Zen Shakuhachi: the Way of Breathing Bamboo (entry 1)

In teaching woodwinds for 20 years, and primarily (and ultimately, only) shakuhachi for the past 7 years, I have seen a trend in Incorrect View.  This usually treats value or “success” in one’s shakuhachi endeavors  as a kind of equation directly calculated on results.  Results such as: I can or can’t play Song X or Note Y.  Why? We have this approach in life these days in general, and activities that are intrinsically Zen do not play this way.  If you “get” a result–songs or note–but are not truly deeply present when it unfolds, what has really been accomplished?  And further: what did you really even get out of it?  (And stating this as a goal is also questionable, but let’s roll with this pleasure principle for a moment.)

The important thing is regular engagement with the bamboo, the teachings, and all the elements that comprise this path, as I am calling it, “the way of breathing bamboo”–and regular guidance.  Choose your resources wisely, or let them wisely choose you.  Results never fail to appear, in my experience, one way or another, but it is the engagement itself that contains the enrichment, fulfillment, ah-ha moments, joy, etc. (as well as ego-dissolution, frustration, dead-ends, etc.)–so, like in Zen, it all comes back to presence.

Just be with the sound, hold nothing back, and eventually, beautiful sounds and “difficult” songs flow through.  But, sometimes, there are blockages to the “be with” part of that instruction, so, all expectations need to be set aside at that time.  Literally all expectations.  So check that.  Also, the “eventually” part can be in years or decades, and is almost never in the case of our friend, the shakuhachi, get to measure it in minutes or days.  But, you never know! Expect surprises, as they say.

Deep Breath, Clear Mind.

3 responses to “Zen Shakuhachi: the Way of Breathing Bamboo (entry 1)”

  1. sue shockey says:

    I don’t want to be focused on results, but I do want to have a good tone and decent pitch and effortlessness and all that. Don’t we feel more engaged when the songs come out easily?

    • Cornelius says:

      Good question. And you are correct in that we create a virtuous feedback loop, but the root of it is presence, not something else. It isn’t so much about what is focused on, as what viewpoint (state of consciousness, intention, mindset, etc.) we are rooted in. Most of the time, when we strive, we get in our own way. As the Heart Sutra teaches (or reminds) us, there is “nothing to attain.” Just this.

      Indulge me in an analogy for this: If you were a swimmer, and/or someone who enjoyed being in water, would your experience of a pristine lake or river be improved if you were adept at swimming? Super good at the back float, etc.? Perhaps, yes it would; in fact, it is likely. But if the water is polluted, smells bad, is uncomfortable or unsafe in some way, your swimming prowess will not improve the scenario at all. Everything you do, think, say or feel is rooted in your degree of presence (the water quality in this analogy), and when anything else–techniques, ideas, ambitions, validation–attempts to override presence as the fundament, it only seems like progress, but from a Zen perspective, you have either stayed put, or gone in the wrong direction and will eventually need to return and proceed again with what we can call an Awareness Adjustment.

      And this, too, is a part of learning, so it is not a “problem” as such, it is all good fuel. Also, it is not about leaving anything out–keep the songs, and goals, improvement, enjoyment, effortlessness and increased engagement that you mentioned–but do not be tricked into replacing full awareness with an “achievement” or result: this would be the common “mistaking the map for the territory” or trading in a taste of honey for a pamphlet containing interesting information about honey. In awareness, when you are present, your own assessment of what “level” you are at does not cause strain or grasping, and so, abracadabra, you actually improve much more quickly. But this arrives as a kind of bonus, since you were not in a state of “lack,” and, as you point out, a virtuous feedback loop can be created in this way, and you spiral up. Also, if you suck at swimming, but the lake is pristine–deep presence–your sense of what a becoming a better swimmer would be like for you will feel more like curiosity, an adventure, and less like a grasping, needy, desperate judgement that eclipses all Joy.

      No tension, just follow your nose and Spiral Up!

      • sue shockey says:

        Okay, thanks CB! If I’m in crappy water, it doesn’t matter how good a swimmer I am, I’ll still be swimming in pollution. And it’s okay to have goals and want to improve, but I have to be very careful to be fully present and nonjudgmental, watch the process, and not fall back into the mindset of needing/wanting those good sounds to come out.

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