Sitting on my back porch in the midst of a humid thunderstorm earlier this week, I was reminded of a June afternoon several years ago during my first trip to Japan, when I sat in a small teashop in Nara, Japan, watching a similar storm pass by, leaving the dense humidity unabated. I found myself there for the quadrennial World Shakuhachi Festival, held in Kyoto in 2012, at the urging of my shakuhachi teacher, Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin.
In case you’re not familiar, the shakuhachi is an end-blown Japanese flute that was used by a sect of Zen Buddhist monks as a meditation tool, as well as being used in a variety of Japanese classical and folk music. The flute itself is structurally quite simple, carved from a straight piece of bamboo. The shakuhachi has five holes and is tuned to a minor pentatonic scale; and while it can play a wide variety of music (you can also easily play western music by using fingering combinations that involve partially covered holes), its "original music" (honkyoku, in Japanese) is a repertoire meant to facilitate meditative practice (sui zen, or "blowing zen"). It has a breathy, earthy timbre, which lends it a somewhat haunting quality.
Having studied the shakuhachi for a number of years – and the Japanese martial art of aikido for about fifteen years at that point – I was eager to experience Japan firsthand, so I joined Ronnie and number of his other shakuhachi students for this once-in-a-lifetime event. It was a wondrous two weeks filled with music, aikido practice, personal reflection, and exploration. From the first morning, I developed my own regimen of going to the local Buddhist temple to join the monks and lay people for the early morning prayer service (since they were praying in Japanese, it was easy to have my own prayer time, and still be part of a praying community), followed by an early morning aikido class.
Ronnie, having studied in Japan for a number of years, was fluent in the language, and took us to many of the important cultural sites in central Japan. The ancient capitols of Japan – Kamakura, Nara, and – of course – Kyoto itself, were filled with breathtaking temples and rich history. Ronnie brought to the trip a wonderful balance of deep affection for the land – with a simultaneous awareness of its foibles – that allowed us as his students to engage with awe but not to romanticize it. At that point, I had been studying with Ronnie for over a decade, and had developed a deep appreciation for his brilliant musicianship.
I have also come to truly love the instrument itself, which is not only a musical outlet for me, but has also, through the years, become an important part of my spiritual life. The honkyoku repertoire is composed in a way that is intended to both lengthen the breath and calm the spirit. I have found that it reliably calms my spirit – and, perhaps more importantly, it also acts as an insightful diagnostic tool. Listening to the sound of my own breath through the flute is often a very helpful way of understanding "the state of my soul" (to use John Wesley's phrase). This music helps me understand my present mental/spiritual state, and the intentionality of breathing helps move me to a different, more centered place.
Ronnie, my friend and teacher in this wonderful discipline, died two weeks ago of a heart attack. Though a resident of New York, Ronnie spent most of his career traveling up and down the eastern seaboard, teaching students in different cities. In fact, he was supposed to have spent this past weekend staying at my house and teaching lessons to our DC dojo in my living room. As I sat on the porch this week, watching this lovely evocative -- Japanese-like -- rain, I was acutely aware of his absence, and grateful for the many ways that he impacted my life.
As have many others over the past two weeks, I have played Banshiki several times for Ronnie -- a Buddhist piece composed to help the spirit of the dead transition smoothly from one life to the next. That is my prayer for Ronnie. He was a consummate musician, a generous spirit, a wonderful sensei, and a good friend. I will miss him dearly.