by Mary Lu Brandwein

Hear Gekko Reibo (Moonlight Reverie)

The author invites responses for a dialogue on this topic.

A Goal-Oriented Attitude

A Mirror Attitude

Sound is a Door....¿To Where?

In Asia there are many disciplines that can be studied as a "Way," such as Kado (Flower Way), Chado (Tea Way), Shodo (Calligraphy Way), Kyudo (Archery Way), Bushido (Warrior Way), Chikudo (Bamboo Way). These all sound very esoteric, but in reality a "Way" is NOTHING SPECIAL and is not limited to specific Asian disciplines.

Many learning paths can be added to the list and actually anything can be studied as a "Way." A new foreign language, a new baby, a musical instrument (without previous experience), sewing, gourmet cooking, dancing, law practice, a new career, school, can all be studied as a "Way." Anything really can be a "Way." Actually what makes the difference is the attitude we bring to our study. In this article I will discuss my study of sound as a "Way," in particular studying the Japanese Bamboo Flute (the Shakuhachi) for the last 14 years.

First, let's see what exactly a "Way" is. A "Way" is the disciplined, long-term study of anything that challenges our childhood-developed self-concept of who we are. If we choose something to study that we have interest in but know nothing about and even think we have no talent for, there are real possibilities for learning from it.

When we approach our new study there are basically two attitudes with which we can broach it:

1. A Goal-Oriented Attitude or

2. A "Mirror" Attitude

The Goal-Oriented Attitude is about getting to a pre-established goal and struggling towards it. However, in always looking towards the goal and trying to get there as soon as possible we constantly dissipate our energy by the longing for and the looking towards the goal. We are consumed with our struggling for a certain outcome. Our energy is not all present with what we are doing because one eye is always on the goal in the future. This attitude is a no-nonsense, let's get the job done attitude. We plow right through to our goal. The "Mirror" Attitude is about studying our chosen discipline with awareness, using the experience of the new learning as a mirror to see ourselves in the process of learning as we meet with difficulty, the longing for the goal, discouragement, fatigue, disappointment, doubt, fear, frustration, anxiety, and resistance to seeing and hearing. We will also surely meet criticism, success, and failure. We will be awakened to the need for discipline, for perseverance and for constantly nurturing the sound. This new undertaking offers us a chance to see ourselves in a very different, fresh, new situation and the awareness and self-knowledge gained here can be clearer because the experience is so different from our ordinary life. Then this new self-knowledge, if we are willing, can be applied to the other areas of our life which, because we are used to them, have become blind spots.

Following the "Way" our ideas of our own identity are challenged, e.g. I am not a musician; I can't play music.

Our ideas of how we learn are challenged, e.g. I am a fast learner; by this time I "should" have already mastered this.

Our ideas about what we already know are also challenged, e.g. I already know how to hear, breathe; I already know myself.

Many of our cherished ideas and opinions are challenged in this new situation. These ideas are born from our core belief, that is a basic decision made as a small child about how life is and how we are...many of our problems with life and ourselves come from these decisions. In challenging these dearly held beliefs, unbelievable fear and terror is aroused.

We bring the "Mirror Attitude" to all this. There is an inner awareness developing more and more. All of our ideas produce emotions and challenging these beliefs also produces emotions and they are reflected in our tight muscles and those muscles affect the sound; they affect our performance. These inner hidden ideas, our core belief are ideas of who we really believe in truth that we are. They are our favorite poison thoughts, believed to be the deepest truth about ourselves. These ideas are easy to discover if we develop an attitude of watching the mind and the exact muscles that the ideas pinch. They are our constant companions, but most of the time they come and go like lightening just beyond our consciousness.

The more we know ourselves, the more deeply our sound will communicate to others as we play. One who knows how to listen, hearing only one note that I play, will know exactly my level of self-awareness and compassion. This one note will communicate where am I playing from: the mind, the heart, the solar plexus, the gut, the whole body. Is the sound coming only from the flute as an instrument playing music or is my body/mind/heart also sounding through the flute, the flute as my body? Am I playing from the origin of my being, which is the origin of your being too? How can one come to this?

Attention, Attention,

First, realizing I don't know; I am not aware. I don't really hear or know how to breathe or know myself...being willing to start to look and feel.The Japanese bamboo flute offers numerous opportunities to encounter ourselves as we try to learn: just the first difficulty of making any sound, trying to develop the characteristic harmonics in the sound, savoring the imperfection of all sound, developing dexterity and correct pitch (which is like walking on quicksand), learning the scales, acquiring the ability to bend the sound low enough and high enough and to quarter and half hole certain notes. Then there are the special sounds: "muraiki" (air sound), "soraiki" (empty sound), "kubi futi" (shaking), "koro koro" (a kind of fluttering sound), "kara kara" (a kind of trill), alternate fingerings for special effect, ability to maneuver with speed, to say nothing of learning to read the music.

The sound develops over time and it is a lifelong endeavor with the sound always changing, always becoming what it will be. Each person's sound is different and very personal.

The Shakuhachi can play all kinds of music, but perhaps it is easier to notice and be aware and practice in this way with the "Honkyoku" (meditation music). The word "Honkyoku" means the original tuning or the original music for this instrument, but it can also mean music or sound from the origin of being. This music is not really performance music as such; rather it is "sacred" music meant to be played in a meditation hall for people meditating (zazen) and by one who is meditating (zazen). Its rhythm is many times fairly free, lyric melody is not present, no harmony is present. The lone bamboo sound emphasizes sound color, total sound, volume and movement within each sound and from one pitch to another. "Honkyoku" is meant to entice the ears, the body and the mind to pay attention, to be present to the sound, but also to all that is. It is impossible to guess how the phrase will end or when or what will come next. The whole body can become an awake ear, a receiving organ, if we slowly choose to open our body to hearing. There can be no longer an inside and an outside. There is no end to sound, surrounding and compenetrating sound...only totally alive hearing, no ideas of "I like this; I don't like this." When there is thinking there is no real hearing.

Learning to listen to music, learning to play music is a process of learning to hear and to savor the sound and the feeling of sound, even our "imperfect" sound. Without this the sound can not change or improve.

So let's try this as a listening exercise:

  1. The eyes draw the attention more easily; they are greedy, so, close them or put them out of focus.
  2. Putting your attention on the surface of the skin, breathe in through every pore on the body surface, slowly feeling the whole surface. Letting the sound in through each pore, feeling the vibrations of sound on the whole surface of the body and then within the body. Listening with the whole body causes a momentary forgetting of your name and how much money you owe. Only this, hearing.
  3. Hearing only; feeling the sound enter the ear; feeling the sensations of the sound on the surface of the skin and its effect on the internal organs.
  4. Letting the sound be a house and surround you and be inside of you.
  5. When a thought comes, notice it, look at its content, feel its effect on the body and then return to the hearing and the physical sensation of the sound.
  6. Let your energy be carried by the sound; ride it; surrender to the sound.
  7. Sound is a door, a "formless field," a background that allows for the seeing and experiencing in the foreground of the emotion-thoughts and the body and also allows for the experiencing of a deeper truer Self.
  8. The mind will rebel in fear; watch it; feel what it does to the body and therefore to the sound.
    (This can be experienced for a fraction of a second or longer. Typically we would flip in and out of this experience depending on the hold that our thoughts have over us.)
  9. In playing, feel the sound arise from the whole body as the energy concentrates, feel the strength of the abdomen, the diaphragm expand and contract, and the lungs empty and fill, the throat open, the resonance of the sinuses and feel the taste of the sound in the mouth. Taste the sound in the mouth; savor it in the mouth the way you savor an expensive wine; feel its vibrations on the fingers. The Honkyoku on the shakuhachi or slower pieces on a wind instrument are particularly helpful here because a note is not just struck, but followed through and sustained and many things can happen or not happen within its texture and space and all the while there is hearing, experiencing, thinking...

Can you play and do this as much as possible? When there is emotional upset, can you play anyway? How does anger alter the sound? What is the difference between an angry Ab and a sad Ab or an aggressive Ab and an empty Ab? How does the body differ when it makes each one of them? If I play when I am sick, what can I learn about my sickness from my sound? How does the feeling of making the sound differ? If I play when I am disappointed or tired, where can I feel in the body the disappointment or the fatigue? Can I reside in the physical sensation of these emotions with the help of my flute sound? Can I be more comfortable with their discomfort in my body? Can I slowly be more comfortable with the whole range of the emotions and feelings of being human? Can I just live it and let it be and put it all into my sound and still savor it all? Savor the humanness? Slowly over time, just a little more today? now? Can I?

Then what does the shakuhachi sound do to my body, to my mind? Does it change anything? Does it heal? Slowly over time what happens?

The sound, the playing is a way to be alive, to experience our thoughts, our emotions, our false selves and our true Self ....slowly awakening....slowly accepting....slowly experiencing more and more within the context of an ever wider total sound.... world sound.

Sound is a door......

The piece: "Gekko Reibo" (Moonlight Reverie); this is a short bamboo exploration composed by Yokoyama Ranpo around the first part of this century. I situate this piece within the Zen Koan: I want to live forever; I must die.

There is the quiet experiencing and appreciation of the moonlight, all of nature, all of life...aliveness. Yet again, the sadness that all things must end; all life dies. Here is our chance to experience our own sadness and appreciation and feel nature and our own death a little. What are your thoughts when you hear/play this piece? What effect do they have on the body? What feelings arise? How does your body produce these feelings? What muscles are affected and what do the nerves do and what does your energy do? Can you stay with only hearing/playing at times? Does fear sneak into the hearing that you, as you know yourself, could be lost forever...or perhaps that you are not really who you think you are? Where do you feel the fear? Can you just feel that fear quietly for a little, resting in it too?

Listening in this way is really death to the self you know yourself to be; can you do it just a little...and then a little more and more? Can you come to a new hearing, a new playing?

Sound is a door....

Hear also "Suchness" (Kyorei),
one of the oldest shakuhachi pieces in existence dating back around 700 years...

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