Practicing Zen and All That Jazz

by Michael Elliston, author of The Original Frontier: A Serious Seeker’s Guide to Zen.

Zen is more like jazz than classical music. More like a chart, lead sheet, or fake book of old standards outlining the key and time signatures, chord progressions, and suggested melodies around which we can improvise, rather than a sheet of notation spelling out each note and precise accents, emphasis, and feeling — e.g. adagio versus allegro — attempting to recapture the original musical intent of the composer. Zen is less about faithfully replicating someone else’s experience or expression than it is about playing your own instrument, finding your own melody, voice, and harmony in life. As well as playing nice with others, of course.

Zen is customizable, rather than requiring blind conformance to doctrine or ritual. Zen is nothing if not practical. In light of the fact that our present moment — the only time and place in which we can actually take meaningful action, including practicing Zen — is significantly different from Buddha’s times, or Zen’s cultural legacy in India, China, Japan, and the Far East, this flexibility is part of its appeal. Adapting Zen’s method of meditation, an open-minded attitude toward creative problem-solving in daily life recognizes that the known issues of life in ancient times as well as today — aging, sickness, and death — are still the most salient clear and present dangers.

In Zen, instructions from our forebears are not a set of commandments to follow to the letter, without variation. They are wise suggestions for tried and true, effective methods, or skillful means, to apply in the current context. Descriptions of reality from the perspective of deep insight are combined with prescriptions for practice, as we would receive from any experienced coach, medical doctor, or master teacher. But if the athlete or student is not willing to do the work, no amount of coaching will help much. In this, Zen is not so different from other areas of endeavor in the arts and sciences.

Improvising is the sine qua non of all performing arts, based on imitating our teachers. We must have the flexibility of mind, and humility, to follow our Masters’ instructions faithfully, in order to learn the unteachable. But we must also find the flexibility of mind to innovate, when imitation no longer suffices, owing to changing circumstances. Zen is more like modern dance than ballet. The great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, toward the end of his career and life, staged an entirely improvised performance, including bolts of fabric employed instead of costumes. He danced the real dance, not derivative dance.

My teacher used a similar expression about Zen’s uniquely simple and stripped-down meditation (zazen in Japanese). Matsuoka Roshi would say that when the posture, breath, and attention all come together in a unified way, this is the real zazen. We recognize it on an experiential, rather than a conceptual, level.

There is no way to script your personal performance in detail, other than sharing the ancient, basic instructions for sitting meditation. No way other than doing it yourself, improvising along the way. Otherwise, it is not the real zazen. We all reinvent Zen.

Also like jazz, or dance, we find have to perform Zen with others, including of course our audience. One secret of successful jazz collaborations, as with most communal activities in life, is simply taking turns. One musician, one instrument, cannot dominate, as that would not only be boring but would also lobby against the fundamentally egalitarian nature of jazz and arts in general. Such terms as “trading fours” illustrate this cooperative, collaborative valence, alternately soloing and supporting four measures of the piece in turn, where all three instruments of the trio, four of the quartet, five of the quintet, etc., take solos in turn. Various voices are considered more appropriate for lead solos, including the human voice and favorite instruments, which vary from culture to culture. Others are more often assigned supporting roles, such as the “rhythm section” of drums and bass. Yet, each instrument, in the hands of a master, is capable of carrying a solo. But humility and interdependency are still paramount. A talented guitarist I once played with reminded me one day, “You know, the lead guitar actually follows.”

When playing together at the same time, the voices, from a single violin to the full orchestra, blend in harmony and intensity to create the overall effect, whether symphonic in nature, or in another genre such as blues, reggae, or free jazz.   

Zen is more like reading your own book, rather than lapping up the leftovers of others. However, since we are promoting a book here, we encourage you to exercise some humility again, in considering Original Frontier’s suggestions for a creative approach to your unique experience of Zen, from someone who has been there and done that, made most all of the mistakes that are available in the Zen genre. 

Counting the breath is a good example of how practicing Zen is improvisational in nature, rather than a cookie-cutter approach, wherein everyone adheres to the exact same regimen. We all breathe at slightly different rates, which is natural. If we had a conductor setting the tempo for our breathing, it would not work for most of us. We follow the breath, rather than attempting to control it or conform to a prescribed pattern.

Being able to consistently count the breath in some regular way is not in itself enlightenment, or awakening, but a useful drill, like staying within the tempo of a given tune, or rehearsing scales to develop dexterity and an understanding of the harmonic structure of Western music. Our early efforts on the piano are not yet musical, until the training reaches a turning point, where practice, or rehearsal, becomes performance, or real music.

The same may be said of Zen practice. We “vamp until ready,” practicing in the sense of rehearsal, until our performance reaches a turning point, when we enter into real Zen. Original Frontier is replete with such emancipating analogies and examples, some of which may resonate more with you than others.

I have been frustrated that most books spend too much time on interesting (to the author) but irrelevant asides. Original Frontier is designed to help you cut to the chase in adapting meditation to everyday life and problems.

This “frontier,” as a metaphor, captures the world of meditative insight that Buddha entered into some 2500 years ago. But it is even more relevant for us today, living as we do in challenging times of international conflict and pandemic, a new Age of Uncertainty. Original Frontier, as a book, is a meditation manual for the rest of us, one that anyone can use, whether a beginning novice or an experienced practitioner, to improve upon your personal practice and learn how to meditate in the irreducibly simple method of Zen.

In doing so, we explore the differences between Zen and other forms of meditation, from the smorgasbord of styles on offer today. Zen’s stripped-down approach, unencumbered by doctrine and other excess baggage, will allow you to adapt it to your life, without undue disruption to your daily routine. Zen is designed for do-it-yourself lay practice in an increasingly complex world. Original Frontier is your user’s manual.

About the Author:

Michael Elliston

Zenkai Taiun Michael J. Elliston began his engagement with Zen in the mid-1960s, when he met Rev. Soyu Matsuoka, Roshi, founder and head teacher of the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple, soon becoming his disciple. In the 1970s Elliston founded the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, and in 2010 the Silent Thunder Order, of which he is currently the guiding teacher and Abbot, and which is one of the largest and most active organizations for lay practitioners of Zen in the US today.

Elliston was born into a working class family on a small farm in southern Illinois. He received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech in Chicago, and was the youngest professor in design at the U of I, Chicago Circle Campus, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This background contributes to his unique approach to Zen, from a creativity and design-thinking viewpoint.

To follow up on Elliston’s Serious Seeker’s Guide to Zen, “The Original Frontier,”  exploring the intersection of Zen and design thinking, please visit:

THE ORIGINAL FRONTIER

To listen to his audio podcast, “UnMind — Zen Moments with Great Cloud,” visit:

www.aszc.org/unmind

To read the latest of his blogs, visit:

If you are interested in fine art, you will find Elliston Roshi’s latest works at:

https://www.kailinart.com/elliston-roshi