What I Learned from Earl Scruggs

Most people, those who know his name, probably think of Earl Scruggs as just a banjo player. Truth is he was one of the most innovative and influential musicians in American music history. Earl Scruggs pioneered a three-finger style of banjo picking that revolutionized bluegrass music and helped pave the way for modern country music. His influence was enormous.

Earl died yesterday in a Nashville hospital from natural causes. He was 88.

In 1971 or 72, when I was in college and working for the campus radio station, I interviewed Earl Scruggs. It was the dead of winter and he and his band were scheduled to give a concert at the Omaha Music Hall. However, the van carrying all the equipment broke down in the snow outside of Des Moines, Iowa, some 125 miles away. Earl and his dobro player, the late Josh Graves, drove ahead, arrived at the concert hall a bit late and went onstage. Earl explained the situation and promised a full 90-minute show once the band showed up. Then the stagehands brought out two wooden chairs and Earl and Josh sat down and played for little over an hour, treating the crowd, of mostly college kids, to some amazing musicianship as they spontaneously picked their way through a treasure trove of bluegrass and country standards. When the band (featuring Earl’s sons) arrived, they did indeed do a full show that showcased “country-rock” songs composed by the likes of Bob Dylan and other contemporary artists, as well as traditional music. By the time they finished, it was nearly midnight, and as he promised, Earl sat down with me for an interview. He couldn’t have been nicer. I found him shy, humble, quiet – qualities that do not usually bode well for an interview – but Earl explained how his developed his style for me in a simple and rather poetic way and it ended up being a pretty good conversation. I may still have that tape somewhere, but I imagine the audio has dissolved by now.

So what did I learn from Earl Scruggs? A lesson in integrity, and showmanship. He could have easily canceled the concert. Or, he could have sent his road manager ahead, alone, to explain to the crowd why the concert would be delayed. But Earl was an old school showman (“the show must go on”) and a concert date was like a sacred oath. He had promised a night of music to begin at a certain time, and come hell or high water (or snow and freezing temperatures), he intended to deliver. And while he could have begged off the interview claiming fatigue or anything else, he graciously went ahead and talked to me anyway. In my book, that’s integrity. Not to mention class. I’ve never forgotten it.

Earl was one of the few people in the Country Music establishment to support the anti-war movement during the Sixties. Believe me, in his circle, it was an unpopular thing to do. He also championed new music, the kind made at the time by those long-hair freaks. After he left Lester Flatt, he formed a new band with his sons, and together they played a lot of that new music. He was a trailblazer.

You can learn more about Earl Scruggs at his Wikipedia page, or at his official website. You can read his obituary and some appreciations at NY Times, Billboard, and NECN.

So long, Earl. Thanks for the melodies.

Here’s Earl and some friends performing his most famous composition, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”:

And here he is with Roger McGuinn and the Byrds doing Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, circa 1969:

Photo: © 2001-2002 David Schenk


Smiling Beyond Measure

It’s the first day of spring. Daylight savings time is back. Two good reasons to smile. Don’t you agree?

I often think about smiling. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. Maybe I am too self-conscious about it. I think I look goofy when I smile. Other people look attractive. So, while I may walk around with a serious look on my face, that doesn’t mean I am unhappy or unfriendly. No doubt I need to make an effort to smile more often.

I found something at the Bangkok Post that got me thinking about smiling: it’s a photography exhibition called “Happiness Beyond Measure” at an art gallery there, featuring the photography of Bhanuwat Jittivuthikarn, an emerging visual artist. The exhibit is described as “an impressive embodiment” of Jittivuthikarn’s philosophy of “showing a lighter side of humanity.”

Most of the pictures are portraits and many of the people in them are smiling. Like this woman:

"Old Tibetan in Saranarth, India 2010"

Jittivuthikarn, who is 28, is quoted in the article as saying, “The noble truths aren’t apparent only in 1,000-year-old temples or sacred Buddhist texts. True happiness lives on in the people who practise it.” Of his subjects, he says,

Their smiling faces show how they share their sense of joy with me, a stranger they just met. They teach me that compassion is the secret to survival in today’s world. They are a true sample of the men and women of Buddha, and we should learn from their attitude to life.”

As far as I know, just about the only Buddhist teacher who ever discusses smiling is Thich Nhat Hanh. Some Buddhists might be tempted to pooh-pooh talk about happiness or smiling, considering it too syrupy, new-agey, or whatever. What I think they fail to understand is that sometimes the deepest truths are found in the simplest of things. And what can be simpler than smiling?

If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love, those who live under the same roof. If we are happy, if we are peaceful, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the beauty of the blue sky? Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it? No, we just enjoy it. Each second, each minute of our lives can be like this. Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don’t need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we are only aware of suffering . . .

If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many benefits to smiling: it changes our mood for the better, boosts our immune system, relieves stress, and lowers blood pressure. Not to mention that studies have shown that smiling releases endorphins, natural pain killers, and serotonin.  I guess you could say, smiling gets you high.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that smiling is the act of a Bodhisattva. And we know that Bodhisattvas are pledged to relieve the suffering of all living beings. So why not smile? A simple thing, and even if it relieves someone’s suffering for only a few seconds, it is still relieving suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about our “inner smile” too. I love his little verse:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

Everything is inner, everything is inside of us. We need to tap into our inner power, our inner smile. When we do that we actually strengthen our inner resources and it has an effect on our immediate environment. When we are truly happy deep inside, we can find value in anything or anyone. Every day becomes a spring day regardless of the season. Each and every person has a right to be happy, but happiness often has to be won by fighting for it. One way to develop the kind of spirit that is never defeated by suffering is to smile.

I posted the lyrics to the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” in this post some time back. Now, here is the final scene from one of Chaplin’s greatest films, in which his most famous musical composition debuted:

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp walking off toward the horizon . . . this time with the girl . . . and smiling.


Thick As A Brick

A good overview here of where Western Buddhism is at these days. Personally, I find it refreshing to run across someone able to look at things objectively, without an axe to grind, and without rewriting history and/or trying to create a new –ism.

According to the Sunday Leader, “The U.S. and some Indian politicians believe now is the moment to publicly pressure Sri Lanka to address rights abuses committed by its military at the end of the country’s 26-year war against the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.” At the United Nations Human Rights Council to be held in Geneva next week, the U.S. is planning to introduce a resolution calling for Sri Lanka to “investigate and punish atrocities.”

Yankee Go Home!

This news prompted hundreds of Buddhist monks to protest in front of the U. S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday. An unidentified monk told reporters, “America is interfering in our country. There are 26,000 to 30,000 Buddhist monks throughout the country who are ready to take to the streets.” Yeah, right. The way I understand this is that ethnic Tamil lawmakers in Sri Lanka have urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to take up this matter. The U.S. is just acting on their behalf.

In the 26 year long civil war between the Theravada Buddhist-backed Sri Lankan government and the Tamil, there were human rights violations on both sides. In 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report that accused the Sri Lankan army of “slaughtering” and at the same time urged the Tamil Tigers to cease shooting civilians trapped in the war zone “who try to flee.” In other words, both sides have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Last year, the University of Massachusetts released the results of a study which showed that meditation produces positive changes in the brain (here). Now, Science Daily reports “Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.”

I can’t explain it, you’ll have to read for yourself, ‘cause I’m thick as a brick.

Just close your eyes and listen.


To Zen Or Not To Zen, That Is The Question

Today a quick roundup of some recent online new articles on the subject of Zen . . . only they don’t have much or anything to do with the form of Buddhism known as Zen. It’s just the word they’re using, as a marketing tool or attention-grabber.

Like this one, 6 Keys to Having a Zen Home Buying Experience. That sounds cool. Have a meditative, mindful experience buying a home . . . According to Tara-Nicholle Nelson,

Zen homebuyers are the ones who tend to start educating themselves months, even years, in advance by reading books, frequenting smart personal finance sites, visiting open houses, scouting neighborhoods, and asking questions on discussion boards frequented by experts and fellow consumers.”

Seriously, that seems like good advice. I know this author knows what she’s talking about,

I can vouch: minimizing your home buying time pressures will maximize your Zen.”

And that, of course, is what you want, to maximize your Zen.

Sometimes I wonder if these people even know what Zen is . . .

I love this one: Steven Seagal is dangerously Zen. He may be just dangerous. The byline reads: “Steven Seagal will laugh at a lawsuit, like he laughs at his enemies.” That’s right. You don’t want to mess with Tulkus who can kick your ass.

Actually, this article is a collection of photos with humorous captions. Here’s one of my favorites (caption-wise):

Steven Seagal speaking the international language of Zen, at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2003.

I wonder if Seagal knows about Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen? Apparently, “it doesn’t push the Vita too hard, but it does offer an engaging slice of old-school shadow-dancing” . . .Don’t you just hate it when the Vita is pushed too much . . .

Ever been curious about The Zen of Woody Allen?

Even funnier than Woody Allen is Zen Pencils, motivational quotes and poems illustrated with comic strip art.

This is another dangerous guy. I mean, we’re talking cupcakes here: The buff pastry buff: Spinning or baking, he is Zen.

Did you know that Fro.Zen.Yo is adding eight stores in DC region? Check it out.

I could go on and on. It never ends. There’s all kinds of Zen everywhere these days! Zen Bootcamp. Zen ski camps. Zentangle. Zen Pinball. Zen Table. ZEN software. And, of course, Zen Bicycles.

I tell ya, Zen is popping out all over! It’s all just so . . . Zenful! The only problem is there’s so much, how can anyone Zen it all? It’s a quandary, all right. I guess all we can do is to keep trying to get our Zen on and hope for the best . . .

In the meantime, Zen this:

This photo proudly has nothing whatsoever to do with Zen.

A Monk’s Verses

Here’s a little poem I wrote some years ago about Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It’s from a monk’s point of view, perhaps a T’ien-t’ai monk sitting in the meditation hall at Hsiu Ch’an monastery on Celestial Terrace Mountain, perhaps performing the ch’ing Kuan Yin Repentance, a structured practice developed by master Chih-i . . .

A Monk’s Verses

ocean so close, hear waves
by temple door, listen crickets
west wind feel rain
bodhisattva, please feel heart

lovely Kuan Yin, how pure
how can I know your way?
single-mindedly I yearn
to fulfill your wisdom mind

great vow monk makes
to rescue every living being
to Kuan Yin I dedicate
the sweat on my prayer beads

east sky, sun rise
pause meditation
kuan, kuan, cry eagles
singing Kuan Yin’s song