Let Them Go

Zen Mountain Monastery Sumida River Rehearsals (Pt. 2)

Contributed by Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
Photographs by Kevin Salfen

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

IMG_4842Today was discipline: the first complete run-through of Sumida River with “blocking,” which is to a large extent predetermined in noh. The troupe met R— the abbot, who gave us an overview of the history of Zen Mountain Monastery, helped us understand what and what not to do, and made us feel very welcome, as everyone has. At day’s end we had a thirty-five-minute introduction to zazen, experienced through the body—that is, we did it while learning how to do it—and a chance to immediately put our education to use by doing our first zazen session with the monastery community, another thirty-five-minute sit. It was hard. All of it. Which is not to say that it wasn’t fascinating.

IMG_4851One of the more fascinating moments for me was during a rehearsal with Matt Dubroff and Gary Mathews, who are playing ōkawa (“hip drum”) and kotsuzumi (“shoulder drum”), respectively. The three of us were rehearsing the kakeri, the “unsettled dance” during which the Madwoman gives a physical display of her wandering mind. The piece has several tempo and mood changes, which suggest this unsettled quality. But what I hadn’t realized until today was how the flute part seems to be made up of fragments from other flute pieces. It’s as if a familiar flute piece starts, then is cut short to be replaced by another, cut short again, and so on. In other words, I hear my part as the “unsettled mind” made into flute music. Even if this is more a novice performer’s revelation than a seasoned scholar’s reasoned analysis, my new-found appreciation for how the kakeri is put together aids memorization!

IMG_4858Another fascinating moment was during the last zazen session of the day, which was held in the zendo in the monastery’s “old building.” Never having experienced this specific practice before, I was ready for the constant presence of the mind at work and the attempt to silence it. H—, who had given us the introduction to zazen, encouraged us to acknowledge our thoughts and let them go, and she described several varieties of thought that our practice might bring up, from the mundane to the emotionally charged. Perhaps this was a kind of half-suggestion on H—’s part to take a crack at dismissing different kinds of thoughts. Whether it was or wasn’t, I found just such a variety of things flitting through, and sometimes sticking in, my mind. “This hurts. Should’ve sat another way.” “Listen to those geese!” “Now it’s the pigeons.” “OK, don’t forget that embouchure you found today for the hishigi.” “I miss home.” And so forth. And I earnestly tried to dismiss these thoughts, to “let them go,” as H— had said, in order to get the fullest experience of this practice that I might given our brief window of opportunity to explore it here. Within the thirty-five minutes of this entirely still and silent conversation with myself, perhaps I found a minute or two of a quiet mind. As I said, it was hard. But we’ve begun the journey, and will work again tomorrow to perfect a few more notes and then let them go.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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