To Play Lute is to Play Lute

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is already part ten in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. In these lessons I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. This time I will go to the root of all Zen exercises and will talk about Zazen or sitting.

Zazen is sitting in meditation, sitting cross-legged with your hands resting in your lap. In the Soto school of Zen, Zazen is the main practice, and Soto monks will sit all day long for days, weeks, months and even years. Zazen is all about bringing you closer to enlightenment. In many traditional Japanese art forms like tea, calligraphy, archery and sword fighting, Zazen is used as an excercise to help the practitioners perfect their art. This is because Zazen is seen as the purest form of meditation to empty the mind and prepare the practitioner for the performance of his art. But in another way of looking at it, art forms like tea, calligraphy, archery and sword fighting can be seen as derivatives of Zazen, because these art forms can be seen as forms of meditation in themselves. In these forms of meditation there is a set of ritualised movements that will serve to ‘empty the mind’, just like the aim of Zazen is to ‘empty the mind’. In our lutedō we aim at this same state of empty mind, so why not use Zazen too?

Before I go on, let me explain how to sit. First of all, find a zendō in your house: a place where you can sit in peace. Your zendō should be clean, tranquil, with enough air and light, and without too many distractions. You can sit on a stiff pillow, a zafu, ca 15 to 20cm high, or on a block of wood like a footstool, placed in front of a wall. You must sit cross-legged, in full lotus, or if you cannot manage that, in half-lotus with your left foot on your right thigh. Sit on the front part of the cushion with both knees firmly on the floor. Your weight is distributed between these three points. Sit up, straighten your back, keep your neck straight and pull in your chin. Close your mouth and put your tongue against the upper palate. Relax your shoulders and place your right hand on top of your left foot. Place your left hand in the palm of your right hand. Your thumbs will touch just above the palms. Keep your eyes open, look at the wall and drop your line of sight slightly. Open your mouth to exhale deeply, swing a few times to left and right to relax and finally settle in an unmoving, upright position. Close your mouth again and breathe quietly through your nose. Breathe from the area a little below the navel.

That is all there is to it. Sit and concentrate on sitting. Feel the contact of your knees with the floor. Feel your upright posture and breathe. When a thought comes up, let it go. Don’t stop it, but don’t follow it either. Concentrate instead on sitting. Feel your knees on the floor, sit upright and breathe. Don’t fall asleep, don’t close your eyes. Just sit and just breathe. Drop everything else and entrust everything to the correct posture; just sit and breathe. What is the point here? Should we become ‘good’ at Zazen or is there even such a thing as ‘being good at Zazen’? No, the point of Zazen is Zazen; the point of sitting is to sit. Only sit and nothing else. Concentrate on posture and breathe, nothing else. If thoughts come, you will not follow them.

Now let’s bring this experience to lute playing. When playing lute, just play lute. Concentrating on posture can be equalled to concentrating on technique. Breathing can be equalled to making music. Breathe your music, as straightforward as that. And if distracting thought come up, don’t fight them, but don’t follow them either. Keep concentrating on technique and keep breathing music. That’s all there is to it: to play lute is to play lute.

Is Zazen the ultimate exercise in training our ability to concentrate on what we are doing, playing lute in our case, and training our ability to ignore distracting thoughts? Is Zazen the essence of everything we do in life? In other words, would it be true that if we can live our lives like sitting Zazen, just do and breathe and not be distracted by the constant noise of random thoughts cropping op, would we then be more focussed and do everything we do a little better in some ways? I think these questions are beside the point and the answers are irrelevant. To do Zazen is to do Zazen: to sit is to sit and to play lute is to play lute. All the rest is just distraction, is part of the thoughts that come up and draw our attention away from what we are doing: play lute.

To play lute is to play lute. Of all the lessons in our lutedō, I think this one is the most essential yet most elusive. If practicing Zazen can help you achieve the goal of just playing lute, practice Zazen. If Zazen is for you the model of how you should play lute, model your lute playing on sitting Zazen. However, don’t forget to practice your technique and don’t forget to breathe your music. But forget all else, because to play lute is just to play lute.