A Lesson of Emptiness & Nothingness
as Taught by Shakuhachi
A message from
Veronza Bowers, Jr.
from a U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Coleman, Florida
to participants of the
World Shakuhachi Festival
in Boulder, Colorado.
My warmest greetings to each and every one of you gathered here at the Festival to celebrate the ever-expanding world of shakuhachi - a world with no boundaries.
i can only dream of what it must feel like to be amongst so many people whose lives are touched in as many different ways by the powerful beauty that is of shakuhachi. i would love to be here in this moment of sharing. Unfortunately, i am in my 28th year of imprisonment as a political prisoner in a land where government officials claim that no political prisoners exist.
"I am an invisible man. . . . I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man
Well, i exist. Over 150 of us exist. And i still dream.
It is a great honor for me to be a part of the World Shakuhachi Festival. As in the Way of the Komuso, i am here with you without being here. If you are willing to listen to my utterings, I'd like to share these thoughts with you.
Life is full of contradictions. Nay, life itself is a contradiction, teetering as it does between itself and the ultimate fulfillment of itself, i.e. death. All contradictions are forever seeking resolution. Most of you probably have never heard of a recent bill passed by Congress and carried into effect by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As a result of this new law, we federal prisoners are no longer allowed to purchase or own any personal musical instruments or electronic equipment, except a harmonica. (This is only one of many provisions in this draconian measure that affect us adversely in many other ways.) Those of us who have been in prison awhile, especially the musicians with personal instruments, raised a ruckus. The Bureau provided us with a "grandfather clause" which allows for ownership of personal instruments until broken or in need of repair at which time the instrument must be disposed of. Upon transfer to another institution, the new laws reads, "no instruments, except a harmonica, will be allowed."
After nearly 28 years in maximum security prisons, i was recently transferred to a medium security institution in Coleman, Florida. When i found out about the transfer, the thought of having to part with my three Tai Hei Shakuhachi was absolutely unthinkable! After all, how does one accept the forced removal of a loved one from one's life? How does one respond to another who tells you to inhale, but does not allow you to exhale? Blowing shakuhachi, like life itself, is a continuous inhale . . . exhale. Because of a little man sitting on Capitol Hill, completely divorced from the realities of life on this side of prison walls, it seemed that i would be made to wait indefinitely to exhale.
i am a firm believer in the time-tested proposition that "the solution to any problem (if there is a solution at all) lies within the problem itself. Here it was, time rapidly approaching, for me to be transferred to a lower level Federal Correctional Institution for the first time in all my years at maximum security penitentiaries. I was being moved to a better environment, closer to family and friends, with a better chance for parole. Things were finally looking up for me, yet I was feeling as if my very heart was being torn from my bosom. i meditated, pondered, analyzed and fretted but no solution to my malady would come. There was no means to appeal as in this place: policy is policy is policy. Then I received a little postcard from my dear friend Monty Levenson. On the front of this card was a picture of two komuso with baskets on their heads, both blowing shakuhachi. On the reverse of the card were the words: "Two Komuso: Priest of Emptiness & Nothingness." i thumbtacked the picture of the two komuso to the small bulletin board on the wall of my cell.
One evening, about two weeks later, as I sat looking at the komuso, the solution struck into my consciousness like a bolt of lightening. "Emptiness & Nothingness!" i immediately mailed out most of my personal property: books, letters, clothes, etc. i stripped my personal property down to virtually nothing, so that when i reported to the authorities at "Receiving & Discharge" to turn over my belongings for shipping to my next destination, there would be nothing to disallow.
When my turn came to report to R&D for transfer, i had with me only a ceremonial medicine bundle wrapped in red cloth, five books on healing, two crown ("baskets") that i wear to cover my long dreadlocks and . . . my three Tai Hei shakuhachi. "We don't know if they will allow you to keep those flutes when you get to where you're going, Bowers," i was told. "All i ask is to be allowed to take them with me and find out when i get there," i responded.
I arrived in Florida long before my "property. i spoke with one of the Associate Wardens and explained about my Tai Hei shakuhachi and that i hoped to start a meditation class in which they would be used. By chance, this warden remembered me from a previous meeting we had twenty years earlier and authorized me to have the flutes given to me on the spot and allow me to use them in forthcoming mediation sessions.
Now i spend as much time a possible outside my cell on the recreation yard. i had forgotten what it is like to be outside at night watching a moon so full and hanging so low i can reach up and almost touch her. i can't blow my shakuhachi in the building where I'm housed like i used to while at the maximum security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. But, i take them out of their cases everyday and blow. In the beginning i was imply being careful not to make too much sound. Now my blowing is purposeful blowing with no sound except an occasional whisper of breath sliding across ebony and silver and bamboo. Each blow fills me so deeply in my soul. It is a feeling of the songs in my heart being sung to my very soul. It is the vibrations of Emptiness & Nothingness fulfilling its own self.
The lessons of shakuhachi are never-ending. i am thankful, honored and humbled at being invited to be part of this Festival honoring all of you and all that is shakuhachi. In closing, i give honor to the spaces between the notes.
P.S. Meditation session with Tai Hei shakuhachi will start in about two weeks time.