummingbirds, Stellar’s (blue) jays, and an occasional bald eagle perched on the top of one of the large fir trees. The Torii gate symbolizes the entrance to a special place of natural beauty.
As a basic requirement, this Torii gate has a kasagi, the top beam of the Torii, angled at each end. It also featured a miniature cross beam, the nuki, separate from the upper kasagi beam, but not too far below it. The hashira are the two supporting pillars which hold up the Torii. This is the simplest and most basic form of Torii gate as it lacks additional features common to most Shinto Toriis. In the middle, we intend to add a small gakuzuka support post with our Harada family crest on it. The gakuzuka will connect the kasagi and nuki at the center.
Two large stones are featured in this zen garden, one symbolizing the crane (in the background) and the other (located in the lower front center of the above image) representing the tortoise. Though the slight bluish colors do not represent anything in zen garden traditions, they do accent the stones quite nicely. Both symbolize longevity. Various mosses are placed around the front of the two stones, including the standard sheet moss, fern mosses, and hair cap or tree moss (a bit hidden on the side as they are more sensitive to sun exposure). The gravel is basic pre-existing standard grey gravel that has been always been in our side yard to reduce yard maintenance.
Hair Cap/ Tree Moss
The garden also includes a coral bark maple tree already beginning to change colors before the autumn season from bright yellow into fabulous orange and pinkish red colors.
Coral Bark Japanese Maple
It also includes two bamboo grass clumps on the left and a meandering white stone path from the front to the back. To the right of the stone path is a clump of naturally growing crocosmia.
There are a couple of wild plants which I left in this zen garden. In the background, you may see a naturally growing wild golden tansy shining resplendent yellow flowers on tall stems behind the maple tree. Also, you will find in front of the lantern, a wild broad-leafed weed with multiple stalks, which I am yet not able to identify.
Behind the Torii gate is our back yard which features a small circular nature trail highlighted by four large old growth Douglass firs. Crocosmias grow naturally throughout the back yard, which feature honeysuckle-like orange flowers at the end of tall stems (hummingbirds and bees love them!), interspersed by wild purple asters, and a range of fern varieties. There is something special about this back yard as my late father insisted this part of the yard remain in its natural state. So while this Torii is a transition from the zen garden to the wild and natural part of the yard, it is also symbolic of a spiritual transition from the physical to the spiritual worlds.
I have also placed a black lantern toward the back of the garden in front of the Torii gate and to the left of the maple tree. The lantern is elevated on a small hill to make it more pronounced. It is embellished with black pebbles my mother and I picked up from the ocean shores. The pebbles have been smoothed and rounded by the hands of churning ocean waves :-).
Black Creek Pebbles
As Shinto – Buddhism are often interchangeable, I have placed this lantern to light up the pathway of this garden Shinto shrine/ zen garden, as lanterns traditionally light up the path way to a Buddhist temple.
Music is able to transform the human mind and spirit in similar ways as natural places of beauty. This is accomplished in part by the sound of music imitating nature by rhythmic beat and flow, its movement in and out of patterns, its simple resonation, coloration, depth of sound, and most importantly, its moments of intermittent silence.
Perhaps, my favorite musical pieces, especially those with koto jazz tunes and themes are those that are able to most effectively bring out the melodious expressions of beauty in nature. While I try to do this in all my music, here are a few feature samples of my music where I believe I come close to accomplishing this (I will be featuring these songs when I play at Seattle’s Royal Room on September 8th):
Certain harmony even dissonance, can induce the same euphoric state as inspiration from the natural world. From a health science perspective, it releases chemicals in the brain but also establishes an ionic, possibly magnetic balance in the brain to build upon higher spirituality and higher levels of intuition (again, referring back to James Redfield’s “intuition” in Celestine Prophecy).
After all, music is made by the passing of energy through strings and other instruments. These “instruments of energy” pass on their energy and nurture our spirits. They often connect us with our subconscious emotions and life experiences, or to the contrary, may help us escape from them. It can also lead our spirits to an enlightened spiritual plain. When a musical masterpiece is played in your presence, do you not feel uplifted and recognize the performer taking you to a higher spiritual plain? I think this is what Ludwig Von Beethoven meant when he said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
This also explains the use of sound in some sects of Buddhism, and the use of the flute in the aforementioned Zen sect (see “suizen” or blowing meditation in Koto Jazz 34: Shakuhachi Flute).
When we connect with people enjoying the same music, we feel a heightened euphoria and spiritual connection with them, as if we’ve learned something spiritual and profound about them without the need for communication of words. So in that sense, it is a powerful form of human spiritual communication, and communication with a Higher Power.
The most common instrument played alongside the koto instrument is the shakuhachi (bamboo flute). The shakuhachi made its presence in Japan from China during the Edo period as a form of Zen Buddhist meditation called suizen (blowing meditation). As described by Wikipedia, the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks is known as komusō, or priests of “nothingness” or “emptiness”. The shakuhachi is most commonly made of bamboo, its original form. The term itself is an ancient unit of measurement. The instrument is extremely versatile and seemingly limitless in range. But the most distinctive part of the shakuhachi sound is its depth and richness of tone.
Here is a basic introduction of the bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, and koto music played in harmony together. The following are some I have in my collection: