New Years' Zen

At the centre rear of the altar sat a golden Buddha Shakyamuni, six feet tall sitting in equipoise, radiant, strong and peaceful.  On his left Chijang Bosal, Korean bodhisattva of great vow, shining in victorious joy, on his right Kwan Seum Bosal, bodhisattva of compassion, generous and bottomless, all  three of them undeniably flying high and grounded, beyond inspired, embodiments of inspiration itself.

In front of them a sitar lying on its back, some light percussions, two flutes. There were several sitting cushions, incense, flowers, offering bowls and candles.  Beside the altar a large iron gong on one side, a six foot high colourful Korean ceremonial drum on the other.   Monks in robes quietly ushered in familiar and unfamiliar participants, all of them shoeless.

Sunim, the Zen master was away in Chicago. We all had sangha names.  Mine was Kongch’aek (Empty Book).  When Sunim gave me this name he said “because you like to write” but I suspected other meanings.

The ceremony was immediately following a five-day retreat where the monks and some temple members spent the entire time in silence, meditating ten times daily, sleeping on the floor, chanting, and using minimal water or resources.

A week earlier, for the occasion of this ceremony Sunim had asked Bop si, my composer friend from the Mexico temple to write a melody to the chant that had been performed for over 25 years, previously spoken.  When the melody was revealed to Sunim he felt it was too dark or too challenging, and somehow, the task fell on me to write an alternate for Bop si to present to him.  I really worked to find the simplest, positive few notes that would convey the meaning, which was about dedication of peace and joy for all.  This was to be sung by all those present while they circumambulated with candles at the end of the New Year ceremony.  Happily the second version was approved by Bop si, and then by the big guy, Sunim.  One thing led to another and we ended up designing a structure for an improvised  live musical accompaniment for the whole service, formed a little group and rehearsed with the presiding priest, Anicca.  It was a complete honour to have Ron Allen, spiritual master of reeds and flutes as the key player on our altar.

The event included rituals handed down from Zen master to Zen master of the Korean Chogye order. All was still, lights were dimmed, and we sat in contemplative silence for awhile.  Sitting on the stage with these wonderful beings, Ron, Anica, Bop si and the other musicians, it felt like an auspicious moment. Sunim’s description of a “Zen moment” was “Intimate, Spontaneous, Immediate, and Obvious.”  This and other things he had imparted to me flowed through my mind here and there during the proceedings.

We all had to write on a piece of paper one thing we did that caused harm or hurt  to another during this past year, and one thing someone did to us that caused harm or hurt.  We listened to Anicca’s Dharma talk about allowing others their path with forbearance, we chanted “Ma-um, my mind is peace, my mind is love”, the pieces of paper were collected by the monks and ritualistically burned the placed in a large brass vat of cleansing water, while we resolved to forgive those who we feel harmed us and forgive ourselves for harming others, resolving not to repeat such actions..

Brian D’Oliveira gently plucked the sitar against the tamboura droan, I kept delicate meter with light percussions and Ron Allen masterfully brought us to heaven in sorrow and joy with his high flute drifting around us.

Few words were spoken, many smiles were exchanged.  We culminated by circumambulating in two opposite direction circles carrying candles, a hundred voices gloriously singing the little melody  I was honoured to create for the occasion.  Then we broke out some beers and joints and played “I Want To Be An Anarchist” by the Sex Pistols (just kidding).

This event showed me a bit about what music is, what sound is. The thought occurred that music as we usually experience it, could be thought of as a kind of propaganda. In that case (of “regular” music process), the writer assembles phrases h/she feels are beautiful or moving and then exhibit them to the listener – “see what I have done –listen to my version of “sound” in this moment, this is my version of what is beautiful.” 

To listen to the composer’s creation you must stop listening to the sound and the silence that is already here.  Even in the silence is a broad and rich array of sound movement, a harmonious, amazing symphony occurring at all times.   Sound is all around us and we stop from it to attend the program given us by suggestion, often created with specific ulterior motives - i.e. “impure” in a sense.  In life we are bombarded with advertisements, back to back music in restaurants, people talking about their concerns and ideas, this story you are reading, songs on the radio.  Of course, all this is  worthwhile and even beautiful taken in a very broad context of understanding, but in another sense, none of it can compare to that which is underlying. 

At this ceremony there was indeed “programmed” sound, talking and music, but here it was viewed in its place, at the deeply insightful guidance of Sunim and the way of Zen..  After days of silent meditation, and as an encouragement to be still more often, the chanting and supportive peaceful accompaniment was treated as a departure from silence, as a momentary support and enhancement.  It was drawn from a long tradition of ancient phrases and suggestions, tried and true, tested by masters of hundreds of years.  And the aspect of all present participating made it a one-ness motivation, a convergence of spirit.  That was different from the situation of performing loud your work for an audience, perhaps in hopes of them buying your CD or at least wining them over to feel you have done good work, etc.

Of course it’s all good and it all has its place, but this was a lesson in seeing another side to it.

Happy New Year!



LIsten to this zen community chanting: Three Refuges

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