Zen in the Art of Lute Playing

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
2. Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
3. Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
4. Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
5. The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
6. Zen in the Art of Listening
7. Walking the music
8. One Moment of Music
9. The Kōan of Playing Lute
10. 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
14. Concentration

Aspects of Zen can be found in many traditional Japanese art forms like tea, calligraphy, archery and sword fighting. In Japanese these are called chadō, shodō, kyūdō and kendō. means way, so these art forms are called the way of tea, the way of calligraphy, the way of the bow and the way of the sword. This indicates the completeness of their teachings, that extend their lessons to the daily lives of their students, and is an obvious reminder that the way is indeed more important than the goal. What Zen brings to the followers of one of its ways is a strong sense of importance of the moment, heightened senses and maximum concentration. These are useful abilities for a lute player, too, so I would like to explore the possibility of establishing a school of lutedō: the way of the lute. In looking at ways how the teachings of Zen can improve lute playing, I will freely borrow concepts from the traditional Japanese arts.

One of the aspects of Zen training that is aimed at improving concentration and heightened senses is its reliance on ritual. Going through a series of fixed movements will help you to clear your mind and help you to focus your mind on the task ahead. Repeating a set series of movements, thinking consciously about what they mean, but also feeling them with your body, tasting them to the full with all your senses, will wake up your sensory perception and will enable you to perform the task ahead better. Tea ceremony is perhaps the clearest example, where, from the outside at least, the ritual is all there is; the simple task of making of a cup of tea is taken apart in all its separate steps. Each step is ritualised and has to be practiced till perfection. Performing tea ceremony will make you realise the essence of every step to the full; you will experience every moment with all your senses. That is a useful skill for a lute player. A follower of the way of the lute, then, will have to make his own ritual. Perhaps some elements could be the following. Start with washing your hands, to clean your body and with it your mind of whatever you were doing before. Make sure the room where you study is clean, too, with nothing to distract you from your playing. Likewise, you should only put on your music stand what you will study today, not to clutter the eye and hence the mind with distractions. Take out your lute and tune it carefully. Make that part of your ritual to awaken your ears. Feel every string and listen to every tone. To improve feeling with your fingers, you might want to do some simple exercises like playing all the open strings and play some scales and chords. Concentrate on feeling your fingers touch the strings and listen carefully to your tone. Do these exercises to leave the outside world and to enter the world of the lute. If you already have a fixed set of exercises, they can serve as part of the ritual to clear your mind, if you are not in the habit of doing exercises, this might be good time to start with a few basic ones. Try to make the same steps in your preparations every time, to take full benefit of the ritual aspects of them. Also, if you tend to be nervous for a performance, this kind of preparation ritual will take away some of your anxiety.

The aspect of Zen that is most striking, is the importance it gives to living the moment of now only. Neither the past nor the future are present when we live now. The moment of now is all that matters and therefore it merits the full attention of all our senses. That should strike a chord with a lute player. When we are playing, there should be nothing in our minds to distract us from the music of the moment. We should play every note as beautiful as possible, as if it were the only note in the piece and therefore the only note that mattered, so we should give it our undivided attention. But it is not easy to empty the mind of distracting thoughts coming in. Zen meditation trains the mind to become empty, not by blocking the random thoughts that come in, but by not pursuing those thoughts. Often, we will follow the thoughts that pop up in our mind and be let astray by them. Zen teaches us to pay no attention to these thoughts but to let them pass unhindered. The result will be a mind free to follow the music of the moment. Such a mind is often likened to the reflection of the moon on water. The reflection is always there, without effort, however fast the water flows. Sword fighters are trained not to concentrate on their sword, nor on their technique or their opponent and certainly not on winning or even on coming out of the fight alive. Concentration of the mind on one of these aspects will block it from being present elsewhere. Also, it will slow down their actions as they will be constantly checking where their sword is, whether their technique is still perfect or what their opponent is doing. And worrying about their chances of survival will certainly stop them from giving all their attention to a good fight. Instead, a perfect sword fighter has an empty mind, free to move like the reflection of the moon on water, and by mirroring its opponents every move it will be instantaneously where his opponent wants to strike him. Likewise, the follower of lutedō will empty his mind of all distractions and will follow the music like the reflection of the moon on water.

The third aspect of Zen to incorporate in our lutedō has to do with who you are and how you express yourself in your playing. A follower of Zen tries to live a life in which he experiences the reality of everything, and tries not to be influenced by the ideas that his thoughts construe of the world around him. Instead of the Cartesian I think, therefore I am, a Zen follower believes in I am, therefore I am. But who you are, is hard to define. The physical part of you is constantly changing, as are your thoughts and experiences. However, underneath all those physical and mental changes is a constant life force. You might want to call that a universal life force, but it finds expression in our individuality; we are all different persons, after all. To tap directly into that life force and to let that guide our actions, is the aim. It should result in an individual voice in music that really speaks from our innermost being. Of course we must study our technique, of course we must know about the stylistic aspects of the music, apply the right ornaments, choose an appropriate tempo, be aware of historical performance practice, of course we must, in short, train to become good musicians. But once we are playing, those aspects are not what matter. These technical aspects will be internalised and applied without conscious thought. Once we are playing music, all we must do is play music. If we are able to do that, just play music, we will speak with our individual voice. This might be an easier task than it appears at first glance. After the ritual that has awakened all our senses and brought us into the world of the lute, and with an empty mind that follows the music like the moon’s reflection on the water, there is nothing between our playing and our innermost self to express the music of this moment only. We have become one with our music.

The advice to improve your lute playing given here, make a fixed routine in your study schedule, concentrate on the music and express yourself musically without thinking too much about technical matters, could have been given without any reference to Zen. Taking the inspiration, and some of the philosophy, of Zen, however, might give you a fresh look on what should be a familiar message. Keep in mind that Zen is not dogmatic and that its students are urged to question everything, including the truths proclaimed in its philosophy. So you are strongly urged to change elements of my lutedō, and add your own, to start your own school of the Way of the Lute.

David van Ooijen 2010