Advice For Jazz Students #26: Z is for “Zen”(4th draft)

I’m at the end of the alphabet and if you make the ending good, I was often told, people will forgive the middle and likely forget the beginning. To have “Z” at the end of the alphabet is a warning to those who would lean on its A-Z structure and still hope for a big finish. Well, point taken. I wonder who decided the order of the letters, a think tank maybe, batting ideas across a big desk….”I’m not so sure about “z”…ok, well maybe stick it on the end if we need it later.

I remember when I started reading about Zen as a confused teenager. I felt I was absorbing something, something that passed for knowledge, lapping up the pomposity-busting fables, soaking up the Samurai tales and staring into space contemplating impossible riddles. Distancing myself from everything. It’s been a big old glorious waste of time. It’s been very “Zen”.

All that accumulation. Trying to understand. Mulling over the sound of one hand clapping and nodding sagely (to myself mostly) at the impossibility of an answer. Indeed, all I could get from Zen, which was plenty, was that the word “answer” was some kind of abhorrent offshoot that should never have found its way into any language. Undeterred, and spurred on by North London hipsters in medieval robes and Nike trainers, I tried a meditation group. It was uncomfortable, we faced radiators at close quarters for an hour and a half. I was thrilled by the sheer austerity of it all (although the trainers were a distraction). I watched an itch in my nose sneak up on me, peak in tension, then dissolve. I approached Zen as a study. I tried to find the “stuff” of it. To gain understanding, adding and adding like so many layers of paint over a life drawn in lines. Data. Content. (Bullshit).

It was a mistake to gather information. I think it’s better to lose everything (I can only suspect this is true, since I still travel fully laden with baggage), not accumulate things. Get rid of preconceptions and judgements, or at least see them for what they are. Monks in robes may have the key to contentment, and they may not. The robes indicate nothing. The “Buddha” indicates nothing. In the end, I loved the negation of Zen, the insecurity of it. You could never stop asking questions, you could never find the “theory of everything”, because theory negates the need for thinking in favour of one approach for every situation (a snake crosses your path and you kill it simply because it might be poisonous).  In literature, one Zen Master would insist that  zazen (sitting meditation) puts one in natural accord with the world, another would point out the awkward fact that animals, generally seen as paid up members of the world of “nature”, don’t meditate.

Everyone contradicted each other. I like that fact, and I like it in music. Teachers, musicians and theorists can’t agree on anything (if they are worth the name)…Stravinsky said “I prefer thinking to understanding, for thinking is active and continuous, like composing, while to understand is to bring to an end.” That sums it up. Staying awake, never resting. Be awake for when the details reveal themselves, use attention that is “active and continuous”. Keep your eyes peeled, my dad used to say. 

Attention to detail. For me that’s all it is. Detail takes you beyond “Zen”, it cuts to ribbons the Japanese robes, unplugs the home keyboard shakuhachis and the fake bells that toll and tinkle, but you need to listen hard. It evicts the corporate hippies who hold thumbs and forefingers together on top of their crossed legs as they say “you have to be a bit more zen about it”. “OK, I will” I think, imagining a large sword that needs, unlike clapping, two hands to hold it and only one good cut to finish the job.

But then, having summed up, look also at the opposite…the big picture, as they say. It’s easy to work on two bars of a tune forgetting that the piece as a whole goes nowhere, or to complain about people not self-isolating when your isolation is conducted in a three bedroom house with a garden. I think these two examples are the same thing. Perhaps that’s the closest to Zen I will get.

 It’s hard to stop your brain churning over ideas. When people say “ah, where does all that music come from?” and you say “10,000 hours of practice” or whatever the new theory is, I think, yes, it’s that, but….it’s also endless microseconds between conversations, washing up, nappy changing and paperwork where your eyes get far off and you start listening to the voices in your head, chords, scales, noises…trying to make sense of them. To put that stuff away so you can engage in “real life” takes as much discipline as the practice that got you there.

Writing these blogs has expunged some of that floating debris and “Z” now feels like the only letter that could ever put a stop to it. Maybe I’ll do another series, starting with Z and working back the other way, a reverse arc that ends on the million possibilities of “A is for…” Or I could tidy the living room, a challenge that rises up like an edifice of unknown alphabets. the room is messy. “…when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink” was Bankei’s retort to questions about the miracle of Zen enlightenment.

The room is messy, so I tidy up. Now bow before me as your new guru while I sweep some more crap under the sofa



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s