It’s not uncommon to hear people say that some shakuhachi music is “Zen” while other shakuhachi music is not. Some go so far as to say that anything that’s recognizable as music on the shakuhachi “isn’t Zen”. In the following, I’ll try to show how such an assessment can be valid or not depending on the context. Simply put, someone can say a piece of art “isn’t Zen” for them personally but they cannot know if they art was performed meditatively or mindfully by the artist or how the art will affect others.
My friend and student David Erath put it well when he wrote me the following – “Playing is Zen if the playing is mindful, and listening is Zen if the listening is mindful. But the listener cannot know if the playing is mindful, and the player cannot know if the listening is mindful.”
To better understand, it’s first essential to know that Zen arts have aesthetic principles while Zen meditation does not. Zen arts and Zen meditation practices can of course be integrated but one doesn’t have to practice Zen meditation to perform Zen arts, and vice-versa. In other words, neither is dependent on the other.
As for Zen arts, they’re often described as being wabi-sabi which deals with natural themes like imperfection, birth, and decay. They’re generally rustic and/or minimalist in nature, yet very challenging to execute at a high level. For example, the famous shakuhachi saying “a sound like wind through the bamboo” is often taken to refer to an ideal wabi-sabi sound aesthetic which expresses nature. This ideal of perfectly mimicking wind through the bamboo is understood to be ultimately unattainable, however, one’s inner state can become “natural”.
The most well-known shakuhachi Zen saying Ichi on jo-Butsu or “one sound become a Buddha” doesn’t make any mention of the aesthetic quality of the “one sound”. It simply states that one sound, in the moment and only in the moment, is enough. There’s also a rich history in Buddhism of all manner of sounds providing moments of clarity and insight.
In short, someone can certainly assess Zen art but they can never truly know the mental state of the artist or how the art will affect others. When it comes to our own playing, our sound on the shakuhachi does not truly dictate our meditation but it’s perfectly normal to find that we prefer some sounds more than others. Naturally, what we prefer can often engender a more meditative state for us, if that’s our goal. And of course sometimes learning to appreciate other sounds can open our minds. In closing, I’ll share some words attributed to the Zen monk Bankei Yōtaku (盤珪永琢, 1622-1693) during a speech he once gave.
“The crow that just cawed, you all heard it yes? You didn’t come here in order to hear a crow caw, or any of the other sounds which might come from outside the temple during my talk. You could have had no way of knowing beforehand of any of the sights, sounds, or smells you might encounter at this meeting, right? And yet you experience these unforeseen things immediately, without effort or premeditation. What, then, heard the crow?”