Breathing path to beauty and inner peace

by Catherine Pawasarat

KYOTO — In 1973, a week or two after Brooklyn native Ronnie Seldin began playing the shakuhachi, his teacher asked him what he planned to do after he returned to the United States.

“Teach shakuhachi,” he answered.

“I had no idea then how pretentious that was,” laughed Seldin, here last month on an annual tour of Japan with some of his own shakuhachi students. Now a certified master of the Kinko style of shakuhachi, Seldin is the head of Kisui-an (The House of Blowing Emptiness) in New York, the largest shakuhachi dojo outside of Japan.

Ronnie Seldin

“I had three three-hour lessons every week, and I played every day for the first five years. If you miss a day, you go back a week, and I didn’t want to get set back,” he explained matter-of-factly.

To date, Seldin’s shakuhachi has been featured on 16 recordings, and earlier this year his latest CD, “Komuso: The Healing Art of Zen Shakuhachi,” broke into Barnes & Noble’s top 100 music recordings. On the CD, Seldin makes use of unusually long shakuhachi, creating even more mellow tones and textures than the standard instrument.

“These were pieces used for healing by komuso, mendicant Zen monks who traveled with tengai baskets on their heads for anonymity, and to suppress the ego,” he said.

Though samurai spies masqueraded as komuso because of the ideal disguise provided by a basket over one’s head, other komuso would check to see whether or not they could actually play with a kind of musical dialogue.

There was one komuso left in Kyoto when Seldin arrived here almost 30 years ago. “Most older people remember them from when they were younger,” he said.

Suizen means “blowing meditation,” and refers to the use of shakuhachi within Zen Buddhism as a vehicle for enlightenment. This necessitates total focus, to the point of the player becoming unified with the sound of his or her instrument.

While there are other kinds of shakuhachi music (such as the secular gaikyoku, written for koto and shamisen with shakuhachi accompaniment), over hundreds of years Zen monks composed the honkyoku, or “fundamental pieces,” specifically as breathing meditations. Though Seldin teaches a full repertoire of shakuhachi music, it is the honkyoku that he favors.

“In Japan the honkyoku are not so popular, but I am mainly interested in the Zen music. Breathing helps you find your center, ground yourself, helps you find your way in the world. That’s what spirituality is all about.”

Seldin has 80 students, most of whom have backgrounds in meditation or yoga, martial arts, or, surprisingly, computers — the teacher points out that people use the same side of the brain for both computers and music.

“People don’t come to me for music lessons; they’re usually looking for depth,” he said. Seldin gave up a career as a professional guitarist to teach shakuhachi. “I found that shakuhachi had much more depth, which is appealing to Americans. The U.S. is such a new country, it is more shallow.”

Though Seldin has played throughout the U.S. and Japan, as well as in South America and Europe, teaching has remained his main priority. “I have a big desire to spread this music,” he said, though without any note of ambition in his voice. After completing a rigorous course, 13 of his students have become licensed teachers in the U.S., and they now have students. Over the last 27 years he has also composed eight pieces in the Zen tradition, which he calls “neo” honkyoku.

“I am known in the shakuhachi world as being rather old-fashioned,” he smiled, though he has recorded with jazz musicians, a cellist and an improvisational group. In New York, his students sit seiza on tatami, and are served green tea.

With half of his students outside New York, Seldin teaches regularly in Philadelphia, Syracuse and Boston, and does regular intensive shakuhachi retreats at Zen monasteries in upstate New York.

“The roshi there are looking to make Zen more American. Many of Zen’s customs and traditions don’t translate well in the U.S. So much of the economy of words and movement is because Japan is so small, and people are on top of each other here. There’s no reason for it in the U.S.”

About 25 other students learn shakuhachi by correspondence, listening to Seldin’s playing and instruction on cassettes and returning tapes of their own playing, as Seldin did with his own teacher after leaving Japan.

“It’s hard, because playing into a box is unnatural,” Seldin said. “But there’s not really any other choice if you live outside of New York or California,” which is where the only U.S. teachers live. His correspondence course allows students all over the world to study shakuhachi, including in Moscow, Canada, England, New Zealand, Austria, South Africa and Korea.

Students begin by learning the secular gaikyoku, then move to the Zen honkyoku, some of which are as much as 800 years old. These pieces are known for their infinite subtleties of shape, sound and texture.

“I see the spiritual aspect as very much a part of my mission as a teacher,” Seldin said, recalling the Zen saying, ichi-on jobutsu (one sound becoming Buddha).

“If you find the perfect sound, you can spread or create beauty, serenity, enlightenment, so people can find their own quiet place. I tell my students that every time we pick up the flute, we might be able to help cause world peace.”