29 November 2011

Reading vs Doing Koans

The other week in teisho there was a reference to Bach's "Partita No. 2 in D minor."  When I looked up the article the teisho was making use of, up came a picture of the score to the piece.

I've had a little bit of musical training; I've sung in choirs and I play the guitar.  But I've never achieved the level of musical training that would make me competent to sit down, look at a piece of Bach, and begin to understand what I was looking at.  "There's a C#," I could offer, and I can tell the difference between an 8th and a 16th note in a measure.  If I were to have next to the Bach, say, a bit of Philip Glass, I could certainly see a difference in the structure of the two pieces and make note of Bach's abundance and Glass' paucity.  And that would be about it.

Now I could spend a lot of my free time doing this business of picking up pieces of sheet music and taking such forays into them.  Everyone has a hobby.  I might even tell my friends something about it, since I'm finding it to be such an agreeable thing to do, and I want them to share my joy.  If I did it long enough, I might even feel unembarrassed to invite strangers to listen to what I have to say about these pieces, and if I were at all entrepreneurial, I might even charge them for it.  If I were so stationed, I could include such an exercise as part of a college course called "Comparative Sheet Music" or "Explorations of Musical Expression."  I could dole out A's to people whose mastery of this skill begins to equal mine.

All this without even knowing how to play the pieces in question.  In truth, I may never have even listened to them being played!

Today I'm going to be giving some basic meditation instruction to a colleague's class.  I'm happy to do this, and I'm glad of the opportunity.  I'm a bit concerned, though, because as part of the readings for the course my colleague assigned The Blue Cliff Record.  I see on the syllabus that they were to have discussed the text a few weeks back.

If a question about koan practice comes up, I'm afraid I'm going to have to break them the bad news that they were engaged in a practice as questionable as my discussions about sheet music.  I'm going to want to tell them about koan practice using a variation on what the teisho article author's violin teacher told him about Bach:
This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.
“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the fucking music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.
Then again, maybe not.  After all, we're just talking about a class requirement in a 3-credit course offered at a small-to-medium sized church-related comprehensive university in the Midwest.  Right?

Instead, maybe someone in the room will catch a bit of the spark that will make them want to take up koans like one takes up the violin and Bach.  Maybe they'll let themselves be exposed day in and day out, year in and year out.  Maybe, one day, they'll actually play the fucking koan and know something of what it must be like to have Bach flowing in and among and through and across marrow, bone, flesh, skin, wood, gut string, and horsehair.

And oh how sweet that will be!

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