On Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life

by Thomas Brett

“Listening is the gateway to liberation.” – On Blowing Zen

In his book Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life (HJ Kramer, 2000), Englishman Ray Brooks tells a story about discovering the shakuhachi flute while living abroad in Japan with his wife, finding a series of shakuhachi master teachers with whom to study, and finally, through dedicated practice and direction, becoming a master player himself.  Through a series of clearly written accounts of his music lessons, practicing, interactions with his teachers and performing, Brooks creates a neatly delineated world that allows the reader to map his progress from novice cultural outsider to learned practitioner of a sacred musical instrument with a centuries old association with Zen Buddhism as a tool for self-enlightenment.

The book quite deftly combines musical ethnography and memoir to have the reader see how musical experience can focus, give meaning to, and transform what was formerly an unexamined–and remarkably, given the difficulties of learning a musical instrument from outside one’s own cultural tradition–and unmusical life.  Despite some of my initial reservations about the New Agey, self-help premise of Blowing Zen (and the self-help ethos of its publisher), I found myself liking the book as well as appreciating the author’s frank self-assessments at every stage of his journey; indeed, Brook tells a good, true-life story while staying reflective and reflexive about his social encounters through music making. So, okay, I’ll say it: this is a book of self-help through music, gosh darn it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

One of the refreshing things about Blowing Zen is how Brooks is drawn into the shakuhachi world organically–driven, it seems, only by curiosity to learn more about the instrument.  (He is in Japan, after all, to teach English, not study music.)  He sees in the instrument a way to focus his attention and a reason for sustained work, but he has no goals save to deepen his understanding.  Very cool if you ask me.  “This was a chance” Brooks says, “to study the discipline of working at something everyday without expecting instant gratification” (32).  Once again, very cool.

Yamada-San, Brooks’ first shakuhachi teacher, supports his interest, observing that if the instrument is “played with passion and without motive, it can become much more than a musical instrument” (58).  For Yamada-San, the key is to just “practice for its own sake, and let progress take care if itself.  Don’t corrupt the beauty of learning by becoming attached to an end goal” (59).  How different this approach is from musicians’ typical goals of learning as many pieces as they can as if stockpiling their arsenal of musical artillery!  And yet, Brooks does learn (and memorize) numerous pieces in the course of his practice and lessons.  As he presents his progress, the right stuff just seems to happen at the right time.  As Brooks renders his learning journey, everything just flows like those long, breathy single tones blown on the shakuhachi.

Brooks provides a fairly detailed account of his music lessons with another shakuhachi teacher named Yokoyama-San (115-120), and explains the initial stress of those lessons where “I alone was the self-consumer of my own nervousness” (118).  He also learns about the aesthetic concept of “ma” or space, and, from yet another teacher, how to circular breathe (or make a continuous tone by inhaling through the nose while exhaling through the mouth) on the shakuhachi.  Eventually, the author quits his teaching job and begins earning good money busking in parks.  And, rather remarkably, he even takes up shugyo–a repeated process of spiritual training.  Brooks’ shugyo involves hiking up Mount Takeo, playing shakuhachi for six hours, then hiking back down for sixty consecutive days.  As a result of this self-imposed regimen of physical exertion, solitude and practice, Brooks grows stronger and develops immensely as a musician.

In fact, through his devoted work Brooks eventually becomes a recognized shakuhachi player and his story inspires the reader for its simplicity: do the work and good things will happen.  By the end of Blowing Zen, he’s still talking about discipline too–not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself:

“I was still learning about discipline that isn’t motivated by success or failure and where effort and hard work are their own reward and come naturally, without resistance” (231).

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