The picture to the left is one I took of a carved stone in front of the Myoan Temple in Kyoto, Japan, home of the Myoan shakuhachi school. The two characters carved into the stone mean sui-zen, "blowing zen". To understand the practice of suizen, it makes sense to first understand what Zen is.
Zen can be roughly translated to mean meditation or the meditative state. The aim of meditation in Zen is to reveal the true nature of our minds. Why is the nature of mind not obvious? Because our default mental state is one of continuous chatter, a never ending stream of thoughts that few of us have much control over or even awareness of. These thoughts arise through no will of our own, and obscure the true nature of our minds. If you doubt this, spend the next 30 seconds trying not to think, and you will quickly see that you are unable to stop or control your thoughts. Additionally, our incessant thoughts are tied to our emotions, and they are often the only cause of stress in our lives. Even in genuinely bad situations, our thoughts tend to magnify how bad we feel and how long we feel bad. At the least, meditation is a tool to separate oursleves from the chatter to our fundamental state of clarity and open awareness, and thereby dramatically decreasing stress and increasing wellbeing.
Zen and the practice of Zen are synonymous. There is no doctrine in Zen - nothing that practitioners need to believe. But the practice goes much further than simply decreasing stress and increasing wellbeing. When thoughts are transcended the walls of the self, our conception of who we are, who we have been, and who we need to be are torn down. We simply experience consciousness as unbound as possible. This allows us to experience a profound freedom.
In my view, Zen equals freedom. The practice removes the power of thoughts that obscure our perception of the present and removes the illusory walls built of bricks composed of a lifetime of expectations. At our core, we are nothing more than pure consciousness in the flow of the present. In the present flow there is no yesterday. Yesterday only was. In the present flow there is no tomorrow. Tomorrow only may be. There is only the present flow.When you are not aware of your true nature, your present consciousness, you are not fundamentally awake. To be awake is to be aware in the present flow. The practice of Zen has the potential to wake us up, and to lead to a mental and spiritual freedom that allows for maximum creativity, performance, exploration, and expression.
Zazen, "sitting meditation", is the most common practice of Zen. In theory it is a very simple practice. In reality it takes more effort than one might imagine. The formula for practice is:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your spine and head straight so that your posture is supported as much as possible by bone structure rather than muscular tension. This prevents you from becoming physically tired and having to constantly shift positions.
- Breath naturally. Feel each breath as it comes in and out, being aware of the present flow. You can keep your eyes closed, or open and fixed on a point a couple of meters in front of you. Initially you can count once for each inhalation and exhalation, and when you get to ten, begin again. Once you can do this without losing count, you can count only on each exhalation, and when you get to ten, begin again. Once you can do this without losing count, you can quit counting and simply maintain your attention on the duration of each inhalation and exhalation. When you notice that you have become distracted, simply bring your attention back to the breath.
- Notice sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings arising in your awareness along your breath. Notice how these sensations continuously arise and pass away.
- Do nothing. Drop everything. Simply be the vast space of awareness that all sensations arise in, the true nature of mind.
The successful practice of zazen leads to the transcendence of thought and the experience of unencumbered consciousness in the present flow. There is nothing necessary to believe. It is analogous to turning a light on in a room where you had been sitting in the dark. Once you see the contents of the room and what is possible in it, the memory sticks with you. It fundamentally changes the wiring of your brain. However, the experience and insights gained through zazen can fade without continued practice. The default state of you brain will attempt to reassert itself. It is better to practice regularly. But in any case, you will always have the ability to go back to the practice, returning to your fundamental nature. It is a wonderful tool to have.
Suizen, blowing zen, has the same purpose as zazen. It is an exercise to transcend thinking, experience consciousness as unencumbered as possible, to reveal and rest in the true nature of mind, and reap the benefits that such practice provides. With suizen, instead of sitting and breathing only through the nose or mouth, the practitioner sits or stands and blows through the shakuhachi. There is an additional challenge with suizen, as the practitioner must meditate while doing something else, while playing the shakuhachi. However, this can be done with something as simple as blowing one note repeatedly on exhalation. Additionally, with practice the sound of the shakuhachi can be an object of meditation, a sound arising in the space of the mind, illuminating that space.
Traditional honkyoku music is likely in my opinion to have evolved over time. While it may be possible to meditate during any activity, I find honkyoku that are slower and simpler to be better tools for the job. The Seien Ryu school or lineage is thought to contain some of the oldest honkyoku that were modified less over time, and in Seien Ryu they are played in a more direct and simple style than in many of the other schools. Additionally, the three pieces (Kyorei, Mukaiji, and Koku) that are considered by many to be the oldest and most meditative qualitatively have come from the Seien Ryu school. My teacher, Jon Kypros, starts students with the 11 Seien Ryu honkyoku. In addition to the Seien Ryu honkyoku, I find some of the Jin Nyodo honkyoku I learned from Yodo Kurahashi to be very well suited to suizen, particularly Kyorei, Choshi, and Banshiki. For more information on honkyoku, see my honkyoku music page.