Monday, 26 May 2008

Performing Buddha

Last night I briefly fell asleep on the sofa while watching a documentary about Russia, and so my late-night sitting-zen was fresher than usual. It occurred to me that I would like to translate GYOBUTSU not as "acting buddha" but as "grooving buddha" or "buddha in the groove." The original Chinese character GYO looks like railway lines; it has connotations, to me at least, of carrying on, easily, going with the flow, in a groove. And instead of "dignified behaviour" I thought I would like to translate YUIGI as "integrity."

I would like to get away from the manufactured dignity of professional Zen actors and performers. You know what I mean -- so-called Dharma-heirs who are lay men and yet call each other "Venerable So and So," and like to sign off with "Gassho" or protestations of their desire for universal peace and compassion. "Get away" is probably not strong enough. I would like to kick that kind of dignity in the bollocks.

But the danger with this line of thought is that it can all too easily turn into performing as non-buddha. But that is not it, either.

Is it that, in the middle way between the thesis of performing as buddha and the anti-thesis of acting as non-buddha, there is a synthesis -- a middle way of buddha grooving in the flow? No, that is not it, either.

In the background to the above musings was a conversation I had over the weekend with a Zen practitioner who is also a pianist, a musical performer. He asked me in a follow-up email if I thought there was more virtue in the lotus posture than in performing. My reply was this:

There is no virtue in the full lotus posture. Manifesting the full lotus posture is always the doing of a little performance -- a la Yoga, a la virtuoso concert pianist, a la virtuoso Alexander maestro.

The jewel in the lotus is sitting itself.

What I mean by sitting is just the right thing doing itself, and nothing but the right thing doing itself -- sitting that is in no way tainted by my fearful old self desiring to win the approval of others, by doing its little performance.

It is, as Nelly Ben-Or truly says, usually hidden from me.

With these thoughts still circulating in my body-mind, some time in the early hours of this morning I phoned Gudo Nishijima at his office in Ichigaya, as I usually would to clarify any point in Shobogenzo that I wanted to clarify. Invariably I would hear him singing out in his usual formulaic way, "Hello? Oh, please come!" But this time what I heard was a long pause, in which I realized Gudo was choking in his effort to fight back tears. Eventually he told me "Better .... carry on ... by ... yourself." There was another long pause in which I was aware of the possibility of saying some healy-feely words. But I didn't go down that path. I simply said, "OK" and put the phone down.

So all this is the background to what translated itself for me this morning -- under the title of "The Integrity of Buddha In the Groove."

"Dignity" or "Dignified Behaviour" would be closer to the literal meaning of YUIGI. But I like integrity. So integrity it is.


lxg said...

Hi Mike,

I have to say that 'Grooving Buddha' or 'Buddha in the Groove' really appeals to my drummer's sensibility. It made me think of another American expression often used by drummers which means the same thing - 'being in the pocket' or 'filling the pocket' or 'playing in the pocket'. This describes those moments when the rhythm section (usually drums, bass, guitar) are effortlessly playing together as one unit, somehow finding the right place to nail the beat. Funnily enough it also just occurred to me that when the music is 'in the groove' one would say that the 'music is sitting' or that the 'groove is sitting' or that one is 'sitting in a groove'.

Anyway I like 'Buddha in the Groove' or, for my own personal use, 'Buddha in the Pocket'.


Mike Cross said...

Thanks Alex,

What would be interesting to observe, from an Alexander point of view, is how each individual member of the rhythm section is wearing his or her head when playing in the pocket.

Is it possible truly to be in the pocket without integrity in the head-neck-back relation?

And, if the two are observed to go together, which is primary: getting in the groove, or freeing the head, neck and back relative to each other?

What I do know from experience is that if some clumsy teacher intervenes to straighten out his student's posture, and if that student is stupid and naive enough blindly to have placed his trust in the clumsy intervenionst teacher, so that the stupid student, trying to obey the teaching of the clumsy teacher, positively cultivates a strong habit of dis-integrating himself, pulling his chin strongly back and down into his own neck, that is not a good recipe for getting and staying in the groove.

It is a good recipe for self-suppression -- sitting down and shutting up, as opposed to sitting up and speaking up!

lxg said...

I recall a rehearsal for a gig which took place a couple of weeks ago before which I hadn't been near my drums for some weeks. In the meantime I'd been having regular Alexander work and I found (at the beginning) that without trying I couldn't help but be bang in the groove. It was fresh and easy. I wasn't dragging the music down or rushing ahead.

Inevitably it didn't stay that way for long and I soon started reverting to old ways, failing to stay in the groove. I was failing to maintain integrity in the head, neck, back relationship, 'sitting down' as opposed to 'sitting up' as you put it.

I think Alexander work has indirectly led to a heightening of my awareness of where the notes should be in space and of what is not being in the groove - at least some of the time.

Since the last phone call we had I've been thinking about listening in Sitting. In fact I've been consciously making an effort to listen in my practice, to open the ears and sit with them. Just that thought seems to change something, it leads me in a direction away from feeling things out. Does the direction for the head, neck, back relationship come before listening or vice-versa or is directing itself a form of listening? Can we get in the groove and stay in it without listening for it?

Mike Cross said...

I think we could dare to say that when we direct the neck to be free, the head to release out, forward and up, the spine to lengthen and the back to widen, this can be a way of giving expression to a desire to go up.

But when Tomatis describes listening as a level that can be reached, I think he is talking about listening as being up, not as a method of going up. Listening as a level to be reached, in other words, is something that is not tainted by our end-gaining efforts to concentrate/listen.

Sometimes when I sense an Alexander pupil is going well in a lesson, I ask them to put their hands on my shoulders, and just when their hands go on, I invariably get a clear sense of direction coming from their hands. But then, as you describe in your own experience, it doesn't stay like that for long. Something else comes in. Somebody like Nelly Ben-Or, in contrast, with her constant "Not That!" is very good at not permitting something else to come in.

Directing, as you and I are prone to practise it, Alex, is a form of doing!

And listening, as you and I are prone to practise it, is a form of end-gaining!

That being so, we might as well face up to the fact cheerfully that we are pretty much screwed, almost all of the time.

Incidentally, it is a very interesting coincidence that you use the phrase "getting in the groove and staying in it" because yesterday I was playing with the long opening paragraph of Shobogenzo chap. 30, Gyoji, and the provisional title I came up with for that chapter was "Getting and Staying In The Groove."

So maybe you will recognize some kind of answer to your last question in that chapter.

If I give you an answer off the top of my head, it would be that not listening for it might be our only chance of getting and staying in the groove. When we are conscious of our intention to listen for it, we are screwed already.

Maybe that is why I am drawn back to the forest in France -- a place where, on a good day, I don't have to listen for it.

Unfortunately, however, Chie pranged the car on Saturday, and so I am waiting for the back window to be replaced before I can head off to Champsecret!

HezB said...


Do you think Nishijima Roshi's state of upset was something to do with your 'colourful' message to his blog last night (since deleted)?

Maybe it would be more productive, or less destructive at least, for a big lad like you to make an answer to my question rather than picking on very old, small Japanese men?

And so I post the question to you here:

Dear Mike,

In the West, from various Buddhist sources, we hear a lot about "mindfulness". It is widely considered a Buddhist practice to strive to attend to our daily tasks with an unbroken attention, which may be similar to the 'one-pointedness' developed in certain types of meditation.

What is your view on this type of practice?

Thank-you & Regards,


Mike Cross said...

My intention is to clarify what it is my duty to clarify.

To that end I have been involved in a life-and-death struggle with Gudo for over 25 years. His reaction to that struggle has been nobody's problem but his own; my reaction to that struggle has been nobody else's problem but my own.

If you cared so much about a very old, small man, you might have not bothered him with your stupid question at all. You might simply have asked me in the first place.

Licking an old man's arse is no way to clarify anything.

HezB said...


What a bleak reality your model of example would create.

I do like you though, at the risk of sounding like I'm licking your arse.



Andrew said...

Harry, Nishijima may be very old, and very small, but he is different to the way he might seem to be on his blog, and to the way others present him on their blogs. Have you met him?

HezB said...


No I haven't and yes, maybe he knows Kung-fu or something.

But I really don't care what he's like as such. It doesn't seem like much of my business.

I am aware that he is very opinionated.