To Music

To Music

Reflections on the sounds of an interdependent world

By Douglas PenickSUMMER 2020


“In an instant of awareness,
Infinite buddhas,
Simultaneous shining
Everywhere interrelated:

“A vast humming
. . . . the ocean of buddhas;
. . . the mind of enlightenment. . . .
heard beyond hearing

“Waves of delirium
Absorbing all distinctions.”
Avatamsaka [“Flower Ornament”] Sutra

Night Rain at Kuang-k’ou

The river is clear and calm;
a fast rain falls in the gorge.
At midnight the cold, splashing sound begins,
like thousands of pearls spilling onto a glass plate,
each drop penetrating the bone.

In my dream I scratch my head and get up to listen.
I listen and listen, until the dawn.
All my life I have heard rain,
and I am an old man;
but now for the first time I understand
the sound of spring rain
on the river at night.
Yang Wan-Li, trans. Jonathan Chaves

Nine hundred years ago, Yang dreamed he woke as a storm broke around him on the river where his boat was anchored. But whether he was dreaming or awake, he listened, and a new understanding of rain came to him. Now, miraculously, beyond such concepts as awake or dream, now or then, Yang gives us the presence of that moment again, and, with it, a shared sense of being not constrained by space and time.

music and interdependence
Spectral Density Estimation I By Andreas Fischer. Cedar Wood. 50 x 25 x 12 c.m. (Detail)


The vector of finding or grasping
or attaining or knowing;
This is a core of movement we
cannot imagine absent:
This gives us the sense of what is
next or falling away or lost or

A desire, a fear divides a world
A focus divides a mind,
A purpose creates our refuse,

In the surrounding moment,
A world, a range of things sensed
or to be sensed:
Horizons shimmer.

We expand and contract.

A student took the renowned Tibetan teacher Rabjam Rinpoche to hear a concert of Western classical symphonic music. At the end, Rinpoche asked: “Do you listen to this music horizontally or vertically?”


“Gerald de Barri, a Welsh churchman and historian who wrote under the name Giraldus Cambrensis, made a famous description of his peasant countrymen’s communal singing in a volume completed in 1194:

‘They sing their tunes not in unison, but in parts with many simultaneous modes and phrases. Therefore, in a group of singers you will hear as many melodies as there you will see heads, yet they all accord in one consonant and properly constituted composition.’”

In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music, from which this passage is taken, the eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin later remarked: “The chief distinguishing characteristics of any contrapuntal or harmonic style, including those used today, come down to two: the ways in which voices move with respect to one another . . . , and the ways in which dissonance functions vis-à-vis consonance.”

The 20th-century Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, in a celebrated study of Dostoevsky, described literary polyphony as a genre in which “the voices remain independent and as such are combined in a unity of a higher order. [Thus] a combination of several individual wills takes place, [so] that the boundaries of the individual will can be in principle transcended.”

Western music is uniquely reliant on written scores, but this situation has made possible the extensive development of highly complex polyphonic music. And so, though Bach, Beethoven, and many others were renowned for their skill at improvisation, we have also a tradition that continually finds new life in complex written sound structures. Even simply as members of the audience, we do not listen just for a melody or a rhythm; we strive to hear all the notes, all the rhythms, all the balances and dynamics within an evolving aural architecture that arises and vanishes in time.

(Why must spiritual practice so often focus on purifying or enriching a single strand, cultivate a single reference point, a single point of focus, a single vector? Why acceptance or rejection, pure or impure, yes or no?)

Sitting in one place, let us attend to the full extent of all that is given in this moment.

Trungpa Rinpoche said: The teacher is the exemplar of the phenomenal world; then, the phenomenal world is the teacher.

Outside one voice.
Inside one journey:
Innumerable strands,
Innumerable beings
Soundwaves moving shimmering.


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is an extraordinary, complex, and beautifully written book that focuses on matsutake mushrooms. This fungus, cherished and prized by Japanese and Koreans because its scent evokes the sadness of the end of autumn, grows only in devastated landscapes, particularly in the loggedover forests of Oregon…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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