Friday 2 January 2009

Creation as Play

I love this Japanese folktale that Stephen Nachmanovitch relates in his book “Free Play : Improvisation in Life and Art”[1]:

A Japanese master musician came to play in a village. As he finished playing, the voice of the oldest man in the village was heard from the back of the room: “Like a god!”.

The villager musicians asked the Master how long it would take a skilled player to learn to play as he did. “Years,” the Master replied. So the villagers sent their most brilliantly talented young musician to be a student of the Master.

On his arrival, the Master gave the student a single, simple tune to play on his flute. The student quickly mastered all the technical problems of the piece, but all the Master could say was : “Something lacking!”.

The student exerted himself in every possible way; he practised endlessly, but all the Master would say was : “Something lacking!”. The student begged the Master to give him a new tune. The Master said “No.”

The daily play, the daily “Something lacking!” continued. The student’s hope of success and fear of failure became ever magnified, and he swung from agitation to despondency. Finally, the frustration became to much for him: he returned to his village, ashamed and impoverished. For years he avoided the village musicians, eking out an existence teaching beginner’s lessons on his flute.

One day, the village musicians came to him. They were holding a concert and wanted him to play. With effort, they overcame his fear and his shame until, almost in a trance, he picked up his flute and followed them. As he waited, no-one intruded on his inner silence. His name was finally called and, as he stepped out onto the stage, he realised he had nothing left to gain, and nothing left to lose.

So he sat down and played the same simple tune he had played for his Master all those years ago. When he finished, there was silence for a long moment. Then the voice of the oldest man was heard: “Like a god,” he said, speaking softly from the back of the room. “Like a god!”

[1] Summarised from Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play : Improvisation in Life and Art” Pp. 1-3. Original tale translated by Trevor Legget in “Zen and the Ways”, 1978.

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