Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Buddhist Priest/Okinawa folk song singer
(He’s been in the US since September, 2005)
We found the article about his activities on a Japanese newspaper in Manhattan the day before flying to Los Angeles. Then we sent him an email and had an interview with him.
His name is Kazutaka Yamada, known as “Kossan”. He is a Buddhist monk and usually teach the zazen method to New Yorkers.
But on the other hand, he sings Okinawa folk songs at some places in New York, such as Times Square Metro station, Central Park and the Empire State Building.
Making sanshin vogue.
I started playing the sanshin, a stringed instrument for Okinawan folk songs about two years and a half ago. I had never played that kind of instrument until then. I can play the drums and piano but I had never played the strings.
I have no instructor’s license, but there are some people who are interested in sanshin or want to learn how to play it. I want to make sanshin vogue in New York so I have free sanshin classes every Tuesday, 5pm-8pm in this room. Most of my students are Japanese because I tell only Japanese about my class now. They sometimes bring their American friends here and Americans also try sanshin. So there should be American people who want to try it. But I also have to learn how to teach more so I want to teach the method to Japanese first. But I would like to give Americans lessons in sanshin eventually.
I wanted to try my wings.
I came here to teach zazen to Americans.
I’ve not completed the training course but my teacher told me I’ve taken trainings enough and he gave me a permission to leave the training hall. I didn’t need to worry about succeeding him because my younger brother would take over my family’s temple in the future.
My teacher visited here once or twice a year and he gave people 1-week zazen lessons. In 2001, he asked me to visit here instead of him because he was over 70 years old and it was tough for him to fly here. Then in 2005, when I was leaving the training hall, he suggested I come here and have a zazen class every week, not once or twice a year.
Our students in New York also welcomed me and they prepared accomodations for me to live. So I can live in this room. Moreover, they said they would give me a mess allowance. I had no reason to be in Japan and I wanted to try my wings in New York.
Someone who pays for the music I played.
When I came here, I was broke. Everything is expensive in New York so I couldn’t hang out. I hesitated to even take subways. I enjoyed nothing but practicing the sanshin. I bought a sanshin early 2005 but I couldn’t practice very much while I was at the training hall. I left my sanshin at home then.
After coming here, I started to practice it almost everyday then I could play several songs in October.
One day I went to Central Park to practice outside. When I was playing the sanshin on a bench, a guy gave me a dollar. I was surprised because I didn’t expect that at all. I was playing it there only because it was a nice day.
I thought that there was someone who pays for the music I played. It really encouraged me. I played in Central Park until that evening and went near the Empire State Building after that. I played the sanshin until late night and I got US$40 in one day. I dreamed of being a professional drummer when I was a college student and I actually made money by playing music. I felt I was making my living so it was really fun.
I practiced harder and started to look for good places to make money. I’ve played at Times Square, East Village, Central Park and near the Empire State Building. Sometimes I couldn’t get much money, but I could pay rent fee and utilities thanks to monk activities. I get money for food expenses by playing music.
I want to give people something.
Now I want to contribute to people by playing music so I play voluntarily at a nursing home, and I offer free sanshin classes here. I want to give people something, not making money.
I play at Times Square Metro station once every two weeks because that is the place where I can show many people my performances. I ask music lovers to join my musical activities and perform with me. Any kind of music is OK. I tell them that they can do whatever they want to do with me.
I want to transmit “the sound of Japan” to Americans on the busy streets with Japanese musicians. If we get much money as a result and each performer can drink a grass of beer, that will be very nice.
It was fun to make money and played harder.
I try not to think about money as much as possible. I get more degenerate if I do things only for money. On the other hand, I get much money as a result when I play music without thinking about money.
Now I’m enjoying playing the sanshin more than I used to. I used to feel it was fun to make money and played harder even though I was tired. But I realized it was not enjoyable at all. However it was a good experience. If I didn’t experience that, I wouldn’t have realized anything.
Sanshin gave me a boost.
Every time I play, I notice that people who hear the sound of sanshin show me their happy faces. I love sanshin and I know the charm of that but people tell me how this instrument wins their hearts and minds. Every time I look at their happy faces, I realize that.
But I was really nervous when I played on the street for the first time. I was afraid of policemen or punks. Moreover I had no confidence with my musical skills.
But what gave me a boost was the sanshin itself. I had no confidence so I played simple songs. But some people felt good about my performances. That was a really good boost to me. Sometimes even policemen cheered for me.
New Yorker and “Wannabe American” are totally different.
I think the best appeal of New York is that you can experience many kinds of cultures and meet with many kinds of people from all over the world.
I’m totally Japanese and came from Japan so I stick to being a “100% pure Japanese” here in New York. I believe that is a real New Yorker. New Yorker and “Wannabe American” are totally different. I want to be a New Yorker.
I eat rice and miso soup in New York and that soup contains various kinds of fillings. Here I can show my background to people from all over the world through my performances. It’s really fun. I want to transmit “the sound of Japan” to the world and play sanshin to many kinds of music or many kinds of artistic expressions in the world.
I’m starting to do that now and I can do that here. I can encounter many kinds of cultures here which I can’t learn about in Japan.
Things I don’t like.
I stand in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and chant a Buddhist sutra from afternoon till evening on weekends (Takuhatsu activity: Click here to see it). Sometimes little kids wave their hands at me. Some people ask me to take a photo of me. So I enjoy the takuhatsu activity. But I have some things which I can’t accept.
First of all, people who take my photo without asking. If they want to take photos of me or persons who make money on streets, they should ask and put a quarter in the bowl. I think that’s courtesy but many people don’t do that. Also there are people who look at me through and through at close range. Of course, people look at me but I don’t like to be stared at. I feel weird.
I always give a Buddhist sutra card to people who put some money in my bowl. But some people take it out without asking. They might think it is a flyer. This is also really rude, but I say nothing to them because takuhatsu is a training. I ignore them and chant a sutra. I don’t feel good, it’s really annoying.
Dislikes turn into likes.
Sometimes people take photos of me without asking one after another. One day, I blew the roof and I was going to leave there. Then a goose took my photo of me.
But I changed my mind the next week.
If people take photos of me without asking, I hold a good pose! They take photos of me anyway so it’s better for both them and I to pose for cameras. That’s enjoyable for me. If people stare at me, I say hello to them. They stare at me anyway, but I want to feel comfortable.
When I’m involved in takuhatsu activity, I should keep still and ignore those kinds of people. But I would rather “enjoy” this activity than observe rules. So if people are going to take out a sutra card, I stop them and I tell them, “This is a card and a sutra I’m chanting is written in English on this card. Read it if you’re interested.” I feel much better than ignoring them. I realized that and takuhatsu became truly my enjoyable activity. Then I got more income as a result. People haven’t changed at all. I have changed.
I’m talking about things I don’t like in New York, but those would become my favorite things due to my attitude. I’m enjoying counting the numbers of things I don’t like because all of them would change into my favorite things. I hope so.
I needed to get mad at something to mature as a person. Thanks to that, I could realize how to feel comfortable.
*Photos by Ali
What is New York to you?
As long as I am here, I can be really free.
New York is the place to seclude myself. Monks seclude themselves in the mountains or travel on foot nationwide after finishing training.
I seclude myself in the “mountain” called New York.
His channel on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/Kossan1108