Honouring Tanaka Sensei

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ August 4th, 2013. Filed under: World Music Studies.

In my classes, I often talk about experiences that arise from either reflective or reflexive research (including the results of class ethnography assignments). The former are moments that cause you to pause and quietly reflect on the discovery that has come into your life. The latter shakes you to the core, transforming you into an entirely new person. You might be reminded of the same gulf of emotional difference between sympathy and empathy. Reflexive revelations make you shout, “eureka”.

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Such was my study in Japan. Although I went there to study the shakuhachi and write a thesis about the influence of Buddhism on its music, I came away transformed. I did indeed achieve the goal I set out for myself (research material for a Master of Music thesis), but in the process I discovered ways of thinking and feeling that were entirely new and previously unknown to me. Granted, I had prepared myself in the years leading up to my field trip, with language lessons and enough courses in Buddhism to qualify me for a minor degree in Buddhology. But the gap between reading and experiencing turned out to be a chasm too wide even to measure.

Tanaka Sensei (b. 1922)

My Kinko-ryu teacher/sensei, Tanaka Motonobu, 田中基展, was a major force of that experience. He has been given the honorific title of Yūdō  右童by the head iemoto  家元 of his association and school lineage, the Dōmon-kai – 土門会 of the Kinko Ryū 琴古流. My other sensei, Toyoaki Kojima Issui, 児島豊明  一吹, now head of the Meian-ji shakuhachi society, also played a large part which I will explore in a future blog.

Our once-a-week lessons were in two parts. In the afternoon, I would sit in the tiny replica of a traditional tea room (chashitsu 茶室) on the campus of Kwansei Gakuin Daigaku University 関西学院大学 located on the hills overlooking Nishinomiya 西宮市 (near Kobe). Tanaka-san worked on the campus as the manager of the student union building. There I received traditional lessons (okeikogoto お稽古ごと) along with about ten other young men, all Japanese, all students, all bemused and puzzled by my interest in something so old-fashioned. The lessons were conducted in a traditional manner with virtually no words spoken, only quietly spoken demands to copy exactly what the teacher was doing (kata 型) as he played a traditional piece (honkyoku本曲) one phrase at a time.

Then we zoomed off to dinner in a working class restaurant where he regaled me with exotic (to me) food and even more copious bits and pieces about Buddhism. He was on fire as he excitedly lectured to me about all the aspects of Zen Buddhism that filled his world of sacred shakuhachi. As the thoughts rushed out of his head, he scribbled notes and terminology on paper napkins which were sometimes then used later for their intended purpose. I scooped up these dozen or so food-stained pieces of paper tissue filled with ballpoint pen notes, and stuffed them in my pocket for study the next day. Sometimes we would return to his campus office to replay the day’s lesson later that night, but this time with explanations and answers to my ingenuous questions. And more saké  (nihonshu 日本酒).

Sunday, head pounding from the hang-over, I carefully laid out the napkins on my miniature desk in my miniscule student room (thanks to the Kyoto division of the International Student Society Kokusai Gakuyu-kai国際学友会) and poured over the scribbled Chinese characters. Oftentimes they were written in such a cursive style that I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. I would then go downstairs to the reception desk and ask the person on duty to clarify their written form. Almost always he or she was barely able to identify the characters because they were from the older bungo文語 style of Japanese language; many were virtually meaningless to them.

All of his valuable thoughts made their way into my thesis and my life. Even today they colour my various music activities and university lectures. He was not a Living National Treasure (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō) or a recording star; just an inspired person cloaked in the everyday body of a “sarariman” (salaryman). I still look back on those days as a rare encounter with a brilliant human, a meijin明人.

Tanaka’s Buddhist Frame

Lately, I have been wondering where he got his ideas about Buddhism. Given that Buddhism is one of Japan’s two major religions, the Japanese people, including Tanaka-san, have a very long history of exposure to the many schools of Buddhism and its vast body of literature and commentary. And of course, Zen Buddhism would have featured in his knowledge, given the shakuhachi’s long history of association with Zen at the hands of the original Zen Buddhist monk players, komusō 虚無僧. On the other hand, Japan has had a love-hate relationship with Buddhism (haibutsu kishaku 廃仏毀) ever since it adopted Western ways in 1868. The result has been a benign neglect by some of the population, and a fundamentalist fervour among others who subscribe to the old and new Buddhist Faith schools (Amida and Nichiren).

So my question about Tanaka’s sacred knowledge became, “Did he research any Buddhist writings as background to his impromptu lectures without bothering to tell me about their source?” Did he introduce me to ideas that he had adopted as his own, that he had applied them to his life, and that he had shared with me, without any kind of footnote or academic disclosure?

My first clue was Tanaka sensei’s term kōiteki chokkan  行為的直観 – “action intuition” which he applied to learning how to play the shakuhachi and its sacred solo music. The word combination describes a kind of understanding that comes from action rather than words.

A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of inspired randomness, I entered the words in Google, and lo and behold, up pops the words in the context of Nishida Kitarō (西田 幾多郎, 1870-1945), one of Japan’s great philosophers. The phrase does not appear in any of my standard and internet Buddhist dictionaries. As near as I can tell, the term was invented by Professor Nishida, although it is a loud echo of the famous chain of four-character idioms (Yojijukugo (四字熟, Chengyu 成语) traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma (5th/6th CE): “A special transmission outside the scriptures; (教外別傳) No dependence upon words and letters (不立文字) Direct pointing to the human mind; (直指人心) Seeing into one’s own nature and attaining Buddhahood (見性成佛)”.

Nishida Kitaro

File:Kitaro Nishidain in Feb. 1943.jpg

Nishida was a member of the Kyoto School of Philosophy that set out to reconcile Zen Buddhism with Western philosophy. Nishida was particularly concerned with finding common ground between Western philosophy and the essential Buddhist concept of Nothingness. He discovered parallel concepts in the writings of William James (1842-1910) and Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Nishida’s Buddhist-inspired writings also foreshadowed existentialism right up to the postmodernism of modern times, but with one important, uniquely Buddhist twist. Whereas existentialism struggled to reconcile the emptiness of existence with the purposefulness of ethics and morality, Buddhism has always made a convincing case for linking ethics with emptiness by invoking the principal of śīla (right conduct, morality, virtue; kai 戒) grounded in pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination; jp. engi 緣起 )

Nishida also struggled with the dense Western philosophy of the time, in the form of the German Idealists . An example can be seen in Nishida’s special take on Hegel’s theory of Dialectics (Benshōhō). But, rather than envisioning a final synthesis after thesis and antithesis, Nishida instead proposed a constant state of thesis and antithesis dynamism (soku-hi 即非) existing simultaneously, without resolution.

Nishida had a profound influence on the intellectual understanding of Zen Buddhism in Japan, to the point where his interpretation has been called neo-Buddhism. Nishida’s explanation of Zen Buddhism was to Japan, what Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki’s (1870-1966) was to the West. And even more remarkable, Nishida and Suzuki were life-long friends of exactly the same age who exchanged ideas and quoted each other throughout their careers. Also, both have been criticized in the last decade; Nishida for his misreading of Hegel (Suares) and Suzuki for his “reverse orientalism” (Borup). Both are accused of bending Zen Buddhism to conform to Western tastes and philosophies. The jury is still out on that controversy.

Tanaka sensei also had much to say about nothingness – mu無. He often quoted Nishida who famously said, “u soku mu, mu soku u 有即無、無即有 – everything is nothing, nothing is everything”. But he could just as easily have sourced the idea from traditional Buddhism which makes nothingness central to the experience of human existence. The Heart Sutra (aka Prajnaparamita Sutra), perhaps the most ubiquitous Buddhist text in East Asia, says quite plainly, “form is the same as emptiness (色不異空 shiki fu i ku), emptiness is the same as form (空不異色 ku fu i shiki 色即是空) form is nothingness (色即是空 shiki soku ze ku), nothingness is form (空即是色 ku soku ze shiki)”.

More to learn?

Tanaka described a paradox where enlightenment (kenshō 見性) is experienced in an instant, and therefore timeless, state, but within the context of the linear thread of time. Tanaka suggested that enlightenment is comprised of moments of great enlightenment (daigo 大悟) and little enlightenments (shogo 小 悟) acting like glimpses into the former. The latter are comprised of revelations that become stepping-off points to more discoveries. He compared the process to traditional music lessons. But rather than seeing the musical development of shogo as a simple linear progression, Tanaka described it from two simultaneous points of view – as a spiral seen from the side, illustrating its historical progression, and as a circle, seen from the top, illustrating its eternally now cycle. I have never seen this line of argument in the writings of Nishida (although I’m ready to be proved wrong).

There is probably so much more to learn about Tanaka sensei’s research and experiences but we lost contact after I moved on to new vistas of ethnomusicology. Regardless, the bits and pieces he bestowed on me were the “stepping stones” (shogo) to my own growing understanding of music and life. I also have to admit that I am reluctant to go much further down the road of classical philosophical debate because I find the dense logic of its quandaries, especially among the Idealists,  and even more so among the philosophers of the Buddhist schools (e.g., Nagarjuna), to be mind-numbing.

When I lived and studied in Kyoto, I often walked down a magnificent tree-lined, rural path that ran alongside a small, irrigation canal in an older outskirt of that great city. The walks never failed to inspire me. I learned later that the path is called the Philosopher’s Walk, in acknowledgement of Kitaro Nishida’s many strolls along its banks on his way to and from Kyoto U, pondering his own shogo, as I did.

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I wonder how many students delve into their teacher’s inspirations, as I have done? How many teachers have been asked about the core sources that made them who they are today? A new spin on the familiar world of ethnography, don’t you think?

Select Bibliography

“Studying Nishida Kitaro,” in Amazon.com

Robert Wilkinson (2009) Nishida and Western Philosophy

Norman Stanfield (2009) “A Canadian Pilgrimage to Japan,” in Canadian Folk Music / Musique folklorique Canadienne magazine Vol 43, No 4 (2009-2010)

Peter Suares (2010) The Kyoto School’s Takeover of Hegel: Nishida, Nishitani, and Tanabe Remake the Philosophy of Spirit




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