My Zen teacher was a musician and he frequently used examples from music to illustrate Zen principles. He often said that Zen training was like learning to play a musical instrument. He would describe what it was like to give a young child an instrument, say a violin. At the beginning, they would make horrible, screeching noises. But, with practice, their tone would start to become mellower and the sounds they made would start to resemble music. With more time and more practice, their tone would become mellower still and, for those few who continued to play after high school, this mellowing process would continue. One of the things that distinguishes a professional violinist from an amateur is the difference in tone. Similarly, a virtuoso stands out among other professionals in large part because of the resonance and purity of his or her tone.
He would then reflect on what accounts for this improvement in tone with practice. It’s not the instrument. While professional violinists will undoubtedly have higher quality instruments than the average fourth grader, a professional can take that child’s violin and make purer tone than the student. So, if it isn’t the difference in instruments, what changes over time? The answer is found in the body dynamics of the musician and how it affects the vibration within the musician’s body and between the musician’s body and the instrument. Music, like all sound, is fundamentally vibration. And, a vibrating object can influence other objects to vibrate at the same frequencies. A violin string influences the vibration of the body of the violin. A beginning musician tends to play with a lot of tension in his or her body. The grip on the bow is in variably too tight, damping the sympathetic vibration between the strings and the wood of violin. And he or she will have a great deal of tension throughout his or her body, especially in the arms and shoulders. This inhibits the sympathetic vibration between the violin and the musician. All these factors result in poor tone quality. But, with practice, that beginner learns to relax the grip, shoulders and arms, and, over time, the tone improves, and the sound becomes more resonant as the music and the instrument vibrate together.
To return to zazen, my teacher used to say that in Zen we learn to change the way our body vibrates. Just as tension damps the resonance of a young musician, tension inhibits the way our bodies vibrate. The practice of zazen (and the martial and fine arts) teach us how to relax our bodies. And, the key to this is hara breathing, which, when combined with proper posture, enables us to take unnecessary tension out of our bodies, allowing us to vibrate at our natural frequencies. And, it can have a calming effect of others because it can actually change the way the other person vibrates. This is a possible physical explanation for what we call kiai (chi in Chinese).
If you are interested in learning more about vibration and Zen, I’d like to call your attention to a book that a good friend and Zen colleague is writing on the topic. Ginny Whitelaw has a Ph.D. in biophysics and worked as a scientist and senior leader at NASA before becoming a leadership coach. She is a Zen master in the same lineage as me and is the founder of the Institute of Zen Leadership. You can learn more about Ginny, her book (appropriately entitled “Resonate”) and how to pre-order it at https://publishizer.com/resonate/.