by Ray Brooks
There I was, finally sitting in front of Grand master Riley Lee for my long awaited Shakuhachi lesson. Ever since Riley had answered my questions with a two-page hand written letter of encouragement, I had tried to get to that seat. My first chance came in 1994 at the World Shakuhachi festival in Okayama, Japan, hometown of Yokoyama Katsuya. It was blisteringly hot, with a couple of hundred people and the opportunity for a lesson didn't materialize.
My next chance was on a visit to Bali where I was studying Suling, the Balinese flute. Bali is only a few hours flight away from Australia where Riley lives. My wife, Dianne and I thought we could see some of Australia and I could studying with Riley for a week or two. It wasn't to be. Riley was in the United States. The following year we were living in a small cottage in the foothills Himalayas. Dianne went off to study Yoga in Rishikesh for three weeks. While she was away I thought I could fly over to Riley and stay nearby for a week or two and have a lesson each day. Riley was there. But alas, I was snowed in, barely able to walk to the nearest town of Almora.
There were other times I missed him. One of which was at the Boulder World Shakuhachi festival. I had a Kidney stone and even if I hadn't, I had a deadline on my book, 'Blowing Zen.' That brings me to the end of October 2000. I was reading the posts on Bruce Jones's shakuhachi site and noticed Riley was giving lessons in Berkeley. This was exciting news. I'm in Malibu and Berkeley is just five or six of hours away. Dianne and I had driven down from Vancouver Island, Canada in a 26-year-old Mercedes Benz's without the slightest trouble. The week of the lessons the car was acting up. I had new points, plugs, leads and every test needed for a long journey before we left Canada. The way the car was performing there could only be one problem. The carburetor needed to be rebuilt. Although the car was running, I didn't want to chance the long trip up to San Francisco. Missed him again. Peter Ross emailed me on the 25th of October and said Riley would be in Long Beach, Los Angeles on the 28th 29th and 30th of October, and he had forgotten to put those dates on his tour schedule. If it was going to happen, this was my chance. I arranged the lesson for 11am Monday the 30th of October. Long Beach is a good one hour drive from Malibu, so I started out at 9am in a car that had seemed to have mystically fixed itself. 10am and I'm cruising along Highway 405 wondering what piece I'll practice if Riley asks. The traffic is thick and fast. I choose 'Tamuke' because I like the piece and think it has a lot of potential for learning new techniques. I'm in the middle lane, cruising at a steady 60mph, lost in 'humming' Tamuke, (something Yokoyama sensei insisted I do to memorize the piece) and the car splutters, then cuts out for the briefest moment. My body tenses up and I immediately start to sweat. It splutters again and I manage to pull over to the hard shoulder. I sit there for a while, tense, revving the engine. I'm 30 minutes away from that elusive lesson and I decided to go on, gently, doing no more than 40 mph in the slow lane. Only it's not always the slow lane, you have to move out in to other lanes, away from the hard shoulder and safety. I'm rigid and completely aware of traffic, each emergency telephone call boxes, and every noise the car makes. I find it easier if I ease off the accelerator. I'm no less tense when I pass the airport but a little relieved that if I do stall, I won't hold up people that are trying to make fights. "Tell me its not just me who does crazy things for shakuhachi. " Those who read Blowing Zen will remember the 60 day shugio. I arrive at Riley's lesson after a nightmare of a journey with ten minutes to spare, climb out of the car and walked up and down the road, trying to breath deeply and calm myself. I knocked on the door and Riley answers. "Ah! At last we meet," he said. That brings me to the 'one seat' in front of the master in the worst condition possible for a lesson. But I made it. Riley's lesson was precise and in depth, everything I thought it would be. He was more animated than I expected, giving me many examples of passionate musicians. I said I was happy with the way my technique was progressing and with my playing in general but felt my tone could be better. After hearing me, he said that there wasn't anything wrong with my tone, it was my definition that was the problem. He asked me what I would like to study and I said Tamuke. We worked our way slowly through the piece, Riley pointing out areas that could be played softer, more strongly and on the way he showed me a couple of new techniques. We ran over time and after the lesson I and another student sat and talked with Riley about what else. 'Shakuhachi.'
With the help of Barry Levy, the other student I had the car fixed in Long Beach. It wasn't the carburetor. It was the timing. I owe Barry a great debt of gratitude for helping out a fellow student of this amazing flute.
November 6th 2000 Carrol Canyon Malibu