Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Yamaguchi Goro - Bell Ringing In The Empty Sky

The title of this reissued 1969 cd of Japanese Shakuhachi flute music, 'A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky,' is named after a composition that refers to the death of Fuke, the master of the eponymous sect of Zen Buddhism:

"One day at the street market Fuke was begging all and sundry to give him a robe. Everybody offered him one, but he did not want any of them. The master [Rinzai Gigen] made the superior buy a coffin, and when Fuke returned, said to him: "There, I had this robe made for you." Fuke shouldered the coffin, and went back to the street market, calling loudly: "Rinzai had this robe made for me! I am off to the East Gate to enter transformation" (to die). The people of the market crowded after him, eager to look. Fuke said: "No, not today. Tomorrow, I shall go to the South Gate to enter transformation." And so for three days. Nobody believed it any longer. On the fourth day, and now without any spectators, Fuke went alone outside the city walls, and laid himself into the coffin. He asked a traveler who chanced by to nail down the lid. The news spread at once, and the people of the market rushed there. On opening the coffin, they found that the body had vanished, but from high up in the sky they heard the ring of his hand bell."

A beautiful legend: the absurd dislocation of the signifier and the signified (robe and coffin) points towards an absent referent, thus initiating a series of exchanges of absence: the absence of Fuke at the East and South Gates is answered by the absence of spectators outside the city walls, the absence of spectators is reciprocated by the absence of a corpse in the coffin, and the empty coffin is in turn answered by an empty sky. Like the bell in this legend, the music on this cd announces a void - a void that can hit you with the power of an oncoming freight train.

The music on the album is starkly austere; its austerity is what makes for the richness and intensity of the music's effect. This austerity is not the ascesis of those who are working 0n the project of salvation. It is an austerity which kills the desire which binds one to the object, without proposing ascesis as a new object for desire, without subjugating experience to the goal of salvation or deliverance. Rinzai Geko said "If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go." If you meet salvation or deliverance, destroy it! That Rinzai Geko's murderous attitude to Buddha-as-object struck a chord, should not come as a surprise: many followers of Fuke's teachings were roaming samurai. These followers lived as mendicant monks and wore wicker baskets on their heads which covered their face completely: acephalous monastics. These followers were called komusō, 'monks of emptiness'.

Even though I use the word 'music' in referring to "Bell Ringing In The Empty Sky", perhaps even music as such is absent from this cd: the playing of the shakuhachi bamboo flute is intended as a meditative respiratory exercise, that is: as a method for experiencing the breathing body intimately - an experience that is a signpost towards absence. It is a non-aesthetic sound, abstract and a-rhythmic: the absence of music.

The sound of "Bell Ringing In The Empty Sky" asks the listener to requite its emptiness by absenting himself.

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