Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Shut up and Breathe

In spring of 2002, I was in the hospital with a condition known as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). ARDS is a life threatening injury to the lungs which often requires mechanical ventilation during a drug induced coma. It is often brought on by a severe trauma to the body; car accident, fall, heart attack, or in my case, pneumonia.

Most ARDS patients experience vivid, life transforming dreams and hallucinations during their ordeal. Many of these visions are terrifying and horrific; some are heroic, epic and life affirming.

An enduring, life affirming theme that helped sustain me throughout my experience involved the shakuhachi.

Anyone who has picked up a shakuhachi has experienced that rare moment when playing is effortless. Some refer to this moment as Blowing Zen. Regardless of the label, it is an experience that is outside of self, skill, opinion and intention.

The most important moment in my life occurred during my hospital stay. I was in bad shape, and I knew it. It was very difficult to breathe and I was aware that I might die. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear, horror and guilt. The thought occurred that I could give up, avoid my predicament and die.

I also thought about those perfect moments with the shakuhachi and how it was necessary to apply their tangible lessons immediately. I remembered how the most difficult things are actually the easiest because they are directly in front of our eyes. I also remembered that in order to play well, or make a good flute, one must take the path of least resistance.

The shakuhachi was finding its way into a horrific moment of despair and transforming it into a heroic experience. I was learning to shut up and breathe. I was realizing that I wanted to live and I was learning how to do it.

This life affirming experience continued to provide strength for me through many dark periods of my illness and recovery. The shakuhachi continues to teach without trying. Its humble presence has instilled a daily reverence for sacred responsibility in my life . It is a gift for which I am forever grateful.

As I look back on my experiences with bamboo, I often wonder about what the shakuhachi is and what it means to me. I also think about how my relationship with bamboo has evolved over the years.

When I began making shakuhachi, I felt that the essence of this mysterious instrument was hidden in the bamboo. Eventually, I learned something of physics and deduced that its secret was found not in form, but in emptiness. After exhausting my interest in a scientifically weighted approach, I sought the middle way and learned that the shakuhachi was about both bamboo and emptiness. Now, after listening closer, I hear it is about neither.

Breathe well.

Ken LaCosse

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Shakuhachi on BBC Radio 2

Ken LaCosse playing the shakuhachi flute on BBC Radio 2

The following is the script for a reflective sequence on the BBC Radio 2 programme Pause For Thought. The programme is produced by the BBC religious broadcasting team. Here, Mike Ford reflects on the present day role of the ancient Japanese shakuhachi flute with flute-maker Ken LaCosse. It was aired April 2, 2004.

Listen to this programme

Ford: I was stretched out on a beach in San Francisco, with my eyes closed and ears open to the roar of the breakers. It was bliss. Then, all of a sudden, there came an even more heavenly sound from the other side of the sand dune.


Ford: It wasn't an acoustic I'd expected to encounter so close to the shoreline but the notes, as crystal clear as the sea, were soon transporting me to a realm of pure delight. The musician was a flute-maker testing out his latest Shakuhachi creation in the warm Californian air. As I listened to the impromptu recital by Ken LaCosse, I found myself casting my cares to the wind and simply marvelling at the fact that a simple piece of Japanese bamboo could be fashioned into an instrument of such serenity. Ken explained how the tapering bamboo had been cut below ground at the root joint, enhancing both the look and the sound of the flute. The secret of its haunting melody lay in the spacing of the seven nodes or joints from the base of the instrument to its blowing edge. I asked him whether the music spoke to him of anything:
LaCosse: No knowledge. Just sound and a good feeling, and nothing that you need to speak of, nothing you need to know. No ego.
Ford: For the first time in a long time I felt in complete harmony with the world around me, a tranquil interlude in a life of constant movement and distraction. For once, I was actually living in the here and now.
In his classic spiritual text, 'The Practice of the Presence of God,' a 17th century cook describes how he discovered God in all things, whether working in his kitchen or worshipping in church. Brother Lawrence had served as a soldier and a footman, before entering the Carmelite Order in Paris at the age of 55 and immersing himself in the devotional life. A simple man, who laid no claim to special gifts, he felt God's company constantly because he lived eternity now.
'Be still and know that I am God,' said the psalmist in the Hebrew Scriptures, but attuning ourselves to the rhythm of the divine in our age is no easy matter. Perhaps we have to learn the art of chilling out, like the flute-player on the shore. It's only by letting go of the past and holding back from the future that we can hear the sound of the present moment.