“MASTER BODHIDHARMA, BODHISATTVA BODHIDHARMA”: SEGMENT 2 FROM THE SHUSO HOSSEN CEREMONY

 

Hi and welcome to another edition of Art and Zen Today.  Today’s post consists of more video from my Shuso Hossen Ceremony.  We start off with Eyal Raz reading Rumi’s “The House Guest.  This is one of three short stories read by Eyal during the Ceremony.  All of them come from a tradition other than Zen but all convey the same depth of wisdom found in the most profound Zen texts.  The texts of the other two stories read by Eyal are printed below.  Following that is the second of my performance raps, which were intended as responses to  the Koan I was given.  It’s called “Master Bodhidharma, Bodhisattva Bodhidharma”.   For more on the Shuso Hossen Ceremony and other topics related to Zen and art use the SEARCH option or click on relevant CATEGORY at the right.

To see Video, click on link below:

https://youtu.be/el-YN0Oea5c

The Primordial Light ( A Jewish chassidic tale)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

In the first day - God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

In the fourth day – God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven… to give light upon the earth.

Question : What did happen to the first, primordial light after the light in the firmament of the heaven was created?

Answer : God hid it

Question : For whom did he hide it?

Answer : For the enlightened ones

Question : How can we observe it?

Answer : It is reflected in their daily activities.

Longing for (Kabir)

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.

Jump into experience while you are alive!

Think… and think… while you are alive.

What you call ‘salvation’ belongs to the time before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,

do you think ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic just because the body is rotten that is all fantasy.

What is found now is found then.

If you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an apartment in the City ofDeath.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is, believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being search for, it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the work.

Look at me, and you will see a slave of that in 

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THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME BE MYSELF AGAIN (Music Video)

Below is a link to a new video that was used in my Shuso Hossen Ceremony. It involves images of the Vista Zen Center and music produced by me and Central Florida’s favorite blues singer “Stoney” Stone.  For more background on the ceremony, the video and Stoney, read below before watching.

About a month ago I published a post titled “Koan For Manoj’s Shuso Hossen” (http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4380).  In that article I wrote:

 In this ceremony a student offers his or her understanding of the Koan and fields questions from other students about the Koan to demonstrate their readiness to be considered a senior student.  Usually, students are assigned to work on one of the traditional Koans that have been part of the training for Zen monks throughout the centuries in China and Japan.  However, my teacher has decided to explore alternative Koans that speak more to  Westerners living and practicing Zen in non-monastic circumstances.

The Ceremony was held on March 5, 1916 and  many of my upcoming posts will either entail segments from the video recordings made that night or will be based on my experiences as a Shuso at the Vista Zen Center. The essence of my Shuso Koan (see below) had to do with how I would or could fulfill the Four Bodhisattva Vows as an artist. During the Ceremony I presented 5 different musical performances that I saw as answering my Koan. In addition to my presentations, about 15  other members of the Center  also gave short performances displaying their understanding of Zen and their creative interests.  So the Ceremony consisted of a full evening of poems, songs, stories, demonstrations and short talks etc.

                                                            Shuso Koan

I ended my portion of the evening by singing Sly Stone’s “I want to Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again” using altered lyrics that I hoped expressed my appreciation to my teacher and fellow students for providing a safe place to practice Zen.


A week after the Ceremony, my wife’s niece Elene and her boyfriend “Stoney” visited with us for a few days. They both are musicians and play together in various venues in central Florida.   Stoney’s other band “Stoney and the Housebreakers” also play for events throughout Florida and have produced numerous CDs.  Their album “Cruisin’ For A Bluesin’ ” was the recipient of the prestigious Central Florida “CD of The Year Award” in 2009 @ The Brevard Live Florida Music Awards.(See the band’s  website: http://www.stoney3.com/ )

                                                          Elene and Stoney

Anyway, soon after our visitors arrived, I had Stoney in my studio singing the altered lyrics to the Sly Stone classic.  The short video below incorporates the recording Stoney and I produced and is accompanied by images compiled for the Shuso Hossen Ceremony to display the talents and dedication of the members of the Vista Zen Center.

https://youtu.be/WdWtlB6cphI

 

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AARP: A MUSIC/VIDEO PARODY OF “LOUIE LOUIE”

We are all aging but most of us don’t start worrying about it until we

receive an invitation to join AARP.  Although you can’t stop the aging

process, I find that it does help to maintain a sense of humor about

it all.  Thus, the Rap/Music/Video below as performed by “The Senior Moments”.  I hope you enjoy it.  It appears that the hyperlink below is not working so you may have to copy

the address below and paste it in your Browser.

https://youtu.be/Jg5WFONo9xA

WHAT ARE YOU PRESENTLY LISTENING TO?

WHAT ARE YOU PRESENTLY LISTENING TO?

My guess is that most people answering this question would remove their headphones and provide the name of the bands currently cued up on their listening device.  But based on some articles I have been reading lately, the question is somewhat deeper than that (more like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” deep).  It points to how we respond to music (and sound in general) and trying to answer it can help us better understand both creative and spiritual practices.

It has been a while since my last post.  It’s not that my left brain hasn’t been coming up with stuff to write (maybe I should call it my “Write Brain”).  Rather it is that my right brain has been “compelling” me to spend time learning how to use the new music production software I purchased several months ago.  I have spend most of my “creative time” playing with this program, happily trying out all kinds of wild stuff, not at all concerned about whether it will ever be heard or liked by others.

Much of what I have come up with in my experimental creations does not neatly fit into most of the categories used to describe music; in fact it is not even clear that it is music.  So, recently the left brain started pestering me to find some sort of label for whatever it is I am doing.  By the way, this questioning seems to be rooted in the basic left brain concerns about whether what I was doing was worthwhile or “good” or whether it would be understandable to others.  Anyway, I started to do some research on the internet and so this, and subsequent blog posts, will be inspired by the reading I have done.  I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing heavily from some of the articles I’ve discovered. And, as always, I will try to point to some links with the practice of Zen, where I can.

An article by Robert Worby titled “An Introduction to Sound Art” suggests that maybe what I have been doing is best categorized as “Sound Art”. (http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art)   In reality, it probably doesn’t matter how my work is labeled.  At some point I may post some examples and let you decide what it is, but, for now, let’s look at what Worby has to say about ”sound art”.  I think his ideas are relevant  to those interested in any kind of artistic practice or any kind of spiritual practice where one attempts to be more in touch with the senses.

Worby starts off by examining the nature of sound (it is extremely impermanent as you Zen practioners might suspect) and by differentiating between the process of “hearing” and the process of “listening”.  According to Worby:

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.(Underlines are mine.)

Worby goes on to say:

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

Although Worby looks at a variety of historical sources of “sound art”, he pays particular attention to the work of John Cage, who expressly connected his art and his practice of Zen (Search for previous posts on this topic by entering keywords Cage or Duchamp).  In general, I think, Cage’s work, even if he called it “music” rather than “sound art” can be seen as raising the kinds of questions that Worby says in the previous quotation are raised when we really start to listen to sounds.  According to Worby:

 Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out.

———————————————————————————————-

Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”  John Cage

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From today’s perspective, the performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″ seems rather contrived and passé, much like Duchamp’s hanging of an urinal at an art show (Search for previous posts on this topic using the keyword “Cage” or “Duchamp”).  Although those attending the first performance of Cage’s piece may have been shocked into pondering questions about the nature of sound and music, most people today would attend because it was the cool thing to do.  However contrived they seem now, both Cage and Duchamp managed to call attention to the importance of the mental attitude of the audience and both had a profound effect on how artists approached their practices since then.  I think that it is no accident that both of these guys were influenced by their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cage with D. T. Suzuki

It’s not clear to me whether Cage actually used the term “sound art” to describe his work but the term has consistently been used that way by others.  So, exactly what is sound art?  

At this point it appears that the term “sound art” refers to a diverse set of practices (ranging from Dada nonsense poetry to recording of natural sounds at various sites) and there is still no clear distinction between “sound art” and “music”. (Below I have links to 3 short videos to provide some examples of  “sound art”.)  The term “experimental music” is often used to characterize musical compositions that veer away from conventional ideas about music, but I would be hard pressed to describe the distinction.  In Worby’s words:

 The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

Cage at the Piano

While any piece of music can have these effects, it seems that “sound artists” see the main goal of their creative endeavor as encouraging real listening.  Whether someone truly “listens” to music or any other sounds depends upon the person’s mental set.  Sound art, as I understand it, is designed to make it induce listening as Worby has defined it.  In future posts I will consider the writings of other authors who have used the terms “deep listening” and “mindful listening” to seemly capture the essence of what Worby is saying.

Since Zen and other spiritual disciplines encourage practioners to be mindfully present and aware and a wide variety of situations, I would suggest that these disciplines share a common goals with much of what might be called sound art (this is most clear in the case of John Cage).  In future post’s I’ll be exploring how music/sound can become a mindfulness practice and looking material suggesting that mindfulness practice can enhance our listening to sounds/music and that listening can increase our mindfulness.

Personally, although I can appreciate the goal of making me more active in the process of listening, I find a lot of sound art and experimental music to be rather irritating; I’m sure I would have been one of the first people out the door at the first performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″.  Doing all of this reading and thinking (thanks left brain!) has led me to wonder whether I can create sounds that are musical and yet can raise listerner’s awareness in the manner that Worby has described.  That is, can sound art be engaging/entertaining and still be consciousness expanding? Maybe it really doesn’t matter as long as I am having fun doing it (thank you right brain!)

 Check out these short videos showing some examples of “sound art”.  Also see my previous post titled “Border Music by Glenn Weyant”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23dBLgKTw0s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6bZWfrKmIg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNM37dnKnyc&list=PLMrY5LKrAJRrsRzb9OSPbneiUzshjkyfi&index=4

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NEVER BEFORE SEEN GRAMMY PERFORMANCE

Here is another Art and Zen Today Exclusive; a video of singer Mo King b’s  performance at the Grammys that was deleted because he was supposedly not well received by the audience.

You may never have heard of Mo King b and that suits the producers of the Grammy Awards just fine.  Mo King b’s music was showcased in an earlier video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCiVNF-SfPA   ) a couple of years ago and I was shocked to learn that his performance at this year’s Awards was deleted from the tape feed at the last moment.  According to the producers Mo’s performance did not air because “Mo King’s performance was way too experimental and inaccessible for the Grammy audience”.  Paradoxically, Gilbert Mothworthy, of the Dronington Post wrote “b’s music was shockingly imitative and unoriginal causing many people in the theater that night to fall into an altered state of consciousness”.  Click on the link below for this never before seen video of King’s short performance.  For  best results listen in stereo, preferably using headphones.

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Equipment used:  Video camera, Ableton Live 9

BORDER MUSIC BY GLENN WEYANT

 

ARTIST GLENN WEYANT, ACCOMPANIED BY BORDER PATROL, PLAYING THE US/MEXICO BORDER FENCE.

Today’s post features a socially conscious musician/artist who raises interesting questions about  art, music, social activism and spiritual practice.  You will be introduced to Glenn Weyant in a couple of short videos.  This feature is the beginning of a shift in my approach to this blog.  Up to now, most post have mainly been devoted to exploring the interrelationship between art and Zen practice.  In the future, I will not spend so much time with theory and focus instead on actual art and actual artists.  There is so much interesting work going on out there, locally as well as globally, and I aim to make my readers aware of it.

I have always used the terms “art” and “spiritual” in the widest possible ways and will continue to do  so in the future.  To my mind, almost any activity can be approached as an art and so if you know of some art or artists who you think should be covered in my blog posts, please let me know.  For now, enjoy the videos below.  For those familiar with the work of John Cage, be sure to listen to the last part of the second video.

 

 

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TWO POEMS ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING

Over the past five years, The Vista Zen Center has helped support Soroptimist International of Vista with their annual event to raise awareness about the horrors of human trafficking.  Two years ago, the Center organized an art show to be viewed during the Human Trafficking Awareness Walk sponsored by SIV (see video of the Human Trafficking Awareness Art Exhibit at the 2012 event at the Art and Zen Video Channel (click on tab at top of the page).  This year I helped create a short video based on a Poem written and read by Kaye Van Nevel, who is the Chair of the Human Rights/Advancement of the Status of Women Committee” in the Vista branch of Soroptimist International.

Below is the link to the video. After that you will find a poem by Jon Wesick, a prolific poet who is also a member of The Vista Zen Center.  You can find another poem by Jon in a post titled “POEMS AND IMAGES FROM FIVE VISTA ZEN CENTER ARTISTS” published in Sept 2013 (See the Archives list to the right of the page).  Jon’s poem is loosely based on The Heart Sutra, one of the chants that has historically been central to Zen Buddhist practice. It also deals with the human trafficking issue and I think you will see why it is a perfect fit with Kaye’s poem.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnq4CE6TQKA&feature=youtu.be

 

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor

by Jon Wesick

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FLOW OF LIGHT AND MUSIC: A VIDEO EXPERIENCE BY JAMES WILSON

This post starts off with a visual and auditory experience for you that will work best if I don’t provide any “up front” information.  Below you will see a link to a short video that will provide that experience.  It is best if you watch the video before reading on.

To view video, click on link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYDW9lOnuwM

 

Now that you’ve watched the video, please take a moment to briefly let  James, the artist, know what you experienced.  It would be helpful for him to know what you thought or felt at various points in the video.  You can provide this feedback by clicking on the bubble at the right of the picture at the top of the post.  If you want your comment to remain anonymous, just write in “anonymous” when prompted for a name.

Below is an interview with James which I think you will find interesting.  My intention was to find out more about how this particular artistic experience came about.

A&Z TODAY: Most of your current music, music videos, and of course your visual device, “The Adagio”,  seem to tap into a sort of slow motion in conjunction with music.  How did you get started along this line of thinking?

James:  I can remember the circumstances pretty vividly.  It was a while ago, probably around 1966 or 1967 when I was a music student at Boston University.  One evening, a weekend night I’m pretty sure since I had nothing pending the next day, I was chilling out at my apartment with some friends, listening to jazz, mainly Miles Davis.  One of my friends shared some weed, and I probably had had a few beers by that point in the evening.  I think it is pretty common when “high”, either on just life or with the assistance of some mind-altering substance, one gets into a state of mind where he/she is somewhat removed from oneself; almost like you become an “observer” observing oneself. 

Miles was playing “Solea” from his “Sketches of Spain” album.  I was very much in the “observer” state of mind at the time, and looked down to notice my hand was moving very slowly to the music, kind of in an up and down fashion along with the characteristic  “arcs” that Miles plays during his solos. ( If you listen carefully to this piece in particular, you will notice that he hits high points, then his trumpet lines slowly descend to a low point.  He then begins to build the tension, and overall pitch, back up, etc. etc. )  My hand was following that, the up and down motion, but also moving very slowly in a smooth arc, not at all as part of any of the rhythmic elements of the piece.    I was hearing/feeling some other motion in the music that no one was talking about.   It was not anything you could consider “rhythmic”. 

Fortunately, I hadn’t partied too hearty that night, and the next day I remembered the evening’s experience pretty vividly.  I thought about it off and on for the next several years, and in 1969 I built the first prototype of “The Adagio”.  It was pretty crude, but it worked, and was my first attempt to capture what I had experienced, and something I could work with in more detail.

A&Z TODAY: In a previous A&Z article, you discussed some of the thinking that led to the actual building of the Adagio. 

Yes, I won’t repeat that here again.  Anyone interested can go HERE to read the article in your blog.  I did go into some detail at that time about how and why I came up with using the sine curve to measure the up and down motion.  Using a slowly rotating cylinder, that was speed adjustable from 0 rpm up to about 3 rpm allowed me to create a slow moving, continuously flowing arc of light across the viewer’s vision.  

A&Z TODAY: At one point, you used Adagio in a biofeedback experiment.  How did that evolve?

After I built the first Adagio, I spent a lot of my free time watching it while listening to music.  I also began to notice certain patterns that might someday be of interest to music theorists.  From working with Adagio and music over the years, several patterns have emerged:

 1.   Most music falls within several rotation speeds: roughly 1 rpm, and 1 rev. every 90 seconds.  Some outliers do occur, for example Gregorian Chant which moves incredibly slow, like 1 rev every 3 minutes, and Bartok’s piece for Celeste, Orchestra  – adagio movement, also crawls along at a barely perceptible pace.

2.  Most music, esp. classical such as Mozart and Bach, has cadences every ¼ rotation.  In other words, 8 or 16 measures of music usually equal ¼ rotations of the cylinder, or on the sine curve, at the 90, 180, 270, and 360/0 degree marks.  You can get an idea of this here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrnhYnNqjzU , along with a Mozart piece.  Note that the Adagio is at 180 degrees rotation when the piece cadences at around 47 seconds.  Coincidence?  Maybe, but then maybe not.

 3. Much good music (including Bach, Bartok, and oddly, Gil Evans – esp. Sketches of Spain with Miles Davis), follow the arch of the curve.  I.e., it builds up during the first ¼ rotation, then releases down to ¾ rotation, etc.   I have used these theories in my own compositions.  This video you included at the start of this article,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isvcRjRauSU uses an ambient piece I composed that was constructed specifically for use with the Adagio.  The rising and falling ball/”moon” follows the sine curve across the screen, with a cylinder rotation speed of 1 rev/90 seconds.  Hopefully you get a sense that the music is moving “upwards”, during the upward cycle of the Adagio, then “downwards”, etc.   That’s what I intended anyway.

 If you work with the Adagio long enough, it can affect you psychologically.  You almost feel a little “stoned”.  I think it slows your sense of time down, and you begin to notice things that perhaps you never noticed before.  Of course the study talks about the fact that it activates the right hemisphere, etc.  And so that kind of ties in with the altered-state one gets from viewing the Adagio over a period of time.

Of course the sensation of an altered-state is what eventually led to the biofeedback study.  I definitely noticed a change in how I was feeling and seeing things and I had several of my friends try it as well.  They also remarked on a change in their perceptions, a sense of “time slowed down”.  

 

In 1978 I was taking a few courses at Nova University in Florida, and also teaching some of the students there computer skills.  One of the doctoral students, a friend of mine, Joyce Keen, became interested in using the Adagio as part of a left brain/right brain activation experiment she was proposing.  She was able to get some heavy hitters of the time, such as Dr. Joe Kamiya, to be on the dissertation committee.  Anyway, the experiment produced some very strong and statistically conclusive results; namely, that the Adagio, and music, reduced stress in the experimental subjects.  The general conclusion is that the Adagio and music activated the right hemisphere, thus allowing the left hemisphere, which is the side of the brain that brings our “fight/flight” response back under control, to concentrate on that task.  In other words, while the right brain was engaged, the left brain had available “down time” so that it could more efficiently address the stressors that were being administered to the subjects.   A few weeks after the initial sessions, Joyce repeated just one session.  Evidently the effect did not seem to diminish over time, as the experimental group still recovered significantly faster than the control group.

Some interesting non-scientific results also occurred.  For example, one student swore she was being levitated in her chair while watching the Adagio.  Another student that suffered from insomnia, said he had started sleeping normally again. 

A&Z TODAY: The study was done a while ago, in 1978.  What has transpired since?

Well, for better or worse a something called “life” got in the way of my doing much else with it since that time.  I got off on a number of tangents, making a living, etc., so I really haven’t done much with it until recently.   I know this seems like a stretch, but I have become very interested in politics over the last 5-10 years, and am very concerned about the direction the country, and the world is taking.  The human race faces at best an uncertain future, and, according to the majority of climate scientists, quite possibly extinction.   What seems to be lacking most in our business leaders and politicians is a little thing called “empathy”.    Nobody seems to care about anyone else not within their immediate family or sphere of influence, much less the fate of future generations.   As long as they are OK, as long as they are comfortable,  who cares about anyone else?  That seems to be the current trend, the current way of thinking, especially here in the United States. 

Empathy emanates from the right brain.  It is a right brain attribute.  Well, you can probably guess where this is going.  In short, what the world needs most is a little  right brain activation, a little more right brain thinking.   What was that popular song “What the world needs now is love sweet love”?     - a  Burt Bacharach song from the mid-1960s if I recall.  Unfortunately it is truer now than ever.

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THE POEM STORE: ZEN AT THE FARMER’S MARKET?

A customer approaches a small table set up among the produce booths at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market.  A small sign on the table reads:

                                                        Poem Store

                                               Your Subject, Your Price

                                                              Yes

The poet, who sits behind the table asks her customer for a topic and is told “Since Wednesday”.  In about 3 minutes she types and then reads the following poem to her customer:

Time has moved along

slowly, inching with heat

and asking us to understand

what can happen in a single

day, in the rise of a week…..

The customer, with tears in his eyes tells the poet:  “So Martha started chemo on Wednesday” and the poet simply nods.

This above exchange was described in a recent article by Deborah Netburn in the LA Times titled “Poems While You Wait”.  The article focuses on the unusual occupation/practice of a poet by the name of Jacqueline Suskin.  Jacqueline can be found most days set up at a small booths at Farmer’s markets and similar events . The payment is up to the customers but most pay around $5 for their poem.  Suskin always asks if she can read her poem because she considers poetry to be an “oral art”. Some people try to think up far out topics but most ask for a poem that somehow relates to current events in their lives.  She has a lot of repeat customers and newcomers are usually surprised at how relevant and poignant their personal poems turn out.  .

Jacqueline is quoted as saying: “The thing I like about Poem Store is that it is not about me.  I’m not thinking about myself. I’m writing about my interaction with a person, and I want to give them something that is just theirs.”

Because she understands that her customers are wanting to buy  vegetables and get right home, she works very quickly.. According to Jacqueline: “Part of the exercise is to get down immediately what comes to me.  They are like little mantras, little prayers that get handed out”.

Jacqueline thinks that people generally ask for poems that might provide them help with or insight into personal problems:  “They want hope, or confidence, or they just need someone to see who they are.. Half the time I feel like I am a therapist or a psychic”.

The poet doesn’t know how she manages to write poems so quickly.  “There is just this blurry area there.  There is no answers to how I can do it so quickly, so I don’t question it”. She goes on to say, however that it is exhausting work:  “This is the most physically draining thing I’ve ever done in my life.  When I’m done writing poems for four hours for people I don’t know, I’m like a zombie.  My brain is mush”.

Those of you who have been reading my past blogs, can probably see why I was intrigued by this article.  The quickness of her responses to requests for poems resembles the improvisational skills of jazz musicians and the storied shenanigans of traditional Zen  masters (see  YEAH MAN: IMPROVISATION IN JAZZ, COMEDY AND ZEN) ).  Although Jacqueline seems to be making a living writing poems, there is a selfless element to what she does. One of the elements of the Buddhist, Eightfold Path is right livelihood, which essentially means that a practioner should make a living in a job that is consistent with Buddhist ethics and ideals.  Certainly, Suskin’s Poem Store seems to be an example of this.

 Jacqueline Suskin’s interactions with the public also remind me a lot of Marina Abramovic’s performance piece at MOMA where she sat staring into the eyes of museum visitors during opening hours for a month.  In a post called  The Artist is Present”, I admired the Zen-like quality of Abramovic’s art.  Both Marina and Jacqueline attest to the strain of having to “be present” with strangers for hours on end, but both also seem to draw an immense degree of satisfaction from their actions.

I think many artists become depressed or cynical because they feel that the public does not appreciate their creativity to the degree that they would wish for.  They suffer alone and are not able to feel that they can find a way to use their creative skills to benefit others.  It seems that Jacqueline has found a unique means for accomplishing this, while still supporting herself doing the thing she loves to do..  I wonder whether the Poem Store concept, might  be  something that other artists could, with some creative “tweaking”,  utilize to energize their own practices?  I’d love to hear reactions from some of my artist readers (or anyone else for that matter) about their take on this article.  To read the original article, use the following address: 

http://www.latimes.com/includes/sectionfronts/A1.pdf

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THE ISSUE OF CHOICE IN ART AND ZEN IMPROVISATION

Over the past month or so my posts have focused on improvisation in the arts and Zen.  This was spurred on by Peter Hershock’s suggestion that the outcome of Zen practice resembles jazz improvisation.  This is consistent with much of the Zen literature which paints a picture of the awakened life as one of openness, spontaneity, “choiceless awareness” etc. , that results from a “letting go” of the rational mind and the “self”.  Relying on more contemporary writers, I have suggested that there is some scientific basis for understanding this process of “letting go”.  However, I also started questioning some aspects of this way of understanding what happens during improvisation.  This includes improvisation in the arts or in the “social virtuosity” that Herschock says characterizes Zen enlightenment.  In this post I continue in this direction and hope to clarify why it is important to be careful about how we talk about this process.

In my last post (The Practice of Yes/No), I suggested that while, to both the performer and the audience, it may seem, that there is an absence of left-brain processes with attendant decision or choice-making during improvisation, this is not a completely accurate account of what is happening.  Here I want to go further  and suggest that, when it comes to the practice of Zen, individuals who subscribe to this traditional  idea that “I am no longer making choices”, could end up creating more suffering for him or herself and for others.  Although he is not a Zen student, Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah about his use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs provides an example of the kind of thinking that can lead to the kind of suffering I am talking about here.

In the interview Armstrong said: “At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get”.

As seen from earlier posts, the Zone or the “flow experience” is one where one temporarily loses the usual sense of self and of being the author of decision-making. It appears that in Armstrong’s case this sense of being free of the usual constraints of selfhood, also was experienced as evidence that he could do no wrong and was not responsible for his own actions.  In a recent talk, Jiyu Roshi suggested that something similar often occurs among advanced Zen practioners and their counterparts in other spiritual disciplines and provided examples from his own life.

 

Jiyu "Jake" Roshi

Think of John Coltrane improvising,  Jackson Pollack flinging drips of paint over a canvas or Robin Williams doing a stand up routine.  They are totally absorbed in what they are doing, manipulating their “tools” with such rapidity that there appears to be no conscious thought involved.  It is not uncommon to hear of such performances described by witness or the performers themselves as being “possessed”, “channeled” , “in a trance” or as being expressions of an “inner self”.  In all cases, I think, the intention is to convey the idea that whatever is being expressed is not emanating from that performer’s personhood but rather some other source beyond whatever it is we see as responsible for ordinary behavior.  The implication is that there is no conscious thought or conscious choice involved.  This sort of language is also used in the Zen literature, as well as in other spiritual disciplines” to describe the state of consciousness and conduct of the awakened life.

The social scientific literature on the experience of “trance” is helpful here.  From this perspective a hypnotic trance is viewed as a situation where one person agrees to allow another to direct his or her behavior.  Anthropologists have found that “trances” are common in most non-Western societies and are collectively understood to be instances where some external  entity (e.g. a spirit) is directing the behavior of an individual.  In most cases, when trance is manifested, the person is not held responsible for their actions and becomes eligible for special consideration from the other members of society and especially those designated as healers.  The literature indicates that trance is a learned behavior that requires normal mental facilities.  What appears to be a relinquishing of normal mental facilities and a sense of self-control is a culturally agreed upon understanding that entails often rather sophisticated mental capacities and maneuvers and does not entail a diminishing of rational thought.

What I take from this literature is that there is a propensity to explain the sense that “I” (i.e. my “self”) is not “in charge” by attributing ones seemingly automatic and spontaneous conduct to some external entity or “agent” (to use the language of post-modern scholars), or force or spirit.  Now, according to Buddhist philosophy and post-modern theory (Buddha might be seen as the first post-modern theorist) , whatever it is we call our self is a social fiction; a convenient fiction that we acquire during socialization to allow us to take part in the social activities of our culture.  Associated with this “sense of self” comes an important and necessary (at least for the larger society) sense of responsibility and accountability for one’s own actions.  This is what allows “societies” to exist.  Those who seemly do not have these qualities are considered sociopaths. The actual experience of this absence of a substantial self is seen as essential for the progress of the Zen student. But this experience carries with it the possibility of conduct, which may not be fully “sociopathic” but can lead to suffering of others.

While the language used to describe what is occurring may differ in describing trance,  jazz improvisation, comedic improv , expressionistic painting or those who have become awake/alive/present through spiritual practice, these descriptions commonly  give the impression  that what is happening is not the result of “self-control” or of conscious choice.  I suggest that it is necessary to make a distinction between appearances of what is occurring and what is, actually happening.  I believe it is possible to preserve the wonder and wonderfulness of improvised performances without fully buying into those explanations that place “agency” somewhere outside (God, spirits, muse etc) or  “inside” the person as in references to “inner self”, “real self”, “Buddha Nature” and so forth.

"The Devil Made me Do IT" Comedian Flip Wilson

Following my argument in the previous post, I see such “inspired” performances as not something other-worldly but rather the result of someone who has practiced their craft to the point where thoughts or choices are executed with such rapidity that they appear to be manifesting from somewhere other than the “self”.  Such improvised behavior is not a result of somehow replacing left-brain processes with “right-brain” processes but rather an integration of the two, resembling the expanded state of awareness that Fehmi called “Opened-Focus Attention”.  It widens the range of information to be used in decision-making to include various signals or sensations not usually considered to be part of cognition.

I suggest that, whether we are talking about improvised behaviors in the arts or as a result of spirtual practice (a la Hershock’s contention that Zazen can lead to “social virtuosity”), the performer is making conscious choices.  They are simply being made with such rapidity that it seems that this is not the case. When asked how they do what they do, most Improvisors, in all fields of the arts, will point to extensive bouts of practice that were necessary to be able to improvise.

In his book, Ways of the Hand, Sudow describes looking at his hand while improvising and not being able to predict what it was going to do next, and talking about his hands as having an intentionality of their own.  But, the majority of the book consists of detailed description of the practice regimen that he, Sudnow, underwent to get to that point.  Basically, he describes how he learned to recognize, through trial and error,  which possible notes to strike in order to sound good at any point of the songs being played at breakneck speed. My reading of this is that he, and other jazz musicians are making choices all during a solo,  but they are happening so rapidly that they seem as if there is no choosing and no one doing the choosing.

In the post titled “Yeah Man: Improvisation in Jazz, Improv and Zen“, we saw how comedic impov requires that actors “say yes” to each new possibility from others on stage in order to keep the skit moving.  Although Hershock used jazz improvisation as a metaphor for understanding the awakened Zen practioner, I believe that comedy Improv is is a better metaphor because the nature of the verbal exchange is closer to what we encounter in everyday social interaction.

The accomplished  Improv actor may improvise with such rapidity that it seems that he or she is not thinking.  However, the actors must not only think up a possible response to what someone else says but must also think ahead far enough to see whether or not it has the possibility of moving the skit forward or squelching it.  In other words, to say “yes” to the antics of another actor, he or she must filter through possibilities and reject those that may lead to a “no” ( that is, behaving in ways that would put a damper on the other actors and the overall flow of the skit).  Let’s imagine that an professional improv actor could within a nano- second come up with a response which he is fairly certain will help keep the skit alive but, almost simultaneously, realizes that the audience consists of young kids and so decides against saying what first comes to mind and allows another response (maybe from another actor) to be expressed instead.  In other words, even the heat of frantic improvisation, actors have the capacity to say “no“.

So where is all of this leading?  Throughout the centuries that Zen has been developed, the idea that the conduct of the of the enlightened practioner is beyond thought and choice has been accepted.  The way that this is generally understood is much more sophisticated than that associated with Spirit possession of Shamanism where an outside entity or force is seen as taking over agency of the person.

Yet even among the most pragmatic of the Zen philosophers, there is a tendency to rely on the language of mysticism to account for awakened conduct.  This is, in itself, not really a problem, because the kinds of “performances”  I have been talking about among arts and Zen adepts is truly wondrous and mysterious. However, it does appear that within Zen and other spiritual disciples, problems can arise when the experience of awakening, the sense of no longer being “self”-directed, results in actions which create suffering for the person and others.

 

In his book on creativity, Lehrer talks about the thin line between creativity and other pathological states.  I looked at this in depth in my post called “Sun Ra: The Thin line between Genius, Crazy and Spirituality”.   We all know of artists who fit this category.  It is also the case that Artists can become addicted to the flow of their improvisations processes (see “Are You A Flow Addict?”) because they cannot flow in activities outside of their specialty.  In Zen, however, the aim is to extend the flow of what Hershock calls “social virtuosity” to all aspects of life.  It is here where the sense that “I”  am not the actor, the chooser or the “decider” could lead to problems if they buy into the believe that they can not or need not say “NO”.

 

 

Although the Zen practioner may not understand their sense of acting without a “self” as indicating a possession of some sort, they do have to come to terms with what is happening to them.  A thorough understanding that whatever was originally experienced as having “a self” is, from a Buddhist perspective, erroneous can help provide one with a grounded sense of being OK with their new way of being.  However, it appears that it is not uncommon for someone who has opened up such experiences to begin seeing their actions as part of the natural order of things, (expressions of “Buddha Nature”) and thus inherently valid.  The number of spiritual teachers that have supposedly reached an awakened state who and gone on to commit actions that create suffering for themselves and others is staggering.  It is for this reason, that over the centuries of it’s development, Zen teachers have placed heavy emphasis on the precepts, which maybe seen as ethical guidelines for practioners.(For a nice discussion of the precepts and their relevance to the Lance Armstrong case, see Sean Voisen’s latest article “Zen and the Art of”.

 

Although these guidelines are not seen as moralistic absolutes (and violations are not considered as “sins”), the fact that they have existed so long in the Zen tradition seems consistent with the view of enlightenment that I am outlining where each action one takes is a matter of making-decisions and choices (albeit very rapidly) and not some supernatural state where actions are dictated from beyond.

 

So I am suggesting that in all types of improvisation choices are being made.  However, in the case of true awakened improvisation, choice is even more salient because being awake/present/alive means the person is capable of attending to a wider range of data to inform his or her decision-making.  Because the left-brain processes never really go away, there  is always the possibility of making choices that are self-enhancing and possibly result in suffering for oneself and others.  Because of this there is no end  to practice and it is my opinion that those who choose to follow this difficult path do so because they find this constant practice to be a source of flow, finding satisfaction in life by constantly challenging themselves through practice.