Each year at this time we look back, sometimes with regret; and forward, sometimes with trepidation. Setting aside the intellectual sloppiness, or arbitrariness, of selecting a given time of year to make such an assessment — winter introspection likely being a vestige of our agricultural and tribal heritage — any excuse for taking a time out from the hectic pace of modern life is welcome.
Zen meditation is a top-tier example of such a time-out. Shohaku Okumura Roshi referred to zazen as a "vacation." Where every other activity is a form of output, zazen is all input, he said. Everything else is work. We are fortunate to have this "excellent method as the essence of the teaching" as Master Dogen puts it. So, if we are making a year's end inventory of those things for which we are thankful, zazen is certainly near the top of the list.
Improvisation is a term that may apply to all, or at least most, activities in life; but I became most aware of its meaning in the context of music, specifically jazz. My father led a jazz quintet in the 1940s and my brother was a successful jazz pianist, having become a musical prodigy at an early age.
While I never had his training in music, owing to the changing conditions of growing up in a family struggling to pay the bills — which meant that my father often worked on construction jobs in other towns, and consequently did not spend the time and resources on myself and my other siblings that he had devoted to training my brother to play the piano — I came to understand that, as far as the ideals of jazz are concerned, improvisation was the holy grail, much more highly valued than the ability to play by rote, or even to read notation. The idea that whatever one can hear — musically speaking, and in one's mind — should come out through the instrument unimpeded, was what was meant by the expression "playing." As in "He is playing his (derriere) off," as my brother-in-law, a trumpet player, would often say of my brother. It is one of the highest compliments in jazz circles.
So I was exposed to this idea at an early age, probably when I was in high school. I had taught myself to draw around the second or third grade, probably to garner attention in a category other than music, as that option was clearly already taken. And my sisters were the dancers in the brood. At the time, I didn't think of my drawing as improvisation, though I quickly graduated from copying Walt Disney characters to making up my own, developing a comic strip featuring our pet dog, "Squeaky," a fox terrier to whom I was very attached. But later on, I recognized that what I found interesting about art, performance or plastic, was definitely in the area of improvisation.
From the Mouth of Matsuoka Roshi
"Be careful of that one little thing that you allow yourself... that is what will get you."
This particular quote from Matsuoka Roshi, which I heard him say only once, came to mind when a student (who shall remain anonymous) sent an email (this term will soon date this writing) with the heading "Gloriously drunk," in which he made clear, directly and via typos, that he had been out drinking whiskey to the point that he had overdone it. He was clearly a happy drunk — a giddy tone and lack of anger came shining through. I thanked him and told him I was honored that he thought of me in his inebriated condition. I went on, as is my wont, to mention that Master Dogen said, "When we take the tonsure (shave the head) we are already intoxicated." And so that drugs and alcohol are what in Zen is called a "head upon a head" — substance intoxication on top of sensory intoxication. But the next morning I got the hangover memo. Like most things in life, we observe the Precepts in retrospect, when we have broken them. The hangover is merely the immediate consequence, Karmic though it may seem in its magnitude at the time.
I speak from experience here. My father was afraid to let himself drink, as he thought he would become an alcoholic, and as the leader of a jazz band playing night clubs, he saw a lot of the downside of inebriation. He told me that we are part Choctaw — somewhere there is a photo of a great-great-great matriarch of the family, and she is definitely Native American — and a couple of his father's generation had become serious alcoholics. I have learned to avoid the firewater myself, as I have learned from hard and embarrassing experience.