In the 1960s there was a spiritual group in Berkeley called the Kailas Shigendo Yamabuchi. Their main spiritual practices were playing bluegrass and firewalking. They also swam over waterfalls. You would see them in Golden Gate Park in their monastic robes, intent on practicing mandolin and fiddle. They were robust, strong-looking people, the women too.
The world is an interesting place, what with all the people in it.
I thought of this because I went on YouTube yesterday looking for an old Ben E. King song, Stand By Me.
When the night has come and the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
No, I won’t be afraid, oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
I segued to searching for “bluegrass in Japan” and found some amazing things. Bluegrass is huge in Japan. Originally, bands from the US were invited to tour the country – Flatt & Scruggs played there in 1966. Nowadays, you can see middle-aged Japanese businessmen on YouTube playing We’ll Meet Again, Sweetheart…extremely well. I was particularly blown away by a group of young musicians who call themselves Bluegrass Nagoya.
I had the good fortune to see Flatt & Scruggs in the 1960s at the Ash Grove in LA (before it ironically burned down). Perhaps it’s just my old and uneducated ears, but the Nagoya kids are good.
Where was I? Oh – running.
Reminds me of a story I heard from a monk in my Master’s monastery. The monk was working in the garden one day. He’d been a professional musician and was singing a popular tune. He happened to pass a window where an elderly nun was working, and he quickly cheesed the song. The nun leaned out the window and said, “Wait a minute! Come here. I want to tell you something.” My friend went inside and sat sheepishly, expecting to be bawled out for his worldly warbling.
“Our Master wasn’t like that!” she began. “He embraced life and saw the spiritual side of everything. There’s nothing wrong at all with singing a popular song if you take its higher meaning. There are many songs that you can ‘spiritualize’ by thinking of the spiritual principles they convey.”
That reminds me of another incident.
In my writing business, I had a wonderful client. His name was Allen Calvin. He was president of Palo Alto University, a highly regarded graduate school of psychology, located on the Stanford campus. Allen hired me to write the school’s history, and I was blessed to spend precious hours in his company.
Allen was 78 and lived in the City, yet he continued to drive the 70 miles to work and back every weekday. He was a wonderful man, and his staff adored him. He’d been an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. He helped raise funds for King’s work in Chicago, and his kids played tennis with the Kings’. When Martin was assassinated, Allen accompanied Coretta and her children to the Caribbean where they could grieve in private, away from the public eye.
Allen took me to a Burmese restaurant one day where I interviewed him over lunch. As he drove us in his Jetta, he launched into the story of the Tribes of Israel, then he burst into song, I Only Have Eyes for You crooning it in the style of the 1959 Flamingos hit. Music and spirituality were all mixed up for Allen.
At lunch, he asked if I was able to make a living as a freelance editor. I told him that after years of struggling, I had come to an understanding. I said, “I realized that I am in this world for only three reasons: to love God, to serve His work, and to live simply.” No sooner had I said “love God” than Allen reached across the table and warmly took my hand. I explained that after I had that realization I was finally able to make a modest living as a writer and editor.
Allen was a man of iron character and soaring soul. When he took over the school, it was divided between a faction of the faculty who wanted it to evolve into a serious, professional training school, and those who wanted it to remain in the mold of a 1960s-style, talk-therapy bungalow kind of place with exciting guest speakers, no grades, classrooms with beanbag chairs, and a hot-tub-hippie-Esalen atmosphere.
The controversy came to a head just weeks before the start of Fall quarter. The Esalens thought they had the upper hand. “If we all threaten to quit,” they chortled, “he’ll have to give in.”
Allen’s response was, “Gentlemen, I accept your resignations.” Twelve professors departed, and a difficult year followed, with demonstrations, vandalism, and sensational stories in the media. Allen, a tough bird, remained quietly firm, and in the process earned the respect of the faculty who stayed on.
Back to running. (Were we ever there?)
I can’t help but feel that without some kind of music, my running just turns to shit. “The inner music of the run” has a fine, round ring, doesn’t it? Yet I find that there is in fact a music that plays continually when I run. It plays strongly when my training is going well, and when I do what’s right and reap improvement and joy. When I try to force nature, the music becomes disharmonious.
Sometimes when I start a run, I’ll pass one of the sports stadiums at Stanford and I’ll hear loudspeakers blaring pop music. it’s stimulating and makes me smile. But later in the run, if I’ve listened deeply to the inner music of my body, heart and soul and tuned myself to its harmonizing frequencies, I find it playing quietly, persistently and powerfully throughout my being. At times, I hear the same sounds that I listen to in meditation. After the run, I feel refreshed and uplifted in a harmonious flow. I find it helps me get into that flow if I chant silently while I run. Focusing my mind and opening my heart helps me listen to the intuitive messages emanating from my heart.
In ancient China, the emperors would send officials to the provinces at intervals to check on how things were going. The emperor’s agents could always tell by listening to the people’s music whether any changes were needed. If the music was harmonious, they knew for a certainty that the people’s lives were in tune with the natural order.
It’s like that when I run. Never mind if I’m limping along injured, or if I’m blessed to cruise for miles at sub-tempo pace. If the music of the day is ringing through my bones, brain, heart and soul with harmony and joy, I know that the citizens of my little runner’s kingdom are doing all right.