Music from the Heart: A Treasure and a Weapon for Peace
by Nestor Torres
"So the unthinkable has happened," I thought as I watched the towers fall that day.
It was a beautiful day in Beverly Hills, just getting started on what was supposed to be a great day (and night). The Latin GRAMMY Awards Show was on that evening, and I was nominated in the category of Best Pop Instrumental CD.
Although I generally don't get excited about awards, that year's nomination meant a great deal to me. You see, "This Side of Paradise," the CD I had been nominated for, included "Paz Pa' Vieques" (Peace for Vieques), a song I wrote about the issue of the U.S. Navy's use of that island for military exercises. (Vieques--population 8,000--is a tiny island off the east coast of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, my homeland. For 60 years the Navy occupied the island, causing great suffering for the people and gravely damaging the environment. They finally left in May 2003).
The record company was not interested in the song, so I paid for it myself in order for it to be included, so I felt somewhat vindicated by the nomination. Needless to say, the Latin GRAMMYs didn't happen that night.
Priorities have a way of shifting when disaster strikes.
What was arguably one of the most important nights of my career became the tragic date that has defined the beginning of the 21st century. Winning a Latin GRAMMY or any other award for that matter became meaningless, insignificant. What did it matter if I won the highest accolade in the music industry if my work could not help stop such barbarity, such cruelty? I was indignant, distraught, but there was a sickening sense of recognition.
It is a sad truth that living in a world where the dignity of human life is violated as a matter of daily fact makes us all vulnerable to the hopelessness, anger and violence this breeds. It also engenders apathy and indifference, the subtle yet lethal maladies born from such callousness.
And so it was that the day when I was to be a winner became a dramatic turning point in human history and the history of my beloved United States of America. Personally, I determined that I had no choice but to cast off my superficial or transient identity as a musician and reveal my deeper, truer aspect as a "Warrior of Peace." 9/11 tolled the bell of the revolution; my "human revolution."
"A great revolution of character in just a single person will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation, and, further, will cause a change in the destiny of all humankind."
From the foreword to SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's epic novel The Human Revolution, these are words that resonate eternally as a call to spiritual arms for many Nichiren Buddhist practitioners throughout the world.
I have been chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for over 20 years, and these words function as a key motivating factor in life and my Buddhist faith.
Before I practiced Buddhism, my view of my own life and my role as a musician were quite different. Early on, I was always seeking answers to the tough questions: life and death, inequality, suffering ... I could never find them. There was simply no joy in my life whatsoever. As I developed my musical talent, I felt out of place everywhere and kept to myself most of the time. Later, when I moved to New York City and began playing professionally, the attitude of my fellow musicians, especially some whom I considered my musical idols, debunked any sense of wonder and satisfaction in music making.
Discovering and practicing Nichiren Buddhism changed all that dramatically. I got answers, joy became a more familiar experience, and I began to appreciate and enjoy playing music. Most importantly, I developed a sense of purpose, a deeper meaning to my music making.
To be reminded of one individual life's unlimited potential; to be able to tap, time and again, into that most fundamental of truths: the absolute, boundless power of one human being's life--mine included--to transform the future of humanity, each person in their own unique way. That is the reason I practice Nichiren Buddhism. And it was my Buddhist practice that enabled me to overcome my frustration and dismay over the terrorist attacks on 9/11. That day I determined that my work would have to make even more of a difference from then on. Since then, I have used my music as a "weapon for peace."
Frankly speaking, this is not an easy thing to do. That is why Mr. Ikeda's words and guidance are so crucial to me:
"If, as I believe, the greatest task of humankind as it moves from the 20th to the 21st century is to wipe out once and for all the hostility and bloodshed disfiguring the Earth today, then music, which allows people to communicate their innermost feeling to one another, is surely destined to play a major role. It offers the most forceful and effective means by which to set about pursuing that task."
Music has power--no, music IS power. Music is life. Can you imagine a world without it? No songs, no melodies, no rhythm. Truly, where there is no music, there is no life, no humanity.
I firmly believe that one's intent, one's heart, expressed throughout the creative process, is bound to affect the hearts and intent of the people who are exposed to the work; in my case, the music I write and perform.
My CD "Treasures of the Heart" was inspired by a statement in one of Nichiren's writings: "More valuable than treasures in a storehouse are the treasures of the body, and the treasures of the heart are the most valuable of all."
With this in mind, all my concert performances and recordings are based on making sure that every person involved--audience, musicians, technicians, ushers and gofers--are treated and made to feel like the valuable, respectworthy participants they are.
Furthermore, my activities as a lecturer and educator now have a higher priority, as well as my involvement with children and peace-promoting activities with ICAP (the International Committee of Artists for Peace), GRAMMY in The Schools, Arts for Learning and others.
The Lotus Sutra contains the key truth of Shakyamuni's teaching--that each life, all living beings, are worthy of respect. To transform, create and live in a society where respect and reverence for the sanctity of life is paramount is the only alternative for our species, and indeed our planet, if we are to not just survive but to thrive.
Therefore, I have made it my mission as a musician, as an artist and as a human being, to touch, revitalize and rehumanize each person's heart, one at a time.
As to the Latin GRAMMY ...
I received it in Los Angeles, California, on October 30, 2001, at a modest and heartfelt ceremony, where I accepted this great honor not as a recognition for work already accomplished, but rather as a point of departure and reference from which my music and work could inspire hope and humanity in each listener's heart.
[ Courtesy July 2004 SGI Quarterly ]