Zen and the art of Shakuhachi seem an impossible path for a Chinese-American boy born in Texas in 1951, who grew up loving Led Zeppelin and country and western music. But for Riley Lee accidental journeys are what life is all about.

As a young traveller in the 1970s, Riley found his way to Japan, an exotic, remote place at that time, still emerging from the rubble of the Second World War and steeped in tradition. One fateful day, he ambled into a music store, thinking it would be fun to buy a Shakuhachi flute. Instead of selling it to him, the man behind the counter gave him the number of the only Shakuhachi teacher with a phone.

What followed were seven years of deep and rigorous training in the traditional ways of Zen Buddhist practice. Like a young Jedi learning his craft, Riley ran barefoot in the snow, blew his flute under waterfalls and in blizzards and experienced the ancient ways of the Shakuhachi. He emerged a consummate musician able to evoke a deeply spiritual sound from a tiny piece of bamboo. Riley, however, is reluctant to take any credit for the music he makes. According to him, the music which flows from his flute is an accident of sorts. A skillful accident. The music plays him, not the other way around. There’s the breath and the sound. The flute and the audience. Riley is just the vehicle.

Riley Lee’s music was the soundtrack to the births of both my children. I’m expecting a lot: Buddha on a mountaintop, Enlightened being. As I arrive backstage at Hamer Hall, a small, shaven haired, Japanese-robe-wearing man greets me. Perfect. The first words out of his mouth are, “I need a coffee before we start”. Unexpected. Caffeine? What I find, instead of my idealistic imaginings, is a very real human being who battles with asthma, a quick temper, frustration and pain like the rest of us. He avoids answering my questions in any definitive way. As though he is not the protagonist of his own story but rather a Journeyman traveller, an observer and practitioner of breath and music, here to share some accidental magic with whomever happens to be listening.

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BERRY LIBERMAN: So how does a grand master of shakuhachi flute and Zen music deal with frustration?

RILEY LEE:
Physiologically, meditation is great. But hopefully one of the other things that it does is make one more aware. The first thing I try to do with my frustrations is to be aware of them. Very often, being aware of any of your negative emotions short circuits them so they don’t last as long; they’re not as intense. Oftentimes awareness brings agitation. You’re suddenly aware of, you know, what a little shit you are, for example.

So what happens when the awareness brings agitation?

Well I can’t tell you that. I’m not, you know, a Zen master. I can teach you how to play the flute. Sometimes that awareness makes me more frustrated, more agitated. The other frustration is more with regard to making value judgements, which lead to negative emotions.

But with my music, I don’t get angry with myself. Because I know I just haven’t practised enough.

Having performed so much, I know that mistakes are inevitable. In performance, one has to be extremely comfortable with making mistakes. And when you practise — this is, I think, one of the reasons why people get nervous — you try to eliminate mistakes. That’s what practise is about. You try to play perfectly. You can’t actually perform perfectly, but you can learn how to make mistakes well.

I always like to point out that in English, the word for “playing” music is the same “play” as child’s play. In Japanese there’s child’s play, and there are other words that you use when you play music. Like “strike”, “pluck”, “blow” or “do”. It’s great, because that’s really how you have to approach music. In child’s play, there are no mistakes. You don’t see a little kid with a truck playing in the sand say, ‘Oh, I’ve made a mistake!’ The concept doesn’t exist. So when you’re really playing music, it’s impossible to make a mistake. You make things, you do things that were unintended, or may not be on the score, but if you’re good enough they just add to the music. Or no one really notices anyway.

It’s a fascinating conversation to be having with you, and completely unexpected, because the experience of your music for me is a deep place of rest and peacefulness, meditation, groundedness. And yet, we’re talking about impatience, perfection, mistakes. I’m a bit shocked to hear about the human side of the practice.

Not all shakuhachi players can evoke the kind of serenity that you’re mentioning; perhaps I can and my music can. I don’t know why. I’m not a particularly serene or calm person. I do have a quick temper.

I love that!

Physically, for example, I’ve had asthma since I was a kid. And this winter, I got pneumonia. It’s terrible for a shakuhachi player. But the other way to look at it is, Thank goodness I’ve got the shakuhachi. The best thing I could possibly do for my asthma and, for overcoming pneumonia, is having this ability to breathe in a way that most people don’t; deeply, thoughtfully. So it’s that half-full or half-empty thing. Hopefully my glasses are always half-full.

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You were born in Texas, right?

Yep.

And you loved rock ‘n’ roll as a kid.

Everyone did. And country and western. Yeah, I loved all of that stuff.

So how did you get from there to here? There’s quite a journey there.

There’s a journey there [laughs]. Probably the pivotal event in my life was my family moving to Hawaii from the Midwest. I was born in Texas but our family then moved to Oklahoma. Which is…

Not the centre of shakuhachi flute.

No. Not the centre of anything really other than, you know, the centre of Middle America — extremely conservative Middle America. Hawaii is just… It’s not really the United States. It’s a totally different place. It certainly was in 1966. My father is Chinese. There were probably no other Chinese in the town I was born in. There were certainly no other “half-breeds”. In Hawaii it’s a dime a dozen, a real melting pot. “Caucasian” in Hawaii is haole and hapa means “half”: hapa haole. That’s the name for it, for me!

So you felt…

At home, like I’d come home. It was great. Another pivotal time was when my brother brought home this recording that had shakuhachi in it. I listened to the record, I loved this shakuhachi. There was a two-minute solo that I played… I wore out the grooves on the LP. There was no looping back then. You actually lifted up the needle and moved it back. One day, around the same time, my father brought home a bamboo flute from China, which shares an ancestor with the shakuhachi. He taught me a folk song that he knew. I was in a band, and this is right in the hippie time, where things like bamboo flutes were really cool. I loved Led Zeppelin and really, full on rock, you know, electrified stuff. But this bamboo flute thing was quite cool too.

Did you also feel you had come home in terms of your mixed heritage?

With the bamboo flute? No. I was very comfortable in Hawaii.

So your father bringing home this bamboo flute wasn’t particularly culturally significant for you in any way? It just was?

Yeah. And my Dad, he never stressed the Chinese bit. He never spoke Chinese to us. In fact I later on asked him, ‘Why didn’t you? I could be bi-lingual!’

He said, ‘Why would you want to learn Chinese? You’re not Chinese, you’re a human.’

He was reacting against what he perceived to be this arrogance or prejudice.

Because he wanted to be American?

No, he didn’t want to be anything. He just didn’t want to instill in me this pride in being Chinese. I should feel proud of being human, not proud of being Chinese. And I thought to myself, This is all well and good, but I still would have loved to speak Chinese! On the other hand, perhaps the end result is more important. That I don’t have this false sense of pride… that I’m not proud of being something that really, has nothing to do with me personally. It’s a bit like patriotism, isn’t it? Jingoism. He didn’t want me to be this jingoistic fanatical Chinese person.

Then it is a really interesting gesture to bring you a Chinese bamboo flute…

Well a friend of his gave it to him, and my Dad said, ‘Here, you want this?’ And he taught me this song. So it wasn’t this moment. Like, ‘Here is this flute,’ you know?

My Dad — he’s from an extremely wealthy Chinese family. He came to the United States in 1942 and couldn’t go back. After the Communist Revolution, his father, who was put under house arrest from 1949 told him, ‘If you come back, they’ll kill you.’ He was an English speaking, Western educated, wealthy landowner. So, you know, a big blackball [laughs]. Had he gone back, things probably would have worked out. In fact, a lot of his mates who were also from that same background, they became high up in the new government. But he stayed on in the US, married my mother,

Anyway, in my final year of school I wanted to learn Chinese, but not enough people asked for Chinese. The second best thing was Japanese. So that’s how I started learning Japanese. Totally random. Maybe if one more raised his hand, or her hand… I could have studied Chinese. After school, I went around the world with a friend and at the end of that, I went to Japan. I fell in love with the place. It was very different back then, it was still really post-war. It was a third-world country; everything was so cheap. It was amazing. I had run out of money by that time, and barely made it. But I got work at an English school. I had a three-month visa, to earn enough money to buy my ticket home. And that’s when I picked up the shakuhachi.

Why?

Why? I thought, Well I should do something kind of cultural. And that’s when I remembered, Oh, shakuhachi. Bamboo flute. I love that music. I’ll buy one! So I went to a department store—they sold them back then in department stores. There were different types, the equivalent of $500 to $2500. I asked the old man selling them, ‘What’s the difference?’ You would have thought he’d explain why the more expensive one was better than the least expensive one. He looks at me, and says, ‘You really want to know?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I really want to know.’ He said, ‘In that case, it’s no good me just telling you. You need to go to a teacher. Then you’ll find out yourself.’ He looks in this big black book and finds who he thinks the best teacher nearest to me is. And then I borrow the shakuhachi — he wouldn’t sell me one!

Had he just sold it to me, I’d have just fiddled with it, like I fiddled with my Dad’s bamboo flute, and gone home after three months.

But instead, I started meeting friends. In fact, one of the first people I met was another student. He says, ‘Oh! Foreigner! Let’s see you make a sound.’ I also played French horn, so I had the chops for flutes. I could make a sound, which many people can’t. He says, ‘That’s great! You’re really good! That’s super!’ And I thought, Well, that’s good. He says, ‘You know, in just six months you’ll only need to practise three hours a day, in six months, you’ll be really good!’ I’m thinking, What, are you crazy? Three hours a day! But I met people like him, and they became my friends. Very soon I was extending my visa. Then, I finally got a long-term visa that meant I could stay there pretty much permanently, as long as I kept learning shakuhachi.

So something was triggered in you?

Well as I said, there’s no one single point. There are just all these random events…

Yeah, but something made you keep playing…

It was nine months before I finally got this long-term visa, so it wasn’t this sudden thing, it was just this, I want to do more, I want to do more, I want to do more. I didn’t want to do anything else. I was practicing eight, twelve hours a day.

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Was it changing you? Learning the shakuhachi? It’s a very focused path. It’s a path that one, say, would need a lot of passion and interest to be on.

Well see again, as I said, it’s all, ‘One thing led to another.’ My path has always been the path — in retrospect — of least resistance. I happened to be in Japan, I happened to get a teacher, I happened to meet people. I think that’s true of probably most things. We’re in this room full of doors, of opportunity. Some are opened and some are locked.

That’s interesting, I think a lot of people go through pretty negative doors, or they open the wrong doors.

Yeah, but you see

I don’t think there are any wrong doors.

And I don’t think we have that much choice in deciding which door we go through. Oftentimes, you say, ‘What am I going to do?’ And even then, it’s like flipping a coin in the end. Let’s say you want to buy a house. You weigh up the positives and the negatives: This house instead of that house. It’s never that clear cut, is it? You just choose something because you’re not aware of what’s behind the door anyway. You don’t know where that’s going to lead you. I certainly didn’t know that by borrowing the flute, I’d be here now doing this interview.

Now I was hit by a car two years ago. Walking down a footpath, one car hit another car, which then hit the curb and became airborne. So this car, going about sixty kilometres an hour, maybe a metre off the ground was coming straight at me. Okay? That’s a door. And it’s a door I didn’t choose, to have these injuries. I was in the hospital for two months: seven operations, a lot of burns. I still have to wear this thing because I got skin grafts [laughs].

Wow!

I only bring this up as an example, of why I say that there are no wrong doors. There are just doors. We choose, but it’s pretty random. Sometimes, you’re kicked through the door. Like I was. I would not choose to have the experience that I’ve had for the last two years, but I think I’m a better person having had it. I’ve learned a lot about myself, I’ve experienced so much help from other people. It’s great. If someone said, ‘Look, you’ve got a choice. You can go back to the event and we’ll take away your injuries, but we’ll also take away all the experiences, all of the things that you’ve gone through.’ I don’t want to lose those things. I feel very grateful. Also, you know, I almost died. Things are a little more… I don’t get quite so upset about things anymore. Because I’m going to die eventually. We all know that, everyone tells us that, but…

You had a glimpse.

Nothing is so important to get upset about it. I think that’s it. Life is short. It’s all platitudes. We all know this, but I feel it now.

It’s interesting you say you feel it now. I keep coming back to the transcendence of your music. You go to a place — I’m assuming — when you’re deep inside one of your pieces, that is quite magical. We live in a really violent, fast-paced, noisy world. And yet you spend your life carving out a space of tranquil, peaceful, mindfulness.

Yeah. That’s my job…

That’s a big deal. That takes a lot of energy. You might not think that, but I do.

To carve out that space?

Mmm.

Well, maybe. Thank you very much! [Laughs] I’m glad you think that!

Where do you go when you make music?

I don’t actually think about it when I’m playing. I enjoy the sound and I’m fortunate that my technique has become unconscious. So I don’t have to do music, I can listen to the music. I just sit back and think, This is really good stuff. Sometimes I’ll listen back and think, Wow, that was great. Where did that come from? I’m just listening like you are. It’s a mystery to me too. A wonderful mystery.

We live in Manly. And we get this beautiful sea breeze. Just the right temperature. The sun comes up over the horizon; there are just enough clouds. It’s just like, Wow, this is so wonderful. It’s so great to be alive. Now on those mornings, I never think, I created this. This is mine. And I think that’s true of the sounds that come out of the flutes that I have. The shakuhachi is playing me as much as I’m playing the shakuhachi, and it doesn’t end there. The environment in which I find myself playing — as we all know when we sing in the shower — plays us as much as we play it. So the shakuhachi, the piece of bamboo and I, are in fact playing the environment, we’re playing the room. The room is playing us. And likewise the audience provides us with energy whether it’s positive or negative. Nearly a hundred per cent of the time, it’s positive. The audience comes to hear a good show; they want you to succeed. Why should you be nervous in front of people who want you to play well? They won’t hear the mistakes because they don’t want to hear the mistakes. It’s this whole great big playing. I’m only one tiny, tiny, small part of it. And I might play the same piece a thousand times, but it’ll always be different because it’s not just me that’s doing it.

What’s the coolest story you’ve ever been told about the influence of your music on someone’s life?

[Laughs] our daughter had these pre-birth meetings where you meet the midwife and she said, ‘When you’re doing this and that, the music is very important. Pick what suits you, of course, but let me recommend something, this is what I really like,’ and she brought out one of my CDs. That cracked my daughter up.

You’re the rock star.

Yeah, exactly. Sometimes I get emails that bring tears to my eyes. Of people expressing their gratitude for my music, having used it in some situation, both birth and death. You know, saying, ‘My partner recently died of cancer and all through that last period we were listening to your music, and even when she was kind of not there, she wasn’t agitated. Thank you so much.’ It doesn’t get better than that. But I can’t remember one specific time. That’s possibly because I have a lousy memory. But I would like to think that I don’t remember them because, in a sense it’s not me that needs to be thanked. I’m just here, doing my thing.

You talk about how your wife, Patricia, has been a major influence on and critic of your music…

We were married in 1977. So what’s that, thirty-five years? You ask anybody who has been married for thirty-five years, ‘What’s the secret?’ Patience. Even though I don’t have it. It’s compromise. It’s developing the ability to put yourself second. Even though I’m sure Patricia would say, ‘Well, you don’t do that,’ [laughs]. She would say that marriages can last if only one person’s patient. I’d have to agree with her, probably. She has supported me, I’m sure, for far more than I’ve supported her. Patricia, interestingly enough, is very musical. And she doesn’t practise. When she does play, she can play the piano brilliantly. She’s a great musician. And she now dabbles in playing recorder. She has absolutely no interest in Japanese music in general and shakuhachi and drums in particular. It’s not her thing. She likes it in the sense that it’s not loud. Her thing is what people call “early music”. Baroque. European. She loves Bach, as do I.

So you don’t share this passion for Eastern music?

Not at all. She has no interest whatsoever.

I had this vision of you like Yoda on the mountaintop; that you lived in a Japanese house in the reeds…

No, no. In shakuhachi, the idea is that you learn this tradition, which came before you; it was there before you arrived on the scene, and will continue after you leave. Unless you transmit what you’ve learned to the next generation, you’re not really doing it.

It’s impossible to do shakuhachi just by yourself. You can’t go up to the mountaintop, like you say, and play your bamboo flute.

That’s not doing shakuhachi. It’s part of doing it, but you also have to transmit it.

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Do you teach?

Oh yeah, I have to. And this is why. I always use the analogy of the light bulb. I’m just the light bulb. It’s only really when the electricity passes through me that I light up, that I do my thing.

Do you enjoy the responsibility?

Yeah, it’s not a burden, that’s for sure. The biggest lesson I’m learning through teaching is to have no expectations. You get better, great. You don’t get better, great. Nothing to do with me. I’m just here to help. If you want to go to the next stage, I can help you. If you don’t want to, that’s fine.

I think some people, they’re afraid. There are things stopping them, there are voices in their head saying…

“You can’t do it.”

“You can’t do it.” And even though they might feel that they’ve touched the void of being moved…

That they can’t, you’re right. But you see again, it’s nothing to do with me. The solution is to take no responsibility for any of it. I’m just here. I do my thing. I do the best I can.

So how does Riley, who’s not feeling very Zen — angry Riley, impatient Riley, perfectionist Riley — enter the music?

That’s a bit like, how does someone that’s really thirsty drink water? You know. When I am in that space, that’s when it’s really nice to play shakuhachi. It’s as effortless for me to play shakuhachi when I am agitated or in a negative space as it is for someone that’s thirsty to drink water. Now. When I’m really focused and centred and I’m not agitated, I can appreciate the taste of that water. When I’m really thirsty, I can drink muddy water. I don’t care. But I can make better music when I’m not agitated. Being aware of your tiredness, or being aware of, you know, these sort of negative energies as I mentioned earlier, often short-circuits them. So once you’re aware that you’re angry, it’s more likely that your anger will dissipate. You’ve got to leave your value judgements behind. So yeah, I’m tired. Yeah, I’m agitated. But that’s not bad. It’s just what it is.

What’s next? What would be satisfying for you, if you look back over a life making this music?

Just more of the same. On the one hand I have goals that I can never attain. For example, to be the best shakuhachi player in the world, and that’s impossible. Partly because I’m incapable of doing that, and partly because it’s impossible to define that — it’s not like being the fastest swimmer in the world. My goals are a bit like the horizon. The closer I get, the further away they seem.

But the fact that my goals are impossible to attain does not diminish them.

And it does not make me a silly fool in trying to attain them. If the only goals I have are those that I can attain, then the question really becomes, “What next? I’ve made it.” This is why very often people become depressed. So, on the one hand I’ve got these impossible goals, on the other hand I have no expectations. I’m just playing into a bloody bamboo flute. I’m not doing anything important.

You’re very human. You’re a father, you’re a grandfather, you’re imperfect, you’re all sorts of things. I love the idea of the transcendent work and the very real life.

As you know, there are brilliant musicians who are terrible fathers, or terrible husbands or wives. Some of them are almost antisocial. You kind of have to be if you’re practicing eight hours a day; it’s all you do. They’re often very imbalanced people. Balance is like a triangle. You’ve got your work, you’ve got your family, you’ve got your physical activity. And in the middle is your spirituality. Oftentimes, with musicians, it’s just work. There’s nothing else. They can become very spiritual through their work, but there’s no physical activity and there’s no family at all. And yet their music’s still very transcendental. It still moves us.

What about Riley Lee without the flute?

Yeah, I thought of that too. When I was in the hospital, I didn’t yearn to play shakuhachi. I yearned to run. Someone recently said, ‘Well probably, subconsciously, you were thinking what’s most important for you now, and what’s most important is to get your health back. The shakuhachi playing is secondary.’ I may be the shakuhachi player, but I’m more than that. I don’t need to do shakuhachi. That’s not the only time I’m connected — which is probably why I’ll never become the best shakuhachi player in the world.

I think I am fortunate in that I have the ability to extract a lot of good from whatever is presented to me. But, I don’t think that’s anything I can take credit for. I know there is a “me” that’s not my leg, it’s not my arms, it’s not my brain. I guess we call it a soul. Buddha, he was asked, ‘Is there reincarnation?’ He said, ‘I don’t think you need to worry about that.’ Because you can’t answer it. If you can’t answer something, why worry about it? Why even ponder it? So you worry about what you know about. And that’s life.

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