The Sound of the Bell that Isn’t

[Available in PDF format here.]

Looking into the origins of Honshirabe (the Shakuhachi flute piece discussed in my previous essay), I discovered that there was a sect of Japanese Zen Buddhists who favored suizen (blowing meditation) over zazen (sitting meditation). Their instrument was the Shakuhachi flute. They played it as itinerant, mendicant monks, both as a way of seeking enlightenment themselves and of encouraging it in their listeners.

After being active for about 600 years, the Fuke sect disappeared during the 19th century when the new Meiji government outlawed the playing and even the practice of the Shakuhachi flute. The reasons, apparently political, remain somewhat unclear. Shakuhachi flute playing was eventually permitted again, but only for secular purposes. In any case, the piece Honshirabe appears originally to have been part of the musical repertoire of the Fuke sect. Playing it right was associated with enlightenment, as was exposure to its being played right.

This history intrigues me for a number of reasons. They include that the strong emphasis in conventional Zen Buddhism on sitting meditation makes it hard to understand a practice centered on flute playing instead as constituting a form of Zen Buddhism at all. That may be a merely terminological issue that a broader conception of Zen Buddhism could resolve. But I am also finding it challenging to imagine flute music having a momentous effect on anyone’s fundamental convictions. Music can cause people to be deeply moved. But music changing people in ways as fundamental as one must suppose a religious conversion to involve is a more remarkable phenomenon. Yet in Fuke practice and for some 600 years, flute music turned some people into Buddhists, or confirmed them in the rightness of that choice. When art has that momentous an effect, the phenomenon begs for an explanation.

It occurs to me for a start that I may be oversimplifying a highly complex situation. Just as a person today may hear Honshirabe and remain unmoved, or, though moved, unchanged in his or her core beliefs, so failures thus to connect had to be common in feudal Japan too. Even when it is played well, hearing something special in that music depends on a special kind of listening, a relatively rare receptivity or state of attention that is more often an accident than a deliberate achievement. The Fuke monks sought to induce that mental openness by presenting themselves in an eccentric getup. They wore round woven baskets over their heads. The baskets hid their faces. The player’s flute protruded from under the basket’s rim.

Depending on how your day has gone, I suppose it can happen that when, at a turn in the road, you encounter a flute player in monk’s robes with a basket over his head, you will listen more intently than you might otherwise. Perhaps because you can’t see his face, you will hear the music more clearly. And if it happens to be played just right, you may hear it speak to you personally.

Possible perhaps, but still unlikely to change your life. The music may be beautiful, moving, haunting even, but not significantly more so than other music that you have enjoyed in the past and that has left you basically unchanged.

But then, in the Japan in which those monks walked from town to town playing their flutes, they were generally known as “priests of emptiness” (komuso). That strange title makes me think that if it was me stopping to listen to one of them, it would probably occur to me that what I was supposed to be hearing in his music was the sound of emptiness. And though normally inclined to dismiss such a characterization as nonsensical, I might on this occasion focus on its possible meaning instead, if for no other reason than my sensing myself agreeably moved by the music.

A person in that cultural setting would also have known that the Fuke sect traced their origins to a 9th century Chinese monk named Puhua (Fuke in Japanese), who was known for his prowess and eccentricities as a teacher. One of them was ringing a bell as he walked about chanting, thus punctuating his verses, so to speak, supposedly to summon confused people to enlightenment. In what sense the sound of his bell was supposed to accomplish that becomes clear in the following twist on the story.

Anxious to recommend himself to Puhua, a man named Chohaku made a bamboo flute and substituted its sound for that of Puhua’s bell. Where Puhua would have rung his bell, Chohaku played his flute. He reportedly did that not because he could not come up with a bell of his own, but to make the point that the sound of the flute is not the sound of the bell. Chohaku apparently thought that Puhua’s purpose in ringing that bell was to drive home that the sound of the bell differs from that of the emptiness to the appreciation of which he was inviting his audiences, but to which it somehow points all the same.

Now why Puhua would think this obvious a truth worth emphasizing is not intuitively clear. In order for his behavior to make sense, he must have believed that a substantive revelation about ultimate realities lay in store for anyone who, listening to the sound of his bell, could literally discern in it the absence of what that sound was not, and discern it moreover as a positive presence. Chohaku made that challenging proposition easier to grasp acoustically by pitting the sound of the flute against that of the bell.

A number of people at the time, presumably including Puhua, thought that Chohaku had hit the nail on the head. According to tradition, the first piece of Zen-inspired shakuhachi music was called “The Bell that Isn’t” (Kyotaku).

The importance of knowing the story lies in the acoustic inclination it encourages. When I imagine myself casting about for the meaning of “the sound of emptiness” while hearing Honshirabe, for instance, knowing that story will encourage me to listen differently. It will alter the acoustic Gestalt of what I hear. My attention will be drawn to the many ways in which the sound of the flute differs from that of a bell. As a consequence and in the process, the unique particularity of the flute sound will come alive for me. Its assertive, defiant otherness will stand out in my consciousness, as it may not when I just passively listen to it, or do so without knowing that story.

Speaking more generally, “emptiness” in this context stands for what a thing is not, provided that this negative identity has a perceptual effect. There are always a million things that something is not. Most of them do not matter perceptually. That the sound of the flute is not a tree, for instance, has virtually no effect on what I hear when I listen to it. But its differing from that of a bell does have such an effect. My being conscious of the difference as I listen causes the absent sound of the bell to reverberate through that of the flute as an absence that endows it with a haunting quality.

Expanding this generality: the sound of emptiness is the audible effect of negative identity, or of otherness. In a musical context, it includes both the sound of silence and that of variation.

The flute sound waxes and wanes, rises and falls, stops and resumes. When it starts, or resumes after stopping, it presents itself as figure on a ground of silence. And like figure and ground, sound and silence are not just complementary concepts, each defined in relation to the other, but complementary phenomena. The experience of one affects the experience of the other.

Sound is always a particular sound, its individuality shaped by its location on a musical scale and by the instrument that produces it. The personality of a note played on a flute differs from that of the same note produced on a violin or a piano. The character of the silence that may follow the note is shaped by the character of the figure that it is (experienced as) the absence of. That is its sound, so to speak. In other words, in musical experience, silence is never silence in general, but always a particular silence, shaped in its particularity by that of the sound that it is the absence of in the context in which it occurs.

A musical note sounds slightly different depending on the character of the silence that precedes it. The acoustic feel of that silence – itself created by the note that preceded it and that silently still reverberates through it – shapes hearer expectations. The note that comes next may gratify or disappoint those expectations, but it will, in any event, be heard in relation to them and thereby modified in its sound as experienced.

A musician knows that producing musical sound differs from sounding notes in an acoustic void. Once the music starts, particular audible silences increasingly replace that void, each shaped in its character by the sound that precedes it and that it presents itself acoustically as the absence of. Moreover, those silences affect the perception and reception of what happens next. Even as I have portrayed it so far, namely, at its simplest, producing genuinely musical sound involves a felicitous weaving together of sounds and silences in their particularity. Knowing that and playing the music with the feeling that knowledge inspires tends to produce a sound that enables the hearer to sense the truth in question as well.

Virtually everything that I have just said about silence applies equally when a note is followed by another note. The former will affect the acoustic feel of the latter and be retrospectively affected by it. Moreover, the quality of the variations generated depends on sensing and anticipating these subtle acoustic interactions.

When I listen to the sound of the flute with my mind attuned to those realities, the startling intensity of my auditory experience confirms that Chohaku was on to something important. Hence, possibly, Puhua was too. But it is not clear what exactly it was in his case. Other than those already mentioned, what negative identity can I hear reverberate in the sound of the flute that would also have been discernible in that of Puhua’s bell? The only one that occurs to me is the possibility of its non-being, since once I am conscious of it as a possibility that the sound itself negates, I can actually hear it reverberate in that negation. It turns not flute sound in general, but that of this particular flute as heard at this moment into something akin to a miracle.

It may be helpful at this point to recall an argument advanced by St. Thomas Aquinas for the existence of God. There is always a difference, he said, between what something is and that it is. Moreover, it is never possible to deduce the fact that something is from what it is. He went on to argue that because there is no other possibility, every thing owes its existence to God at every moment. Therefore, God had to exist Himself as a being that is the cause of its own existence, as well as of that of everything else that exists.

I am not interested here in recommending the argument. I just want to point to the phenomenological effect of entertaining it. You look at a tree with this argument in mind and it suddenly looks different. It presents itself as an instance of God’s constant, totally incomprehensible, creative activity at work at every moment, including this one. The tree may be a somber oak with deep roots in the ground, but seen in that new light, it appears both to tremble in the precariousness of its existence and to glow as the miracle that it is. Just so, the sound of the flute takes on an almost unbearable intensity once I hear it while conscious of the possibility that in its place there could be nothing.

Recalling St. Thomas’s argument in this context has another virtue. A person considering it may find its conclusion alarming. To be sure, in relation to the possibility that there may be no God, realizing that there must be can seem a discovery worth celebrating. Unfortunately, the phenomenological price the achievement may exact is a picture of oneself entirely at the mercy of a God both incomprehensible and unpredictable. The God who holds that oak in place also sustains the oak shrub that ruins my garden and that appears determined to regrow no matter how often I hack it out. Moreover, the same God who holds the oak upright and flourishing may for no reason that I can understand choose to stop doing so. Being similarly at His mercy myself and without recourse can be a cause of deep anxiety. By contrast, because it is heartbreakingly beautiful, the sound of the flute induces no such anxiety. It may speak to me about myself, remind me that I am exempt neither from the incomprehensibility of the universe nor from its relativity-impaired stability, and still leave me elated. For the flute sound owes its beauty largely to those apparent shortcomings. It is conceptually incomprehensible and riven with relativity.

In other words, provided that I listen to it from within the right frame of mind, and provided also that it is played well, the critical revelation that awaits me in that music is not that the world is incomprehensible, conceptually elusive, etc.. Most thinking people already know that. It is that my love of it, and of my life in it, is inextricably tied to those facts about it. Because I am typically inclined to suppose the opposite, realizing that will change me in fundamental ways.

Strictly speaking, there are no audible silences of the sort a recording machine could pick up. It takes a consciousness to hear them, for the not so simple reason that consciousness creates their audibility. Similarly, and for the same reason, it takes a consciousness to sense continuities, discontinuities, and harmonies. Listening to the flute music, I may not know that, but even if I do, I cannot pretend to understand what my consciousness is up to in that activity. I live it all the same and love it.

Rendered more acutely conscious of that phenomenon, I may come away more acutely intrigued than I normally am by the nature of consciousness. That too, would be my consciousness at work. And nothing it would accomplish, nor my striving to accomplish it, would be exempt from what my consciousness is ever incomprehensibly up to. In my emotional attunement to that reality, in my love of it, in effect, I would find release from the illusion that I am the stable center of my universe, as well as from the obsessive pursuit of ever greater stability. I could blow my flute instead, whatever the form that flute blowing may assume, and finally love my life.

I don’t know if that counts as Zen Buddhism. The Fuke monks appear to have thought so. Perhaps it does not really matter, however, what the thing is called. I have described a possible experience that because it feels momentous yearns for a narrative. To a greater or lesser extent, Zen Buddhism offers itself as that narrative. Its relative conceptual austerity tends to recommend it over others. So does its focus on the intensity of perceptual experience, as well as its suspicion that there exists a connection between that intensity and the creativity of consciousness. I am inclined to think of that connection as the passionate love of beauty. It is when I focus on it that the world comes to life for me aesthetically. The typical story about that is that only when I let it be will the world reveal itself. Instead, I think that my focussing on the world gives it a look, or a sound, that has the power to enchant me. By contrast, letting the world be does nothing. But that, obviously, is just me talking, not Buddhism.

©Serge Kappler 2015


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