If you seek an exalted state of mind and being, there is nothing the banjo can offer that you can't get from playing cello, fixing a motorcycle, or bottling pickles. Rev. Heng Sure sings of a monk who after years of disciplined spiritual practice finds awakening the moment his teacup falls to the ground. Others have found it while sweeping the floor or being struck by a bamboo rod. So when it comes to achieving enlightenment, the banjo must decline any place of privilege on the spiritual totem pole.
What the banjo can offer, through that simple, repetitive, clawhammer groove, is a tool for combining contemplation and action, a chance to practice grounding amidst frenzy. Once we internalize the "bum-ditty", we may begin to marvel as groove, chords, and melody emerge from this simplest of motions. We may then experience a form of engaged detachment and a sense of participation in something not only greater than the sum of its parts, but greater than ourselves.
In our Zen Banjo course, we encourage students to be aware of the dualistic tendency to master or conquer the instrument. With a focus on the breath, we can achieve a sense of oneness, or at least alliance, with our instrument, something often overlooked when we play music.
Above all, Zen is practical. "Enlightenment seekers make me sick," said Kakua in the 12th century. One must sweep, cook, eat, play, and live. In keeping with this earthly spirit, we devote most of our 34 chapters to the nitty-gritty mechanics of how to play clawhammer banjo, all the while reminding ourselves that the endeavor must be a mix of both method and mindfulness.
Zen Banjo may not be for everyone, but the humble drum-on-a-stick does have much to offer those seeking to bring a greater level of contemplation, mindfulness, and plain old fun into their lives.