John Tarrant talks meditation with Michael Sierchio
Methods are perhaps infinite in number. I’ve heard Tibetans speak of meditation methods as an antidote to the suffering of the world. After which they think you need an antidote to the antidote, and so on. Koans do this back and forth process more or less all at once by throwing sickness and medicine into the same bucket.
I met Michael Sierchio in Hawaii. He had had one of those meditation experiences that are hard to explain because they are about meeting the world, and seeing a luminosity in common things. That seemed to be in the Zen category and Michael had flown out to see Robert Aitken to talk about it. The flaw in this approach was that Robert Aitken, although he taught Zen and had wide scholarly interests, didn’t talk about meditation or indeed anything that might have an emotional tone, and if you did try to move in that direction, you came away feeling that you had fallen into paths of error.
However I was curious about things that happened in the mind, so Sierchio and I kept in touch over the years and I heard stories of his first Chan teacher, Deh Chun.
Michael Sierchio: Deh Chun was a Chan monk who had come to Tennessee to paint and meditate and avoid students. But he had landed near the University of the South where I was studying math and linguistics.
At the time, I’d read some instructions in a book about concentrating on my breath, and asking myself a koan question, and I meditated. I was part of a little three person Sangha. I would ask Deh Chun, “Teach me how to meditate,” and he would just let me follow him around. I was not really aware that this was a teaching, and pestered him so I could improve my technique. And I tried to talk to him about things I was experiencing either somatically or emotionally or about insights I was having. Ask what they were.
Eventually Deh Chun said, “There’s a music festival on the mountain right now, there are a lot of pianos and piano players, you should learn how to tune a piano.” This made no sense to me. I had no idea of the Chinese concept of learning, of having it come from the inside and from felt experience.
But he repeated the suggestion and so I asked around and found someone overworked and willing to show me the ropes. He had developed techniques for tempering the piano. Because of the octave system you couldn’t just run up and down the scale.
Some notes had three or four strings attached to them and to complicate matters further the box is under tension. So if you tighten one string you change the shape of the box very subtly and change the waves coming from the other strings. This seemed to be the important thing.
There were other subtleties such as if you hold the key down you get a warble, a sostenuto, and according to the pianist you might or might not want to eliminate that. Also some pianos can’t be tuned.
JT: So that was Deh Chun’s meditation instruction.
MS: Well there’s no way to make an effect without a side effect and probably this is what Deh Chun was pointing out.
It was the opposite of turning mindfulness into how to be more effective in your business and attract prosperity. I took it as a teaching of wu wei – any effort in any direction is going to make ripples.
There’s also an invitation to play in Deh Chun’s request, a Chinese style koan: when Deh Chun was asked for meditation instruction he told the student to tune a piano. What did he want them to learn?
Even with intelligent explanations such as things having ripple effects we haven’t yet entered reality. Piano tuning is an action complete in itself, the way the universe is complete, even though, as Michael found, some pianos can’t be tuned. – JT
Tuning the Lambo
MS: I had just left a job in Sunnyvale with Atari, had time on my hands and was sitting in the Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley in 1982 when a girl pulled up in a yellow 1971 Lamborghini Miura SV, an outrageous car. She came in and sat down and we were introduced. She was Persian and her name was Elahe. She had a pair of Angora goats as well. She couldn’t find a mechanic to tune the car so I became her mechanic and her boyfriend. The engine was the first transverse mounted V12. It had four carburetors with 3 barrels each.
When you changed the speed or mixture on one carburetor you would change the others. It was comparable to changing the pitch on the piano. I had never tuned a machine like that before but years earlier had tuned those pianos.
My girlfriend let me drive the car occasionally and it was so low you would bottom out in certain driveways in the East Bay and hang there with all four wheels off the ground.