…there seem to be two sides to Zen. One is the diligent practice. We alone are responsible for showing up time and again…Then there’s the other side… the “matter of extraordinary wonder,” the reality we are all part of, the great fact, the great vehicle, the one body, the “vast and void,” as Bodhidharma called it, the “all-encompassing hole,” as Keizan Zenji called it…
I used to play the trombone. As a child it was all orchestral, classical music. The trombones would sit at the back of the orchestra counting their bars’ rest then play the odd note. The instrument was basically a bit of extra color that composers seemed to like to dab in here and that. That was fine by us. It was what we had practiced and trained hard to be able to do.
Then as a young adult a contact in London offered me a gig in the horn section of a soul-funk band. One rehearsal, one show, and I’d hit a turning point. I had never imagined trombone playing could be so exhilarating. I started to get asked to play in other bands around London, in West Indian music, and rock and soul, then in a “world music” band that was getting a lot of work on tour in Europe. For a while I was a busy professional musician.
In the midst of that world a musician friend once showed me a bootleg recording of what he called the best trombone playing he’d ever heard. It had been secretly recorded in a church in the American South – something called a “shout band.”
In some churches, apparently, instead of singing or shouting or swooning and talking in tongues, some evangelical Christians would pick up a trombone. They had huge “choirs” of trombones. Sometimes people who had never played would suddenly be inspired, and would go on up to the altar, grab a trombone, and find that they could play – not just fine but beautifully.
The trombone is not an easy instrument. It takes a year or two even to get a decent sound out of it, and many more to play it competently. Yet some of these people defied the laws of music. They could play magnificently straight off. No practice, no lessons. They just picked it up and played.
The friend hit the “on” button on his bootleg. He was right. I’d never heard anything approaching this music. The players soared effortlessly up to high notes, making their instruments sing. Their low notes came out fat and resonant, and the middle register was a glory of harmony. They played perfectly in tune, their tones all harmonizing into a glorious chorale effect. And all along there was a thrilling rhythm, a beat driving them urgently on. You could feel the inspiration that had them playing so tightly they played as one. And my friend reckoned there were 30 of them.
It was a revelation of what music could be, and what an ensemble could be.
So what does all this have to do with our practice, our training, our life as Zen practitioners? First, there’s no telling what Sangha can do, what being together in silence, and dropping all our collective preconceptions, may allow to happen.
Second, there seem to be two sides to Zen. One is the diligent practice. We alone are responsible for showing up time and again: oh, I’ve been on a train of thought, that’s all – so I come back to the next breath. Time and again. Diligent practice, at which we will always “fail.” And we learn to be totally okay with that. And paying attention through the day. I’m driving. I’m eating. I’m feeling rushed – just noticing what is actually going on.
Then there’s the other side, which in a sense all the practice is a preparation for receiving and embodying: the FACT, the “matter of extraordinary wonder,” the reality we are all part of, the great fact, the great vehicle, the one body, the “vast and void,” as Bodhidharma called it, the “all-encompassing hole,” as Keizan Zenji called it.
There’s no telling what it can do. It can do anything. It needs no practice. Everything is its practice. It is boundless, limitless, and bursting with infinite potential. The entire history of Zen is no more than its footstool, its handmaid, its beadle.
They used to call the trombone the “voice of the angels” in 16th and 17th century Europe. Those trombone choirs in the South – I guess they wouldn’t be surprised to hear that.
Image: Sun by Gerd Altman, from pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain