Zen, or 禅 chán in Chinese, literally means prolonged and intense contemplation. It translates in Sanskrit to dhyana, which in Hindu and Buddhist practice means profound meditation that is the penultimate stage of yoga. Well that sets a high bar — too high in reality. Myth can be inspiring, but keeping your feet on the ground is a lot saner in the end I’ve found.
The Taoist ‘disclaimer’ at the beginning of chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching provides a most humbling and candid point of view. To paraphrase this proviso,
Okay, the constant Zen (or Tao) is impossible to think or name. However, perhaps we may safely say what it isn’t. To paraphrase the Buddhist, “Not this, not this”: Zen is not perfection, not talent, not skill, not knowledge, not status, not fame or fortune, to name a few. However, I would never say Zen is not honesty and sincerity, which hints at where one may find Zen. As chapter 56 says, For this reason all under heaven value it.
True, Zen has a history on its side, which brings cultural orthodoxy (1) into play. This can be an asset for those comfortable with top-down hierarchical ways. Conversely, it can be a hindrance for others drawn to egalitarian ways… like me.
What I think Zen is
I think of Zen as having a Buddhist mind and a Taoist heart or vice a versa if you prefer. You see, when Buddhism arrived in China a few thousand years ago it became ‘infused’ with Taoist viewpoints, and voilà — Zen was born. Well admittedly, that is not exactly the official version of history.
The Diamond Sutra is the authorized scripture associated with Zen, not the Tao Te Ching. Certainly, the Diamond Sutra is much easier to digest. However, the root of Zen teaching is supposedly a separate transmission outside scriptural teachings. The idea is to enable people to realize their real, true, original nature. The main hitch here is the fact that we all carry around a great deal of cultural baggage instilled in us from birth. This, more than anything, overshadows realization of one’s Natural self.
This is where the Tao Te Ching comes in handy. It is not a scripture per se. In fact, due to its ‘disclaimer’ at its outset, it is something of a paradox. It seems to say, “Don’t believe what I say, just be what I say”. In other words, we over think life too much, and that limits access to our original self. As chapter 71 points out, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Use Taoist thought to remember your Zen
This site aims to first help with learning the blowing side of ‘blowing Zen’. Perseverance rapidly brings success in this in several years. As it does, opportunities on the Zen (禅) side open up. This site aims to help in this area also by the Tao of blowing Zen, so to speak.
It helps to understand that Zen is not something you can learn to ‘do’, especially if you are aiming at profound meditation. Zen is something you remember to ‘do’, like pay attention. This is what separates us from other animals. Birds for example, don’t have to remember to do their Zen; they can only pay attention for they are unable to get lost in the mists and myths of thought.
The Taoist wéi wú wéi (为无为), or ‘doing without doing’ hints at the direction to follow. As the Tao Te Ching puts it, Doing without doing, following without exception rules. Thus, to paraphrase this Taoist wéi wú wéi, blowing without blowing may be the way to go. Keep it simple!
(1) To various degrees, everyone feels the pull of orthodoxy and the hierarchical social order it serves. It’s been the status quo ever since the Agricultural Revolution 10000 years ago. There is really no escape either. History shows that whenever people revolt against orthodoxy, another one immediately takes its place. However, understanding its natural dynamics makes it possible to weaken its pull, at least in my experience.
The Shakuhachi is an ancient flute that captivates many who cross its path. Hidden in its simplicity is profound possibility. The windy, resonant sound of the Shakuhachi brings deep serenity to sympathetic ears. For the devoted player, it is also a spiritual tool for training the mind and breath. Zen monks have been using the Shakuhachi for Sui Zen for centuries. Sui Zen, which means blowing Zen, is meditation using Buddhist music composed for the Shakuhachi.
Shakuhachi Buddhist music seems simple. It doesn’t require a great range of octaves or impressive musical techniques. In fact, you can begin your first Buddhist piece within a few months. However, you can easily spend the rest of your life ‘being’ it. In this regard, this Buddhist music is to mindfulness and sound; what Tai Chi is to mindfulness and movement; and what Hatha Yoga is to mindfulness and ‘working stillness’.
A Musical Meditation
Simplicity — and the simplicity of doing nothing — is a cornerstone of Zen. The Shakuhachi serves this ideal well. It is just a resonant pipe with five holes. The five basic notes, musical notation, and rhythm can be learned in a few hours. And yet the Shakuhachi offers those who play it a lifelong experience in the peace of simply blowing nothing.When in the Yoga of holy contemplation, the movements of the mind and of the breath of life are in a harmony of peace, there is steadiness, and that steadiness is pure. – Bhagavad Gita 18-33.
Is blowing Zen music?
The answer to this must lie in the eye of the beholder. The deepest level of music parallels the deepest level of awareness. Bringing that level of awareness to what you’re doing makes it music of sorts. However lacking any tapping rhythm, people may not hear your blowing as music. Naturally, the treasure will lie in you hearing your blowing as music. That accomplished little else will matter.
A Brief History of the Shakuhachi
The shakuhachi originally came from China during the Tang Dynasty (i.e., around the 6th century). Centuries later, during Japan’s feudal era, it found extensive use by Zen monks for meditation. This simple end-blown flute shows up in various forms all over the world, from the Pygmies in the Congo to the Sherpas in the Himalayas, but only in Japan did it find such an esoteric purpose. More recently, it has been used for playing classical, popular and jazz music. This is easy to see why, as it has a sound uniquely “soulful”, with an expressiveness almost equal to the human voice. If you listen closely, you can often hear the Shakuhachi playing hauntingly ‘windy’ background music in various video productions.