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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: Zen practice, music practice = One Practice

(Chris Smith)
Occasionally I get questions about how my Zen practice relates to the music I play.

I’ve always thought of Zen not so much as a religion but as a philosophy and practice for learning how to pay attention, moment-to-moment, to one’s life. Such attention is actually a rare thing--a lot of people sleepwalk through a lot of their days--but it’s great training for a musician (you know, “pay attention, moment-to-moment”, etc).

Zen seeks to provide practical tools for waking up to one’s own life and to its consequences and possibilities. Zen’s tough, too--it doesn’t blink at the reality of suffering, or say “it’ll all be better in the great bye-and-bye.” It does suggest that actions—both positive and negative—have consequences for which we are responsible to “all sentient beings.”

For me, the strongest appeal to the practice (of both Zen and music) has been looking at long-term practitioners and saying “I don’t understand how yet, but I want to look at life the way THAT guy does.” I may not know how the person has arrived at the perspectives, responses, choices, and degrees of attention s/he demonstrates, but I am persuaded of fundamental sanity, compassion, and positive energy they embody.

In that respect, the importance of the inspiration derived from person-to-person contact with great teachers is also analogous b/w music and Buddhist practice.

Zen-plus-music story: one of my great teachers, though I only met him once, was a man named Watazumido Susho, a Zen teacher and shakuhachi flute master. He was a wild dude: would change his name and his country of residence every few years, to ensure that those students who found him were the ones who *really* wanted to study with him. He also used to practice concentration by playing flute in the middle of Tokyo traffic jams, and intensity by going out to the rail-yards and trying to scream louder than the trains. He could do it, too.

For those who might be interested, one classic beginner’s text is “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” by Shinryu Suzuki, the founding teacher of San Francisco Zen Center, and a key figure in bringing Zen to America. The book is transcriptions of his teisho or Dharma talks, and a key insight he provides is that to be a beginner at something is actually a fruitful place to operate from, saying

“In the expert’s mind there are many preconceptions. In the beginner’s mind there are few.”

That’s a remarkably sound place from which to learn, teach, and play music.