«Mindful playing, mindful practice: The shakuhachi as a modern meditation tool 尺八 Kiku Day An assignment submitted in partial fulfilment of the ...»
Another aspect which I cannot avoid mentioning here, although I will not deal with the matter in this paper, is the thorough investigation performed by Yamada Shoji on Zen and art (Yamada 2009). Titles like ‘Zen and the art of…’ are well known and began with Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery from 1948. According to Yamada, Herrigel hardly spoke Japanese, and the most important moment of Zen Buddhist teaching to which he points is taken from an event in which he was alone with his archery teacher. None of the other senior archery students had received teachings in Zen Buddhist archery. In fact, archery and Zen Buddhism were—according to Yamada—never mentioned together prior to the publication (2009: 207). Yamada’s hypothesis is that a misunderstanding led to this belief in a strong connection between Zen Buddhism and art. Yamada’s excellent and illuminating book is recommended for further study to the interested reader. Although in the case of the shakuhachi, a connection between Zen and the art of playing is undeniably present, I wish there to point out that such connections between different art forms and Zen are not necessarily innate in Japanese culture. Thus, the relationship between Zen and playing the shakuhachi to be viewed as a thing sui generis, rather than an example of a general case.
6.1 Meditation while playing shakuhachi I
My own journey in shakuhachi playing and meditation has been a long path. I did not – as many fellow players – come to the shakuhachi through Zen Buddhism but rather through an attraction to the timbre. Thus unfortunately I never listened carefully to my teacher Okuda Atsuya’s explanation on the connection between the music and Zen Buddhist philosophy during the eleven years I studied with him in Tokyo. I never thought it was strange that meditation was never taught directly, although the history of the shakuhachi as being a meditation tool in order to attain ichion jōbutsu (lit: Buddhahood in one note or enlightenment though one note) is very important for players, as a large part of the transmission is done wordlessly. Most of the many hours I practised with my teacher we played together. I simply imitated his playing, and learned the musical vocabulary through imitation. I believe I have played some of the melodies together with him more than hundred times. Okuda would answer my questions and if we entered the realm of philosophy, he was unstoppable. But the music was mostly transmitted wordlessly. An experience in Zen Buddhist meditation at a temple on Yaku Island in Japan in 1996 supported this understanding of transmission. During a several month stay, the only 4 instructions in meditation I received the first morning were: ‘Sit here, face the wall, gaze here and empty your mind’. Like many other shakuhachi players, I approach the notion of playing coupled with meditation with curiosity – but had no instructions other than arcane ingredients in Okuda’s teaching such as that the aim is to contain the universe in one single sound and to succeed in the union of opposites. Okuda never elaborated on what he meant with the ‘union of opposites’ other than that in musical terms he told me that extramusical sounds had to be present when playing a musical sound and vice versa. The ‘union of opposites’ stayed with me and has helped me since then in my search to combine shakuhachi playing and meditation.
In the beginning when I attempted to add meditation to the act of playing, I aimed at being mindful by trying firstly to focus on the breath. Focusing on the breath – inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth as much as possible in order to produce a sound. The breath has a central role in honkyoku playing. It is the only rhythm, thus every player will have his or her own rhythm or pulse.12 Focusing on the breath gave me a rhythmic sensation that can be felt as a profound state of absorption similar to trance.13 Playing a piece that I had assimilated to a degree that I need not think about what I was doing or about to do gave the most satisfying results as the mind did not have to occupy directly with what to play. For years I thought that this must be what meditation and playing was all about – a conclusion, however, I came to question several years ago. Is this all? When I asked ethnomusicologst and shakuhachi player Shimura Satoshi about meditation and playing, and why there are no accounts of any shakuhachi player attaining ichion jōbutsu or enlightenment through playing one note—to which he replied ‘Perhaps reaching satori (enlightenment) requires much more Some shakuhachi schools such as Kinko and Tozan have a notation for rhythm while in others including the school I have trained in did not have any indication of rhythm.
Trance is defined in Oxford Concise Dictionary as ‘a half-conscious state characterized by an absence of response to external stimuli typically as induced by hypnosis or entered by a medium (Pearsall 2001:1521).
vigorous practice than shakuhachi playing’. I began to feel that the way I was approaching meditation and playing was insufficient—in particularly if the aim in the past had been to break through to the state of satori. I had no expectations of reaching satori; however, I did feel a need for the training to be more vigorous.
I posted a call for descriptions on how people meditated and how meditating differed from a state of flow to shakuhachi groups on Facebook, as the latter question was one of my
key dilemmata. Vit Rozkovec replied as following:
It seems to me, that we are talking about the same thing. To be very focused, in a flow or to meditate, it seems like those things are the same. When taking it from the Zen perspective, to be the one with the action you are doing, that is the state when you meditate. There is no "I" doing it, there is just the activity (www.facebook.com, accessed 05.10.14).
Another person, using the pseudonym ‘Psychedelic Zen’ answered:
[The way] I play Shakuhachi to approach mediation is to use improvisation and apply mindfulness of breathing called Anapanasati into it. Breathing is very important, both exhaling and inhaling while playing for me… I would focus at first [before I] start playing, holding the Shakuhachi and placing it to [playing] position. Then I would play and flow with my breathing… Flow playing can lead me to the awareness and consciousness which will reflect and appear in the sound I am playing (www.facebook.com, accessed 29.09.14).
The above two examples seem to indicate that other players had similar experiences to my own. Meditation became a deep sense of flow. I now felt, however, that this identity did not suffice for my exploration into meditation and shakuhachi playing, I had to go deeper. Thus
in my own analysis of meditation and shakuhachi playing, I came to the next theme:
6.2 Distinguishing between ‘flow’ and meditation
I stepped out on stage in St John’s Smith Square – a high profile venue in London.
The audience was clapping, the large choir sat down at the back of the stage in order to give the soloist—me—the stage on my own. When the clapping ceased, I brought the flute to my lips and began playing a honkyoku. At a given moment during the performance, I realised the music was flowing out of me effortlessly, without thought and beyond my control. The latter frightened me as I became aware that I had no idea which note I had just played and which note I was moving to next – something of which I usually have full control. In a subtle panic, I tested several strategies in order to remember where in the piece I was. I then understood I had to let go of my eagerness to know the place in the music – otherwise it would inhibit the flow and I will not be able to play. I played on and suddenly I noticed, my normal focused mind had taken over, and I knew exactly where in the music I was.
The above is a description of a concert situation on 13 March 2008. I would consider this experience to be an example of flow and not meditation although there are certain similarities.
According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a mental state of complete immersion in an activity in which concentration is focused on a challenge suitable to the person’s skills. It gives the protagonist a loss of reflective self-consciousness and a distorted temporal but rewarding and positive experience (Csíkszentmihályi 1990). The largest discrepancy between flow and meditation for this project lies in the complete immersion in an activity and the loss of reflective self-consciousness. Due to my training in mindfulness meditation, I find this experience to be lacking the aspect of witnessing awareness required for it to be called ‘meditation’. Although it is clear from the description above that I was aware of the flow, I was nonetheless not conscious my own awareness. I am immersed in the awareness, which itself is blind for me. Thus the total immersion and thereby self-forgetfulness and the awareness of being aware are the key aspects of the difference between the two. However, I do find flow, as described above – to be necessary – if not sufficient - for meditation when playing. The deep immersion and focus is the concentration part of the meditation – the next step for me was to practice letting go of the immersion into what I was doing and adding the witness function.
6.3 Meditation while playing shakuhachi II
In the beginning of 2012, I began to work with the breath as a means to transmit the quality of stillness I experienced while trying to play and meditate. I worked with the visualisation of a flow entering me from above my head down into the breath and out through the heart and the shakuhachi. With this approach I would literally blow empathy through the instrument out to the audience or the world in general. This way I was able to train the ability of feeling compassion towards others and to some degree feeling a deeper sense of contemplation and presence in my existence (see Bertelsen 2010, Risom 2013, Rigtrup 2009 on empathy and mindfulness). I taught this method of training compassion at some masterclasses in Kiev, Ukraine during November 2012. I was pleased to see that even some flute students from the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music came for a second masterclass as they were curious about this approach. I realised compassion was indeed universal.
However, I still had some steps to take before I felt I had an idea of how shakuhachi playing and mindfulness meditation could be executed simultaneously. That is when I began consciously to add witness awareness to playing. I realised early on that real immersion and flow is more likely to take place when a honkyoku piece was fully memorised and assimilated I thus practised adding witness awareness when I realised I was in a certain quality of flow. In order to get into the state of flow while playing a piece I had mastered. I began playing after first sitting for perhaps five minutes in quiet stillness, focusing on the breath. This practice may lead to a sensation of flow and to this I applied the compassion method described above, which led to an increase in energy level. Finally then I would apply witness awareness, which led to a panoramic state of being as described by Risom (2013: 63, 155). At some given moment, I felt the contemplation level had reached a level similar to that I had reached during quiet sitting meditation – which was a gain for my musical practice.
6.4 Mindfulness meditation while playing shakuhachi
When I began to be able to—with a certain amount of effort—to draw witnessing awareness into my musical practice, I experienced it as an a perception of something inherent in shakuhachi playing and as if it had been ‘the missing link’. However, maitaining witnessing awareness for any length of time was no easy task ; soon I would discover that I was back into my usual focused flow mode of attention – totally immersed in playing, sound production and judging whether the sound was good nor not.
The honkyoku piece Shin kyorei (真虚霊), as taught in Okuda Atsuya’s Zensabō style), is to be played almost at an inaudible level or pianissimo. Playing at such a low volume had always made me generate bodily heat – some times I even had to go outside in snowy weather dressed in T-shirt, in order to cool down. While practising mindfulness and playing as described above, I realised Shin kyorei could be used to increase the energy level, which could be directed into the meditation practice. Thus from April 2014, I included this piece in my daily practice. I only applied mindfulness meditation after I had played it for a while since I had forgotten the piece and needed the score to play. The more I incorporated the piece into my being, the better I was able to apply mindfulness while playing and this intensified the experience of the already augmented energy level due to bodily heat. In an entry in my diary on 18 July 2014, I wrote about experiencing a phenomenon of expansion of the already expanded panoramic state in mindfulness meditation. I observed that with the focusing on breathing and the sound produced, the mind’s conceptual rigidity relaxed in an efficient way; thus I was able to observe the subtle changes of energy levels. I noticed the gradual establishment of quiescence that allowed insights I remained aware of – a contrast to many insights regarding the flow state experienced during the concert in St John’s Smith Square, which were generated by an elicitation interview14 conducted by Ninni Sødahl on 26 September 2014.
Slowly, while working with Shin kyorei, I began to grasp the role of music in meditation from within. My confusion had been that I had taken the music too seriously – in the sense of being self-absorbed, adding a value to it that only had the aim of honouring my ego.
Ansuman Biswas formulates it exquisitely.
Meditation is a work of attaining a gracefully integrated consciousness. When the roiling turbulence of verdanā (sensation) can be brought fully into awareness without throwing it off balance, then there is a gracefulness about the moment.
Any object may be grasped to steady oneself. It might be a spoken mantra, a beautiful picture, a geometrical figure, a candle flame, or an idea. The object itself has no particular meaning or significance. Like the Pole Star for a mariner, or the lamppost for a drunk, it provides support rather than an illumination (2011: 100).