Kotekitai Sikuri 

by Lynette Yetter 

"What do you mean  
conforming to this militaristic marching band  
will help me change my karma and polish my life?"  
I shouted. 

"It will! All of this suffering will become golden memories!"  
a woman younger than me,  
who still lived with her mom,  

"But I prefer jazz improv,  
not marching around like soldiers.  
You're trying to erase my individuality!" 

"No, it's so your individuality can shine!  
You have to develop your life, 
Kotekitai is a faith activity.  
It's so you can grow." 

I was 25.  
I wanted to grow and change my karma,  
so I participated for three years  
in the SGI young women's Buddhist marching band,  

Feet blistered,  
I marched  
in parades wearing a double-knit polyester dress  
that cut into my armpits as I held my elbows high, playing my flute.  
But I stepped high and proud, striving to shine the light  
of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo  
through my playing,  
through my life condition.  
I marched in the cold fog for hours, rehearsing.  
In blazing sun for hours, rehearsing.  

"Itai doshin," the leaders told me,  
"Many in body, one in mind.  
We're doing this for world peace,  
to learn how to unite for a common goal." 

Together with 12-year-old girls, 
I rode buses for hours to get to performance sites.  
Nine hours to the L.A. Sports Arena,  
chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo all the way.  

"Challenge your limitations.  
Make a goal for yourself.  
By successfully participating in this activity, determine that you will achieve  
your personal goal,"  
the twenty-year-old girl said on the bus microphone, her voice crackly and earnest.  

When we filed into our seats in the Sports Arena, "Sit up straight!  
Look alert!  
If the girl next to you falls asleep,  
poke her with your elbow!"  

A fourteen-year-old poked me in the ribs. 

"For Seattle, wear all white. No jewelry. Pull your hair back into a pony tail." 

My silver hoop earrings  
(that were handcrafted in Africa)  
and the mauve-colored stone stud  
hadn't left my ears in over two years.  
They were part of my identity. 

As I unfastened them and slid them from my lobes,  
tears started to fall down my cheeks.  
In the mirror I didn't recognize  
my own face as I brushed  
my wild hair back into a tight ponytail.  
My trademarks  
were gone. 

The only white clothes I had were  
my karate ghee pants from when I was twelve-years-old and  
a white man's shirt.  
Tying the cotton belt of my too-small karate ghee made me feel  
like the fat kid who never fit in  
that I had  
Covering my exposed flesh with the man's shirt that I never wore, 
I felt like a prisoner  
who had her clothes burned and  
her head shaved. 

This was changing my karma?  

Crying, I took their word for it  
and set out to play military marches 
on my flute with the hopes  
that I would become happy.  
I chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo  
in my heart, with my whole being. 

Madison Square Garden.  
We rehearsed in the New York July sun at the campus of SUNY Purchase.  
Thousands of young women from all 50 states,  
marching in formations, playing our instruments,  
rehearsing choreography to fill the Garden.  
My head hurt.  
I was sweating, prickly, uncomfortable, tired. 

A bullhorn announced, "Alaska, Washington and Oregon  
will now take a lunch break." 

The young women walked through my formation, heading to the cafeteria.  
I jumped in with them and  
my position.  
As the river of women passed the dorm,  
I cut off and went in to the air conditioned room.  
I took a shower.  
How good it felt.  
I put on my other, non-sweaty clothes. 
I laid on the bed,  
enjoying the comfort, the silence, the solitude.  

"Why am I here?" I asked myself.  
"I came here to challenge myself. 
To change my karma.  
I'm not changing anything by escaping to comfort.  
'Honim myo' as they say. 'From this moment on'.  
And Daisaku Ikeda says that in our youth we have to experience hardships  
to hone our character,  
if we have to pay for them." 

I put my sweaty uniform back on.  
I picked up my flute.  
I opened the door and walked back out  
into the humid New York July heat  
to march in the noonday sun.  

I crossed the field  
to where my formation was marching back and forth --  
with one  
I went to my spot and lifted my knees  
high and played with my whole heart. 

Over time, like the surf  
beating against the rocks,  
the roughest edges of my character got smoothed away. 
My inner colors began to shine. 

I followed the directions of people who had less musical training than I,  
but who knew more about Buddhism and life training. 

They were right.  
It is all now my golden memory. 

Now I wear no jewelry by choice.  
I don't need a trademark to define who I am.  

If it hadn't been for that life training I learned in kotekitai  
(No complaints! Hai!),  
taking criticism  
and learning to be part of a group,  
I wouldn't have been able to become a sikuri. 
A sikuri.  
A person who plays the siku.  
The panpipe. 
Who plays this instrument in dialog with a partner,  
in community. 

Most sikuris are men. Are indigenous Aymara or Quechua. 

I am a fat white woman, pushing 50, from L.A.  
playing the sikus 
in parades with indigenous peoples 
in the Andes. 

Right away 
these indigenous men made me  
a line leader. 
From my kotekitai training,  
I knew how to pay attention to the formation around me  
and my place in it.  
I knew to not complain about last minute changes to the choreography. 
I knew to not take it personal when someone corrected me.  
Even if he was drunk.  
Even if I thought he was wrong.  
The black pants they rented for me were too small.  
They wouldn't zip up.  
So, I tied a string through the belt loops to hold them up and  
arranged my homespun shirt to cover the gap.  
I played my siku with my whole heart,  
sending the light of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo with each note. 

Five years, now, I've been playing with this group.  

Yesterday we attended an international gathering of sikuris.  

I was the only gringa.  
The only woman sikuri.  

The other women were dancers. 

We played in pasa calle, a parade, with the other sikuri groups.  

One group from Parata was dressed with feather headdresses,  
plumed fountains on top of their heads.  
They played homemade drums, each one a different size.  
Not one of the cylinders was symmetrical.  
The rawhide tying on the drumheads was hand-tanned and cut.  

Our group looked rag-tag.  
One of the leaders was hung-over  
and wearing the blue running suit he'd slept in.  
He threw on a black poncho with rainbow fringe  
and perched a black beanie on his head 
New members used borrowed black ponchos  
with orange fringe instead of rainbow. 
But with the first down swing of the bombo maso, 
we played with one heart, one spirit. 

Down to Lake Titicaca we all went, 
playing our sikus and bombos.  
Down the stone lane we danced and played,  
past sheep grazing,  
adobe bricks drying on their sides, 
golden meadows that swept up to  
rocky hilltops.  
The apus.  
Sacred landforms.  

On the beach of the mama qhocha  
we shared our music with each other.  
Before each group's performance,  
a representative of that group  

the current presidents of our group said to me,  
"Will you speak for us?" 

"I can if you want me to," I said. 

One of the presidents smiled and nodded yes. 

The other said, "We want you to." 

They wanted me,  
the gringa,  
to represent this group of indigenous men  
at this international indigenous gathering. 

"Say this," one president said. 

"Say that," another president said. 

From my kotekitai training I didn't get nervous.  

I strode to the center and 
stood with all of Lake Titicaca at my back,  
facing the sikuris  
who had traveled far to share 
the Andean Cosmovision 

An elder with furrowed face and plumed headdress,  
his jacket decorated in geometric designs with hundreds of buttons sewed on.  
His broad feet shorn in llama skin, like his ancestors. 

Gaunt man in his 40's, eyes sunken deep in bony sockets --  
staring to perceive the inner essence of everything --  
grey hairs mingled in his black braid down his back, 
a white square of cloth, like a cape,  
draped across one shoulder of his suit coat.  
Pointy knit ch'ullu beanie on his head. 

Woman dancer in tire tread sandals and hand embroidered 
layered skirts. 
Her hands broad. 
Her back straight and strong. 

I said,  
"Sisters, brothers, thank you for this invitation to be here today.  
We are honored to be here together to celebrate the siku,  
the spirituality of this music that we all need.  
Kusikuni kay tinkurayku. (Quechua for 'I am happy because of this gathering.')  
Aka jach'a uru. (Aymara for 'This great day.')  

We danced on blistered toes at 12,000 feet, 
playing the bombo even though our hands bled, 
lips raw on the bamboo edge, 
we played and danced together 
creating ecstatic unity.