“There's no place that you can hide No, no, the rhythm is gonna get'cha…”
From “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” – songwriters Gloria M. Estefan & Enrique Elias Garcia
Recently I had a chance to return to Honolulu to do some Zen training with old and new friends. After zazen, some of us moved to another room to do okyo, or chanting of the sutras, under the guidance of Tsuha Roshi, who was my okyo teacher since I began my Zen training in 2001.
As was his custom with this group, he was the first to play the mokugyo (wooden drum) and the two bronze bowl-shaped bells (one larger, one smaller) to lead the chanting, setting the rhythm, the tone and the ki`ai (energy) for the session.
Then he asked different students to “volunteer” to lead the next rounds of okyo and accompany themselves on the bells, with another student keeping rhythm on the mokugyo. Tsuha Roshi often stopped the group to conduct exercises to improve the sound, especially help increase resonance – the quality of sound reverberating deeply and fully.
While some other Buddhist groups might focus on the meaning of the words when chanting sutras, our focus is on resonance – both internally and externally. To generate the maximum resonance, we must have the proper posture, breath and concentration.
One aspect of concentration has to do with the rhythm set by the person playing the mokugyo. There is generally one syllable – sometimes two – per beat. When the rhythm is right, those chanting will be able to follow more easily, and their resonance will be good; when the rhythm is wrong, though, people will have a harder time both with following and getting the best sound out.
Rhythm of the Universe
So, the question becomes: How do you know what the rhythm should be?
The “right rhythm” changes with the season, the day, the time. We say, you play at the “rhythm of the universe.”
This was the question that plagued one of the students that morning in Hawai`i. He couldn’t quite find it however many times Tsuha Roshi had him start and stop.
The problem is that the minute you stop to think about the rhythm you’ll be off. You’re going to be slightly behind because a thought has intervened, or you’re going to be too fast because you’re trying to catch up with where you think you should be.**
To feel the rhythm of the Universe – and thus the “right rhythm” – you must be Empty. That is, be like a mirror that reflects – without adding or subtracting – what is in front of it. In this way, you can become rhythm itself.
Later that week, as my husband and I took a walk, I asked him why he was walking a little behind me. He said that by doing this he could better see my rhythm. (I had frequently told him that I could walk further if we walked to the rhythm of the universe. So, could he please just follow my rhythm?)
I laughed and asked him just to walk next to me instead of behind me. At the same time, I was amused that he found it so hard to feel the rhythm that seemed so obvious.
As we walked, I observed many people and dogs moving in the same rhythm, though maybe at varying speeds and with different strides: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Over and over again.
After 30 minutes, when I got tired, I sat down on a park bench, and he went on for another 20 minutes. I watched joggers and walkers; tourists and locals. I heard car tires moving and trees swaying in the same rhythm; I watched birds and leaves flitting in the same rhythm: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.
I couldn’t help but see and hear it. Everywhere. Universal rhythm of that day, that moment.
My first Zen teacher Tanouye Roshi had early on told me it was how the Universe worked. That morning, though, it came to me with such forceful clarity.
I turned to face my husband just as he returned, and the two of us walked back to our hotel – in rhythm – side by side.
-Diane Wong Roshi