I played the wooden fish for the first and currently only time on May 17th, 2008. I had received a call that same morning half-asking but mostly telling me to do it at a Vesak celebration later that day.
I had never abused fish, gong, nor bell before, and hurried to try and be hastily taught by a friend of mine before show time. Education be damned, I ended up flustering about and striking the thing about twice as much as I should have. Rolling Stone praised my “rock steady baselines and infectious hooks,” but Buddhist chanting it was not. It was one of the most horrifyingly embarrassing experiences I have ever weathered and I regret not skipping town and hopping a freight train the morning of.
And nobody who wasn’t wearing robes knew the difference.
Unable to hide my shame, I promoted it to anyone who would listen afterwards. After confessing my eighth note punk rock Buddha beats to one friend, he noted, “Oh, maybe that’s why I got into it more than I usually do.”
My problem was that I wanted to do it right. It wasn’t such a big deal that I did a poor job, I instead was flustered because I could have done so much better if I had the opportunity to practice. I wanted to be able to stand before the crowd and have the hammer swing from elegantly tuned muscle memory.
I feel this might be my anxiety as a Western Buddhist coming out: I read all about Buddhism before I visited a temple, I consulted manuals and charts before I sat down to meditate, and I learn my chanting by knowing the meaning of every word or character. I am so anxious about entering the ritual space that so many do not have to recollect entering, that I want to be prepared and face things on my own terms.
But there are not books on Chinese Buddhist Liturgical Music. No “Dharma Percussion for Dummies.” You have to be a student, and you have to have a teacher.
You have to screw up.
When trying to learn the chants we were doing that morning, I was taught to memorize the beats by tapping my hands against my knees. The gong, the bell, the wooden fish – these are sacred instruments that are not to be played outside a Dharma service. They call all living being in the ten directions to come and listen to the teachings of liberation and truth. One does not “practice” on them.
The physicality of the hammer and the fish, the distance between the two and the proper amount of force: these were my greatest roadblocks before my performance. I was touching them in this way for the first time. I couldn’t help but be jumbled and rusty!
After the great fish disaster of 2008, the various monastics in my life kept providing me more and more opportunities to play the fish at different services. I turned them all down. I had my practice anxiety: How could I be asked to fail so completely and so systematically while valuing the sacred space created by these foible-free rituals?
It was only after the requests stopped that I came to realize that this is the way Buddhist music is taught in this community, and that it happens no other way. Even if I could achieve my practices perfection, it wouldn’t be the same. I would be like the self-taught garage guitarist with a `rippin solo who can’t play with a band because he can’t keep time. Chinese Liturgical education is constructed to prevent `rippin fish solos.
One moment, on that fateful day in May, we were transitioning from one chant to another, and I had simply, blanketly forgotten how to do it. My Dharma friend and teacher, playing the bell and gong across the alter, exercised some quick thinking and played the fish and bell part using the two instruments at his disposal.
And nobody who wasn’t wearing robes knew the difference, or they wouldn’t have at least. They wouldn’t have if the two of us weren’t smiling.