A View from the Pew

For an atheist, I sure spend a lot of time hanging out in places of worship. It’s a bad habit, I know. But, as my mother’s mother used to counsel, “If the worst thing you ever learn is in someone else’s church, there’s probably nothing wrong with your education.” She might not take such a sanguine view of many of the ideas that are being spouted in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and other such places these days; but he point is still generally a good one, and I to think I choose my favored religious institutions with sound judgment and am possessed of enough sense to be immune from the pernicious influence of narrow-minded, tribalistic, fear-mongering sermons were I to encounter them.

This weekend involved excellent visits to two of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most valuable cultural treasures: the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, where our good friend and mentor Reverend Heng Sure is the abbot, and Glide Memorial Church, where the Reverend Cecil Williams has been preaching love for nearly 40 years. You’ll all be happy to know that I’m no closer to being saved, liberated, or otherwise spiritually realized than I was this time last week. I have, however heard some kick-ass music.

On Friday night, the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery played host to the sensational Okuda Atsuya, master of the Ji-nashi shakuhachi. Okuda-sensei plays the Honkyoku repertoire, developed by Zen Buddhist monks as a meditation practice during Japan’s Edo period, beginning more than three hundred years ago.

Okuda Atsuya

Any shakuhachi concert is a musically intimate experience, both because the dynamic range of the performance frequently touches the faintest whisper and because it requires a different kind of listening than we are used to. The arrhythmic, atonal compositions focus attention on tonal quality and on the relationships between the sequential tones, rather than on melody per se. The pieces have melodic movement and great lyricism, without manifesting a hummable refrain; they convey a sense of time and play with pacing and spatial elements, without relying on beat or periodicity.

Okuda Atsuya

Hearing the Ji-nashi shakuhachi – the most raw, ancient form of the instrument, with no lacquer in the bore to burnish the timbres of the bamboo –- is a very rare and very special treat. The ear transfixes on the variegation within each complex tone; on the subtleties of transitions from tone-to-tone, whether transforming liquidly from one to the next or discordantly, imparting a sense of rupture; on the bending and inflection of each tone as it is presented; on the emotionally manipulative dynamics of volume and range of pitch; and on the intricate overtones which frequently color the expression of the music. I cannot think of another instrument for which the audience’s experience of a performance is so bound-up in a visceral understanding of how the musician compiles the music, element-by-element. It is no exaggeration to say that, in listening to Ji-nashi shakuhachi, one believes at every moment that they can feel the musician’s breath caressing, exploring, yielding to, or challenging the grain and vestigial segmentation of the flute’s interior. If playing the shakuhachi was a transfixing experience for the Zen monks, listening to it is no less meditative.

Sunday mornings at Cecil’s church is a different experience altogether.

Our good friend Bob Ghiorzi, who makes his living as a very fine choral director, had lived in San Francisco for more than decade without ever once hearing the fabulous Glide Ensemble and Transformation Band. This situation needed fixing, so we made a date for Sunday morning at 9:00 am to drink-in the love of a thunderous, soul stirring gospel choir. Bob sported a smile that threatened to rip his head in two from the moment the trumpet sent the thrilling introductory line of Do Not Pass Me By, the Ensemble’s standard opening celebration, slashing into the nave. But then, I was the same way when my mother first took me to experience Glide as a child, and so was everyone I’ve ever taken since.

Glide Ensemble

Glide is, of course, more than a place of rousing music. Since the early 1960s, it has offered compassion and much needed social services to the denizens of one of San Francisco’s poorest, most destitute neighborhoods. And on Sunday mornings, it gives us the heart-rending poetry of Executive Director Jan Mirikitani, the serene wisdom of Reverend Douglass Fitch, and the inspiring brilliance of Reverend Cecil Williams.

Rev. Cecil Williams

The homily this morning was on the topic of service, with Cecil reminding us that by stepping forward to act on our convictions and instincts of compassion that we empower ourselves as well as improve our communities. He spoke of the transformational power of giving, creating both a change in the heart of the giver and a means to discover the freedom inherent in meaningful self-expression. He spoke of the ability of a single, ordinary person to bring positive influence to morally challenging situations, using as one example Cindy Sheehan’s current protest of the war in Iraq at the gate of President Bush’s Crawford, Texas vacation retreat.

Reverend Fitch summarized Cecil’s message, invoking Gandhi: “Freedom does not guaranty the outcome; but it creates the opportunity for you to be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Honestly, one might have thought the service had been scripted by CharityFocus volunteers. Now if only we could sing…


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