Though it may seem an unlikely duo — the impact meditation has had on jazz has been noted since the sixties. With album titles such as John Coltrane’s Meditation, and Devotion by Herbie Hancock (who speaks widely of his daily Nichiren Buddhism practice), it’s become apparent that these jazz legends fed their masterpieces with meditative insights.
The influence jazz has had on meditation, however, is lesser known.
Often in meditation, the music (if there is any at all) comes from a harmonium and bansuri flute — perhaps a tambourine or shaker is tossed into the mix — creating an ethereal soundscape. But the free flowing, improvisational style of jazz fits perfectly with the foundation of meditation — it relies on presence.
Shinnyo meditation was developed from an ancient form of Buddhist contemplation that has been adapted to a contemporary understanding of the physical and emotional process.
The Jazz Meditation series is led by Eitaro Hayashi, meditation teacher and Buddhist Priest at Shinnyo-En in White Plains, NY— the mother temple to the Shinnyo Center in Herald Square where the event will be held.
To begin the evening, Hayashi gave a brief introduction to the series — it’s their first ever Jazz Meditation – with the next one coming up this this Friday.
“Our beings resonate with the sound of music, feeling the vibration of a live performance. This experience brings our awareness to the present moment. It wakens something inside of us and helps to set our lives into a more natural rhythm. Jazz as an art form is based on being completely focused in the present moment. Being aware of our surroundings and harmonizing with the other musicians and an audience,” he said to kick off the event.
Hayashi sat between the musicians— saxophone player Nick Gianni and keyboard player, Arlen Hart. Directly behind the trio was an image of the Reclining Buddha and photos of Shinjo Ito, the founder of Shinnyo-En Buddhism, his wife, Shojushinin and their two sons. On the walls above Hayashi to his left and right were screens slide-showing nature images that evoked serenity — the ocean waves, drops of water splashing and children laughing.
Each Jazz Meditation session has a different theme. For the first event, Hayashi led a journey through water — starting out as tiny droplets, and then connecting to the great ocean of truth. “Be like water” he stated, referring to the adaptability and fluidity of the element.
Immediately after the intro, the sax came in with a Coltrane-esque Love Supreme style sound. Gianni, who described himself as a musician who meditates, is spearheading the series with the help of Hayashi and Hart. Exhibiting sheer craft on his instrument, Gianni’s sax added a soulful tone which worked harmoniously alongside the spoken words.
“Everything that we played was improvised. I was completely focused on the meditation guide, and what the piano player was playing along with my own meditation practice — so in a way I felt that I was another humble meditator, and in another way, the saxophone itself became the meditation guide. “
Accompanying on keyboards and laptop, Hart’s special effects created an om-like drone — a familiar sound to many meditators in the room. This constant humming served as an anchor for the meditation along with the saxophone and guided instruction.
Practitioners sat in chairs. Some removed their shoes (as encouraged by Hayashi in his intro), and had their eyes closed in the dimly lit room.
While sixty minutes may seem long for beginning meditators, this event was more of a combo — meditation and performance. Sitting absolutely still wasn’t so much a priority as relaxing into the scene and taking in the sounds.
“Our intention is to provide a relaxing, meditative experience for people who may not have meditated before — whether it’s the people coming in off the street, music lovers, or regular Shinnyo-En meditators. We want to provide an open environment for people looking to get involved with meditation, and to reflect our own individual and group practices coming from the Shinnyo-En Buddhist tradition,” Gianni said.