Blues and Zen by Alan Senauke

Alan Senauke
Alan Senauke is Vice Abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center

I heard a radio piece recently about the demise of "Your Hit Parade," a show that ran on radio and television from the mid-1930s to 1959. Each week "Your Hit Parade" served up versions of the current hits, charting their rise and fall. The show began in the heyday of the American songbook. In those days songwriters like Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter were writing for wonderful song stylists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Judy Garland. The songs were musically and lyrically sophisticated, almost literary. The best singers were polished storytellers using rich, pleasing voices to transport their audiences. As the song goes, "Fly Me To the Moon."

But in 1955 Elvis Presley brought the blues into our middle class home through television's front door. Thereafter, popular songs became simultaneously more plaintive and direct. Musically these songs were repetitive in form, often a 12-bar blues and a half-a-handful of simple chords. The singers, though, sang as if their lives were at stake. I remember watching "Your Hit Parade" as a kid, thinking that network television's in-house singers were sappy, with their impersonal versions of the edgy, compelling rock and roll songs I loved to listen to at night with a new transistor radio under my pillow. These new hits were not easily rendered in Tin Pan Alley versions. They belonged to their singers, who were often the songwriters, too, tapping into deep blues roots. These songs were direct, raw, and personal — their feeling conveyed by a new kind of voice in popular music. Even Sinatra, himself a star singer on the radio for "Your Hit Parade" between 1943 and 1949, moved in this direction and found an intimate new style, lower pitched and rooted in the rhythms of speech. Actually this voice, the sound of blues, country and other ethnic folk styles had always been around in American music. Millions of people listened, played, and loved this music. But it was long ignored by self-appointed guardians of "culture."

"Your Hit Parade" limped on a few more years, but the handwriting was on the wall. This period was a heyday for many kinds of "vernacular" music — urban blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, rock and roll — all marked by a strong personalism and expression, which by the mid-sixties led directly to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and others who radically transformed American culture by building on its roots. The music never looked back.

At this point you may well be asking, "What does this have to do with Zen?" In the same moment that music was changing and "Your Hit Parade" was making a last curtain call, the practice of Zen was appearing on these shores. D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts had sketched out philosophical and East Asian cultural dimensions of Zen. Beat poets and writers on the West Coast had eagerly consumed all available Zen literature in English (and created some of their own) in an attempt to find an alternative to America's choking atmosphere of materialism. A handful of adventurers like Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Robert Aitken, Philip Kapleau, and Gary Snyder actually went to Japan, and studied with masters at their temples. Still, Zen in America was an abstract thing, philosophy and fantasy combined. No one yet had taught Zen as a rigorous yogic practice to be done with one's body and mind. That was all about to change.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi came to San Fransciso in 1959. From 1962 to 1969 Yasutani Roshi crisscrossed America leading sesshin, week-long retreats with sixteen hour days of vigorous sitting meditation. Maezumi Roshi came to the U.S. in 1956, and founded Zen Center of Los Angeles a decade later. These Zen pioneers are our bluesmen, the Zen equivalent of Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf, and Muddy Waters. In the 1960s thousands of young people bought guitars and studied scratchy records in search of something authentic in ourselves. In the same cultural moment thousands (some of those same young people who took up the blues) came to Zen centers and temples to practice and emulate the old Zen guys. We applied ourselves to zazen, meditation, so we might encounter our true selves. Like the early generations of blues singers, our original Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Zen teachers have now passed to the other shore. But their disciples keep the practice alive.

Like Zen, the blues is a simple form capable of infinite variety and deep personal expression. It's teaching is about the heart of suffering. Each verse is different. Each voice is different. Even when words and melody seem formulaic, there is a mysterious, unique character to each performance. The blues singer's cry is hymn to the fact of the First Noble Truth — that life is marked by suffering. The blues offers its own path of liberation, right through the lonely heart of the suffering itself.

Zazen is like this. Where some Buddhist traditions have highly evolved meditations, visualizations, and devotions, the Zen method of shikantaza, or just sitting, is the practice of awareness, return, and renewal. Any Zen practitioner will tell you zazen is repetitive, but they can never exactly say what is repeated. You never arrive at the same place twice. Any Zen practitioner can tell you that sooner or later there will be pain — in legs, in mind, in heart. We are taught to sit with pain, keep close company with it, and notice how it transforms. Pain never stays the same. The blues is like that.

Intimacy is a shared quality — intimate with joy, with pain, with the smallest details and things of our life. Zen Master Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate." In the deepest not-knowing of lost love, Ray Charles sings:

Now my covers they feel like lead
and my pillow it feels like stone,
Well, I've tossed and turned so every night,
I'm not used to being alone!
I live on a lonely avenue...

The words convey intimacy. The voice emanating from grooves in my well-worn record of "Lonely Avenue" leaves no doubt. If zazen is not just as intimate, it misses the point. But it is not a simple point. Moment to moment reality is made up of feelings, perceptions, and formations in an ever-changing stream. The rocks and rubble and ordinary things of life are compelling detail; immediacy is both within and beyond them. It is the mark of zazen itself, and of the song in the very moment it is sung and in the moment it is heard. Even though we can capture a song on magnetic tape or digital disc, immediacy arises fresh in each listening. Every time I listen to Ray Charles sing I hear something new.

There is another quality shared by blues and Zen. Blues singers and Zen masters are simultaneously mysterious and accessible. They are close to their students and audience, living among them, sharing the same food and drink, the same kind of life. "Ordinary mind is the way." Whether on stage or in the dharma seat, a master's gift is to express herself or himself completely, authentically. Descending from the seat or stage, there is an ordinary quality that allows us to identify with them. We feel "I'd like to be like them." Our practice suggests that we actually could, although this means being ourself. This is a rare quality in a culture like ours where celebrity is idolized and deconstructed to look "just like us." Ordinary mind and ordinary life is not what you see on the cover of People magazine.

Within the ordinary, the extraordinary shines forth. The gift of a master is the unique way he or she can express things. The simple principles of reality become rough-hewn poetry. For example, Bob Dylan expounds on impermanence.

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts.
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken.

Across a thousand years, masters from two traditions seem to respond each other. In case eight of the Gateless Barrier, the classic Zen koan collection, teacher Yueh-an speaks to a monk:

Hsi-chung made a hundred carts. If you take off both wheels and the axles, what would be vividly apparent?

From twentieth-century Chicago, Howling Wolf turns himself inside out, offering what one could easily take as a perfect response to Yueh-an, throwing in a trademark howl for good measure.

Smokestack lightnin'
Shinin', just like gold
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?
A-whoo-hooo!

These traditions are simultaneous tough and fragile. The blues and Zen have endured radical transplanting — across an ocean, from rural to urban, and over time. While our first teachers were with us, there was no question about their tradition's vitality. Now we must concern ourselves with adaptation and authenticity. I don't mean authenticity in the sense of imitation. There are many sub-genres of music, say like Dixieland jazz, where the old masters' solos have been absorbed note for note and beat for beat, and yet the essence is completely missing. Similarly, Zen practitioners in the west can copy the robes and rituals and forms of our teacher's teachers, without making Zen our own. Making the music and the practice one's own is the real mystery.

I started playing bluegrass, blues, Cajun, and old-time music forty some-odd years ago, when I was an upper-middle-class disenchanted Jewish high school kid from the suburbs of New York. These related forms of Southern folk music touched a nerve. Even though the music flowed from sources far distant from my own upbringing, it resonated with something inside me that I still don't understand. My friends and I learned by soaking up all the old recordings we could find. As soon as we were old enough we began to travel south to learn from the great old musicians, who were often eager to teach. Their time was limited and they knew this was one last chance to pass on the music to a next generation. These old guys did not generally mind our strange city ways. They were happy to have young people really pay attention.

Clearly I was never going to be southern, or Black, or hillbilly, or a good Christian. But many like myself learned our music as close as we could. We paid attention to the elements and nuances of traditional styles, and we could imitate such styles and techniques pretty well. But decades of playing and learning lead beyond technique. The music became our own, something new in the world. Sounds of the old south melded with the sounds we heard around us in the cities. The music came through our bodies, our fingers, our voices. We subtly or radically reworked the songs that had been given to us. If one could listen right, one could hear all the old sounds evolve according to time and place. Not necessarily better music, but honest and true to our selves.

This is also the path of Zen in America. We spend long days and years in upright, cross-legged meditation. We go to the mountains to live and study at monasteries. Some of us go to train in Japan. But no matter what we do, we will not become medieval Japanese monks. Thank god. So we are finding our own ways to embody Zen, ways that respect the old forms, without being stuck on them. Zen is life, and so the forms must be our own, or they are just lifeless imitation. I don't see this as an abstraction but as an encouragement to practice.

It is worth thinking about the hit parade again. Popular music is the essence of impermanence. Hit songs rise to the surface and sink back into the pool of "oldies."

Styles change constantly. There was a time — lasting about twenty or twenty five years — when I prided myself on knowing all the hits. Now, when my teenage kids turn on the radio, I haven't a clue. There are new bands, new sounds, even new sentiments. I guess it's always like that. But the old songs abide. They stay alive because they contain something true. So people keep playing and singing them.

The hit parade of Zen begins about sixteen hundred years ago in China. The old poems and stories and koans are our village songs. The repertoire grows with each generation. My teacher, Sojun Roshi, is always telling stories about Suzuki Roshi — about the look in his eye when you met at the door, about sharing a cup of tea, about just how it felt to be around him. And we, in turn, will tell stories about Sojun Roshi. These stories will be dramatic and mundane: how Sojun could suddenly bring forth a turning word of truth, how he would always do the dishes when we had dinner at his house, how — out of the corner of my eye I could see his nodding sleepy shadow on the wall during sesshin. Actually there is truth in all of these activities. Our stories must bring forth the truth in our own voice, just as the old blues and Zen tales do. This voice has depth and expressiveness, avoids hokum and cleverness.

We will never see the like of these old singers again. Our immediate cultural memory goes from Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Robert Johnson, Bill Monroe, and Muddy Waters, to hip-hop and rap artists whose work I'm embarrassed to say I don't know. But modern musicians like Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Lauryn Hill, and the Dixie Chicks consciously pay tribute to their roots. Each musical generation consciously or unconsciously absorbs the notes, timing, and style of all that came before. As Zen settles in the West this is what we have to do. It is a post-modern koan. Can I cherish the tradition without getting stuck there?

In our Zen world, the teachers who doggedly and patiently brought the practice from Japan to America are no longer with us either. Now their students transmit Zen to us, and we, in turn, are bound to pass it to the next generation. There is the idea that a Zen student is supposed to surpass the teacher. How could this be possible? I can't imagine myself even getting close. But my brother Norman Fischer, who also has wrestled with this question, writes, "Each student must be completely himself or herself, find his or her own way, express his or her uniqueness in the dharma." Maybe in Zen to "surpass" means wholeheartedly to accept falling short. Being willing to be a "blind donkey."

As the great Zen Master Lin-chi lay dying, he asked his disciple San-sheng a dharma question and praised him, saying, "Who would have thought that the essence of my true dharma would be destroyed by this blind donkey?" With luck and perseverance, we can also grow up to become blind donkeys. Come to think of it, this might be a pretty good name for a blues singer.