Archive for May, 2010

becoming Tao: music in nature

May 29, 2010

“Spring Green Willow Tree” by Ren Adams

With the unofficial beginning of summer marked by this Memorial Day weekend, I’ve been remembering one of the best summers of my life, too many years ago…27 years ago, to be exact.  Back in high school, I studied the clarinet very seriously, and was very lucky to spend the entire summer of 1983 participating in the Young Artists Instrumental Program at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Although it was so long ago, I still remember that summer very vividly.  There was and is something indescribably beautiful about the combination of nature and music at Tanglewood.  There are these wide open lawns, tall trees, lakes, and the rolling forested landscape of the Berkshire mountains…and, as I would drift slowly with my friends through the wide open landscape of Tanglewood, even in the middle of a weekday with no concert scheduled, we could start to hear in the distance, almost dreamlike, the sounds of the great Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearsing.  My favorite clarinetist, Harold Wright, was then the principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  The music critic, Richard Dyer, of the Boston Globe, described what was so special about Harold Wright’s playing:  “Although Harold Wright is a consummate virtuoso of the clarinet, you don’t so much listen to him as overhear him as he steals sound from silence; drawing us into a volatile private world of thought, feeling, and dream.”  My friends and I spent our days at Tanglewood listening to or playing music in an open air setting, and being outside, in close contact with nature.  I became so immersed that I often forgot what day of the week it was.  The problems of the rest of the world seemed very far away.  Although I hadn’t heard of the word “Tao” back then, in retrospect I realize that there was something about this aesthetic experience of music mingling with nature that made us feel a part of both, and got us very close to the heart of Tao.  Of course, many of the great composers felt inspired by nature and echoed or conjured up elements of nature in their music, composers like Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler.

Even before this summer of 1983, the very first time that I visited Tanglewood was several years earlier, in the summer of 1980.  Seeing a concert there in that summer of 1980 was one of the experiences that made me want to immerse myself in music.  I sat on the lawn during the first half of the concert, but during the intermission, a storm began to gather, and some seats inside the performance shed became available.  I was able to get a seat in the shed quite close to the orchestra.  During the intermission, Harold Wright came out onstage early to warm up, and I was immediately struck by the beauty of his clarinet tone.  In the second half of the concert, Seiji Ozawa conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  At 14 years old, I had never heard this music before, in fact had never seen a symphony orchestra perform live before.  As the orchestra began to play, the thunder storm started.  It increased in strength progressively as the music progressed.  Thunder rumbled; rain pelted down on the roof in a crescendo; wind blew in; and a few birds soared in from the outside and glided beneath the high roof of the shed, perching on the rafters.  The tremendous power and energy of the music seemed to blend perfectly and reflect the furious power of the storm that we all felt in the open air shed.  The music seemed to become the storm, and the storm the music, and, in that experience, the music, the orchestra, the audience, and the storm seemed to be one, to be Tao.


©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


working in harmony with Tao, leaving no trace

May 14, 2010

The ongoing news about the torrent of oil spewing continuously from a man-made hole on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, with its devastating impact on the environment, is sickening.  My son’s kindergarten teachers have been discussing with the kids the Quaker testimony of stewardship, the idea that, during our limited lifetimes, we are responsible for the earth and how we treat it.  Despite the current fashion among advertisers to promote everything as “green,” there is an impetus in our modern culture for each of us to maximize our profits, push the envelope, make an impact on the world, make our mark.  But what kind of mark do we want to make, exactly?

“Give up wanting to be important; let your footsteps leave no trace.”

–Chuang-tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell in “The Second Book of the Tao,” Penguin Books, 2009, p. 86.

Rather than pushing the envelope at all costs, there is a way to use our scientific and technological advancements with less greed and carelessness, with more wisdom, and more of a sense of stewardship.  In other words, there is a way to work in harmony with Tao.  For example, our curiosity, our scientific and technological progress can be directed toward energy sources like the wind and the sun, using what is all around us, barely leaving a trace of waste behind.  When you work in harmony with Tao, you can accomplish things without leaving an artificial swath of destruction in your wake.

“Rocks at the North Passage” by Ren Adams

“In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 39, Stephen Mitchell translation

In working with Tao, in becoming like the Tao, you can accomplish huge feats, yet can do so with such graceful fluidity, with such lack of forcing, with a such a sense of respect for what is around you, that you seem to leave no trace…you almost seem to have never been there at all, and yet, what you achieved was so much a part of the Tao that it never dies.

“To him who dwells not in himself, the forms of things reveal themselves as they are.  He moves like water, reflects like a mirror, responds like an echo.  His lightness makes him seem to disappear.  Still as a clear lake, he is harmonious in his relations with those around him, and remains so through profit and loss.  He does not precede others, but follows them instead.”

–Chuang-tzu quoted in the Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff, 1992, p. 186

“A good walker leaves no tracks…”

Tao Te Ching, chapter 27, translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

In the Forward to his translation of the Tao Te Ching (1988), Stephen Mitchell notes that, “About Lao-tzu, its author, there is practically nothing to be said….Like an Iroquois woodsman, he left no traces…All he left us is his book…”  The Iroquois woodsmen and other Native Americans were able to live in harmony with the natural world, valuing it and using it as a source of sustenance, but not depleting it or destroying it.  By setting aside our greed, corruption, and impatience, by cultivating wisdom, we in the modern world can do the same, using our science and technology to preserve the world, rather than destroy it.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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