Fumio Ishizaka was born and raised in Japan, but his first encounter with the country’s venerable and venerated art of taiko drumming didn’t occur until he was in his early 30s and living in Boston. It was the late 1990s and Ishizaka, who years before had attended the city’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, was a full-time jazz percussionist. He also had devoted himself to Shinnyo-en Buddhism — a modern but very traditional form of the ancient religion — and was commuting to a Buddhist temple in White Plains, N.Y., that had its own taiko group.
“I thought it was interesting, but I wasn’t really interested in joining,” says Ishizaka, who since 2010 has belonged to a Shinnyo-en branch temple in Elk Grove Village, near Chicago. “It is spiritually awakening and quite entertaining. And it was well-integrated into the major Shinnyo-en services, so I was quite impressed.”
But not enough to learn the drumming style himself. Not yet. Jazz was his thing — playing for money, recognition, self-esteem. It wasn’t until he left that life to earn a steadier income that Ishizaka “had to throw all of that out” to serve what he felt was a higher calling.
“I wanted to contribute as best I could to my Buddhist school,” he says. “There was a taiko group but no expert, so I thought I could help with the technical part of it.”
That continues to this day, with an added component. Now the reverend of the Shinnyo-en Chicago Temple, Ishizaka heads up his temple’s taiko program and guides fellow members (many of whom have no musical background) both technically and spiritually. Their motto: “Pray and play” — always with “good intention.”
“The sounds of the taiko have a good spirit,” he explains. “Buddha’s spirit [resides] in the sound, and the sound carries and penetrates into people’s hearts. That is what we are hoping. We’re conveying the warmth and kindness Buddhistically, and with gratitude to our founder [Shinjo Ito] or anybody who became a pipe between our world and the Buddha’s world. We’re also hoping that we become a [conduit] between Buddha’s heart and people’s heart as they listen to our taiko music.” (One of the world’s best known taiko ensembles is Kodo, now on a tour that stops Feb. 28 at Symphony Center.)
Unlike jazz or other forms of drumming, Ishizaka says, the experience of playing taiko is a selfless and meditative one — for him, anyway — that is intended to deepen prayer and contemplation in others. “We don’t ask for spotlight. We don’t necessarily play for recognition. Certainly, we don’t play for money.”
The impact, he says, is often but not always profound. Everyone draws something different from the taiko experience. “Some people are simply entertained by the sound of taiko, and that’s fine. Some people are deeply moved and have said they could feel our intention as they listened. That’s the best compliment for us.”
For Ishizaka, taiko has been spiritually transformational in a way he never could have imagined during his years as a professional musician. After he began playing taiko drums and becoming more religious, Ishizaka says, he was awakened to the fact that “even this loud music can help people heighten people’s spirituality and make them want to do better for themselves and other people.”
Betterment and helping others find the right path is also at the core of Shinnyo-en Buddhism. By “cutting out the attachment to ‘me, me, me,’” Ishizaka explains, the Buddha’s blessings automatically flow forth. Taiko drumming is one way of facilitating that process.
“At least we have to believe that as we play for others,” he says. “And that’s what I encourage members of my taiko group to do as we practice and play on stage. They don’t have to think of anything else.”
TOP: Fumio Ishizaka believes “Buddha’s spirit [resides] in the sound [of taiko], and the sound penetrates into people’s hearts.” | Photo courtesy of Fumio Ishizaka