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 (   ) 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


Today’s post features a video entitled “Haiku In Four Seasons” by James Wilson.

A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. Although not all original haiku poets were Zen adherents, some of those considered to be the best were. 

Zen is a school of Buddhism concerned with the cultivation of a profound down-to-earth awareness of this ‘suchness’, unmediated by doctrine or other concepts. Haiku are the most thoroughgoing expression of literary Zen. They are also one of the several meditative ‘Ways’ (like calligraphy and the minimal ink paintings, zenga and haiga) whose form both gives expression to insight and helps to deepen it.

The ‘haiku moment’ is thus no less than a tiny flash of an ultimate reality which in fact is just what is under our noses. These brief poems also distill what is the essential “truth” of Zen; namely that all is impermanent.

This theme is clear in the video below, which adds music and visuals to spoken words.  Enjoy!


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For a variety of reasons it seems that artists of all types are drawn to the practice of Zen.  For this installment, I asked four other artists from the Vista Zen Center to join me in providing a pairing of poetry and visual images. Each combination is very different from the others but each reflects the committed practice of the artist.  I hope you take the time to savor each of these pairings.


We begin with the work of Jiyu Roshi, who is the founder and teacher at The Vista Zen Center.  His digital paintings may be seen at his website.

"No Choice?" Digital Paiting by Jiyu Roshi

 No Choice?

The Way is not difficult 

for those who do not pick and choose. 

The Way is not difficult 

for those who do pick and choose.

When you walk the Way,

 just walk the Way.

It is not near, 

it is not far.

It just is.

Just do not get in the way 

of the Way.

Or, Just get in the way

 of the Way.

Either way Is the Way.

Either way is.

Either way

Is neither 

The Way

 Nor not 




I think I’ll go away



David Clark’s blogsite “FromThe Lone Oak” is a wonderful showcase of his poetry, often accompanied by visual images.  The image below was created by David on his I Pad.

"Sitting" created by David Clark on his I Pad using "Paper 53 App"

“Sitting”, David Clark

Without Effort


Unattended and without effort,

The Earth spins on,

Endlessly describing an arc

Around a star 

That never blinks.

Rain, without urging,

Always finds its way

Back to the sea.


Jane Mushinsky teaches literature at Mira Costa College and has contributed poems for various publications and poetry readings.  She recently returned from Kenyon Ohio where she had won a spot at the Kenyon Review Summer Poetry Workshop.

Image by Erik Kuniholm and Jane Mushinsky

Still Life

this body i borrowed

eats mostly scraps

seems content

rarely complains.

to keep it neat

i fold it in half, in thirds,

a suit i’m packing for a trip.

this body—not mine per se,

a loaner, the keys on their hook

also not mine—dutifully i wash and wax it,

feeling always the edges fraying,

the delicate etching of rain.

sometimes i look in a train’s window

an unruffled pond or plate glass

adjacent a sidewalk, and see—

not I as such, but this body

going about its business, respiring,

contracting and expanding—

an illusion, I; a conspiracy

the body and the thoughts construct

to feel, perhaps, less lonely,

disparate unmusical spheres.

poor body, a show dog easily lead;

poor mind, banging away in its cell—

no wonder they cling to each other

having nothing in common.


Jon Wesick works as an engineer but spends a great deal of time, writing, reading and publishing his poems.  More of Jon’s work can be read at:   The image below was “picked and chosen” by Jon from Google Images.


Chosen by John Wesick

Zen and the Art of Nuclear Structure Physics

The 1p3/2 proton sat in the zendo

of the copper nucleus.

Back straight, eyes downcast,

he stilled his mind to concentrate

on the Absolute and relative.

As the temple bell struck

a passing alpha particle excited

the entire nucleus into a collective,

vibrational state.

“Master! Master!”

The proton burst into Master Neutron’s study.

“I have experienced Oneness!

I now know the Way is like a liquid drop

in which we all move together.”
“Fool!” Master Neutron struck the proton with his staff

sending him into an excited single-particle state.

Nanoseconds later the proton returned to consciousness

looking pale after emitting a gamma ray.

“Your training is to see both Oneness and manyness,”

Master Neutron said. “Recite the Sandokai

and the papers of V.M. Strutinsky until you understand.”


Steve Wilson is primarily a visual artist whose work may be seen in the Painting Gallery of this blog site.  

"Where Do We Come From? Where Do We Go?", Acrylic on Canvas, Steve Wilson

Where Do We Come From?  Where Do We Go?

Seven Billion of us now

Where do we come from?

Where do we go?

This painting appeared on my canvas one day,

claiming to be a visual answer to these questions.

Maybe it is, but, I can’t put it into words.

I don’t even know how to tell you

where the painting came from.

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Evolution of The Adagio – a therapeutic motion machine





Most of you remember a post from the past that looked at the interesting ways that Sean Voisen found to immerse himself in the interstitial areas between art, technology and spirituality.  (See ” Art, Zen and Technology: A Visit With Sean Voisen”)  Today’s post is written by guest blogger James Wilson, who is playing in the same field and looking at similar overlapping areas.

  Yes this is the same James Wilson whose appearance here on earth was largely orchestrated by me in an effort to manifest a life-long playmate. (See “Aliens From Inner Space”)  This is the same guy who used to give me nightmares by shaking his crib all night long in his efforts to “escape” it’s material and confining nature.  He’s been rattling his crib all his life and the post below provides a look at the wondrous possibilities “beyond the crib”.

By James Wilson

When I was still a student in music school at Boston University, I became aware of what I felt to be a subtle motion, or flow, in music that nobody was talking about. It was something slow, smooth, and not a direct component of the usual suspects: rhythm and harmony. At the same time, since I was a student of composition, I was studying the theories of Heinrich Schenker and others who suggested that the great Masters constructed their music with a conscious implementation of “tension and release” within their musical structures. In other words, their compositions would build to a climax, then release the built up tension, repeat again, and so on, taking us, the listener, on a virtual musical and emotional roller-coaster ride. This was also in alignment with what I felt and heard in music.


Dr. Norden

Also during this time, I was studying with a wonderful professor at Boston U., Dr. Hugo Norden, who was considered the foremost authority on J.S. Bach, counterpoint, and also on the topic of using the Golden Ratio in music, art, and architecture (“Form: the silent language”, is one of his books on the topic).

The “Golden Ratio”” (also often referred to as: extreme and mean ratio, medial section, divine proportion, divine section (Latin: sectio divina), golden proportion, golden cut, and golden number) is exactly that, a mathematical ratio, which is 1:1.618. In music, Dr. Norden theorized that it was used by the Masters (again, consciously), when laying out the form of the piece they were about to write. Basically, the idea is to lay out a piece of music as a function of time. In other words, if you plan for the piece to last, say, 5 minutes, then at minute 3:06 (1/1.618 = .618 * 5 minutes = 3.1, or 3:06 minutes) the composer would make some extraordinary event occur at 3:06 to divide the time line. This might be a jarring modulation, a loud chord, introduction of a second theme, etc.


This ratio was also used heavily in architecture, especially during Greek and Roman periods, and even way before the Greeks! Often this ratio was used as the ratio of width to height, i.e.

1 .618: 1.00 = width:height.













This ratio is also often found in nature!:



Further discussion of the Golden Ratio in nature can be found in a book by Jay Hambidge, entitled “The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry”.









Authors such as Matila Ghyka, postulate that the Golden Ratio was used by well-known artists:








With these forces at work, I wanted to design and build a device that would:

  • Visually display the subtle “motion” I was experiencing when listening to music
  • Visually display the up-and-down/tension-release in music,
  • Incorporate the design principles of the Golden Ratio.


To do this, I incorporated another concept that has held fascination for me; the sine curve. The sine curve occurs often in pure and applied mathematics, as well as physics, engineering, signal processing and many other fields. Its most basic form as a function of time (t) is:


BTW: For those interested in religious symbols, the key idea here is that the sine curve is formed by the circle as a function of time. Circles commonly represent unity, wholeness, and infinity. Without beginning or end, without sides or corners, the circle is also associated with the number one. In other words, “perfection”, when brought into the flow of time = the sine curve!


Original "Adagio"

All this put together, resulted in my building a visual device that moves very slowly in front of the viewer’s eyes. I have named it “The Adagio”. A Video of the Adagio in action, along with a piece by Mozart, can be seen HERE.

The Adagio incorporates the sine curve, as well as Golden Ratios in the dimensions of the container, and in the angle of inclination of the sine curve itself. The slow moving line can be speed adjusted to the correct “flow” of the music, and the upward and downward movement of the lighted line follows the tension and release of the music being played while you watch.

As stated above, the original construction of Adagio was purely as a means to visualize motion-in-music, and to encapsulate the up/down emotional tension in music. It has done this beyond my expectations.

However, almost by accident, the Adagio was used in a biofeedback study at Nova University, in 1978. It was a very well conducted scientific experiment designed to differentiate between activities associated with our right brain hemisphere, and our left-brain hemisphere. It was discovered that by activating the right hemisphere of the experimental subjects, the Adagio has stress-reducing characteristics! A summary of the study can be seen HERE.

I finally have time to explore usage of my invention and am doing a “crowd funding” to build a commercial version of The Adagio. My goal is to:

  • Produce a production model that will be more aesthetically pleasing than the original prototype,
  • Produce a production model with greater durability suitable for consumer use, and
  • A production model constructed with readily available components.

Here’s a concept drawing of what I envision this new commercial version of the Adagio to look like:






(Click the image above to activate)

You can watch the video about Adagio’s history and potential uses here:

Adagio Therapeutic Motion Lamp – Uses in Dance, Music, Yoga, Meditation


I would appreciate any comments/observations you might have.

Readers may be interested in a follow-up post called  “Truth, Faith and B.S. in Art and Zen”  Also past post on the flow experience can be located by typing “flow” into the Search Window.( Or see “To Know Flow or No Flow” and subsequent posts on Flow)



Ensoes by Beth Moskal Milligan


(The 2000 year-old art form of Japanese brush painting is spiritually rooted in Zen Buddhism.  My friend and fellow Zen student, Beth Moskal Milligan has practiced both Zen and Sumi-e and finds that the two disciplines are mutually supportive in her spiritual growth.  I have asked Beth to be a “guest blogger” for this post.  I think you will find her piece, found below,  a fun, informative and inspiring read. It is also a great example of the “Genjo Practice”, as described in the previous post. Steve Wilson)

Leaping Fish by Beth Moskal Milligan



Zen tells us to wake up! How does one do that?  One way is to leave a totally familiar environment and move to a strange, new one. That’s the way I started the process-leaving almost heaven-West Virginia for heaven-Southern California. Ocean, desert, palm trees, odd flowering plants, low humidity, altered seasons, day after day of sunshine, multiculturalism, surfing, avocados, abundant wealth (seemingly). I knew 2 people-the friends I was renting from. The rest was an adventure awaiting. But first I had to fall apart. And then in the process of finding the pieces and putting them together in a new way, I came to Zen, specifically the Vista Zen Center.  My son, Ryan, came to live with me and was a practicing Zen student of the San Francisco Zen Center. He had his sitting practice and I was intrigued. I was from a strong Lutheran background and had been involved in the Christian charismatic movement and later became very interested in meditation and the labyrinth, both of which introduced me to the value of silence. When I entered the Vista Zendo (meditation hall)  for the first time, I knew I belonged. A welcoming, strong silence was present there and there were people who believed in its value. I knew this was a place where I could grow from the bottom up, and explore the possibilities that had presented themselves in my new world. The pieces began to come together.

Landscape by Beth Moskal Milligan

One of those pieces was art.  I had been an art major for a year in college but had dropped out after my freshman year. I dabbled in drawing and watercolor a little bit in my adult life but always had a problem with being too judgmental of the work and not able to enjoy the process except for a few brief periods of inspiration. But the desire to create was there, just buried. It was awakened in an art workshop taught by Alessandra at the Zen center and the spark became a flame when I discovered Japanese sumi-e painting. Minimalist and nature-inspired, a technique where every brush stroke counts and taught in a classroom in which the Japanese teacher, Takashi Ijichi,  creates a peaceful and concentrated environment, the focus of which is finding your vision and putting it on paper. The focus is on the process, the result is fun and interesting and occasionally  even looks good. Everyone’s creation is different and uniquely theirs. It is a discipline but it is not onerous.

I take Tuesdays as a day off from work and attend painting class in the afternoon and sit at the Zendo in the evening. The two complement each other;  PRACTICE, DISCIPLINE, FOCUS, DISCOVERY—AND JOY.

Practice Ensoes by Beth Moskal Milligan

PRACTICE  Practice, practice, practice”  my Sumi-e painting teacher, Takashi Ijichi tells us.

“Practice, practice, practice”  my Zen teacher, Jiyu Roshi tells us.

Practice is repetition, repetition is practice.

Practice Bird Heads by Beth Moskal Milligan

"Three Cranes" by Beth Moskal Milligan

DISCIPLINE   Discipline enables the practice, it brings us to the practice in time and in place. It makes the decision for us to come to the practice.  Make the time, prepare a place, enable the process: the painting, the sitting, in the art room, in the Zen Center, at home where the place is ready and waiting, for painting, for sitting.

Beth's Meditation Space

Beth's Painting Space

FOCUS  Pay attention. Be the hawk perched and watching, the flower blooming,  the horse galloping, the mountain standing, the fish swimming and leaping, the enso circling. Be one in the moment with the subject of the painting. Be one in the moment in the stillness of sitting. Practice and Be.

"Bodhidharma Bird in Contemplation" by Beth Moskal Milligan

There are 3 main elements to both my painting practice and my Zen meditation practice. The teacher, the meditation practice, and the Sangha (spiritual community) .  One on one relationship with my teachers is a very valuable part of both practices. During our Zazen sessions, I meet individually with Jiyu Roshi to discuss my practice and progress. During my painting classes, I meet individually with Takashi Ijichi to carefully observe his painting technique as he paints on my individual tablet and answers any questions I might have about the subject.    Sitting meditation occurs in the quiet Zendo. Sumi-e painting is also a form of meditation, we practice in a community library setting.    And each activity involves a Sangha, a group of people dedicated to practicing that unique meditative discipline and who become intertwined with each other through that unique practice.

DISCOVERY   I have discovered that the process, not the results is the important part of these activities. Living in the process and not living for the results enables me to live in the present moment, immersed in the activity. This is very refreshing for body, soul and spirit. And the results are not completely under my control and the results are more often than not, surprising. In a painting, the ink may be absorbed by the paper in a very interesting way or the lights and darks of the ink formed a wave of water or a flower petal that I did not plan.  In Zazen practice, calmness in the face of a difficult situation or a solution to a previously unsolvable problem may present itself unexpectedly.   The terms ‘beginner’s mind’ and ‘non-grasping’ come to mind to describe these occurrences.

"Ocean Waves and Rocks" by Beth Moskal Milligan

JOY   Joy results in being in the process, in creating, in relationship with my teachers and in relationship with the other students and Sangha members, being a part of a long and honored tradition, passed on person to person, no technology needed! Simplicity indeed! Learning, growing, focusing, practicing, discovering. relating—Life.

" Galloping Colt" by Beth Moskal Milligan


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Right after I posted the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? (see previous Post), my wife called me from Florida where she was visiting relatives.  She told me that she had just watched it in the company of her six year old grandniece, Catalina.  Apparently after viewing it, Catalina simply said “It’s like kind of crazy”.

 My painting teacher, Sally Pearce, once told me that the most useful critiques of my painting would come from children.  So it occurred to me that I should give this comment some thought.

First, Catalina’s comment brought to mind, a couple of similar comments I’d heard recently coming from fellow Zen students.  The first was elicited after the person had read the teachings of Buddha in the Diamond Sutra which includes the central Buddhist notion that what we think of as “self” is not real. The verse in question has Buddha saying the following to his student Subhuti:

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”"

The Zen student wrote me that the Buddha’s comments “sounds insane”.  Most of us would agree. (For more details see Discussion #3 on the FORUM page of this blog).

 The other comment was one of those commonly heard observations about the state of the world; i.e. “everyone’s crazy”. This student didn’t really say whether he considered himself in this category or not. Certainly one possible translation of the rapper’s dialogue in the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? could be “IT is crazy”, where IT refers to what Jiyu Roshi often refers to as “the whole ball of wax”. EVERYTHING’S CRAZY!

Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers, didn’t use the word “crazy” but did say that we all live in “delusion”.  And for those who are used to thinking that “enlightenment” is somehow an antidote for or the opposite of “delusion”, he argues that they are one and same.  Now, THAT sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  (If you haven’t already, you may want to check out an earlier post titled “SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY”)

Whether something is considered to be “good” or “bad”, “crazy” or “sane” or “enlightened” or “delusional” depends on how that “thing” is defined. As Dogen and many Western philosophers’ have shown us, definitions are not fixed and do not enjoy complete consensus as to their meanings.  This seems to be the point of Duchamp’s “Fountain”.


In doing research for the video, I learned that Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by the concept of “transubstantiation“.  If you watched the video closely you saw that I played with this concept in the video.  According to Wikipedia this term was first, or most famously, used at The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) where it was stated that Christ’s “body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.” From this perspective, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and bread but are his body and blood, although in another form.  Later, more liberal interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion.  In other words it  is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

Here is how Duchamp used the term transubstantiation:

  • “The spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place… …All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
    • “The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel)” e.d. Michel Sanouille and Elmer Peterson,New York1973, pp. 139-140

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?”  His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators.  If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then  it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as  ”just a urinal”.  If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of  “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art?  Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”.  As I suggested in an earlier post ”Performer/Audience Communication“, some works of art allow the artist and the audience to share this unusual mode of consciousness.


"An Oak Tree" by Michael Craig-Martin

The piece pictured to the left is a continuation of Duchamp’s dialogue  by conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin.  His work “An Oak Tree”, installed in the Tate Modern consists of a glass of water, which the artist has declared he turned into a “full-grown oak tree”, “without altering the accidents of the glass of water”   Craig-Martin is claiming that, although the form of the piece looks like a glass of water, it is in fact or in substance an oak tree, which is transubstantiation of the kind that is central to the Christian doctrine.  Of course such work is likely to provoke remarks such as “Is it really art?” or “It’s like kind of crazy”.


Since Duchamp created “The Fountain”, artists of all stripes have been interested in exposing the tenuous nature of the distinction between art and all other aspects of life.  For instance, in “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life”, Allan Kaprow wrote:

“Consider certain common transactions–shaking hands, eating, saying goodbye– as Readymades (a term Durchamp used for pre-existing “art objects” like the urinal).  Their only unusual feature will be the attentiveness brought to bear on them.  They aren’t someone else’s routines that are to be observed but one’s own. just as they happen”.

What Kaprow seems to be saying is that living life attentively is making one’s life an art piece, which begins to sound  pretty “Zen-like”.   He strengthens this association by writing :  “Lifelike art in which nothing is separate is a training in letting go of the separate self”.  In the next Post, I will explore how the kinds of philosophical discussions prompted by Duchamp and others have been going on for centuries among Zen and other Buddhist’s philosophers.


The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in the mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation….” (Presumably Suzuki would agree that the same is true of a “Zen-woman”)

                                                        D.T Suzuki, Zen and the Japanese Culture

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Today’s post is just a video entitled “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)?”
After Duchamp tried to submit a urinal as a sculpture to a pretigious art show in 1917, the art world was never the same.
Several scholars have argued that Duchamp was a closet Buddhist and my video tries to make the case that his submission
of the urinal as a piece of art is a pure expression of Zen.  Please watch the video when you are not distracted by other things
and see if you agree.  The link below will take you to the video on youtube.  If an advertisement comes up, you can skip it and go straight
to the video but, oddly, the one I saw was sort of amusing and seems to fit with the video.  If possible listen through headphones
to maximize the stereo quality of the music.
Click below to go to Youtube to see the video.


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.



Ensoe #1, Steve Wilson

In two previous posts, I expounded and expanded upon Peter Hershock’s use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for what he calls the “social virtuosity” that can be developed through many years of practicing Zen.  He seems to be trying to paint a picture of the phenomenon called “enlightenment” or “awakening” that counters the widespread notion that these concepts refer to a purely personal or individual achievement.  As you will recall, Hershock makes the case that in jazz, as well as everyday life, this improvisational  virtuosity has a social as well as a personal dimension.  I see this improvisational “letting go” as something that is “catchy” and “shareable” and so we all, with practice, can help each other “let go”.  I want to follow up with this idea in the next couple of posts because it is one that is hard for most of us to fathom. It runs counter to our basic assumptions about who or what we are and why we might practice a spiritual discipline.   Frankly, I want to work through this material as I think it may be helpful for me in clarifying what Zen practice is all about.  If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read the following before proceeding with this post as it builds on that earlier material.( GREAT UNEXPECATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATIONJAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION: SOCIAL VIRTUOSITY AND PRACTICE )

To begin, let us revisit the work of Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) which provided a jumping off point for my very first posts on Art And Zen Today.  Dealing with jazz improvisation as a form of creative expression, Lehrer cites several studies where scientists were able to observe brain activity while musicians improvised.  One of the findings is that while improvising the brains of the musicians showed “a surge of activity in the  medial prefontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain associated with self-expression.’” ( p.90)  This was to be expected, but they also found shifts in the part of the brain associated with impulse control.  When improvising, as opposed to playing a familiar melody, “the musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental hand cuffs.” (p.91). For Lehrer, this is another example of situations where creativity is associated with a process of “letting go”, especially regarding letting go of thoughts about what other people may think about what you are doing.

Lehrer argues that the “letting go” process can be learned and he provides some insight into how this can occur by describing what goes on in classes in “Comedic Improv” at the Second City training center.  First Lehrer observed that this kind of training involved playing children’s games and just generally acting like kids on clue.  He quotes Andy Cobb, one of the instructors:

it’s about putting people in a state of mind where they’re going to say the first thing that pops into their head, even if it seems silly or stupid.  Because that inner voice, that voice telling you not to do something –that’s the voice that kills improv” (p. 102)

Secondly, says Lehrer, the prospective actors “must become aware of everything that is happening on stage…….. “Comic improv, after all, is an ensemble performance: every joke is built on the line that came before.” ( p.103)   So after they learn to stop worrying about saying the wrong thing, they begin practicing a technique called ‘Yes, and…..’ . The basic premise is simple: When performing together, improvisers can never question what came before.  The need to instantly agree –that’s the “yes” part — and then start setting up the next joke. ” (p.103)

Writing about the same phenomenon, Susan Murphy, the author of Upside Down Zen,  provides an example of this process from a book called Improv by Keith Johnstone. Writing about Johnstone’s book, Murphy says:

“….. in one of his examples, the first actor might say, “Ohh!’. and clutch their leg; the second actor might say, ‘Oh my god’, there something wrong with your leg!’ The first actor says, ‘yes, I’ve got a pain in my leg’.  The second one says, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to remove it.’  The first actor then says, ‘Oh, don’t take my leg, I’m rather attached to it.’  Now at that point it’s starting to go dead.  ‘No’ has been said; the offer has not been caught.  But how about the second time?  It goes through the same moves.  ‘O, my leg!’ ‘Oh no, not your leg, I’ll have to remove it’  and the second actor says ‘But that’s the leg you took last time!’ So the first actor says, ‘Oh, this is serious’ The second actors says, ‘not…woodworm?’  And so it rolls.  The play is alive because all offers are being accepted.’  (pg. 50)

When we are fully present/awake/alive, not only are we less concerned with how others are evaluating us but simultaneously more fully aware of how we are a part of a larger social unit that is mutually creating whatever is to happen next.  As mentioned in the earlier posts, our part in any social improvisational “performance” may,  at first glance seem rather insignificant.  But as Murphy shows, such performances can struggle or die if we either say “no” or signify “no” through our demeanor.  So, the key to any successful joint improvisational performance is for all involved to express an attitude of “yes”. I recall the following two incidents when I think about the “power of yes”


I played drums in bands while in high school and college but didn’t play for about 25 years after that. Shortly after I started playing drums again as an adult, I had the chance to sit in with a band consisting of very accomplished musicians and accepted the invitation with some trepidation.  I was especially intimidated by the leader who played the trumpet.  Mid-way into the song, he turned to me and indicated I should take a solo.  For some reason, I found myself playing the solo striking the drums in a way that did not allow the sticks to bounce; producing a muffled sound instead of the usual resonant ring.  I recall that once I started the solo, I conjectured that the leader would not like what I was doing.  However, right after that thought, I heard him shout “yeah man”, which gave me “permission” to finish the solo with confidence following my instincts.  After the song ended , he looked at me briefly and said “fresh!”.


After the incident described above I was motivated to find a jazz group in Philadelphia to play with full time.  One of the members of the band was a rhythm guitarist who I and the others judged as not being a good as the rest of the band.  During one of our performances, maybe a year after I joined the band, he was taking a solo and I found myself being much more attuned than usual to what he was playing; almost as if he and I were one musician.  What was coming from this guy’s guitar was leaps and bounds beyond anything I had heard him play before. As he continued, I opened my eyes, (I usually close them when fully absorbed in what is happening) and saw that all the other members were watching him intently and exchanging glances as if to say “what’s going on here?”.  As the guitarist’s solo continued, the others began to utter “yeah man” type of responses and when it was their turn to solo each seemed to perform at a level beyond their usual.  Something happened that night, not just at the individual level, but at the group level as well.  After that, due to the “power of “yeah man”, we were a better, freer and more cohesive band than we were before.

I think something like this can happen in a variety of everyday situations and plan to explore further how this may work in the next post. While jazz and comedic improvisation is a useful metaphor for understanding the kind of every day “social viruosity” that can stem from Zen practice, they are not the same.  So, I also plan to comment on the differences.  At least that is the plan.  But, who knows?  I’m just making this up as I go along.  Improvisation or lack of focus?????  In the meantime, don’t feel that you have to say “yeah man” to every proposal or opportunity that presents itself.  Use common sense and take a look at the movie  “ Yes Man” starring Jim Carrey.


The chart above was sent to me by James “The Sax Guy” who also adds some interesting comments  to the previous post.

In the last post “Great Unexpectations: Jazz/Zen improvisation“,  I pointed to some parallels between jazz and the awakened life, as described by Peter Hershock in his book “Liberating Intimacy”.  Hershock points out that Zen practice can lead to a  “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to spontaneously respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance and suggests that the practice of Zen can also lead to conduct that somehow enhances the larger social whole.

Hershock goes on to point out that this “awakened virtuosity” includes the understanding that one will often not be the center of attention.  This willingness to “sacrifice” for the larger performance of our collective lives is what he sees as the essence of the Zen enterprise.  According to Hershock:….the sincere practitioner must be willing to ‘do’ nothing at all and simply allow his or her life to proceed unchecked.  Anything else amounts to holding on (obsessive attachment) and holding off (the arrogance of aversion).  Like a piece of improvised music, practice is something other than the sum of its individually experienced, factual or behavioral parts, and there are times when the part ‘we’ play in it seems so infinitesimal as to be no part at all.  To extend the musical analogy, practice sometimes puts us in the position of playing a simple rhythmic pattern again and again, subtlety opening up the field of time and space on which we find others soloing, expressing the infinite degrees of their freedom.  There is no glamour in this “repetition” no exalted sense of individual accomplishment, and yet it is precisely what is needed at times for the music to come fully to life.

While being in the spotlight, as a soloist, is part of what it means to play jazz, it is only one momentary aspect of the whole scene. Equally, if not more important, is being able to provide harmonic support for other soloist and the group as a whole.  In jazz, as in other fields, “showboaters” usually do not last very long.  Hershock seems to be saying that the so-called “enlightened life”, as it evolves through Zen practice, involves “playing second fiddle” in ways that support the free expression of others” as much, if not more than, being in the spotlight.

Having played drums in a variety of improvisational groups, I relate to the role of providing unglamorous “repetition”.  Except for the rare drum solo, the drummer’s main role is to support the other musicians as they play the melody and take their solos.  Primarily this entails maintaining a steady beat, but especially in jazz, it can also involve adding embellishments that add to the overall performance of the group.  An accent on the bass drum,  a change in dynamics or a riff that responds to what the soloist is doing can add a vibrancy to the performance and can affect where the soloist goes in his or her improvisation.  I found that I needed to learn to find a sense of accomplishment in providing this supporting role for the group as a whole and forgo the natural inclination to be “in the spotlight”. The most satisfying compliments I received as a drummer were those from fellow musicians who acknowledged that I was both listening to them and providing support or fodder for their improvisations.  In a sense, the appreciation was for my being fully present with the other musicians, doing my part to help them be fully present and doing my part to help “the music to come fully to life” (Hershock).

When this happens, says Hershock:

………. our simple contribution is heard in a completely new and always unanticipated way, becoming something much more sublime than we could ever have imagined.  In the same way, as  long as we are fully engaged in practicing Ch’an, even though we may from an objective point of view be doing nothing out of the ordinary, the meaning of our activity - our conduct- is undergoing continual transformation.  Even though we are doing nothing special, our relationships become progressively more open and truthful. (pg. 120)


Hershock’s term “social virtuosity” may be misleading.  It does not necessarily refer to being what we often call “socially adept” and it does not refer to an attitude of concern about social injustices or other societal maladies.  The awakened person may certainly possess these characteristics, but they are not the essence of what Zen practice is all about. Zen students are encouraged to take the vow of “freeing” all sentient beings” which seems to be a clear message that, as in Jazz,  the goal of Zen practice should not conceived as a personal or selfish one, but one that is social, in a certain sense. (See “Four Vows” as practiced at The Vista Zen Center”.

Understandably, this vow raises also sorts of interpretations as to  what is meant by “freeing” (often the word “saving” is used) and what is meant by “sentient beings”, as well as questions about the feasibility of such a task.  There has been a great deal of discussion about what exactly this vow calls for on the part of a Zen student. However, Hershock seems to argue that, whatever is involved in fulfilling this vow, it does not entail “doing something”.  It does not involve the usual, goal- directed orientation that most people adopt when trying to perfect their behavior.    Rather it is the Zen practice of “not-doing” that allows one to fulfill this vow; the “not doing” of spontaneously responding to what is in the moment, of improvisation grounded in years of practice. For a more,in-depth and lenthy theoretical/Zen/philosophical discussion of this topic, click on the FORUMs tab at the top of the page and see Discussion #3, COMMENT D.

For Hershock, “social viruosity” or “awakened conduct” consists of spontaneous responses to what is happening in the moment.  It is being present/awake/alive, in a way that also allows or encourages others the freedom to be present with the “business” of jointly carrying on their lives in ways that minimizes suffering.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurmond

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