Blowing Zen

The shakuhachi flute is a very difficult instrument to play, let alone master. It demands very precise air management. In reality, you are only playing air. The flute is simply a channel. Gaining skill as a player requires a very focused mind. In Japan playing the shakuhachi is often referred to as “Blowing Zen.”

I recently began to rekindle my experience with this instrument after years away from practice. When the shakuhachi arrived, it took me awhile to make a sound. Old feelings surfaced with memories of beginning the silver flute, French horn, piano, guitar, and all the instruments I played in the past or currently. But this flute surpasses all others in difficulty. 

Yet, I did make a sound—and another, and another, until the semblance of a tune seemed to take form. I have to dig deep to regain my breath control and volume—a good practice for my 70-year-old self. It is amazing how that muscle we call the diaphragm, so necessary for a simple breath, requires a lot of exercise to manage breath in precise ways. I am grateful I am still able to relearn something new all over again.

“Beginner’s mind”, as D.T. Suzuki would say, is the best way to approach anything. When we remain open to meeting something fresh and new, all possibilities exist. We can explore realms beyond the conditioned mind and discover things hidden to us. I experience this each time I play the shakuhachi and each time I meditate. Blowing Zen seems an appropriate term.

Focusing on the breath calls the mind home. But we have to exercise the diaphragm of awareness, the root of our wisdom mind. Next time you think you are ‘blowing it’ instead of blowing Zen, settle your mind, breathe—and become the breath inside the breath. Who is it that breathes?

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