【A Zen monk’s interpretation of qins】

文 ·智藏

Ever since I started to play the qin more than twenty years ago, and then to make the qins, many people asked me my thoughts about the art of qin music as a Buddhist monk and wondered if the cultivation of dharma would have any impact on qin music. Such questions strike me the same way as questions junior monks ask of their senior fellow monks about Buddhism. My own mind is clear on this subject. But upon questioning, I feel at a loss, not knowing how to answer such questions. Everyone has his/her own understanding of the art of qin music. It may differ according to personal knowledge and interpretations. As far as Buddha-dharma is concerned, it requires direct experience.Without personal realization through direct experience, it is impossible to express accurately how we feel and the replies we get will have no reference points and no meaning for us. Without personal realization through direct experience, the replies will be nothing but book knowledge. Then why doesn’t the person asking the questions consult Buddhist sutras directly?

As a religious practitioner seeking to cultivate myself through the construction of qins, I have re-organized the notes I have jotted down over the years into a single volume, distilling my thoughts into “ten realms” as my attempt to express my understanding and thoughts on qin-making as a Zen monk. They are: the realm of the mind (xin jing), the realm of the body (shen jing), the heavenly realm (tian jing), the realm of art (yi jing), the realm of leisure (xian jing), the carefree realm (yi jing), the existence and the non-existence realm (xu shi jing), the realm of feelings (shou jing), the realm of Zen (chan jing), and the realm of harmony (yuan jing).

1.The realm of the mind (xin jing),

In 1994, I was still young and living in the South Putuo Monastery in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. In the spring of that year, I took over from the temple supervisor’s hand an umpan or yun ban (literally translated as “Cloud Plate”, which is struck to report the time of day) and began an umpan-striking life for more than three years. Umpan is the first Buddhist musical instrument to be struck in the morning in a temple and the last sound to be heard at night. Whoever is assigned the job has to get up earlier than all the other monks and makes his rounds of the temple all the way to the bell tower, striking three times before he heads back to the dorm in preparation for the morning class. At night, the evening drum is struck at 9 o’clock, followed by the evening class clock. Striking the umpan three times in synchronicity with the last three strikes of the bell, the umpan-striking monk makes his last round of the temple. After that, the whole monastery falls into total silence. Then I would go back to my dormitory and play the “Pu’an’s Mantra” before I went to bed.

Striking the umpan is not a hard job, but has to be done every day, year in, year out, with no exceptions, even on rainy or stormy days and nights. It is not very cold in Xiamen, even in the winter. But you can imagine how I felt walking soaking wet on rainy days, making my circles all alone. Of course, more often than not, I had the opportunity to enjoy pleasant moonlit and breezy nights. In those nights, the moon would hang in the sky over the eves of the halls, above the trees on the hills. The breeze from the open sea blew over me and over the bamboo. The dark bamboo shadows danced in the wind, over the steps. The reflection of the moon could be seen in the deep, still pond, undisturbed by the breeze. On nights like this, I often stood there gazing at the night scene, oblivious of the passing of time, and I sometimes forgot to strike the umpan.

One night, after finishing the last round, I stood in front of the monastery, looking at the halls and the rugged mountains under the bright moon amid the silence of the night. They looked like frozen music. All of a sudden, a breeze swept through the bells hanging under the eves of the halls, creating a series of undulating and pleasant musical sound, ding, ding, dang, dang. The crisp and clear ringing sound reminded me of the fan yin (floating sounds) in a qin composition, Pu’an’s Mantra. Hearing the sound, I felt that I understood something. Carrying the umpan, I stood there wondering who it was feeling the beautiful silence of the night? Then it dawned on me. Of course it was our heart, yours and mind, that perceived it and was touched by it. Without a “me”, there wouldn’t have been a “heart” that could perceive it and was touched by it. There wouldn’t have been all the perceiving hearts and all the perceived phenomena in the universe. Without the perceiving heart and all the perceived phenomena in the universe, where can we find “I, the thinking subject” and my perceptions? What was the True Suchness that I perceived and the True Suchness of the perceived phenomena in the universe? I don’t know how long I stood out there that night. Not until someone passing by woke me up from my trance did I go back to my room to sleep.

Ever since antiquity, it was believed that qin is a mirror of our heart and sings the tune of our heart. In each of the 3,000 pieces of qin music, whether they are odes to the clear breeze or the bright moon, recollections of one’s home town or old friends, it is “my heart” that has been touched. It is people and their consciousness that are interacting with all the things in the world. Without people, without their consciousness, the people-based history and all the outward appearances perceived by people lose their meanings.

The primitive human nature is usually blindfolded by history and experience. As a result, we lose our inherent naivety and the true “I”. Human beings cannot stop the flow of history; nor can they free themselves from the bondage of experience. This is the tragedy that human beings have to experience. No one can escape from it. Since there is no escape, we have to cope with it and, in doing so, find our peace of mind. Be it bitter or sweet, happy or sad, we go through the process and end up over the years attaining the realm of wisdom, unadorned and pure.

2. The realm of body (shen jing),

The realm of body refers to the present state, the here and now, the environment our physical body exists in. The heart is attached to the body and the body functions for the heart. There will be no realm of body without the body and heart. The realm of body for a qin player refers to the disposition and knowledge and judgment formed and shaped in his/her growing environment. A different realm of body will have a different impact on the qin one makes.

A person’s circumstances may change endlessly. An ordinary person’s mind is easily affected by external environment. Therefore, the mind changes with the circumstances. A person of wisdom, on the other hand, has the capability to stay composed and steady. In that case, the circumstances change with the mind. Therefore, I believe the way qin pieces are performed by a qin player may vary according to their learning, composure, knowledge and judgment, cultivation and behavior.

In fact, qin music itself has its own circumstances or realm of body. That is why there is a difference between indigenous qin schools and schools that have incorporated Western music theories. On the other hand, there is also the influence of local folk tradition and culture on indigenous schools, resulting in variations among various domestic schools. Qin schools formed by incorporating Western music theories are a product of a particular historic background, which are not to be considered the mainstream traditional qin schools. Only those that have inherited the qin music in its pure and original form according to the inherent Chinese qin culture and theories can be called traditional qin schools. They have maintained the balanced and harmonious sound quality, which sets our mind upright and cleanses our soul and heart.

Therefore, I hold the opinion that the same qin instrument may express a different artistic conception in its music when it is played by people situated in different environments and who have different personalities and cultivation. Likewise, with the qin pieces played by a Buddhist monk or the qin instruments made by a Buddhist monk, the person playing the qin or making the qin is a practitioner who promotes Buddhism through qins. As a player, he will, with an enlightened heart (or a Bodhi heart) and peaceful mind, discipline himself according to Buddhist teachings, pluck the strings with composure, produce music under the guidance of wisdom, ferry us towards the Way with music, and demonstrate dharma with the artistic conception of the music. As such, the qin in its realm of body can be called a pure musical instrument, which “resides in a mundane world but remains uncontaminated; produces holy music for the benefit of others”. In qin playing, the ultimate realm is to make the listeners feel free from fret and agitation; in practicing Buddhism through qins, we hope to get onto the path to total enlightenment.

3. The heavenly realm (tian jing),

The heavenly realm for a qin player refers to the state of unity between heaven and man, equal law of heaven and earth and oneness between everything in the universe and me. People have always been curious and in awe of the heavenly realm. Therefore, it has always been mankind’s pursuit since antiquity to understand the origin of the universe. Our ancestors call such pursuit and exploration as: “Asking the heavens”, which has been introduced into the qin music by qin players to express their curiosity, reliance, fascination about nature and heaven and earth, to express their humanitarian concerns, sentiments and care, to express their awe and worship of heaven, earth and holy spirits and self enhancement, to express their meditation, realization and serenity. Qin players express their feelings through the music notes, focusing not only on the skillful artistic rendition, but more on the philosophical thinking imbued in the music pieces. As they play the instrument, they are thinking about and seeking to find man’s position and situation between heaven and earth, trying to find answers to eliminate the fear and curiosity in their mind, so as to attain the open-minded and carefree realm like the Chinese ancient Taoist sage, Zhuangzi.

In the book titled Xi Shan Er Shi Si Kuang (The 24 Artistic Spheres of Qin), it is said: “Sound corresponds with the strings; the strings correspond with the fingers, which in turn correspond with the ideas.” Where does a qin player’s “idea” come from? A popular view nowadays might be, “Ideas correspond with the surrounding conditions”; Buddha says, “The surrounding conditions spring from our mind.” The mind is the origin of all outward appearances. There will be no outward appearances without the mind. All outward appearances travel in the heavenly realm. By heaven, we mean the vast universe. Our physical body cannot reach all corners of the universe. But our mind can. The human consciousness is not limited within the dimensions of time and space. Instead, it encompasses the universe. That is why a qin player expresses his/her feelings through music and rhythm. And that is why a qin player’s “mind” corresponds with the heavenly realm.

Many people’s perception of things in the world is the consciousness and outward appearance of our mind. People’s consciousness is usually affected by outward appearance; so much so that their understanding of the universe is confined by it. Therefore, the more obstinate we are about the outward appearance in front of us and the more stuck with a thing at hand, the less likely we will be able to open our mind. In other words, the degree of your understanding determines the width and depth of the world presented in front of you.

According to Buddhism, “There is no difference between having and non-having; and mind and matter are one”; “Mind is everything and everything is mind. There is no difference between the two.” But the laymen believe that mind and matter are distinctly different from each other. This belief in the difference of mind and matter blocks the fundamental wisdom. Their understanding of the heavenly realm is therefore confined. Only wise people and Buddhists understand that all phenomena in the universe are interconnected and devoid of self or inherent nature (svabhava). They are impermanent and unobtainable. These people understand that all things exist and cease to exist within our mind. They understand that all forms or phenomena are transient and illusive. That is why they are not confined by thoughts or outward appearance. Thus, the heavenly realm in their mind is boundless and ultimate. When qin players are not confined by the mind or appearance, then the qin music produced is the heavenly realm they pursue tirelessly. They can therefore attain the realm when “the heart (or mind) can embrace the boundless universe”.

Thus, a qin player’s heavenly realm is, to put it plainly, the realm of the “mind”. All things stem from the mind; all knowledge and behavior spring from the “mind-based” Essence of Mind and cease to exist in the Essence of Mind. Buddha-dharma tells us, every living soul is imbued with boundless wisdom. Our mind and the universe are connected. The essence of the mind is the essence of the universe. Therefore, our life has another side, the limitless side. Only qin players who are truly open-minded have the power to recognize the infinite universe and can attain the broad and vast qin realm.

4. The realm of art (yi jing),

The realm of art for qin is not limited to the playing skills; it also involves the aesthetic connotation to a greater extent, therefore requiring a high level of liberal arts cultivation. Mr Zong Baihua, a well-known philosopher, once said, “Our nature is made up of mountains, rivers and plants. These are the real existence or substance. The environment created by our hands commanded by our heart is illusion or maya.” This embodies the realm of Chinese art. The emptiness-substance concept lies in the presence and absence of brush strokes and in the strong and weak vibrato and vibrato ritardando. It is true with Chinese painting as well as with qin playing.

The realm of art is different from artistic conception. Artistic conception refers to the environment derived from the music being played. For example, the background for “Pu’an’s mantra” is an old serene and vast monastery. The quiet and solemn atmosphere can hardly be conveyed if one is not endowed with solid Buddhist cultivation. Skillful rendition, aiming to play the music piece flawlessly and beautifully, is not the ultimate goal for a Buddhist qin player.

According to Buddhist qin players, one has to have a personal realization through direct experience before the beauty of achieving the Buddhist realm can be fully appreciated, so that one can assimilate into the qin realm with an enlightened mind. This is also the difference between the way qin is played by Buddhists and by scholars and literati, as well as the key point of my discussion with Mr Cheng Gongliang, an accomplished qin master. The way scholars play the qin has a more powerful impact because of the feelings, vigorous style involved and commitment. They are the backbone for carrying on the qin tradition from one generation to another. For Buddhist qin players, they seek to perfect qin skill through Buddhist meditation. For them, personal enlightenment through cultivation is more important.

The universal playing skills in the secular world can be enhanced to everyone’s benefit once an artistic spirit is blended in. Qin music behavior is realized through playing skill, which is an art by itself and has its own specific realm of “art’. Qin players express their own feelings through such realm of art. Buddhists, however, need to depend on the realm of art to express their Buddhist concept, in the same way as sculptures, paintings, architecture and music that are imbued with Buddhist artistic spirit. People influenced by such art can purify their six senses, so that they can move forward to a higher living experience. To deliver the realm of art of a music piece, everyone needs skill training, whether he/she is a performing artist, traditional qin player or Buddhist qin player. If perfect delivery is the realm of art, then achieving it requires strenuous training and life experience. For Buddhist art, we will need additional personal realization through direct experience and the cultivation of wisdom before Buddhist artistic ethos can be radiated from within.

5. The realm of leisure (xian jing),

The realm of leisure refers to a calm and relaxed state of mind, free from worries. Qin is attributed with nine virtues: novel, profound, penetrating, tranquil, mellow, full, clear, balanced and fragrant. Only someone who is calm and relaxed can really appreciate what our ancestors refer to as the “nine virtues” and bring out the realm of leisure in their renditions.

My shakuhachi flute, or Japanese flute, teacher Heihachiro Tsukamoto once said to me, “On a rainy day, the rain drops fall onto the ground. Some raindrops flow away before they get soaked up in the earth. The running rainwater will carry away the dust and soil on the ground and it is not clean anymore. The rainwater flows along, until it goes into the rivers and then into the sea. During the process, only a small amount of rainwater will be evaporated because of sunshine and become clouds. The rainwater that doesn’t flow away goes deep into the earth. The deeper it gets, the purer and sweeter it becomes.”

Isn’t our life like that as well? Sometimes we are kept busy, which is out of our own control, without stopping for a single moment. Even when we do have a moment’s peace, our mind is like the flowing rainwater on the surface of the ground, gushing or trickling down endlessly. If we could relax a bit and purify our soul in quietude, just like the rainwater that gets soaked up by the earth, we will discover that there is another level of life to be experienced. If qin players can stay in such a relaxed state of the mind and body, they will understand the meaning of “leisure”.

Instead of being busy with the secular life,Why not live in seclusion with good company?Lying leisurely in the courtyard listening to the mountain rain,Be mused with qin music while contained in the mundane world. Only when we enjoy certain “leisure”, can we have the spontaneity as in an ad-lib, the freedom to accelerate and slow down, and the occasional blank space as seen in Chinese paintings. Players who can represent the realm of “leisure” in their music are people with noble feelings and charisma, who can even make other people grow in wisdom while listening to the music in peace. The growth and application of wisdom make people feel peaceful and relaxed forever. Wisdom is like debugging software. It can not only optimize the mind system, but also make people achieve perfection of their inherent nature. This is the realm of leisure and the perfection of the inherent nature, and nothing else.

6. The carefree realm (yi jing)

Sitting in meditation over an urn of incense sticks,All the mundane concerns cease to exist in concentration.Not because an effort is made to stop improper thinking, But rather nothing is there to consider about. When a human being’s six sense organs or faculties (eyes for vision, ears for hearing, nose for fragrance, tongue for tasting, skin for touching and intellect or manas for thinking) make contact with their respective objects (visual object, sound, odor, taste, touch and thought or mental object), the six types of sensory consciousness (visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental) react. External information, whether liked or disliked, will disturb our mind system when it is in excess, depriving our heart of the necessary lightness because of its pressure.Many people feel perplexed by mundane trivialities and lose their direction. Concerns and bondage of trivialities deprive people of the feeling of carefreeness. Imagine what pleasure can people enjoy if they can set aside their mundane trivialities and focus on dealing with the more important things with their wisdom in the limited time they have and feel carefree and lighthearted after the things are taken care of? The ancient saying goes, “Let all the worldly concerns surround us as long as we remain unperturbed by them.” If nothing occupies our mind, we can be carefree. Once we are carefree, we are attaining the realm of passaddhi or the four great tranquilities (of the body, speech, thoughts and consciousness). The “four great tranquilities” form the basis of an inherent happiness of contentment for harboring the desires without actively pursuing them.

The carefree realm means the state of indifference to fame or gain and the state of moderation. A qin player’s carefree realm is represented not only in the conception of the qin music but also in his/her daily life. The inherent aloofness frees the qin player from external considerations, making it possible for him to do as he pleases and feel calmly indifferent. How can a person achieve the self-assured ease, desiring and wanting nothing? The qin player is required to have a high level of wisdom, knowledge and judgement of the universe and life. According to Buddhism, “With things of the past, we should let go one at a time (letting go); with problems of the present, we should solve them one at a time (being committed); with concerns of the future, we should avoid them one at time (being wise).”

Worldly desires and pressure in daily life have a huge impact on the qin players. Under such circumstances, it is not easy either to be committed or let go. However, the way to handle these is available once we are enlightened; all learnings are valuable if we know how to apply them. In other words, no matter how difficult it is, it won’t stop us from learning and understanding the Wisdom of Emptiness (or realization of sunyata) that all phenomena are interconnected and devoid of self or inherent nature. They are impermanent and unobtainable. It may be difficult not to be obstinate about worldly things beyond basic needs. But if we persist, we will find one day that now is the time to be relaxed. For qin players, only the pleasure of being one’s unconstrained true self is the essential wisdom.

7. The existence and non-existence realm (xu shi jing),

The contrast of existence and non-existence is emphasized in music, calligraphy, painting and architecture. The blank space in Chinese calligraphy, the space between individual characters and the brush strokes that look physically broken but conceptually connected (bi duan yi lian) or the blank space in Chinese paintings, the space between rooms, doors and windows or between two buildings, the space and pauses between two music notes, they can be considered the non-existence realm. Their opposites are the existence realm. These are the technical and superficial relationship between existence and non-existence. There are also conceptual existence and non-existence in art that don't have appearances. The conceptual existence and non-existence in art refer to the relationship between existence and non-existence in the art piece itself. They are an embodiment of an individual artist’s understanding and judgement, his cultivation and rendition power.

The non-existence realm is also the existence realm. Emptiness is an emptiness that really exists and blank is a blank that really exists as well. If emptiness and blank don’t exist, then there is no non-existence realm to talk about. Lao Tze says, “Only because there is a void in the hub of a wheel (where thirty spokes converge), the wheel of the chariot functions.” If we don’t dig a hole in the hub, we won’t have the use of a chariot. Therefore, void is a real existence. Appearance, which is its opposite, is normally considered the existing image that can be seen or perceived. But the true appearance occupies the space of its own size in the void. Therefore, true appearance itself mirrors its illusory appearance. Besides, what people consider as existence is really the form/phenomenon. It appears and disappears in accordance with cause and effect. It becomes real and unreal because of cause and effect. That is why, non-existence is existence and existence is non-existence. It corresponds with what is said in Xin Jin (The Heart Sutra) that “Form itself is not different from emptiness; and emptiness itself is not different from form” or with what is said in the Taoist scripture, Qingjing Jing (On Clarity and Tranquility), “Perception of an absence is emptiness, but not because it is empty; what is empty is an absence; no absence is an absence.”

With music, if there is no emptiness, the whole music piece will simply be one incessantly sounding note or series of notes. It has no pauses. That kind of music becomes unbearable. Nor is it the kind of music people want. The actual emptiness/non-existence is also an existence, called “existing emptiness”. Existing emptiness is real emptiness. The existence and non-existence realm for a qin player can be described from the point of view of his/her personality and attitude towards others or from the point of view of the substance or lack of substance of the conception of the music. For an honest and unpretentious person of integrity, his/her music must be solid and profound but not weird. Otherwise, it is flimsy and shallow, not worth listening to for long. The existence and non-existence realm of the qin music is the existence and non-existence relationship between music sounds. People with high cultivation understand emptiness and existence, i.e. they have an enlightened understanding of the relationship between emptiness and existence through cultivation of the mind and they render the relationship of a music piece’s emptiness and existence with such an enlightened understanding. That is why they can command their fingers with their mind, which pluck the strings that produce the music. In return, the music resonates with the strings; the strings respond to the fingers; and the fingers follow the mind. The mind’s undulations and changes are represented in the rises and falls of the music.

The existence and non-existence realm is the harmonized state of nidana (or cause and effect). According to Buddhism, all worldly phenomena are the harmonization of a chain of causes and effects. They exist interdependently and therefore are not real. But this non-reality is derived through a thinking process rather than a quantified result. Quantification is the method by which the physical world defines existing data.

The note value and pitch of qin music can be quantified to produce melodious music. But the sound source of the conscious mind, i.e. the consciousness to initiate the music thinking process, cannot be quantified. It can be obtained through realization. It can be understood and yet is not communicable verbally. The incommunicable feelings about music are the non-existence realm of the music. Even though it is not communicable verbally, it can be expressed by commanding the fingers through the mind to pluck the strings. The tangible music, pleasant to the mind and the ear, is real and is the existence realm. Putting it simply, the non-existence realm is the cause in the qin player’s mind from where the music melody effect stems; the existence realm is the external form or phenomenon of the rendered music. The rendered music phenomena, existing or non-existing, are the True Suchness that can be perceived. An old saying goes, “Turning a living tree into nothing (using Buddhist emptiness theory) by splitting it to the finest fibre will not hurt the luxuriance of its canopy; turning a mansion into nothing by breaking apart all its parts will not change its beauty.”

8. The realm of feelings (shou jing)

Human beings’ six sense organs make contact with six objects, which generate six consciousnesses that perceive the various images in the world. These images or the lessons learned from all the experience, either smooth or tumultuous, or the “bitter and sweet sensations” from such experience, are the “feelings”. Extended into qin music, the realm of feelings refers to the assortment of feelings of sorrow and joy, indifference to fame or gain, chivalry, friendship, the pleasure of reunion, the pain of separation, distress, happiness, resignation, relief, lightheartedness and deep mental concentration (dhyana).

Of all things, music, drama and literary works are the most appealing to human heart. Of all the feelings ignited by musical instruments, the most subtle can be ignited by qin music. The feelings ignited by the qins are derived from three aspects. First of all, they come from the shape of the musical instrument, from the feelings ignited by the external visual appearance of the design, color and accessories, starting from the very beginning of the construction process to the shape forming of the instrument; secondly, they come from the feelings triggered by the humanitarian thoughts, implications and compassions from the engravings, qin names and inscriptions; thirdly, they come from the feelings inspired by the sounds, i.e. the feelings resulting from the three basic sounds, san yin (scattered sounds), an yin (stopped sounds), and fan yin (floating sounds), and a combination of various playing techniques. Although qin music encompasses a wide range of themes, it can be classified in general into two major categories: nature and humanity. Nature refers to the qin players’ feelings and emotional interpretations through music about their curiosity, awe, and exclamation over such natural phenomena as the universe, heaven and earth, mountains, forests, clouds and seas, rivers, sun and moon, flying birds and running animals. Humanity refers to music pieces created on the basis of literary works and philosophical thoughts, which express the qin players’ feelings and thoughts that are imbued into these literary works. Of course, humanitarian music pieces should also include the qin players’ experience and realization of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist religions and philosophies, as well as their reflections and feelings about religious rituals dating from the ancient past.

The qin player’s consciousness makes contact with and perceives all the things in the world which interact with the mind after they are absorbed. The feeling process is the moment when the consciousness absorbs and takes in outside stimuli. The qin players transform the feelings into music melodies. When listeners listen to the music, they are going through the feeling process as well. The an yin (stopped sounds) are mellow and resonant as well as delicate and gentle, making one feel as if one is in touch with the earth; the san yin (scattered sounds) are robust and magnificent, making one feel as if listening to the resonating sounds of bells in the autumn; the fan yin (floating sounds) are light and clear, making one feel complete and uplifted, as if listening to music from heaven. The realm of feelings can be a process of pain or joy. While one can feel joy achieving one’s goal, one can also feel pain for failing to do that. Who can be immune to the feelings of pain or joy when they fall upon us? The pain and joy will be felt by the heart and reflected in one’s behavior. Such feelings and behavior will then affect others.

9. The realm of Zen (chan jing)

There is no home for one’s love for qin,Other than breaking one’s nidana with the secular world.Stumbling upon a superbly amazing piece of music,Imbued with an artistic conception unmatched in the world.

There is a well-quoted message in Wu Deng Hui Yuan (A Collection of Five Denglu), which describes the three levels of enlightening in studying Zen: “Before I had started to study Zen, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point when I saw mountains not as mountains, and waters not as waters. But now that I have grasped the very substance of Zen and I am at rest, I once again see mountains as mountains only, and waters as waters only.” This is also my goal in studying Zen, practicing the qin and making qins over the last 25 years.

When I was first ordained, Buddhist masters of an older generation would tell me what sutras to read, what to practice on, what to realize, and how to achieve Zen enlightenment. But what can be attributed to as the Zen enlightenment then? The Patriach only smiles holding a flower,Without uttering a word about the emptiness of the Essence of the Mind.Buddha didn’t say anything, but He told us clearly that just as the person drinking the water knows if it is cold or warm, only the person going through the enlightenment process knows what the realm of Zen is. Zen is out there all the time, whether you decide to study it or not. It doesn’t have to utter a word. However, although the realm of Zen medication is out there even if you don't study it, you can only become personally enlightened when you do study it. The realm of Zen is not here, nor there; it lies in a benevolent person’s consciousness and it is exhibited in a benevolent person’s daily life.

“Water flows and flowers blossom, amid mountains absent of a single soul” or “Even though there are no beautiful ladies posing, the spring breeze brims with smiles nontheless.” If these words cannot provide solutions directly to the queries, let us then try to interpret the realm of Zen through personal practice and direct experience under the guidance of Buddhist teachings. In the past decades, I have been trying to realize the realm of Zen according to what I was told to do, through various practical things we do in life, ranging from sweeping the floors in the courtyard to cooking, reciting sutras, reading, meditation, striking umpans, playing the qin and making qins, and going into retreat.

Staying up deep into a windy and rainy night,I listen to the falling leaves on the steps.Sitting in silence all by myself,I play the qin as I wait for the arrival of dawn. Even at such ordinary moments when leaves fall or flowers blossom, you can at once feel the throbbing of life. Perhaps, the juxtaposition of nonemptiness and non-existence as well as sadness and joy, the perception of emptiness as existence and existence as emptiness, and that momentary clarity, are the instant enlightenment that is referred to in Buddhism.The realm of Zen for qin music is like that as well. You can hear the splendor of life and see the existence of a permanent entity in a vast and open environment that transcends time and space. With a light pluck of the strings, the resonating music starts to float in your ears. At a moment like this, vibration is tranquility; existence is non-existence; form/phenomenon is emptiness. Vibration is not different from tranquility; existence is not different from non-existence; and form/phenomenon is not different from emptiness. In such sudden intuitive enlightenment through personal realization, the music piece played by the qin player is no longer a simple expression of feelings, but the permanent intrinsic nature. Showing the unconditioned dharma, which is the intrinsic nature of the world, in the still state of the mind, that is what I understand as the connection between Zen and qin.

10. The realm of harmony (yuan jing)

Harmony enables the realization of the realm of True Suchness of all real forms/phenomena and is the ultimate aesthetic realm to which a Buddhist or lay Buddhist qin player aspires. Although we all know such a realm is very difficult to attain, it is the highest ideal goal for a Buddhist and lay Buddhist qin player. Anything other than that goes against the cultivation of Buddha-dharma.

Since we can attain enlightenment by practicing according to Buddha’s teachings, for example, by observing precepts or through meditation, I have always wondered if we can attain the same harmony through qin playing just as the Japanese Zen Buddhist monks attain self-realization through Suizen (blowing Zen), a Zen practice that consists of playing the traditional shakuhachi flute or Japanese bamboo flute as a means of accomplishing enlightenment. If that is possible, then qin playing is undoubtedly another method for Buddhist practice. As a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist qin player, we can incorporate Buddhist practice into the qin music, hoping to use that as a way of practice to realize the ultimate realm of harmony. Playing the qin according to the Zen deep concentration method of mindlessness, thoughtlessness and consciouslessness, one can realize the true or absolute reality (i.e. the truth of spirituality) in the rise and fall of the music and attain great sovereignty in the sea of music. This is a Buddhist qin practitioner’s positive pursuit and a committed and meaningful cultivation act.

In fact, the non-self (anatta) state of mindlessness, thoughtlessnesss and consciouslessness shows the ability in Zen deep concentration (samadhi). It is not attainment of nirvana (perfect stillness) to become a Buddha. Attaining nirvana to become a Buddha means accomplishment of wisdom and cessation of all deluded thoughts. This is the Buddhism learner’s ultimate fulfillment. But once all deluded thoughts cease to exist, all the deep concentration (samadhi) ideas of mindlessness, thoughtlessness and consciouslessness are gone as well. Qin playing, on the other hand, is an action. And an action results from an intention, which drives an action and accomplishes something. As qin playing gives rise to unwholesome thoughts or ideas (and according to Buddhism, every thought, every word, every action is the origin of karma and misfortune), how can we become a Buddha with music and attain ultimate enlightenment?

Many years ago, someone asked me this question. At the time, I didn’t have a good answer. That is because one cannot attain realization of emptiness without practical meditation and practice. If one is blinded by attachment or has hindrances to knowledge-wisdom, he/she will not realize nor understand the principle that all things are empty at the moment of the action. In other words, one must personally participate in the physical and mental meditation in order to be clear about the issue and understand the principle of emptiness. In doing so, the problem will be solved without asking.

In Chapter 5 of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra (or The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti), “Manjusri’s Condolence Visit”, Vimalakirti replied to Manjusri, “Separation itself is empty, too. So is Self or nirvana (perfect stillness). In that sense, we can say that all actions are within the scope of dharmata. And this dharmata is emptiness. We cannot realize emptiness if there is any attachment to action and stillness. And that attachment to action and stillness itself is the same emptiness that is expressed in the saying that all phenomena are interconnected and devoid of self or inherent nature. They are impermanent and unobtainable.

Therefore, at the moment one is playing the qin, even if an intention is involved, the intention itself resides in the void. Only when one’s cultivation reaches such a state, can one understand what is the real non-self (anatta) state. And this completion state of the wisdom of “non-self’ can only be realized by personal experience. Only at such a state do we realize how pale language is. And because of that, personal realization is the only ultimate way a qin player can resort to to understand the realm of harmony and the necessary path to attain harmony or the ultimate state of nirvana.The Buddha spent 49 years teaching dharma. Even if we have studied all the Buddhist scriptures (tripiṭaka), we may not really achieve great enlightenment and awakening. Likewise, even if we can manage to have played all the 3,000 qin pieces, we may not be able to achieve voidness. Pursuing the realm of harmony depends entirely on whether we have the mind for renunciation, to stop the attachment to worldly pleasures and seek liberation from the contaminated rebirth. The words in a book cannot explain all the doctrines and fall far short in achieving sudden or gradual awakening. The path of cultivation is very long. Let us start that journey now, one small simple step at a time.



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