Saturday, February 02, 2008

Howling At The Buddha: Mona Rock Caravan

Do Buddhism and rock music mix?

I pondered this question while watching bands rocking out under the serene gaze of a wooden Buddha statue on Sunday. The setting was Ikegami Honmonji, a grand, Nichiren-sect temple in southern Tokyo. Mona Records had chosen the temple as the site of its annual Mona Rock Caravan music festival, and bands performed on a stage set up in the Grand Hall, right under a sculptural line-up of a seated, meditating Sakyamuni and four standing Boddhisatvas. The scent of incents filled the hall.

Anyhow, my conclusion was, 'probably not'. Rock/pop is all about desires (for sex, fame, money...), and action, passions, excesses. Buddhism is about extinguishing desires, and serenity, stillness and enlightenment. They make an odd couple.

Still, it was a fun event. The female vocalist of the first act, a jazzy pop band called Mopsy Flopsy, said before starting one of their songs: “Even though we're in a place like this, we're going to do an intense song. I'm going to howl in front of the Buddha.” In my imagination the Buddha wouldn't have minded, and I think would have smiled peacefully.

The hall


Quinka With a Yawn was one of the performers, and their set actually matched the atmosphere of the venue well. They'd just returned from recording an album outdoors in the wilderness of Nagano, and the new songs had a country music feel. In one song one of the guys blew a bird whistle while another shook a rattle, recreating the feel of the woods in the candle-lit darkness of the temple hall.


Why a music festival at a Buddhist temple? For the organizers, Mona Records, I think it was an opportunity to have an event at a more interesting place than the usual live house or club. I've written before about Tokyo musicians who want to try new things with music shows, who want to hold events at unusual venues, and this was in line with that movement.

For the temple, it was a chance to get young people interested in Buddhism, and it's been hosting a lot of events like this. Around the midpoint of the festival, the temple's number-two priest, a man named Nishuu Hayami, came on stage for a talk about Buddhism, which he describes as being like a drop of water in a dry world. “If not for a live show like this, you might never have an opportunity to listen to a talk by a priest,” he said. “If even one of you begin to believe in the Buddha's thoughts, that's enough.”

Did this event convert any of the hundreds of youth in the audience? Hard to say. These days typical Japanese people have a passive, undevoted relationship to Buddhism: if they're in a temple, they might go through the motions of praying, and funerals are usually still conducted by a Buddhist priest, but it doesn't seem to be a big part of people's lives for the most part.


After the event I moved on to the town of Koenji (also originally a name of a Buddhist temple) to see Yuyake Lamp at the tiny club Roots. The building housing Roots is all-Okinawa-themed, including an Okinawan restaurant, and is well worth a visit. Yuyake Lamp's shows are so full of life, I never tire of them, and instead they always give me new energy...


I just learned that the Kitchen Gorilla, a great rock trio, is going to be 'taking time off', in other words, they're quitting. Sad news, they were one of my favorites.

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