Doing without doing, following without exception rules
Chapter 3 of the Tao Te Ching offers useful, though somewhat inscrutable, hints on the secret to blowing Zen.
Not to value worthy people, enables people to avoid contending.
Not to value rare goods, enables people to avoid stealing.
Not to catch sight of what suits desire, enables people’s heart to avoid confusion.
This is because of how the wise person governs;
Empties their hearts(1), fills their bellies,
Weakens their aspirations, strengthens their bones,
Always enables the people to be unlearned and without desire,
And enables resourceful men to never dare to act also.
Doing without doing, following without exception rules.
While playing one morning recently, I realized that the last line, Doing without doing, following without exception rules (literally: wéi wú wéi, zé wú bù zhì…为无为，则无不治) applies to playing honkyoku by heart —to blowing Zen. To paraphrase, ‘playing without playing, following without exception rules’. You might say this depicts action stripped away of any thought-of-self and the myriad motives that arise from that ego.
Carry out the indescribable teaching
This is where knowledge parts company with intuitive knowing. Knowledge can be stored in memory (or on paper) and relied upon later. Intuitive knowing is subjective, alive, flowing, and concurrent with one’s moment. Chapter 2 speaks to this…
All under heaven realizing beauty as beauty, wickedness already.
All realizing goodness as goodness, no goodness already.
Hence existence and nothing give birth to one another,
Difficult and easy become one another,
Long and short form one another,
High and low incline to one another,
Sound and tone blend with one another,
Front and back follow one another.
Considering this, the wise person manages without doing anything,
Carries out the indescribable teaching.
Don’t all things on earth work and not shirk.
Give birth to and yet not have,
Do and yet not depend on,
Achieves success and yet not dwell.
The simple man alone does not dwell,
Because of this he never leaves.
The fear of not knowing
This is where fear enters into playing honkyoku by heart. We normally live life, “Doing with doing”, constantly jumping ahead of ourselves. Even the thought of “Doing without doing” doesn’t make normal sense. So, the first question might be why would I want to attempt “Doing without doing”, or in this case “Playing without playing”? Frankly, only the experience can truly answer that question, but put simply, “Doing without doing” imparts a peaceful state of mind, or as chapter 2 above concludes, The simple man alone does not dwell, Because of this he never leaves.
The next question is what does fear have to do with it? In the broadest sense, we naturally feel a deep subtle fear the unknown, of nothingness, of death. Playing honkyoku by heart merely opens up the senses to the unknown. I suspect that the pace of a honkyoku tune is too slow to be able to remember as I can with normal music knowledge. Thus, honkyoku really lends itself to a “doing without doing” practice. Alas, for decades my fear of doing it incorrectly, of losing it, enticed me to play by notation for ‘safety’ sake (2).
The fundamental Taoist principle, ‘doing without doing’ (wéi wú wéi) is perhaps the core link between Zen and Taoist mind. Only through playing by heart am I able to experience that shadowy reality in honkyoku. That’s why I say playing by heart is blowing Zen. Not coincidently, I find it is also possible to experience this extremely subtle quality of action without action while doing yoga and tai chi. Both of these also play out at a similarly slow pace compared to secular activities. Thus, a Taoist mind, a Zen mind, honkyoku, yoga and tai chi all share a common fundamental discipline (3). As chapter 14 says, The ability to know the ancient beginning; this is called the way’s discipline (4).
This calls to mind the deeper meaning of discipline. The root meaning of discipline comes from discipulus, the Latin word for pupil, which also provided the source of the word disciple. And disciple (or pupil) is essentially somebody who believes in and follows, or as chapter 3 puts it, following without exception rules. Naturally, Doing without doing, following without exception rules dives much deeper than merely following some ‘master’ or another. Indeed, here I am following my inner master, my intuitive self, even my ‘ability to know the ancient beginning’.
Slowing things down to the point where mind and emotion can ‘lose it’ opens the doorway to this ‘insight’ (for lack of a better word). This allows me to be open and vulnerable at the edge of nothingness. As chapter 40 notes,
Playing honkyoku by heart affords the opportunity to enter this emptiness, but being a mere human, wandering emotions and mind continuously percolate into my awareness. However, simply welcoming the way’s discipline helps me to keep pulling myself out of myself.
Finally, the deeper benefit of such daily practice lies in how it can impart a sense of how to approach life the rest of the day, throughout the day. Sincerity is the crucial aspect here. Merely going through the motions won’t impart much. Then again, as my life proves, any step in this direction leads to the next. As chapter 64 puts it, A thousand mile journey begins below the feet.
Again… wéi wú wéi
“Doing without doing” shows up again in chapter 63 along with more subtle hints of how to approach honkyoku.
Do without doing,
Be involved without being involved.
Taste without tasting.
Make the great small and the many few,
Respond to resentment using kindness.
Plan difficulty out from its easy.
Do the great out from its small.
All difficulties under heaven must arise from the easy.
All that is great under heaven must arise from the small.
Accordingly, the wise man, in the end, doesn’t support greatness,
For this reason he is able to accomplish greatness.
The man that rashly promises, certainly few trust.
The excessively easy, certainly excessively difficult.
Accordingly, the wise man, still of difficulty,
For this reason, in the end, without difficulty.
Note: I need to emphasize this fact: There is nothing wrong with playing by notation! This is not a zero sum game; it is a win win. I simply want to encourage playing some honkyoku by heart to experience what perhaps is actual blowing Zen. I must also stipulate that I only stumbled on the practice of playing honkyoku by heart a year ago, so I expect my understanding will deepen as time rolls on. For example, I only recently realized the connection of blowing Zen to wéi wú wéi (tr., doing without doing).
Naturally, if one is new to playing the shakuhachi, striving for a decent sound can take up most of the mind’s bandwidth. This can make it hard to experience any subtler aspects of blowing Zen. Think of this as more of a long-term journey that takes a lifetime to unfold fully.
(1) Heart is the Chinese character 心 (xīn) which translates as: the heart; heart; mind; feeling; intention; center; core. The Chinese may see mind and emotion more closely linked than the West does, with emotion lying at the core, the center, of mind and intention.
(2) In fact,I always feel some trepidation (fear) when I start to play a piece by heart. I feel I don’t have a good mental picture of what I’m about to do. Once I begin, I vaguely know where I’m going, but only the next few notes and I don’t have a melody to trust in, so to speak. Sure, the longer I have played a piece the better I know it, but even then, familiarity is still murky. It will be interesting to see if I ever know one well enough to the point I don’t feel some trepidation. Actually, I hope not.
(3) Besides the slow pace, the experience of “doing without doing” vis-à-vis honkyoku, yoga or tai chi also depends on time in another way. It is the lifetime of practice, the decades, which turn these activities into a deeper intuitive practice. This also makes a lifetime of constant practice somewhat rare. It is delayed gratification in the extreme. Fortunately, an ambitious ego can help keep the ball rolling until one begins to ‘arrive’. Thankfully!
(4) Speaking of “The ability to know the ancient beginning”, my memory of the notation in these honkyoku pieces that I play by heart is beginning to fade. The sound and my finger movements are becoming my main touchstones. This is beginning to feel like I’m returning to the way it was before Kurosawa Kinko I. (1710 – 1811) recorded the honkyoku by means of notation. Of course, what I’m playing by heart now is probably somewhat more ‘musical’ than what he was documenting at the time. Still, I find playing Kyorei (Myoan style) helps remind me to keep the sound straightforward, so to speak. Here is chapter 14 in full. I reckon it speaks to the most subtle aspects of honkyoku made possible to experience through playing by heart.
Of watched for, yet not seen is called smooth.
Of listened to, yet not heard is called rarefied.
Of handled yet not held is called minute.
These three are unfathomable, so they blend and serve as One.
Its upper part is not bright, its lowest part is not hazy,
Unending, it cannot be named, and returns again to nothing.
This is called the of without shape form, the of without substance shape,
This is called the suddenly trance-like.
Moving toward it, you will not see its head,
Following behind, you will not see its back.
Hold of the ancient way in order to manage today.
The ability to know the ancient beginning, this is called the way’s discipline.