Book Notes: Blowing Zen by Ray Brooks

Blowing zenRay Brooks was a gaijin teaching English in Tokyo who decided to check out Zen meditation in a temple one day, when he heard the sound of someone playing the shakuhachi. He went toward that sound and chatted with the player, who explained a bit about the instrument. This began his journey learning the instrument, and becoming a shihan, or master of the instrument.

This memoir tells the story of that early period when he started playing a cheap, plastic flute, then got lessons from a first teacher before a chance meeting with Katsuya Yokoyama, who agreed to teach him. He then studied and performed with Nakamura Akikazu, and has made several recordings since.

The most interesting part of the book is where Brooks tells about being a shakuhachi busker, a sort of modern komosu, walking up mountains to play for tourists, performing in parks in cherry blossom season, and even doing impromptu performances for yakuza.

The book is a short read, but quite enjoyable; it is motivational for those wanting to learn the instrument, but it doesn’t discuss any technical aspects of the shakuhachi or how it’s played. But it tells the story of a man who was determined to master this instrument after he was smitten by its sound one day in a temple garden.

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