I’d never attempted a self-portrait
until the day
I drew my breath
In John Daido Loori‘s must-have book for artists of all persuasions, The Zen of Creativity, he writes about the way shakuhachi maestro Watazumi Doso Roshi regarded his flute as a tool to monitor his authentic integration with, and expression of, the Life Force.
[The] ability to be free in his music was the result of Doso’s life-long, unrelenting commitment to the discipline of the breath. He actually wasn’t very interested in the shakuhachi as a musical instrument. He called his flute suijo, which loosely translates as “concentrated breathing tool.” Doso saw himself not so much as a musician or entertainer, but as one who is totally devoted to developing his life force – chi – by utilizing and strengthening his breath. The bamboo flute was simply a tool for that practice. He said once, “Since I must have some way of knowing how my breath is doing, I blow into a piece of bamboo and hear how it sounds.”
– The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori (1931 – 2009)
This intrigued me. For many years now, part of my own art practice has been to use a single, horizontal brushstroke to express the exhalation of my breath. It’s a contemplative practice I’ve written about before on this blog (see the links below), and one that continues – whatever the vagaries of my life. It’s clear to me that my breathscribe paintings are my suijo, my “concentrated breathing tool”. They show me how my breath is doing. Which in turn reveals what my mind is doing. And that tells me everything about how my Life is doing.
More helpful advice, this time from Watazumi Doso Roshi himself. It applies equally well to artist and musician, singer and dancer, indeed, to all of us as we embrace genuine authenticity:
So in that sound you have to put in your guts, your strength and your own specialness. And what you are putting in then is your own Life and your own Life Force. When you hear some music or hear some sound, if for some reason you like it very well; the reason is that sound is in balance or in harmony with your pulse. And so making a sound, you try to make various different sounds that imitate various different sounds of the universe, but what you are finally making is your own sound, the sound of yourself.
– Watazumido Doso Roshi (1910 – 1992)
My outer life has vanished,
but love’s breath still breathes for me.