The Art Of Suizen: 吹禅
Many people ask me about both my musical and Zen experiences while living in Japan, and this gives me a great opportunity to reveal to them that in at least one instance they are one and the same. How so? Through the art of suizen. The ancient art of suizen is a great tool for musical meditation, as well as a great way to train oneself to become more sensitive/intuitive as a musician, especially in improvisation: jazz, rock, blues, free jazz, or any other forms that require sensitivity to collective spontaneity.
In Tang Dynasty (9th century) China, the monk Puhuà (Japan: Fuke) used a shakuhachi flute as a meditation tool, the act of ‘blowing Zen’ (suizen) as it was known. The Fuke branch of Zen Buddhism is purported to derive from the teachings of the Chinese Zen teacher Linji Yixuan (Japan: Rinzai Gigen c. 800– 866 CE). However, the Fuke school counts founder Puhuà, one of Linji’s contemporaries, as its shihan (founder). Fuke-style Zen was eventually brought to Japan by Shinchi Kakushin (1207–1298 CE), also known as Muhon Kakushin or Hotto Kokushi (posthumously), who had travelled to China for six years and studied with the famous Chan master Wumen of the Linji lineage. Kakushin became a disciple of Chôsan, a 17th generation teacher of the Fuke sect of China. It was Fuke’s goal to reach enlightenment through meditation on sound, and his particular sect (of Rinzai) Fuke-shu, produced mendicant priests and lay persons known as komuso, literally ‘monks of empty nothingness.’ Through rigorous training and lifestyle they sought to develop kisoku, their “spiritual breath,” to eventually blow a note that would express all of reality and lead them to what they referred to as ichi-on-jobutsu, “becoming a Buddha in one note.” Although the sect flourished in the Edo Era (1610 – 1868 CE) for a time, much of what we know about Puhuà’s himself has been since proven to be myth.
The legends of the Fuke though are often very entertaining though, as is the case with Pu-ko the Chinese Zen eccentric who ran wildly through the streets ringing a bell. One of his admirers (Chang-po) found a way to play the Zen essence of Pu-ko’s bell-ringing on the shakuhachi, thus creating one of the classic shakuhachi pieces, The Empty Bell (referring to both the Zen doctrine of emptiness and the hollowness of the flute itself).
Puhuà’s sect eventually disbanded and disappeared, but left behind a body of work know as honkyoku, ‘songs of enlightenment,’ which are practiced and performed by shakuhachi flautists worldwide (regardless of religious affiliation).
The idea of “practicing” music for enlightenment has useful application beyond its religious implementation. Although becoming one with the instrument and entering the state of “absolute sound” (tettei on) where one achieves ichi-on-jobutsu is traditionally the path of suizen, my own exposure to the practice was in the context of studying Shinto kagura and/or gagaku music on the hichiriki (small, oboe-like woodwind) at Ikuta Shinto Shrine in Kobe with Shoji Mori (1998- 2001); suizen being a technique taught to me by Master Mori to develop a greater sensitivity to the sound of the instrument and its timbral relationship with the other instruments in the orchestra.
The actual practice of suizen is a nine part non-sequential series of contemplations to be either guided through by a master, or used as a process of self-study for the more advanced student. Finding a quiet place and appropriate time to practice, one clears one’s mind and relaxes, ready to perceive the qualities of a single note or the notes within a simple phrase. It is vital to not just improvise a long string of notes, since the idea is to be completely aware of each note and its qualities.
To begin the practice, after allowing about 30 seconds of silence to clear one’s mind, carefully proceed with each suggestion as you blow a single note. The entire thing should last at least 20 to about 45 minutes to be effective:
1. Listen to how the note begins and finishes.
2. Consider any/all silence before or after as music, as a “note.”
3. Listen to the texture of the note and the dynamic shape.
4. Listen to what happens to the sound.
5. Follow the breath as you begin/end the sound.
6. Listen to the quality/“shape” of the silence before/after sounding.
7. Listen to what arises out of any and all silence.
8. Breathe as if the breathing is part of the sound/note.
9. Let your breath slowly become the music.
10. Follow the note into your ears and try to find the place in your mind where you hear it.*
Any further details and ideas about the practice are pondered and developed by each individual, thus there is no one particular right way to do this. The idea is inner discovery, not outer mastery in order to gain recognition or attain rank. This is summarized by the word mushotoku, which means ‘without a salary.’ Zen monks use this phrase to to mean doing something without desiring a reward at the end, contemplate and study the process and the rewards will be what they will. Thus we see others developing suizen-like concepts and expanding on them, such as Canadian saxophonist Jake Parker Scott creating a system wherein he focuses on each in a series of notes in a suizen-esque manner, while “walking” from note to note with mediative awareness, a process I call Tonal Kinhin: his system of integrating great focus with non-idiomatic tonal awareness.
(Note One: it is very helpful to know the context in which suizen was situated in Japanese aesthetic culture, both Zen and Japanese. To learn more about Zen and East Asian aesthetics, see my posts on East Asian Aesthetic Terminology.)
(Note Two: Number Ten is actually part of a famous Zen talk given by Korean Zen Master Chinul, and is not part of the original set. But I added it to my regimen as a nice ‘cooling down’ meditation to finish off with daily, an uplifting end to an uplifting practice).
A follower of my blog asked if I could create a version of suizen for writers/poets. So I have come up with a 12 Step “Writing Zen” (書く禅: kakuzen) system for non-musicians: poets, novelists, linguists and anyone else who wants to “play” words like musical notes, and/or meditate upon them. For this practice you will need a piece of paper and a pen. You could also used a coloured pencil or marker if you so choose.
1. Write one word in the middle of a blank piece of paper and look at to how the word begins and finishes.
2. Consider any/all space around that work (left/right/above/below) as a word.
3. Look at the shape of the word: how the top of each letter forms an overall word “horizon”.
4. Imagine what word should follow next, based only on the shape/size of the next word.
5. Pay attention to how you feel as you write the word.
6. Follow your pen very carefully with your eyes as you very slowly write another word.
7. Imagine what sound the word you wrote might make, no matter what the word means.
8. Draw a scribble on the page and imagine how it could be a word.
9. Write a word in cursive and then let you pen go on and draw a scribble without lifting the pen off of the paper.
10. Write some words that mean nothing (asemic writing) and imagine what they might mean.
11. Look at the word and try and “follow” your eyesight back into your mind to find the exact “spot” the word came from in your consciousness.
12. Close your eyes and imagine a word, then write the word on a piece of paper without opening your eyes… then look at it and do Kakuzen Steps 2, 3, and 4.
©1998 Daniel Schnee (suizen)
©2017 Daniel Schnee (kakuzen)