Zen and the Art of Rock Guitar

bluIn high school I knew a guy named Dave. Dave was a great guitar player even when he was 15. I remember seeing him play Eddie Van Halen’s solo guitar piece “Eruption” when Van Halen’s first album was still fresh and nobody knew that he played the really fast part by using his right hand on the fingerboard. Somehow Dave had figured out the trick. It seemed like voodoo to me that he could do that.

If the world was fair and just, Dave would have been one of the top metal guitarists of the 80s and 90s. As it turned out that didn’t happen, although Dave now does very well as a producer and owner of a studio in Southern California. Dave’s brother Steve went on to be the drummer for Warrant. Warrant were hugely famous for a couple years as one of the last of the Sunset Strip hair metal bands to hit it big on MTV before Nirvana came along and killed that scene.

Back when I was in high school, before all that came to pass, I used to follow Dave and Steve’s band Blu around wherever they played. I’d help carry equipment and set it up, or sometimes I’d run the lights, anything to get near the band. When they played I would stand up front and watch what Dave did. Then I’d go back home and try to do those same things on my guitar, which, incidentally, had once belonged to Dave.

I wasn’t really into the music Dave liked, though. I could deal with some of the fun heavy metal stuff like Van Halen or Deep Purple. I dug Rush sometimes. But most of what Blu played was Top 40 junk that I had no use for.

But I knew that if I learned what Dave was doing, I could use that knowledge to make the kind of music I liked. The Ramones, the Dickies, and Minor Threat used the same power chords as Van Halen and the rest. Plus, I ended up learning some smokin’ lead guitar stuff that bands like that never played.

I think there’s a very strong parallel between that way of learning things and what we do in Zen. With many other religions and even lots of other types of meditation practice, what you’re doing is trying to learn something that was discovered or invented by somebody else. You’re learning a set of beliefs and dogma. Or you’re learning a meditation technique intended to make some specific thing happen.

With Zen, you’re aiming at yourself. You’re trying to find your own way, your own truth. You’re not trying to learn anything or make anything happen. You’re trying to see what is already going on.

If you come across your own Zen equivalent of Dave from my high school, that person can be a great resource. Metaphorically, you can find out what they know about playing the kind of music they want to play and apply that to playing the kind of music you want to play. Music is a very big thing. There are all kinds of music. And whether you like a specific style or genre or not, it’s all still music.

But in Zen we’re not searching for music, we’re searching for silence. If you do a retreat, sometimes it takes a while just to find silence. We come into a place that is supposed to be conducive to silence. We deliberately imprison ourselves in a place like that. Sometimes it feels very heavy and demanding, like someone is forcing us to be quiet and follow a whole lot of restrictive rules.

I am kind of a failure when it comes to running Zen retreats. I don’t like to be a policeman telling people to shut up. When the silence gets broken at a retreat I’m leading, I usually just walk away and find a place to be quiet on my own. It’s a cowardly solution. This is why I like it when someone is around who enjoys being the bad cop and telling everybody to pipe down already. I think people like that serve a great purpose. I’m glad they exist.

All that enforced quiet is there to help us find a silent place within ourselves. It is possible to find that silent place in the middle of a lot of noise and confusion. But that’s a lot harder. It’s easier to find internal silence in a place that’s already externally quiet.

In the same way that all music is still music, silence is the same for everyone. It’s even more universal than music. All the noise and opinions and facts and suchlike that we carry around with us are different from person to person. But silence is the same for everyone. It’s something we can all agree on.

Everyone knows silence is a beautiful thing. Conservatives know it. Liberals know it. People who believe in a literal interpretation of ancient scriptures know it. People who believe in the scientific method know it. Everyone who follows any religion knows it. Even terrorists know it. There is nothing about silence that anyone can argue about. You can’t compare one kind of silence to a different kind of silence. It’s always exactly the same.

I like Zen practice because it’s the best way I know of to enter into deep silence. The posture helps. The atmosphere of a Zen temple helps. The muted colors help. The chanting helps establish the right mood. The incense supplies a scent that seems to trigger the brain to be a little quieter. It’s a pretty good system. It ought to be. Millions of people have worked on it for thousands of years.

I’m sure there are other ways to enter into deep silence. There are probably as many ways to enter silence as there are people and other beings in the universe. There must be literally countless ways to enter deep silence.

But I don’t have time to investigate them all. So I’ve chosen to investigate just one way, which is the Zen way. I’ve modified the tradition a little bit. But that’s OK because the Zen tradition is very flexible. You’re allowed to customize it. That’s the whole point! Anyone who insists there’s just one way to do Zen practice, doesn’t really understand Zen practice. But even that’s OK. Maybe, for some people, an inflexible practice works better than a flexible one. So they should have rigid, inflexible Zen if that’s what they need.

Dave never became a shred metal god. I never became a punk rock legend. I don’t know how Dave feels, but I’m still disappointed about that — for both of us. Yet I’ve started to think that maybe the world has its own ideas about what I should do. Maybe it would be useful to accept its judgement and make the best of it. So I try. Even though I still wish Zero Defex could have become as big as Black Flag or Minor Threat, and that Dave would have become as big as Yngwie. He was way better than Yngwie.


October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat

November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat

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THERE IS NO GOD AND HE IS ALWAYS WITH YOU is now available as an audiobook from Audible.com as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up!

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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!

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Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info

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