Enlightenment and “Enlightenment”

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ December 15th, 2011. Filed under: World Music Studies.

A few weeks ago, during the final classes of my ethnomusicology course (M328C) I once again taught my unit on the Japanese vertical flute called the shakuhachi, and the influence of Zen Buddhism on its sacred solo music.  “Zen Shakuhachi” was the focus of my first excursion into music research, using my newly acquired knowledge of ethnomusicology and buddhology, following my initial fascination with Alan Watts. My field study in Kyoto and Kobe consisted of participating in group lessons and private instruction supplemented with extended explanations of the influence of Zen Buddhism. Essentially, I was learning how to play the Japanese flute, building on my training as a professional flutist. Some of that research was encapsulated in a Master of Music Thesis, The San Koten Honkyoku of the Kinko Ryū (The Three Sacred Traditional Melodies of the Kinko School) but unfortunately there wasn’t space or time to include the detailed lessons I received in the Taizan ryū (対山流) school of Zen Shakuhachi, associated with Meian-ji (明暗寺), the home temple of the lay komusō (虚無僧). I wish I could claim to be alone and unique in the study of Zen Buddhism and the shakuhachi, but many others have investigated the same ground, even more so in the last few years with the advent of the internet and its DIY blogs. Still, I may have one particular and unique point of view; I find it interesting to triangulate Zen Buddhist shakuhachi music with Western Art Music (WAM) and its educational music institutions.

Deep Practice and Deep Listening

Of course, advanced music students in universities and conservatories already expand their traditional knowledge with brief, Zen-inspired encounters. Coyle’s “deep practice” is often cited by private music instructors, and Barry Green’s populist tradebooks, The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry (2005) and The Inner Game of Music (1986) sit on many a teacher’s shelf of core reference books. In musicology classes, music students are introduced to John Cage et al. His music of silence (4’33”) was partially inspired by Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), Japan’s great Zen Buddhist philosopher, during Suzuki-sensei’s residency at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957. Cage sat in on his lectures. The above Western names are only a small sample of the many authors who have explored the intersection of Zen Buddhism and music, and written a range of materials from self-help manuals to philosophical reflections. But these readings are understandably ephemeral to main-stream music studies.


As I prepared my lecture notes this Fall, I found myself marvelling at the quandary of the word “enlightenment” as described and understood in the West and the East. Music students are somewhat aware of the former, given that their musical heroes such as Bach and Mozart sought to emulate Voltaire’s spirit of enlightenment, if not his atheism. The musical discourse of Western Art Music is, at its heart, “enlightened” with its blend of rational expectations and calculated surprises. Western Art music compositions have even inspired non-musicians to be equally thoughtful and intellectually engaged, be they politicians or philosophers. The academic study of music also aspires to be rational, even ultra-rational, raising musicology from its pedestrian place in the Humanities to a starring role in the Social Sciences.

Still, in the West’s headlong rush to create the Age of Reason in the eighteenth century, WAM encountered a wall that could only be breached by the spontaneous misadventures of the Romantics. Now, that early spirit of triumphant rationalism is parodied by Data, Tuvok and Seven of Nine. But regardless of our modern-day scepticism about the salvation of logic, science in general, and music theory in particular, is still deeply immersed in its mastery.


So what is the nature of Zen “enlightenment”? First, it helps to understand two points of view. There is the vast wave of religious Buddhismt where the powers of heavenly others ( tariki 他力)  are invoked by faith and prayer.  Then there is the thin stream of those who carve their own paths (i.e. jiriki 自力) with the temporary assistance of a master (guru, roshi, etc.).

Second, we must let go of the word “spiritual”, at least in the sense of redemption and peace of mind. As one famous Zen monk said, “now that I’m enlightened, I’m as miserable as ever”.

Third, we are assured that the epiphany of Zen enlightenment cannot be arrived at by logic. Bodhidharma, the South Asian monk who founded Zen Buddhism in China, declared in no uncertain terms that the tools to achieve Buddhist enlightenment were “教外別傳  (kyōge betsuden) A special transmission outside the scriptures; 不立文字  (furyū monji) Not dependent on words and letters; 直指人心  (jikishi ninshin) Directly pointing to the human mind; 見性成佛 (kenshō jōbutsu) Seeing into one’s own nature, attaining Buddhahood”.

Buddhologists are well aware of the irony in the vow to let go of words and letters, given the vast literature that has been generated by Buddhism over the last 2500 years. The core sacred texts, called the Tripiṭaka (大蔵経 Daizōkyō), alone occupy several metres of library shelf space, and a visit to any New Age bookstore will reveal hundreds more books devoted to Buddhism. On the other hand, the profuse literature clearly shows that Zen Buddhism is most certainly not anti-intellectual. In some schools of Buddhism, logic is used to an extreme degree to illustrate the futility of logic. This radical introspection has prompted academics to see parallels in the writings of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, (1724-1804) (Critique of Pure Reason). Recent writings by critical theorists such as Steven Heine and Dale Wright have turned the postmodern gaze towards the classic writings of Zen Buddhism in an effort to purge Western affectations from Eastern reality.

Enlightenment, called kenshō  (見性), by Bodhidharma and everybody else in the history of Zen Buddhism, is arrived at by a judicious confluence of traditional meditation techniques, mindfulness, and random-based epiphany. This third condition is particularly curious, and aggravating to some, because it disallows the steady progress of logic through time to a final flash of acumen that resembles Archimedes’ “eureka!”

The literature in Buddhism is filled with circuitous descriptions of “enlightenment”, the consequences of that awareness, or the factors that must come to play before that awareness can be achieved. In all these places, Buddhism resembles post-modernism.  For example, postmodernists are quick to point out that truth is relative. Buddhists have known this from time immemorial because they have plumbed the depths of truth, only to find that it consists of “nothingness”, or rather “no thingness”.  Along with all aspects of reality, truth is in a constant state of “dependent origination”, pratītyasamutpāda (緣 起, engi), another name for cultural and even physical relativity.

In short, Western Enlightenment is rooted in essentialism and Eastern enlightenment in existentialism (but without the dead hand of fatalism). The binary is reminiscent of modernism and postmodernism.

Enlightened Musicking

So what does enlightenment hold for musicians? In WAM, Western enlightenment is manifested in the patient construction of a composition, the unraveling and quiet discovery of the inner mechanism of a piece of music, or the victory of a great performance after intense preparation, followed by adulation and perhaps a career. In Zendō ( 禅道), the way of concentration (“attention!”), enlightenment has consequences not tied to reason or personal gain. Certainly it is not the disastrous conclusion suggested by Herman Hesse in his magisterial book Magister Ludi, where the glass bead-game master realizes the futility of his ultimate game of universal logic, and drowns himself in a lake. In The Ten Oxherding Pictures and accompanying poems, we are given hints of the stages of progress toward enlightenment, culminating in the tenth edict, a return to society in order to spread enlightenment. This notion has been embraced in popular culture by the Naruto series, one of the best selling manga of all time. The protagonist has a technique named “Kakuan Entering Society with Bliss-Bringing Hands,” a kind of Buddhist “pay-it-forward”.

Perhaps today’s postmodern musician can synthesize both “enlightenments”, despite their seeming diametrical opposition. The result would not be essentially spiritual, rational, or logical, but it would provide a focused and useful lens for the serious student of music and life. Buddhists call it madhyamaka (Japanese: 中觀派Chūgan ha) – The Middle Way.

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