Bob Dylan, Folk Songs, Koans, and the Transmission of Art

Originally Posted by corey ichigen hess on June 9, 2017

Today I was listening to Bob Dylan’s lecture to the Nobel foundation (it is a requirement for all winners to give a lecture), hearing him talk about his formative time as an artist, playing music in small venues and on the streets to tiny crowds.  That time shaped his artistic vision, and I was struck by some similarities to Zen.  I’d like to draw some parallels between being a Zen student and an aspiring artist.  And also discuss how studying Zen can be a way to find an artistic process.  In a roundabout way…

First, meeting a teacher: For Dylan, Seeing Buddy Holly, he felt a strange connection, like he was related to him, or some slightly different form of the same being.  “He was the archetype.  Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be…He was powerful and electrifying.  He had a commanding presence.”  Every move he made, every gesture, Bob was mesmerized.  “He looked me straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what.  It gave me the chills.”

Then hearing Leadbelly was a transcendent experience for Bob.  It changed the trajectory of his whole life. Everything else seemed unimportant compared to exploring the essence of that type of art.  He found the blues and folksongs to be more “vibrant and true to life” than the pop songs of the day.  They were relevant and powerful.

“By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.”

Now how does all of that relate to someone’s obsession with Zen, and how does being a Zen student doing koans relate to learning the vernacular of blues and folk, or of becoming an artist?

In Zen, often in your formative years, we meet an electrifying presence of a teacher who transmits something to us we don’t understand.  Meeting a real teacher is so shocking, so life changing.

Or as Trudy Dixon, student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, put it:

“A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect free-

dom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists

freely in the fullness of his whole being. The flow of his

consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual

self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously

and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. Without

anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personal-

ity so developed can be enough to change another’s whole

way of life. But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of

the teacher which perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the

student, it is the teacher’s utter ordinariness. Because he is

just himself, he is a mirror for his students. When we are

with him we feel our own strengths and shortcomings with-

out any sense of praise or criticism from him. In his presence

we see our original face, and the extraordinariness we see is

only our own true nature. When we learn to let our own

nature free, the boundaries between master and student dis-

appear in a deep flow of being and joy in the unfolding of

Buddha mind.”

Many Zen students see someone like this and they are altered permanently.  They have to drop everything in life and devote themselves to only Zen for a big chunk of time.  Nothing else matters.  They learn the choreography, learn all the details.  They soak it up, over and over and over.  Get the flavor deep into their bones.  It becomes their whole existence.  You get where you begin to think in Japanese, feel in a Japanese way.  Everything is seen through the filter of Zen.  When you talk, you are often channeling the Roshi through you.  It transforms every cell.  It is as if you have become the Roshi cell by cell, and yet become more and more yourself.  This is not an idea.

With Koans, you are given a phrase, a little song dialogue by the Roshi to help deepen your experience and to shape you, like a blacksmith shapes a piece of metal.  You don’t understand it.  It hits you deeply.  You can’t even tell what the question is.  But it sinks in.  As Dylan says with songs,  “You internalize it.  You know what it’s all about.  Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark.”  This, to me, sounds just like sanzen.  You go every day to see the Roshi, you give him your koan, you pull out your pistol (metaphorically) and put it back in your pocket.  The Roshi out draws you every time.  But it becomes so internalized, all day we are focused on this koan, all night we are haunted by it, talkin to ourselves in the dark.  It is a cellular metamorphosis.  If you get cut, the koan bleeds out of your skin.

And through this training, being out-dueled every day, focusing on these koans, these songs, we are transformed.  And Just like Dylan knows Stagger Lee, John the Revelator, and Frankie and Lord Donald, in Zen we know Goso Hoen, Bodhidharma, Kyogen, Unmon, Seccho, and many more.  We’ve sat with them for days and weeks on end.  We’ve worked with them in the garden all day.  We’ve walked around with them all night and chanted with them in Choka.  They are our people.  Our ancestors.  Our legends.  Our Babe Ruths.  Our Moses.  Our Johnny Appleseed.  Our Joan of Arc.  And Just like Dylan was forever changed by his diving into the essence of folk music, singing them over and over in smokey basement shows, soaking up their nutrients, becoming the flavor of this music, we too are forever changed by getting into the consciousness of these Zen patriarchs.  They do change our consciousness, and when the time is right and the door of the koan finally opens, we walk into sanzen with the Roshi, and it is not Ichigen (Corey) bowing, not Shojun (Teresa), but Goso Hoen or Enkan.  She is holding the Rinocerous horn fan, He has been walking the roads kicking over donkeys, stepping forward from a hundred foot pole, and he draws his pistol, the essence of his mind, and it is a beautiful transcendent exchange, a meeting of minds, a transmission beyond words. It is splendid.  It can’t be explained, but it is as normal as Japanese indigo or American blue jeans.

I like to think that Zen makes us all into artists.  We’ve been transformed by all of that time soaking up the music of Zen, we experience the world through another unknown gear, one we have to use and express or we’ll deeply suffer.  An artistic transmission has occurred, like Bob Dylan standing on the street for several years getting transmission from Leadbelly or Blind Willie Johnson.  And so we have to find a medium, an art form, to express that, to communicate with everyone this beauty.  We have to sing our songs.  Zen is a real gateway to discovering that, to knowing ourselves and our unique process deeply.  A Gateway to find our path and learn how to walk it.  As Dylan says:

“I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.”

I pray that all of the Zen folks will find a beautiful way to express themselves as they integrate their Zen artless art into everyday life.  Bob Dylan learned from those old master folk singers, and then he took it and created something beautiful and relevant for his generation and today.  Let us use this beautiful practice to find our expression, marrying the grit of the West with the sublime essence of Zen.  And we’ll create a new culture to heal and save all beings. Thanks for reading.  Lots of love.

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