Music and Arrogance

By Rev. Hideaki Nishihori

For ten years, I was stressed out and frustrated. I couldn’t sleep and was always tired. My life was hell. Then I discovered Shin Buddhism.

You might say my troubles started with music. Since childhood, I was good at playing music. At 9 years old I surprised my brother by playing piano although I never played before. I just improvised while sitting next to my sister as she played. At 14 years old, I started playing guitar.

Initially, my brother taught me guitar. When I first played along with a CD, I felt the pleasure of playing music. Eventually I loved it.

It’s fun to quickly improve. I got better and my friends praised me. I began composing music. When I wrote music for a favorite song, I felt like a genius. My friends still like this song. I decided to become a composer. After college graduation I began trying to become a real composer.

Along the way, I started or joined seven different bands. While teaching English in Japan at a high school, I conducted the school’s brass band. I always was the leader and made each band perform songs I wrote. Looking back, I was too strict on musicians and myself, but I desperately wanted to be a professional musician. I wasn’t interested in anything except music.

I became arrogant. I found others’ mistakes. I complained: “Why can’t you play this easy piece?” “How many times must I tell you?” “Why are you late?” “Are you listening?” I hated rehearsals. I always was frustrated.

My goal became simply money. Strange isn’t it? In the beginning music was fun. I was arrogant, blamed others, hated practices, and yet continued for money. Now I realize that’s total nonsense. Now I would have quit and looked for something else to do.

But I digress. In composing, my main instrument was a computer. I’d play an instrument, record it, then finish the arrangement on a computer. I created music that sounded so professional, nobody would suspect I was an amateur. In Japan, I signed a contract with a major music company. If my songs were chosen, famous singers would record my songs and I’d get royalties. However, my songs never won any competitions. Hundreds of composers competed. It felt like a lottery, requiring more luck than skill.

With rejection came stress. The music industry wants popular music which become big hits that hate. So I made songs I didn’t like. In doing under pressure what I didn’t like, eventually I couldn’t distinguish what I liked from what I didn’t like. I became depressed.

I was lost. I stopped making music. I enjoyed nothing. I lost my job and my girlfriend. My family caused me troubles. I couldn’t sleep.

Insomnia haunted me for a decade. Imagine barely sleeping for 10 years. Always feeling tired, the will to do anything faded away. My brain seemed broken. I made many mistakes and got scolded. Stressed out, I blamed others for my problems, which made me more frustrated. I clashed with family and friends. Thoughts of suicide filled my head.

Life was hell. I realized hell was inside me, not outside. Hell isn’t a fantasy or a tale about an afterlife. Hell is here. I was trapped in hell for 10 years. It was horrible. I lost all confidence and belief in myself.

I went to Australia to study English and teach Japanese. After a year, I returned to Japan and became a high school teacher, which added to my depression. I desperately wanted to overcome my depression and tried many things—exercise, psychology, mental therapy, self-help and philosophy. I failed. Maybe they’re effective for others but not for me.

Finally came Buddhism. To me, Shin Buddhism is difficult. It didn’t make sense. I learned basic Buddhism. I meditated. I practiced mindfulness. I did yoga. I tried to connect with my feelings. These practices take time. Trying new things, especially when sick, sometimes makes things worse. Frustration followed meditation. I switched to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

I began to reflect deeply on my self, my actions and my thoughts. I discovered that arrogance kept me from enjoying music. I looked down on other musicians. I despised bands that played music I hated.

Once at band practice, I roughly put down my guitar, accidentally hitting a desk. I barely noticed. A band member, Amy, said, “You should respect your instruments!” This stunned me because I’d never thought about it. I didn’t respect my instruments. I suddenly realized that without them, I couldn’t enjoy music.

My arrogance blinded me. I always felt I was right and others were wrong. I lacked proper respect and appreciation. Thinking I was always right prevented me from growing and maturing. Arrogance and pride kept me from seeing my true self. It kept me from learning anything new about myself.

A famous Greece maxim says, “Know thyself.” Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Still today, I like to brag about my abilities and intelligence, so I still must be arrogant. According to Shinran Shonin, Jodo Shinshu’s founder, worldly desires, including arrogance, never disappear while we’re alive. At least now, I can see my arrogance.

In Jodo Shinshu, the goal is not to extinguish arrogance from our minds. Actually, it’s impossible. To me, Buddhism isn’t about becoming a good person. It’s about recognizing and understanding our arrogance and ignorance.

I feel in trying to be humble, one can never be humble. If you think you’re humble, you’re not humble at all. Rather you’re arrogant. The way to enlightenment is truly know our limitations and ourselves.

These days, I play instruments a couple hours daily while streaming music. Time passes quickly. I make mistakes on supposedly easy pieces. Maybe I’m careless because I think it’s easy. I guess that’s arrogance talking. Viewing the world through our own bias is the wrong view. It’s hard to see things as they are. If we don’t, we suffer.

I sleep better now. And I really love music.

Rev. Nishihori is minister of Kaneohe Higashi Honganji temple in Hawaii.

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