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Zen Practice and Music

krishna_playing_on_flute_zq61by Valerie Pettys

Recently, I gave a short talk, at Ruben’s request, on the relationship of Zen practice to music. Two koans came to mind, both from Dogen’s Fukan Zazengi (General Recommendation of Zazen) that have especially offered direction in my daily practice as a musician. The first is:

“The treasure chamber opens by itself, And one uses the treasure at will.”

The treasure chamber is the present moment. All that we need is available in the here and now, offered freely for our taking; just as were are entirely free in the present moment to be ourselves. In other language, this is called grace. For me, it is an invitation to experience God’s immediacy—or the vast and specific dharma–as a vibrating presence in all things.

As a musician, I am all too familiar with the weight of past successes and failures and anxiety about future opportunities and outcomes hanging on my flute each time I pick it up. The treasure chamber is open and to step into it, I must leave that thinking at the door. My freedom lies in practicing or preparing a concert or audition simply to play at that moment, with no thought of what it might lead to. This is “attention,” a quality of being we cultivate as we sit here on our cushions, following our breath. The second koan is:

“If there is a hairsbreadth of difference, It is the difference between heaven and earth.”

The difference is a concept. In performance, this “difference” is manifest in the activity of judgment and fear (with being “outside myself” a prerequisite) or the direct experience of attachment to an idea of what I am doing. When Jim Danner recently shared his thoughts about the third fruit of zen (actualization), he helped me deepen my awareness of this: truly, in the moment of creating a musical sound, I do not exist apart from that sound and that sound makes my existence possible.

I play the sound; the sound plays me: hearer and heard are one.