The Storyteller Understands

That this moment is more fantastic than any story.

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My Healing Journey

So, here I am, riding on the back of a motorcycle. Swami Siddarth is taking me from the ashram into Rajpipla to catch the bus to Vadodara. My pack is on my back. I’m wearing shorts, a t-shirt and thongs. No helmet but I am wearing my sunnies for protection. We are riding on Indian roads in Indian driving conditions. Some rose coloured glasses foreigners call the Indian way of driving “intuitive”. Me, I just count my imaginary rosary and chant, “I’ll never do this again, I’ll never do this again…”

Baba will be away from the ashram for a month, so, I decided to have a weeks Ayurvedic treatment in Vadodara. I had been considering going to one of two very good places in Kerala on my way out of India as I’ll be flying Air Asia out of Cochin. However, that would mean having to leave the ashram early and after my few days with Baba, I suspect that I won’t want to leave any earlier than I have to.

It’s 80 kms from Rajpipla to Vadodara and takes two hours. That’s a driving speed of 40 kms/hr. That gives you some idea of the condition of the highway much of the way. Traffic is not that heavy. I was driven out here in a car. The bus journey in is not my preferred mode of transport but that’s how the cookie has crumbled.

After fifteen minutes waiting, the empty bus arrived. As it began backing into it’s spot, still four metres away and moving, people began to jump on. I wanted an aisle seat close to the front, so, I joined the game. Not only were we jumping on a moving bus but we were jostling for position at the same time! We all survived and I got an aisle seat half way back on the two seat side of the bus. My backpack managed to fit above and I was set to go. As it turned out, the ride was ok. The seat was padded and I could just barely fit my knees behind the next seat, so, I wasn’t too sore by the time we reached Vadodara two hours later. A lady at the front of the bus read the address for the health centre that Anand had written in Hindi and Siddarth in Gujarati. I got down at a large round about, found a rickshaw and had him ring the clinic. The phone number was below the address. A little negotiation and we were on the way for 130 rupees. The bus only cost me 60 rupees. The location of the clinic was well outside the city ten years ago. Now, it is on the edge of the city. We turned at the sign for the Emu farm and we were there.

My first glimpse was of a two story building with a nice sized garden along one side. When I entered, I found myself in an open airy lounge area looking through to a small inner court garden. The doctor was phoned and after the hellos, I was shown to my room for a shower before my initial consultation.

Room nice. The bed was long enough for me. Most Indian beds are six feet long. Being six, two, I find myself sleeping diagonally a lot. The ashram has an extra long bed for me. I’m going to take it with me when I leave. Walking down the road with my bed strapped to my back!

Back to my clinic room. There was a TV! Soap and shampoo ordinary commercial brand, not herbal. Glad I brought my own shampoo. A bucket shower and fresh clothes and I was ready.

I knew from the website that this was a family business with the father, son and daughter all MDs. Only the father had an Ayurvedic degree. Their principle degrees were in western medicine. I wondered about that but was open to this complementary medicine thing. My interview was with the son. After a brief medical history, he explained a little about Ayurveda. The three elements that need to be in balance. If you have too much ‘pita’, then, this happens, etc. He, then, took out a sheet of questions that he asked me to determine which of the three I leaned towards. Just as we finished, the father showed up and began by saying that he had practiced in Indianapolis. A little chit-chat and some talk about the origins of Ayurveda and it’s relation to meditation. I was told that my first treatment would be at four that afternoon and I was on my way to lunch. Later, I realised that I never did find out what my diagnosis was. Am I ‘pita’ or bagette or what?

Lunch- Food same as ‘except less oil, ghee, sugar and salt’. Not what I was hoping for. Did have pawpaw with afternoon tea. Nutra sugar substitute! At four thirty, I went looking for the guy who gives the treatments. He rang the doctor on his mobile and I was told that I would just have Shirodhara that day. (The family lives in rooms on the top floor of the clinic, but, even though they are that close, the help always rang them on their mobile phones.)
So, first treatment- turns out that I was handed to a younger guy who did the actual treatment. The shirodhara was only ten minutes. (That’s the slow pouring of oil on your forehead. It is said to do all sorts of great things.) Fan too high. Not that exciting. Just starting to relax when it was over and I was getting a head rub. Found out that they don’t do the treatments with the hot ghee and bags of herbs. Very disappointed! Full treatment tomorrow at 7am. We’ll see how it goes. So far… not too impressed.

A little history: Four years ago, I had a series of treatments at an Ayuvedic hospital in Pondicherri. They were great. I was wearing this T strip of cloth around my special parts and stretched out on this wooden table with a trough around the inside edge and high sides. The practitioners dipped muslin bags of herbs in hot ghee (clarified butter) and pounded me all over. It was delicious. My muscles melted. Some of the sessions there were two men pounding me at the same time. The first two session were just one man. The third session another guy showed up. It turned out that he was the advanced practitioner. I mentioned a place on my spine, upper back, that was giving me trouble. (a couple times a year my spine would slip out of alignment and cause all the muscles of my chest to contract. Not a pleasant experience. I carry some muscle relaxant at all times to relieve the intense pain.) So, this new guy reaches around and feels beside my spine. He does this little motion that I hardly feel and I’m better. It was a year and a half before I had a recurrence. This is the kind of treatment that I am looking for.

After another shower and shampoo, it was dinner time. Returning to my room after my meal, which included drinking two tablespoons of liquid Ghee, I went to open my window. Well, I immediately closed said window as there was tremendous amounts of smoke from cooking fires waiting to enter. I had to resort to the air con until ten that night to have fresh air. As I sat there, over the sound of the air con, I heard some loud pounding. I traced it to the family’s apartments upstairs. The one other guest had mentioned renovations taking place for a visiting brother. The demolition continued until 11:30 that night.

Next morning, I was up and ready at seven o’clock. We began with the Shirodhara again. Again, only starting to relax when told to sit up for head rub. Then, right into a massage that was a brisk rubdown that lasted maybe twenty minutes. After that, take two herbal tablets and drink two glasses of water and into a steam cabinet for fifteen minutes. Another shower and shampoo and I was out the door. Oh,yeh, no little T strip of cloth. Ended with oil on my own boxer shorts.

Back in my room, I picked up my bags that I had packed that morning and headed out to the reception lounge. A cleaner was dispatched to find the doctor whom I told, “Your treatment does not include what I was wanting. The massage with the herbal bags and hot ghee.” (I know, I’m too nice.) To my delight, there was no objection to my leaving. No suggestions. We settled the bill at one treatment and a night’s lodging. The doctor even rang a rickshaw driver and instructed him to take me to the bus station and make sure I got on the correct bus.
I have to say that what these people are doing would probably be of help to a lot of people. How much? Is it Ayurveda? From my experience, only on the most basic level and I don’t foresee them going into any real depth in their training and experience.

I had the rickshaw driver stop for fresh coconut milk on the way to the station. I treated him to one as well. We were forty-five minutes early. I told him to leave. I would be fine. He insisted on waiting. After five minutes of fidgeting, he passed me off to an older couple who had arrived. I must tell you about this couple. As they approached, the man had this very strange walk. His legs were very stiff and he moved them mostly through an awkward rotation of his hips. I was wondering if this was a medical condition, some degenerative disease, or from some accident. Then, I saw his wife walking behind him. She had the exact same awkward gate! This was a real first for me. I could only imagine that over the years she had imitated his gate for some reason that was even weirder than the gait.

The bus arrived and I headed out, leaving the couple behind. The crowd was forming. There were passengers that needed to disembark this time, so, the boarding crowd was very large before the squeeze through the door began. I noticed that some people were pushing bags through the windows to cadge seats. Using my backpack as a battering ram, I surged forward cutting off a well padded matron. A late departing passenger had to make way for this determined foreigner at the door well. It was not a pretty scene. I was not embarrassed.

The bus left on time and took exactly two hours to reach Rajpipla. I got off at the entry to town and found a young man to loan me the use of him mobile phone. Anand had not received the email that I had sent him the night before. It took a few moments for him to understand that I was in Rajpipla and not Vadodara. He said that he would send Siddarth for me.

Twenty minutes later and I was sitting on the back of a motorcycle. My pack on my back. Wearing shorts, t-shirt and thongs, with my sunnies for protection and counting my imaginary beads…”I swear that I will never do this again, I swear that I will never do this again….”

The 15th Rocky Shakuhachi Camp, Kyoto

What do you get when you put 80 players of the shakuhachi together in two floors of one building for four days?

Serious Shakuhachi Practice

A hell of a lot of fun, learning and playing.

The Rockies Shakuhachi Summer Camp is usually held near Boulder, Colorado with about 30 attendees. To more than double the size and transplant it to Kyoto was a miracle that David, Cory, Christopher and the rest of the crew pulled off beautifully. It was a time to explore the many styles and schools of shakuhachi. To refine technique and discover new ways to approach the instrument. To hear some inspiring performances and, perhaps, best of all, it was a place to catch up with old friends and make new ones. In fact, when I think of those few days, what first comes to me is a collection of faces of new close friends passing before my eyes. Their smiles and easy closeness.  The happiness of being together.

Kyoto Shakuhachi Camp Members

Of course, there were some difficulties. Like Kundan attempting to sit on the floor for the whole camp. “Hey, I sit for an hour at a time occasionally, I can do this.” He went home the first night, thinking, “I wonder why I’m so tired. Maybe it’s my biorhythm. A good night’s sleep will do me.” Half way through the next day, in a small workshop, the sensei asked if he was ok. “Oh, sure,” he said to the fuzzy image before him. The sensei was no fool. He soon called a break and had the translator bring Kundan a chair. Superman quickly returned to life and was able to gather the strength to play his shak again.

The first evening was devoted to introductions. There was supposed to be other stuff but with 80 individuals…  Here are a couple of the many good stories from that evening:

One man wanted to marry the daughter of a shakuhachi teacher. The father told him, “If you want to marry my daughter, you’ll have to learn to play the shakuhachi.”  He knew how to test a suitor’s intentions! Twenty-five years later, the son-in-law is still happily married and is teaching the shakuhachi.

Another Japanese man wasn’t interested in traditional Japanese music. He loved jazz. Then, one night he heard a British musician playing jazz on a shakuhachi (there were some eye brows raised at this suggestion) and loved it. The next day, he was walking his dog and saw that his neighbour, who had the same type of dog, was carrying something shaped like a shakuhachi. Not only was it a shakuhachi but the neighbour is a shakuhachi teacher. And, now his teacher.

The vastness of the camp allowed me to make some great ‘mistakes’ . One was when I wandered into the “wrong” workshop and learned a bit of a beautiful piece “Haru no Umi” that is accompanied by koto. Having only learned solo pieces, this was a fun new experience. At another workshop we all learned some folk tunes. During the camp we got to hear improvisation with tabla, as well as, pieces accompanied by koto, shamisen and singer. (The woman who played the koto, shamisen and sang was the amazing Sawako Fukuhara.) There were absolute beginners who got their own classes and gave heart the rest of us to know that we are a living growing tradition. There were people from all over the world including a group from China who included some very good players. The shakuhachi was originally brought from China to Japan and, then, kinda faded away there. Over the last decade, the shakuhachi returned to China. Chinese players have multiplied and there are over one thousand people studying shakuhachi in China. The last evening, was a student/faculty concert that I joined in amongst a large number of my colleagues for one number. One of the highlights was an arrangement by Elliot Kallen of James Brown’s “I Feel Good”.

Then, there was the field trip-

We were all given the opportunity to dress as a Komuso and play in the garden of a Zen Temple. The Komuso were the Zen priest who used the shakuhachi as a meditation tool. When outside the temple, they would wear these basket hats and wander freely all over Japan.

Our one authentically dressed Komuso before the basket.

Many of them were masterless samurai. Eventually, enough rumours of their possibly being spies reached the Shogun that he disbanded them. It is from them that many of the great pieces have been passed down.

To play Komuso in a garden!!!! I jumped at the chance. I was surprised that there were only a dozen of us up for it. We only had six of the basket hats and only one of us had the authentic costume. So, we improvised. Aikido gi, kimono, whatever looked Japanesee.

The “Gate” at the Zen temple.

We, then, filled a van and two taxis for a drive across town to a large Zen temple complex. David had picked a splendid location, the ‘Gate’ of the temple.

As the first group of six got fitted with their baskets, tourists (mostly Japanese) started to gather. There were lots of smiles and pictures.

Group One “Komuso”

Everyone was having a great time. One British couple were getting a discourse on the shakuhachi and told of the upcoming festival.

Then… a young woman came tearing down the hill toward the gate in a very official mode. We let her attempt to find out who was in charge for a little while before directing her to the right person. It transpired that we weren’t allowed to have a “photo session” in the temple grounds without applying for permission and paying a fee. Well, we didn’t think of this as a “photo session”, just a bit of fun. So, we packed up and walked over to a small public roadway within the temple complex and continued our adventure. 86ed from a Zen temple. That was a new one.

We left the tourists behind but there were still some passersby.

Even with the basket hat, they found me.

K & The Geisha

A Model Komuso

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

There were so many great sessions. I’ll just write a little about two of them.

One of the special guests was Junsuke Kawase III. Among other things he told us that twenty- five years ago he gave up smoking. Besides gaining a little weight, he developed asthma. It got so bad that he couldn’t play his shakuhachi. He was inhaling steroids up to six times a day. He asked his doctor if the treatments would cure his asthma and was told, “No, we’re only dealing with the symptoms.” Then, a friend told him of having a successful treatment in Beijing. So, off to Bejing where he started treatment with a Qi Gung doctor. In a very short time, he felt much better and was able to start playing his flute. The Qi Gung doctor said to him, “I didn’t know that they had such a Qi Gung instrument in Japan.” Junsuke went on to tell us some of what he learned about Qi Gung and it’s relation to playing the shakuhachi.

On the last day, the Super Session was with Ichizan Hoshida-sensei. He started by asking us if, when we warmed up in the morning, did we start off blowing the best note we could or just blowing. I was one of the majority who raised their hands to the latter. It was an eye opener to me. Among other things, he talked about starting off with just blowing at 40% strength for four seconds at a time and making each blow the best note that we could blow. I remembered this.

The camp ended at noon and the World Shakuhachi Festival Competition Final Performances began at one o’clock in the same building. There were 24 contestants. It was open to anyone of any age with any level of experience. Most of the contestants were in and around their 20s. What surprised me was the entry of Riley Lee in the competition. If you don’t know, Riley Lee has been playing the shakuhachi since the early seventies. He has performed publicly for many of those years and has produced a large number of excellent cds. To say that I was puzzled is an understatement. My answer was to arrive:

This is how I experienced it. The competitions finalists included some of the finest young up coming players. It was, of course, a highly charged event for them and they would have been listening very carefully to the other players. They each played two pieces. The first was a choice of two pieces that the organisers provided. One with two koto accompanying. It was very melodious. The second with koto  and shamisen contained some very intense sections with the solo being a slower interlude. The second piece played was a choice of the player and only limited by time. Riley was number 22 in order of playing the first piece. Watching the other performers, they would stand or sit beside the accompanists and, facing the audience, would nod when ready and set off into the piece. When Riley came on stage, he adjusted his chair to the side of the accompanists so that he was facing both them and the audience. As he played, he and the koto and shamisen were playing as a unit. Then, when he came to the solo part, it was Riley sitting there alone surrounded by a silent stillness out of which came the exquisite sound of the shakuhachi. When Riley played his other solo piece, that same intense experience occurred. To be present when a shakuhachi master plays at such heights is a rare opportunity.

The morning after the camp, I woke at 5 am. (Not on purpose!) By 5:30, I was in the garden of a small shrine moving through a beautiful slow Yang Chen Fu form. Then, I unpacked my shakuhachi. I stood feeling the energy move up from the earth to mix with the breath in my belly, then, to rise up at 45% strength to emerge as the best note that I could blow. I continued this way maintaining the 45% strength for a length of time until I felt the energy of my breath increase of its own accord and while I stayed relaxed it moved up to emerge as a loud best note I could blow. I had often wondered about the term “Suizen” (blowing zen). That morning, I felt that I had tasted it.

Ten Thousand Words

Ro Buki

In May 2007, I began studying shakuhachi with Kaoru Kakizakai Sensei. The practice of blowing with all the holes closed is called Ro Buki. ‘Ro’ is the note being played. It is recommended that you begin each practice with ten minutes of Ro Buki. At our lessons, we begin with a briefer Ro Buki. In one of my last lessons during this last visit , Kaoru said that I had finally ‘gotten’ it. I was immensely pleased. I was back in Oz for one month before I arranged a skype lesson. It occurred on Monday this week. I had lost the form! I could not play ro correctly! We spent half an hour searching. In the end, I could just barely play it correctly. That I had become tense in the situation was a definite drawback. So, that evening and the next day, I searched and found it again. I felt that I had it correct but I wanted to be certain, so, I arranged for a lesson the next day.

I had been successful!!!! You may have heard me shout ‘Yes’ at the end of the lesson.

An interesting side-effect has been that I can now play stronger sounds, longer phrases and practice for longer periods. Big smile.

Just thought I’d let you know.

The Book of Changes

A couple days ago, I got an email from one of the members of the Vihara Community of which I became a share holder this last year. He was informing us of his decision to withdraw from the enterprise. His reason being our shortage of shareholders as we neared the point where we would finalise our purchase of the magnificent property and infrastructure that was our first goal as a group. As things stood, we would need loans from some of the members in order to finance this first step. That would leave us in a position lacking reserves in money and energy to launch the community. What would be minor difficulties in other circumstances could develop easily into major difficulties with all of the attendant stress added. We had been hoping to recruit additional shareholders in the next few months but our efforts to date had met with limited success. So, the decision by this share holder, soon followed by a second, led to the rest of us realising that this particular venture was coming to an end.

I had been excited by the possible manifestation of the vision set forth in the Vihara Manifesto. It fit me very well. Though I made plans and took actions in that direction, I was aware of the possibility of the above occurring. Life is bigger than me and I have to move with what is.

Did I feel disappointment? Yes, I did. After all, he was sitting there on the floor next to my right leg; his squat rounded cubical body with the huge mouth and woeful eyes squirming in anticipation of my giving him the energy to turn into a screaming monster. I gave him a glance and turned away. I had better things to do. (Don’t know where he is now. When I ignore him, he just pisses off.)

The first cab off the rank for my attention was the feeling of immense gratefulness for the friends who have accompanied me on this part of the journey. It’s been a joy to get to know new friends and better know previous acquaintances. After that, I turned to reflect on the recent journey. What steps had we taken that helped the cause and what could we have done differently to our advantage? I let the options surface and absorbed the insights for future opportunities.

Life can take sudden turns. That’s just the wonder of it. Now, life is overwhelming me with possibilities. I am so fortunate: I’ve got a comfy bed to sleep in. A lovely house to live in located in a sub tropical paradise. Good food available. I’m healthy. There’s my Tai Chi and Bagua. My flute is always at hand to stretch the heavens. To top it all off, I have somehow learned the art of letting go into a meditative state. What more could one ask?

So, dear friends, I wonder what experience is awaiting me on the next page of this book.