A Fool for Shakuhachi
by Ray Brooks

There I was, finally sitting in frontof Grand master Riley Lee for my long awaited Shakuhachi lesson.Ever since Riley had answered my questions with a two-page handwritten letter of encouragement, I had tried to get to that seat.My first chance came in 1994 at the World Shakuhachi festivalin Okayama, Japan, hometown of Yokoyama Katsuya. It was blisteringlyhot, with a couple of hundred people and the opportunity for alesson didn't materialize.

My next chance was on a visit to Baliwhere I was studying Suling, the Balinese flute. Bali is onlya few hours flight away from Australia where Riley lives. My wife,Dianne and I thought we could see some of Australia and I couldstudying with Riley for a week or two. It wasn't to be. Rileywas in the United States. The following year we were living ina small cottage in the foothills Himalayas. Dianne went off tostudy Yoga in Rishikesh for three weeks. While she was away Ithought I could fly over to Riley and stay nearby for a week ortwo and have a lesson each day. Riley was there. But alas, I wassnowed in, barely able to walk to the nearest town of Almora.

There were other times I missed him.One of which was at the Boulder World Shakuhachi festival. I hada Kidney stone and even if I hadn't, I had a deadline on my book,'Blowing Zen.' That brings me to the end of October 2000. I wasreading the posts on Bruce Jones's shakuhachi site and noticedRiley was giving lessons in Berkeley. This was exciting news.I'm in Malibu and Berkeley is just five or six of hours away.Dianne and I had driven down from Vancouver Island, Canada ina 26-year-old Mercedes Benz's without the slightest trouble. Theweek of the lessons the car was acting up. I had new points, plugs,leads and every test needed for a long journey before we leftCanada. The way the car was performing there could only be oneproblem. The carburetor needed to be rebuilt. Although the carwas running, I didn't want to chance the long trip up to San Francisco.Missed him again. Peter Ross emailed me on the 25th of Octoberand said Riley would be in Long Beach, Los Angeles on the 28th29th and 30th of October, and he had forgotten to put those dateson his tour schedule. If it was going to happen, this was my chance.I arranged the lesson for 11am Monday the 30th of October. LongBeach is a good one hour drive from Malibu, so I started out at9am in a car that had seemed to have mystically fixed itself.10am and I'm cruising along Highway 405 wondering what piece I'llpractice if Riley asks. The traffic is thick and fast. I choose'Tamuke' because I like the piece and think it has a lot of potentialfor learning new techniques. I'm in the middle lane, cruisingat a steady 60mph, lost in 'humming' Tamuke, (something Yokoyamasensei insisted I do to memorize the piece) and the car splutters,then cuts out for the briefest moment. My body tenses up and Iimmediately start to sweat. It splutters again and I manage topull over to the hard shoulder. I sit there for a while, tense,revving the engine. I'm 30 minutes away from that elusive lessonand I decided to go on, gently, doing no more than 40 mph in theslow lane. Only it's not always the slow lane, you have to moveout in to other lanes, away from the hard shoulder and safety.I'm rigid and completely aware of traffic, each emergency telephonecall boxes, and every noise the car makes. I find it easier ifI ease off the accelerator. I'm no less tense when I pass theairport but a little relieved that if I do stall, I won't holdup people that are trying to make fights. "Tell me its notjust me who does crazy things for shakuhachi. " Those whoread Blowing Zen will remember the 60 day shugio. I arrive atRiley's lesson after a nightmare of a journey with ten minutesto spare, climb out of the car and walked up and down the road,trying to breath deeply and calm myself. I knocked on the doorand Riley answers. "Ah! At last we meet," he said. Thatbrings me to the 'one seat' in front of the master in the worstcondition possible for a lesson. But I made it. Riley's lessonwas precise and in depth, everything I thought it would be. Hewas more animated thanI expected, giving me many examples of passionate musicians. Isaid I was happy with the way my technique was progressing andwith my playing in general but felt my tone could be better. Afterhearing me, he said that there wasn't anything wrong with my tone,it was my definition that was the problem. He asked me what Iwould like to study and I said Tamuke. We worked our way slowlythrough the piece, Riley pointing out areas that could be playedsofter, more strongly and on the way he showed me a couple ofnew techniques. We ran over time and after the lesson I and anotherstudent sat and talked with Riley about what else. 'Shakuhachi.'

With the help of Barry Levy,the other student I had the car fixed in Long Beach. It wasn'tthe carburetor. It was the timing. I owe Barry a great debt ofgratitude for helping out a fellow student of this amazing flute.

November 6th 2000 Carrol CanyonMalibu

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