The Jazz Piano StudyLetter

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No Mind

[from JPSL No. 5]

Some basic principles of Zen psychology are eminently applicable to jazz improvisation.

A mendicant asked an ancient saint, "What is the Way?"
The saint said, "The normal mind is the Way."
The principle of this story applies to all arts. This is the stage where sicknesses of the mind are all gone, when you have become normal in mind and have no sicknesses even while in the midst of sicknesses....
To apply this to worldly matters, suppose you are shooting and you think you're shooting while you're shooting: then the aim of your bow will be inconsistent and unsteady....when you play the harp, if you are conscious of playing, the tune will be off.
When an archer forgets consciousness of shooting, and shoots in a normal frame of mind, as if unoccupied, the bow will be steady.... you don't "write", you don't "play music." When you do everything in the normal state of mind, as it is when totally unoccupied, then everything goes smoothly and easily.
--Yagyu Munenori

. . if you practice day after day and month after month, eventually stance and swordplay don't hang on your mind anymore, and you are like a beginner who knows nothing....
In terms of the art of war, when you see an opponent's sword slashing at you, if you think to parry it then and there, your mind fixes on the sword. Then your action falters and you get cut.... This is called fixation, or lingering.
If you don't set your mind on the striking sword even as you see it, and don't keep any thoughts in mind, and meet the oncoming sword directly as soon as you see it, without fixing your mind on it at all, you can take away the sword intended to kill you ...
The basic mind is like water, not remaining anywhere; the errant mind is like ice, with which you cannot wash your hands ... If your mind fixes on one spot and lingers on one thing, it freezes. As a result it cannot be used freely ...
If you set your mind on an opponent's actions, you have your mind taken up by the opponent's actions.
If you set your mind on an opponent's sword, you have your mind taken up by the opponent's sword....
The point is that there is nowhere at all to set the mind.

These passages are from The Japanese Art of War,by Thomas Cleary (Shambhala, 1992; 131 pp.; $16.95.) Both the title and the jacket copy of this book are misleading; it's really about Zen.

Zen psychology, as revealed in this book, is not an irrational or airy-fairy thing. It illumines our experience at the piano as we realize that we can't play what we try to play, but can play what we don't try to play. Check it out.

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