February 11, 2014

What Karaoke & Eels taught me about my Practice. ~ Darren Lamb

Photo courtesy Paul S.

In Buddhism, our practice is meant to be shared with everyone.

Even if we’re a beginner and don’t feel like we know enough to teach or to hold our own in a discussion on meditation, putting ourself out there is what matters the most.

I learned about this the hard way while living in Tokyo and watching the people go to the karaoke bars. Karaoke is very serious in Japan, but not for the reasons you might think. One night after training, I found myself in a sushi restaurant with a karaoke machine and a group of new friends.

I asked the bartender his specialty and a person next to me was kind enough to translate because my Japanese is abysmal. The bartender nodded and smiled at me, then produced a small glass filled with some type of sake. I took the glass and tried to drink it but the bartender grabbed my arm and wagged his finger. He then went to this giant bowl on the bar filled with hundreds of live baby eels that I thought were there purely for decoration. He pinched one of these eels with a pair of tongs, put in into my glass and covered the glass with my hand so the eel couldn’t jump out.

Then he motioned for me to drink it.

Surely this must have been some kind of joke they play on the stupid foreign guy, but when people saw my hesitancy, my friends all came over and had one of these baby eel shots with me. I’m not trying to be gross, but I could actually feel the eel moving around inside of my stomach. By the third shot, I couldn’t feel the eel anymore. By the fifth, I couldn’t feel anything anymore.

The night went on like this and I ate a whole lot of things which I have no idea what they were. It was a super fun night until someone turned on the karaoke machine. Some of the food didn’t agree with me and it caused me to be a little hesitant about the karaoke singing. Soon Japanese businessmen were shedding their ties and jackets, singing these horrible versions of Michael Jackson or the Rolling Stones.

Have you ever wondered why the karaoke bars in the orient play American songs?

Soon enough it came time for the gaijin (foreigner) to sing. At this point of the night, I was drunk beyond belief and barely able to sit on the floor or keep my food down. The thought of singing was about as logical to me as performing brain surgery. I politely refused and that’s when everything changed.

Japan is a land of delicate etiquette practices and I had just performed a serious faux pa.

The mood at my table instantly changed and I wasn’t sure why. I tried to tell jokes and buy rounds but the energy never quite regained its previous heights.

Later that night, I returned to my cubicle hotel—a honeycomb-looking wall that is basically a bunch of coffin-sized boxes stacked on top of each other with the feet sections open. Japanese businessmen climb into these little inexpensive holes and grab a few hours of sleep. Mine even had a television in it.

During the moments when I was trying to make the tiny room stop spinning by literally placing a hand on each wall and a foot on the celling (I may have actually slept this way), I tried to think about the Japanese culture and how I needed to learn the customs to better fit in.

The next morning, I was in the community bath and some of the men there were kind enough to explain the Karaoke thing to me. I explained how I had refused to sing, and all the men sitting naked on these little buckets began to shake their heads. They told me how karaoke is all about sharing your spirit: it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good singer or not. That’s not the point at all. It’s about how you put yourself and your spirit out there to be shared by others. When I refused to sing, I was basically refusing to share my spirit with the people around me.

One gentleman pointed out to me why they sing the karaoke songs in English. They sings songs they don’t really know in a language that’s not their own because they are supposed to look silly. The trick is to look gloriously, ridiculously silly.

Our practice should be this same way. In fact, most of the truly silly people I have met in my life have also been the wisest and most caring.

Dare to look stupid. Dare to admit to people you don’t possess all the answers. Admit there are days when you really have no idea why you’re sitting on the stupid cushion, that sometimes you feel like this is a giant waste of time but you still do it anyway because you’re either too afraid or too stupid to actually stop.

Don’t you think Siddhartha felt that way too sometimes?

Listen. Learn. Share.


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 Assistant Editor: Tifany Lee/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Paul S.

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