Mahler’s Guts, Beethoven’s Ninth, Seung Sahn’s 365

In Zen tradition, it is said that transmission happens when “You can stand on your teacher’s head.” This means, you have attained penetration of the heart of practice, and its expedient means of teaching, such that you actually move your Teacher’s expression forward. While enlightenment itself cannot “move” forward or backward, cannot increase or decrease, since epochs change — and with them, the thinking-minds of a new generation of practitioners and sufferers — it is often important that even the most sacrosanct teaching expression be updated to match the abilities and capacities of sentient beings.

Tonight, after evening chanting and meditation practice, for our one-month Kyol Che Dharma talk, I experienced a livestream performance, from Vienna, of Gustav Mahler’s re-orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I was donated the 9 EUR fee and sat down to hear a symphony that I have already heard many times, yet this time through Mahler’s daring interpretation. Mahler added a few horns, and changed the accents in several places in this, the first musical score ever accorded UNESCO World Heritage status (the Memory of the World Programme Heritage list established by United Nations), and the official anthem of the European Union, one of the most recognised and pieces of music of all time.

The performance positively blew me out of the water. It was like hearing the symphony for the first time.

But a reorchestration of one of the most recognised musical experiences of all human history? Who would do such a thing? What audacity! What _ _ _ _ _ [guts]!

At any time and by any person, Mahler’s re-orchestration would be considered to be heretical. This was especially true because Mahler was a modernist/classicist Jew from the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, putting his dirty fingers into the beating heart of one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of Germanic civilisation, in any genre! How could he possibly do this? Possibly, it was Wagner’s own re-orchestration of the symphony, some several decades before Mahler, that paved the way for this unspeakable atrocity to be tolerated.

Mahler’s point was not that Beethoven’s music “lacked” anything. Rather, in the years since Beethoven had written this genre-shattering super-work, and overseen its premier as a man completely deaf — in other words, as a man who could never hear its actualisation, in space, with real instruments — concert hall spaces had changed. Larger and larger symphony halls and opera houses were being constructed all over Europe. Instruments, too, had even been redesigned and re-engineered, as new technologies made them have newer sounds and newer capacities of expression not imagined of in Beethoven’s day.

“This applied most often to the trumpet and horn parts, where improvements in the instrumental design since Beethoven’s time made new notes available.” (“Mahler and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Denis McCaldin)

Mahler’s grand expansion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony employs an extra 4 horns and an extra set of Timpani, revoicing many passages of the venerable masterpiece. Mahler adds occasional counter-melodies and thickens the scoring in order to create his own heightened dynamic scale. Of his own performances of this re-scoring, Mahler wrote: “Far from following any arbitrary purpose or course, but also without allowing himself to be led astray by tradition, (this conductor) was constantly and solely concerned with carrying out Beethoven’s wishes in their minutest detail, and ensuring that nothing the master intended should be sacrificed or drowned out amid the general confusion of sound.”


When the symphony concluded, I was left speechless.

The next day, I was reflective, about Mahler’s verve to “advance” Beethoven’s almost god-like expression to yet another level of transmission. And it made me reflect naturally on the rights of disciples to “touch” the work of recognised masters. In this case, it was not long before I reflected on matters of my own tutelage in Zen under Zen Master Seung Sahn. It has been seen as somewhat heretical, in some quarters, that I have “re-tuned” aspects of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings. I eliminated the blind and slavish reliance on kong-an practice, have cut some of the long, practice-destroying chanting from the program (Morning Bell Chant in the mornings, Special Chanting in the evenings), and even re-invented the four-bowl formal meal silent-eating style into something simpler yet far more impactful. I have emphasised, more than anything else, a greater intervention in the meditation practice of the people who practice with me, to “nudge” their meditation into realisations that have been real and substantial, and life-altering.

Yet this has not come without a sort of cost (however light, even ephemeral it might be, but worth noting for sake of the moment): My refinement of some of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teaching technologies has seemed, to some, to be a too-radical and disrespectful treatment of some of my Teacher’s core retreat technologies (especially chucking the kong-an practice out the window, which is the equivalent of having the Catholic Mass while disemboweling out the whole bread-and-wine thing, and tossing the Virgin birth mythology, too).

Yet times have changed. When Dae Soen Sa Nim was actively teaching, there was not the intensely distracted mind of the smartphone era. The default-mode levels of distraction which he encountered in human society had not been ramped up so madly as they are today. As with Beethoven, we live now in a time of re-engineered spaces for the meditation experience to be transmitted, and the instruments have changed. So, too, must some of the teaching methodologies. In the Kwan Um School of Zen bureaucratisation of Dharma which remains in his wake, there is zero possibility to make the subtle changes to transmitting his Dharma that are required. It is one of the main reasons why I left, in 2010.

But I look to Mahler’s guts for inspiration. As he famously said once, “Tradition is not the preservation of ashes, but to pass on the fire.” All I have attempted to do — and will strive relentlessly to emphasise — is the “fire” of this primary “don’t-know” point, through whatever means necessary.

I remember once when we were having the morning kong-an reading and Q&A sessions with Dae Soen Sa Nim at Hwa Gye Sah during his last years with us. We came upon the poem “25 O’clock,” and it was some dialogue with his own Teacher, Ko Bong Sunim. It pointed to a style of kong-an and a possible world of “replying” that seemed so completely out of line with Dae Soen Sa Nim’s own “like-this” and “just-like-this” emphases. I asked him about this: “Sir, this style kong-an doesn’t reflect your teaching points. Also, we never use this kong-an. No teacher has ever used this kong-an with me, and I have heard of no fellow monk or nun who has ever needed to work with this? What’s that all about?”

And his answer was something to the effect of: “Yah, that’s old style kong-an. My Teacher use this old style kong-an. Not our teaching-style.” I really admire him for the courage he had to respond that way: He was forthrightly acknowledging that the tools and technologies of his own Teacher were not things he would use with his own students — us! None of us had ever encountered this kong-an in our study!

But that was him, like Mahler. He did not care to merely pass down his Teacher’s dead ashes. Dae Soen Sa Nim took risks to pass down the fire, the true “bone” of tradition. This was something very impressive about him. And though it is not something consciously attempting to “innovate” or “stand out”, on my part, to adapt his expressions to an era of distraction he did not live long enough to see, I feel confident that, were he to meet the students who wake up together through use of the tools he entrusted me to employ, he would definitely concur and even celebrate having this guy from New Jersey, standing right on his head.

Share this on:

Related Posts: