Ray Brooks

Blowing Zen:
Finding an Authentic Life

A Review by Rob Winike

Any artist's journey should lead ultimately to the connection between spirit and art. Author and musician Ray Brooks takes his readers on a search for enlightenment as he studies the ancient Zen flute, the shakuhachi. Although he is a modern man, and very much a Western man, Brooks embarks on the journey of a komuso, or wandering monk. He actually studies with monks, and becomes a master musician himself.

Blowing Zen is subtitled Finding an Authentic Life, and his insights are inspiring to read about no matter what art you pursue as a matter of taste. Having read it three times, each time straight through without stopping, I am continually impressed with how profoundly and proficiently Brooks shows you the manner in which he found his own true self, and how it can have meaning for anyone who is on a journey of spirit. I have begun talking to other writers about the Zen of writing, and find them eager to discuss what it means to them to find hara - the vital energy center of the body, where they can get in the "writing zone." Or to pursue what Brooks describes as Gambatte - the complex but very meaningful Zen concept of "Persevere/Never give up/Study hard/Go for it/Make a strong effort. Some writers told me they use self-talk. Others say they "visualize" the authentic life they need to master the art and craft of writing.

Blowing Zen is more than a handguide for a spiritual journey; it's a kind of magic carpet ride. You follow Brooks in his soul building sojourn, as he struggles to emerge from the shallow existence of the London nightclub scene, with a "circle of friends who were looking for the same things - distractions, escapes, good times, and no grief. Divorced and "emotionally bullet-proof" at 24, he thought he knew who he was, and subsequently found out that he was discontented, disillusioned, and insecure. When his friend, a well-meaning but tortured man named Ozawa introduced him to a monk, Brooks described himself as a "Zen Tourist," which brought a round of laughter from the monk. Eventually the author's progression in the shakuhachi brings him before many monks and masters of the music, and a few oddball characters as well. He begins playing with street musicians, and encounters some Japanese gangsters who literally kidnap him and compel him to play for them. A potentially dangerous scene becomes humorous, and you actually feel sorry for these hoodlums and for the hollow, ritualistic lives they live, having given up the ancient traditions and wisdom for the entrapments of capitalism and materialism. Brooks continues to rise in stature until finally by the end of the book he is playing in concert with the world's foremost shakuhachi expert, Nakamura. By emotionally investing in his quest, we readers are enriched, and encouraged to look for the ways of Zen in our own lives.

A native of England, Brooks, is a writer whose musical life has included composing, recording, performing and teaching this highly technical and difficult form of music. He is now internationally recognized as a master of shakuhachi, and has studied for many years with Japanese masters. He frequently performs solo concerts throughout Japan, North America and Europe. His book explains how, when living in India, he learned circular breathing from Tibetan monks and practiced bansuri flute and tabla with Indian masters. He traveled the globe extensively, having trekked through the Himalayan range, including the highest valley in the world. When speaking in seminars, he relates his own experiences and understanding of life, and inspires others with stories about his path of direct experience and effortless living. The author resides in Victoria, British Columbia with his wife Dianne, a major influence on his life and this book.

The author's second book, Bonnie Lad, (not yet released) is the 'prequel' to Blowing Zen, and encompasses the author's troubled life from the age of two until thirteen. There is a CD of the music mentioned in the book available from www.newalbion.com. The author's home page is http://www.raybrooks.com.

Rob Winike is an author living in Portland, and is facilitator of Oregon Writers Colony's monthly salons for writers, Pick Me Up Tuesdays. For more information, write to robber@ipinc.net


An Interview with Ray Brooks

Q. If, for writers, finding an "authentic life" means completing the kind of journey you took to master your music, would there be a "Blowing Zen" for writers? How would you describe that?

A. I'd call it 'Scribbling Zen' . The main character, a writer, awakens to the fact that she is a prisoner in her own cluttered mind. She sees her life is totally conditioned, and that all means and ends are of the same form. Her life is full of goals, measurement and the need for approval. This insight is its own change. All that is meaningless in her life drops away. Her mind is unburdened and life unfolds for her. She begins to see life as it really is and not as she hoped it would be. Her mind is free of fear. It looks, it listens, it has the freedom to create.

Q. Blowing Zen is subtitled Finding an Authentic Life, and your insights are inspiring to read about no matter what art you pursue as a matter of taste. The value in the book is how profoundly and proficiently you show your readers how you found your own true self, and how it can have meaning for anyone who is on a journey of spirit. Have other artists, non-musicians, communicated this to you?

A. Many people have asked on this tour "what is an authentic life." I answered that, instead of looking for what is authentic, I had, and still am, uncovering what isn't authentic in daily life. See what you're left with. Exposing what is inauthentic in me is part of seeing who I really am. I don't have to wait for life to present me with an opportunity to look at myself. The opportunity is always there to see who I really am, and not who I think I am.

Q. People involved with the arts can have large egos that they have to deal with, don't they?

A. I meet writers, musicians, artists who are trapped in their role, and there's no communication with them. Then there are those who are open and vulnerable and there's this great flood of sharing. Exploring in the same direction. It's so exhilarating when people meet, and the ego is put aside. Readers have contacted me and said after reading Blowing Zen, they have found new vigor in their once flagging interests. Some have returned to studies, but with a different view - viewing what they're doing as more of a personal meditation, and less a competition against themselves. They have removed the pressured goal of outward success, thus removing the underlying fear of personal failure or defeat.

Q. I have begun talking to other writers about the Zen of writing, and find them eager to discuss what it means to them to find hara -- the vital energy center of the body, where they can get in the "writing zone." Do you have any insights on this?

A. I wonder about this 'zone' being separate from my relationship with daily life. If by 'zone' you mean moments where deeply focused and creative presence of mind takes place, then I call this 'meditation'. We struggle all day, mostly getting emotional over things that aren't important. Then, if we have a little energy left, we sit down with pen and paper or in front of a screen, drained, and wait for the 'zone' to kick in. Could it be possible to consider living in meditation or at least seeing why we don't live in meditation or creative flow. In Blowing Zen, the word gambatte is used throughout the book by various Japanese people that I meet along my way, and is an important, yet a telling part, of their cultural conditioning. Although it's sentiment is inspiring and encouraging, its deeper meaning betrays a definite fear of failure. I always accepted this comment when offered with thanks and a bow.

Q. To pursue what you describe as gambatte -- the complex but very meaningful Zen concept of "Persevere/Never give up/Study hard/Go for it/Make a strong effort, some writers told me they use self-talk. Others say they "visualize" the authentic life they need to master the art and craft of writing. Do you have any comments on that?

A. Growing up, I subscribed to Gambatte and all that it means. I now see effort as a form of energy loss. 'I must', cuts off the flow of creativity. For me, discipline comes out of the love and passion when the actor and the action become one. If I pick up my shakuhachi or a pen with effort, all I can expect is form. Each being has a vital energy source. This source can communicate with the mind/brain, only when the mind/brain is quiet. Only then, is there the possibility of something new and fresh. For me, this is the Zen of writing.

Q, Have you ever thought of addressing an audience consisting of writers and lovers of the writing life?

A. I couldn't address writers with any authority on writing. But I wouldn't have any trouble talking with lovers of writing. Lovers of any art for that matter. The art form wouldn't be important. Just the knowledge that everyone in the audience had come to look into the meaning of 'a life of direct experience and effortless living.' The audience would have to be fully involved. Watching their own responses as they came up in the mind. I'd also like to discuss with them, whether the conditioned brain can come up with anything new. Find out what it means to be quiet, what it means to do your particular art form from clarity and whether something fresh take places from that clarity. You never Know what might come up in such a gathering.

Q. Will you continue to tour?

A. This was my first book tour and I wouldn't mind doing one again. I'd heard such awful stories about book tours but this wasn't our experience. Dianne and I bought a VW westfailia and (are touring in that) toured the Southwest, California and Washington. We had a marvelously interesting and enjoyable time, and met some terrific people along the way. I think the main attraction was that people came out to hear shakuhachi. Blowing Zen was released in Germany a couple of weeks ago. Of course I'd like to be invited to go over there. Maybe the East Coast of America at a later date.



Read a Reviews of Blowing Zen by
Robert Jonas

Bruce Jones

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