Trane of No-Thought: How Meditation Inspired Jazz Great John Coltrane
BY SEAN MURPHY| JANUARY 31, 2018
From Lion's Roar Magazine.
In the 50th-anniversary year of the death of John Coltrane, Zen teacher Sean Murphy looks back at the jazz icon and how meditation practice and a deep interest in Eastern traditions informed his monumental late-period work.
One predawn morning in 1964, the already-legendary saxophonist John Coltrane was sitting in meditation in his Long Island home when the structure and themes of his masterpiece, the album A Love Supreme, came to him in its entirety. “It was the first time I had it all,” he said, as reported by his wife, pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, with whom he shared a practice of meditation and a deep interest in all things spiritual.
This was not the first time that Coltrane, who came to consider his musical improvisation a form of meditation in itself, experienced what he thought of as divine grace. He’d sweated out addiction — his first, failed path to transcendence — in 1957 after what he described as a “life-changing spiritual experience” that helped him overcome heroin and alcohol and set him on a search for other means of transcendence, through meditation, prayer, and music. His search would also profoundly influence the jazz world, and the cultural landscape of western society itself.
“There are always new sounds to imagine: new feelings to get at. And always, there is a need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state.” —John Coltrane
Fifty years after his death in 1967, Coltrane remains a cultural and spiritual icon, exerting an influence over jazz that is impossible to escape — so much so that it has given rise to a strange phenomenon, surely one of a kind: the Saint John Coltrane Church. Based in San Francisco, the SJCC is an actual community of worship that continues to this day, using A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s signature work, as scripture and hymnal.
Before Coltrane, jazz had largely been regarded as a sensual, even risqué form of expression, linked as much to libation as to liberation. But jazz and spirituality have always been linked.
Jazz is an improvisational art form — it requires the moment. Total immersion in it, that is. I have long been struck by the unusual purity of the best of this music, despite the fact that it was so often developed under the most impure of conditions: smoky clubs, alcohol, drugs, and the inescapable burden of racial prejudice. How could this be possible? As a Zen practitioner/teacher and musician myself, I feel the answer lies in a brand of what we in Zen call working samadhi – an immersion in moment-to-moment activity so complete that it becomes essentially a meditative state. Improvisational music, at least at the level of complexity exhibited by jazz, requires a putting aside of the ego — if you start thinking of good or bad, try to impress, become distracted by the flubbed note of the last moment, try to anticipate the next moment, or give yourself over to anything else but what’s happening now, you’re lost. To play truly great improvisational music, you have to lose yourself.
The best musicians, like Coltrane, are able to summon an immersion in the moment that can transcend even the worst environments, personal problems, or state of health. Of course, this doesn’t mean that certain players don’t inflate themselves after the fact, building themselves up and taking credit for what in essence, had passed through them — via, perhaps, the greater power to which Coltrane often alluded. But Coltrane was not one of these.
Coltrane’s challenging later albums were intended to be 100% spiritual testament, the communication of an ongoing, endless spiritual quest into the great mystery.
You could say the truest and deepest improvisation is an act of faith, because the player never knows what is going to happen. This is something Coltrane knew, especially in the later years of his work, and expressed consciously through both words and music. Well-known for his deep interest in meditation, and the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism — he made a special effort to visit Zen temples during his 1966 tour of Japan, and quoted fromthe Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor of Zen in one of his late interviews — his spiritual tastes remained eclectic, ranging from Krishnamurti through the Koran, the Bible, and even Edgar Cayce, and he retained a largely theistic view of the absolute. A Love Supreme is clearly presented as an offering to God as supreme being.
The spiritual substance of that album in no way compromised its appeal — it remains the second best-selling jazz album of all time, after Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, on which Coltrane also appears. Still, experiencing the supreme love depicted in this music – not to mention in the far more difficult music in Coltrane albums still to come like Meditations, Ascension, and Om — can at times be a challenge for listeners. A Love Supreme merely pushes the boundaries that the later Coltrane would dispense with as he delved ever further into free jazz, sometimes devolving to apparently random, non-harmonic honks and squeals that explored the far edges of musicality, his instrument, and at times the patience of his listeners.
But isn’t that the way the spiritual life is? The embrace of life in its fullest involves pain as well as beauty — that’s basic Buddhism. And thus it is in Coltrane’s challenging later albums, which can be described variously as going far beyond simply meditating upon to pleading, exhorting, crying out to the heavens – or as some have suggested, speaking to God in a language only He could understand. These works were intended by Coltrane as 100% spiritual testament, the communication of an ongoing, endless spiritual quest into the great mystery, rather than any kind of peaceful and harmonious arrival at answers. It’s an approach quite similar to the ongoing, ever-deepening questioning of Zen koan practice.
This is perhaps something Coltrane himself well understood, as suggested by his reference to the Platform Sutra in this description of his evolution: “There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine: new feelings to get at. And always, there is a need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen, the essence—the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
The divine force — God, as Coltrane defined it — breathes through us all, said Coltrane, and the last years of his life can be seen as an attempt — sometimes a struggle — to breathe God through his horn.
“Once you become aware of this force for unity in life,” wrote Coltrane in the liner notes for 1965’s Meditations, his acknowledged follow-up to A Love Supreme. “You can’t forget it. It becomes part of everything you do… my goal in meditating on this through music however remains… to uplift people as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more their capacities for living meaningful lives.”
“I believe in all religions,” Coltrane said. “The truth itself doesn’t have any name on it to me, and each man has to find it for himself.
Sean Murphy is the author of One Bird, One Stone: 108 Contemporary Zen Stories and three novels, most recently The Time of New Weather. A Dharma Holder in the White Plum Zenlineage, he directs an innovative Meditation Leader Training through his Sage Institute. Find him at MurphyZen.com
Renunciation: Insight Meditation Center
adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, July 1st, 2003
The Buddhist path is often considered one of renunciation. This is easy to see in the lifestyle of simplicity and restraint followed by Buddhist monastics. The role of renunciation in the lives of lay practitioners is not so easy to understand. Lay practitioners are not asked to renounce money, sex, or a varied wardrobe, or to shave their heads or not eat after noon. Yet renunciation remains important -although we might prefer to call it letting go, releasing, freeing, or perhaps unburdening.
Because so many people have serious reservations about the idea of doing without, Buddhist teachers in America are sometimes reluctant to teach about renunciation. In giving Dharma talks, I often get the impression that this is not a popular theme. Certainly, there are good reasons to be suspicious of exhortations to let go. For example, renunciation may be confused with aversion or repression instead of an impulse of freedom. Overdone, renunciation may blind us to our real needs or healthy motivations. Or renunciation may be burdened with puritanical notions of good and bad, purity and impurity. Most important, we may confuse the renouncing of things and experiences (like money, sex, and possessions) with the essential work of renouncing our clinging to them.
The Latin root of the word “sacrifice” means “to make sacred.” The Buddha did not teach renunciation as a form of denial or asceticism. Rather, he taught letting go as a way to achieve a greater good, a greater happiness, and ultimately to attain what might be called the “sacred” dimension of liberation. The Buddha once said, “If one sees that a greater happiness is found by letting go of a lesser one, the wise person will let go of the lesser happiness.”
Even though it doesn’t take much mindfulness to recognize that suffering comes with clinging, we often find it hard to let go of clinging-or even to see letting go as possible or worthwhile. Strong feelings of desire often come with a compulsion that makes the desire seem necessary. Or we may approach clinging like a lottery-we are willing to bear the risk of suffering in exchange for the chance that the clinging will bring us well-being. Furthermore, letting go can be frightening. Clinging may give us a sense of taking care of ourselves-holding tight to security, judgements, people, self-identity, or possessions are all ways of protecting ourselves. People may not know how to function in the world without the motivation and self-identity that come from clinging.
Renunciation is often difficult. Grappling with the power of desire, attachments, and fear may require great personal struggle. But that struggle yields many benefits. We develop the inner strength to overcome temptation and compulsion. We don’t have to live with the suffering and contraction that come with clinging. Clinging can be exhausting; letting go is restful. We may taste the luminous mind of freedom, which is hidden when clinging is present. And, last but not least, we are more available to work for the welfare of others.
Renunciation should bring joy, or at least a lightness of being. If it is done with resentment or resistance, then the renunciation is not thorough-some clinging remains. We need continued mindfulness to understand what we still need to let go of.
Suzuki Roshi once defined renunciation as accepting that things pass away, that things change. This definition points to two things. First, sometimes renunciation takes the form of wise surrender to what is unavoidable. Second, at its heart, the practice of renunciation requires an inner change that may or may not require external renunciation. If the heart is still contracted, if the mind is still tight or hot, then the renunciation is incomplete. In fact, external renunciation without a corresponding inner release may strengthen clinging. Many people have been surprised by the strength of their desire after a period of deprivation.
One of the primary functions of monastic renunciation of so many aspects of ordinary life is to facilitate an inner transformation. Realizing that what one assumed was necessary for happiness is, in fact, not necessary (may not even be a cause of happiness after all) can bring a marvelous sense of ease.
For lay people, meditation retreats are a form of temporary monastic renunciation. On retreat we give up speech, entertainment, reading, writing, sexual activity, and much of our control over our food. In surrendering to the retreat schedule, we give up our preferences for what we do and when. If these limitations are difficult, then this difficulty becomes an opportunity for spiritual practice. When we see renunciation not as limitation but as unburdening, we can take great delight in feeling free from desire and compulsion.
Both within and outside of retreat, renunciation is a practice worth experimenting with. What happens when you let go of your opinions? Of self-preoccupation? Of a strong desire? In what areas in your life would letting go bring greater benefits than continuing to hold on tightly? When letting go is difficult, what does your clinging indicate about your beliefs in what will make you happy?
Are there things or activities that would be good to do without or to limit? For example, watching television, shopping, complaining, gossiping, or surfing the web. For some, an important area for letting go is in being overly busy. There are many worthwhile pursuits; trying to do too many is harmful. Sometimes it is necessary to choose which is most important to us and then let the rest go.
To sacrifice is to make sacred. To release is to find freedom. And to find freedom is to know a happiness that is not dependent on anything-especially not on having our wishes fulfilled.
The Power of the Third Moment
Trungram Gyalwa Rinpoche
Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2017
Presented to the Sangha by Cheryl, December 4, 2017
Another driver cuts you off, and you feel a surge of rage. A coworker gets the promotion you think you deserve, and waves of jealousy wash over you. The pastry display in the grocery store beckons, and you sense your will power dissolving. Anger. Impatience. Shock. Desire. Frustration. You spend your days bombarded by emotions.
These emotions are often negative – and if you act on them, they can derail you. You know: That email you shouldn’t have sent. The snappy retort you shouldn’t have verbalized. The black funk that permeates every experience and keeps you from feeling joy. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can learn to recognize harmful emotions in the moment – and let them go.
CHOOSING THE KARMA YOU CREATE
Karma – (Sanskrit) a deed, act, fate, the consequences of our actions
Past karma shapes your experience of the world. It exists; there is not much you can do about it. Yet you are also constantly creating new karma, and that gives you a golden opportunity. With your reaction to each experience, you create the karma that will color your future. It is up to you whether this new karma is positive or negative. You simply have to pay attention at the right moment. This is how karma operates as if it were a key ring. It seems solid; you can move your key seamlessly around the circle. Yet there is actually a start and an end to the key ring – and a gap. If you know the gap is there, and you have the skill, you can extricate your key from the ring. Similarly, earlier karma creates your experience of events. Your reaction, based on your experience, triggers new karma and a new cycle of creation and experience. You can allow that cycle to continue in an endless sequence. Or you can find the gap, gain the skill, and extricate yourself from the cycle, simultaneously building your compassion and enhancing your sense of inner ease.
The Buddhist tradition is rife with teachings; on compassion, on why we should avoid hatred and jealousy and on the power of a positive outlook. These teachings are extraordinarily valuable. They clarify and deepen our understanding – and they inspire us. But teachings and their explanations require logic to parse. In the heat of an emotional exchange, you may not have the luxury of logic, because logic requires time and an unbiased mind. Pressure creates a crisis. You don’t have time to think, only to react. So you need a well-honed, quickly deployed skill, something that is short, easy to use, and effective. This is the Third Moment Method, a practical tool that in many ways embodies the core of Buddhist practice.
UNDERSTANDING THE THREE MOMENTS
Life is composed of a series of experiences, and each of these experiences can be broken into three moments.
The First Moment: SENSING
In the first moment, your sensory organs – your eyes, ears, nose – perceive some sort of input. This moment between, for instance, a sound reaching your ear and your ear perceiving it, is instantaneous. It is also effortless, because it is hardwired into your system. In this moment, if someone says “lemon,” you have heard the sound, but you haven’t yet recognized what that sound means.
The Second Moment: ARISING
In the second moment, you recognize the sound – or other sensation – and you have an instant, subconscious reaction, classifying it as good, bad, or neutral. This, too, is automatic, based on prior experience: memories and understanding stemming from your ingrained cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, and linguistic perceptions. It happens so quickly that you may even think it is part of the first moment. You have a physical manifestation of your thought as your body responds to positive, negative, or neutral input – although a “neutral” reaction usually leans slightly toward positive or negative.
Maybe someone is describing a juicy lemon they’ve just sliced. You connect the sound “lemon” to an idea stored in your memory. It evokes a shape, a color, a scent, a taste. Your memory invites an emotional reaction. You love lemons and your mouth salivates; you find lemons sour and you cringe.
The Third Moment: REACTING
In the third moment, you have the choice of accepting your memory’s emotion-tinged invitation or not. Your reaction may be mental, verbal, or physical. If you have classified something as good, you are drawn to it, even though it may not be beneficial. If you have classified something as bad, you push it away, sometimes with more force than is appropriate or necessary. In either case, you may do a lot of damage that you will later need to try to undo.
Let’s think of “lemon” in a different context. What if your mechanic says that your brand-new car is a lemon? How would you feel? Furious? Foolish? Frustrated? What might you say to the person who advised you to buy it? The third moment provides you with the space to determine your response.
You have a choice about the kind of life you lead. You can let your environment dictate your experience, in which case, unless you solve all the problems of every person with whom you interact, you will always face some unhappiness. Or you can take control over your own experience of life. To me, this seems like a better path.
PRACTICING THE THIRD MOMENT METHOD
The Third Moment Method helps you take this path. In it, you use the Third Moment not to react but to watch – in a very specific way. At the very instant an emotion arises, pause. Notice the emotion you are experiencing. The timing is very important. You need to be focused and aware before your emotion connects with a thought and becomes solidified. You want to simply see the emotion for what it is.
You may be tempted to trace the source of your emotion; that is logical, but in this instance it is not helpful. Instead of focusing on who did what to whom, simply look into your emotion. Don’t do this as an observer, with duality between yourself and the emotion, as though it were external to you. Instead, watch your actual experience; try to feel it directly. Feel your emotion as if it were an inflated balloon, filling your insides. Don’t pay attention to the balloon itself; pay attention to what’s inside it. What does it feel like? No rationalizing. No reasoning. What is at the very core of the balloon? Just space. This is not relabeling your emotion as space. It is simply awareness that the emotion itself does not exist in the way we believe it does, as something fixed and solid. Over time, as that awareness grows, you will begin to feel ease, and maybe even joy.
By widening the gap between action and reaction, you can gain some distance from your automatic responses and also gain an opportunity to know your emotions. You can stop being ruled by these emotions and instead begin to rule your experience of life. To really enjoy this freedom, though, you need to practice. If you can practice the Third Moment Method frequently and deeply enough, you can experience the unconditional joy that breeds lovingkindness and compassion.
Of course, in the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to remember a practice that is not yet ingrained. You can try practice drills – mentally creating scenarios that evoke strong emotions, then using the Third Moment Method to diffuse them. This will begin to create a mental muscle memory. However, in your mind you still know the experience isn’t real, so in many ways the effect is not real either. The best practice is real life.
BENEFITING FROM THE RESULTS
Remember: The Third Moment passes very quickly, and it is easy to miss. If you truly experience this once – if you really catch the moment – you will find that the Third Moment Method is not only easy but also something you will want to do often. So try to be conscious of your emotions, and seize every opportunity to practice. If you do this, you will find that your mind is cooler, clearer, and less biased. You are more connected to the present moment. You are aware that your emotions are not reality. That, in turn, affects how you interpret your experiences. You may also find not only that you interact with the world more easily but also that your relationships are better – starting with your relationship with yourself.
Trungram Gyalwa Rinpoche, PhD, is the founder and spiritual leader of the Dharmakaya Center for Wellbeing in Cragsmoor, New York; The World Center for Peace and Unity in Lumbini, Nepal; and other centers worldwide. A scholar of Sanskrit and Tibetan, he is known for making ancient Buddhist teachings accessible to contemporary Western audiences.
Meditation on Gratitude and Joy - Jack Kornfield
jackkornfield.com · December 19, 2014
“If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice?”
Buddhist monks begin each day with a chant of gratitude for the blessings of their life. Native American elders begin each ceremony with grateful prayers to mother earth and father sky, to the four directions, to the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life. In Tibet, the monks and nuns even offer prayers of gratitude for the suffering they have been given: “Grant that I might have enough suffering to awaken in the deepest possible compassion and wisdom.”
The aim of spiritual life is to awaken a joyful freedom, a benevolent and compassionate heart in spite of everything.
Gratitude is a gracious acknowledgment of all that sustains us, a bow to our blessings, great and small, an appreciation of the moments of good fortune that sustain our life every day. We have so much to be grateful for.
Gratitude is confidence in life itself. It is not sentimental, not jealous, nor judgmental. Gratitude does not envy or compare. Gratitude receives in wonder the myriad offerings of the rain and the earth, the care that supports every single life.
As gratitude grows it gives rise to joy. We experience the courage to rejoice in our own good fortune and in the good fortune of others.
Joy is natural to an open heart. In it, we are not afraid of pleasure. We do not mistakenly believe it is disloyal to the suffering of the world to honor the happiness we have been given.
Like gratitude, joy gladdens the heart. We can be joyful for people we love, for moments of goodness, for sunlight and trees, and for the breath within our breast. And as our joy grows we finally discover a happiness without cause. Like an innocent child who does not have to do anything to be happy, we can rejoice in life itself, in being alive.
Let yourself sit quietly and at ease. Allow your body to be relaxed and open, your breath natural, your heart easy. Begin the practice of gratitude by feeling how year after year you have cared for your own life. Now let yourself begin to acknowledge all that has supported you in this care:
With gratitude I remember the people, animals, plants, insects, creatures of the sky and sea, air and water, fire and earth, all whose joyful exertion blesses my life every day.
With gratitude I remember the care and labor of a thousand generations of elders and ancestors who came before me.
I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the blessing of this earth I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.
I offer my gratitude for the life I have been given.
Just as we are grateful for our blessings, so we can be grateful for the blessings of others.
Continue to breathe gently. Bring to mind someone you care about, someone it is easy to rejoice for. Picture them and feel the natural joy you have for their well-being, for their happiness and success. With each breath, offer them your grateful, heartfelt wishes:
May you be joyful.
May your happiness increase.
May you not be separated from great happiness.
May your good fortune and the causes for your joy and happiness increase.
Sense the sympathetic joy and caring in each phrase. When you feel some degree of natural gratitude for the happiness of this loved one, extend this practice to another person you care about. Recite the same simple phrases that express your heart’s intention.
Then gradually open the meditation to include neutral people, difficult people, and even enemies- until you extend sympathetic joy to all beings everywhere, young and old, near and far.
This excerpt is taken from the book, “The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace“
If we see the world as sacred, which is an expression of the spiritual life, then gratitude follows immediately and naturally. We've been given the extraordinary privilege of incarnating as human beings -- and of course the human incarnation entails the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, as it says in the Tao Te Ching -- but with it we have the privilege of the lavender color at sunset, the taste of a tangerine in our mouth, and the almost unbearable beauty of life around us, along with its troubles. It keeps recreating itself. We can either be lost in a smaller state of consciousness -- what in Buddhist psychology is called the "body of fear," which brings suffering to us and to others -- or we can bring the quality of love and appreciation, which I would call gratitude, to life. With it comes a kind of trust. The poet Pablo Neruda writes, "You can pick all the flowers, but you can't stop the spring." Life keeps recreating itself and presenting us with miracles every day.
This exercise can be done standing up or sitting down, and pretty much anywhere at any time. If you can sit down in the meditation (lotus) position, that's great, if not, no worries.
Either way, all you have to do is be still and focus on your breath for just one minute.
- Start by breathing in and out slowly. One breath cycle should last for approximately 6 seconds.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, letting your breath flow effortlessly in and out of your body.
- Let go of your thoughts. Let go of things you have to do later today or pending projects that need your attention. Simply let thoughts rise and fall of their own accord and be at one with your breath.
- Purposefully watch your breath, focusing your sense of awareness on its pathway as it enters your body and fills you with life.
- Then watch with your awareness as it works work its way up and out of your mouth and its energy dissipates into the world.
If you are someone who thought they’d never be able to meditate, guess what? You are half way there already!
If you enjoyed one minute of this mind-calming exercise, why not try two or three?
Below Are Some Gathas, or Verses That You Can Use In Your Daily Mindfulness Practice. Think Of These If You Find Yourself Saying "I Wish I Had More Time To Practice."
(Courtesy of The Mindfulness Bell)
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.
Brushing Your Teeth
Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth,
I vow to speak purely and lovingly.
When my mouth is fragrant with right speech,
a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.
The mind can go in a thousand directions.
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a gentle wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.
This cup of tea in my two hands,
mindfulness held perfectly.
My mind and body dwell in
the very here and now.
Talking on the Telephone
Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.
Driving a Car
Before starting the car
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
Washing the Dishes
Washing the dishes
is like bathing a baby Buddha.
The profane is the sacred.
Everyday mind is Buddha’s mind.
Sitting or Walking Meditation
I have arrived,
I am home
In the here,
In the now.
I am solid,
I am free.
In the ultimate
Laying in Bed
Resting in the ultimate dimension,
using snowy mountains as a pillow
and beautiful pink clouds as blankets.
Nothing is lacking.