A couple of weeks ago, in London, N and I were invited to a piano recital by an old friend of my parents, who is sponsoring the Japanese pianist Chisato Kusunoki. The elegantly attired audience were seated casually around tables in a dark and stylish lounge, though actually we were in the new (by London theatre standards) St. James Theatre; and Kusonoki’s virtuoso performance included works by Bach, Schumann, Medtner, Moszkowski, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff.
So, as you can see, I am a very cultured person😉 But the real reason I am writing this is that the performance reminded me of the story of Sadaprarudita told in Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness to him using sound as a basis.
The Times said about Kusonoki’s performance: ‘wonderfully fleet and supple fingers, quick to locate the music’s inner voices, able to dapple and perfume.’ I don’t even know what that means, but I like it! Still, how are her fingers able to ‘locate’ the music?! How are they able to produce it? Where is it?
To me, it sounded as if she had at least 20 fingers, there was so much noise coming from the piano, or wherever it was coming from, or, for that matter, ending up. But I could never point to the music even if I tried. Perhaps I could try pointing at it, but where would I start? I could point at her left forefinger, or her thumb, or the thumping key of the piano reflected in its shiny lid, or the waving of her elegant hands over the keyboard, or the smile on her face perhaps reflecting her inner enjoyment or astonishing creative memory, or to the composer’s mind, or the microphone, or the sound waves, or my ears, or the space traveled between the piano and the audience’s ears, or our ear consciousness (if it was physical), or… . For the music to appear to our mind, all these components, and more, are essential. Not one of them individually is the music, and yet take even one away and the music vanishes.
Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? Trying to figure this out in St. James Theatre led me into a lovely reverie on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music was not ‘out there’ anywhere.
There is no real coming or going
Each elaborate piece was imputed on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the haunting mellifluence of Chopin’s Nocturnes or the grandiosity of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. (Ha ha, that’ll have to do for description, I’m not paid to be a music critic. You’ll have to read the fancy reviews for that. I watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing for the first time yesterday evening and was mainly astounded by the florid verbosity with which the judges described each dance. I could just about come up with ‘That’s nice!’) But the point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemize it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.
On the train down from Liverpool yesterday there was a rainbow appearing out of the space of the sky. The reason it was appearing to me was because of the atmospheric conditions and the position of me, the observer. One moment of rainbow only appeared to cause the next moment of rainbow; that continuum was only imputed by mind. Moment by moment the rainbow was arising in dependence upon causes and conditions that were NOT it. So although it seemed as if the rainbow had a continuum from its own side, each moment of rainbow giving rise to the next moment of rainbow, that seeming continuum was projected only by my mind – in truth, each moment of the rainbow was appearing newly in dependence upon other causes, such as the sun and the moisture and me sitting in the train. None of these things was the rainbow, yet remove one and the rainbow would vanish. It is the same for the music. It is the same for EVERYTHING, even mountains and stars, even you and me. There is no inherently existent coming and going. We impute or project continuity on things with our mind, like perceiving countless still frames of a movie and projecting on them movement.
Where is everything?!
Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:
Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?
Because Kusonoki’s music depends on things outside itself for its existence, it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist?
The power of effort and concentration
Everything depends upon the mind. Including of course, as N said during the interval, Kusonoki’s impressive mind. How amazing, he said, that she had managed to memorize every note of the composition and play it flawlessly for over two hours, oftentimes with her eyes closed. The sound flowed effortlessly from her fingertips (or wherever!); she didn’t need to ‘think’ it, more just ‘be’ it. It also made us think how, with familiarity, something beautiful that in reality has taken a great deal of effort and practice become entirely spontaneous and effortless – just like cherishing others or meditating on emptiness if we do it enough. Practice indeed makes perfect. Plus she was enjoying herself so much, even though we knew (from what her sponsor confided to my mother) that she had a head cold. Concentration gets us to this state of effortlessness too, reminding me of one of my favorite TS Eliot quotes:
music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
A virtuous spiral
Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than yesterday’s rainbow appearing from the empty sky.
Understanding this makes listening to music all the more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. (Even without necessarily contemplating emptiness, I could tell that as the audience gradually got into the music, becoming more concentrated and relaxed, they enjoyed the music more and so it sounded better, even though it hadn’t improved from its own side.)
Emptiness and bliss in fact go together very well, like water mixed with water, enhancing each other in a virtuous spiral. But that’ll have to be the subject for another day.
At the end, I thanked Chisato Kusunoki, and said I hoped she’d be able to bring the joy of her music to many thousands of people. She smiled enigmatically. I made a secret prayer that everyone who listens to her accomplishes the realization of bliss and emptiness, and therewith complete mental freedom.
Meanwhile, to test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back.