Music and meditation go hand in hand at San Francisco Zen Center

In the public’s minds, Zen temples are probably most often envisioned as bastions of quietude and order. But the pioneers at San Francisco Zen Center—which just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary—see something more. They see a realm where statues of bodhisattvas can collude with sculptures made of sound.

Hence Zen Center’s adventurous musical programming which, more and more, is involving respected and unusual acts. (The anniversary celebration, too, incorporated sound and movement with a performance called Resounding Compassion; a performance by video artist Bill Viola is up next on November 9.)

So: how did all this come to be?

As SFZC Program Director David Zimmerman explains, a member of the local arts-and-events collective The Bold Italic began sitting at the Center and suggested that meditation and music programming might go hand in hand. It’s proven to be, as Zimmerman tells me, “a wonderful dharma-gate outside the traditional.”

Soon enough, the celebrated metallic drone duo Barn Owl (above) was performing at Zen Center’s dining hall, which was followed by August’s Soundwave Festival offerings featuring En and others. At these, sessions of guided meditation, kinhin (walking meditation), and chanting were undertaken by the audience, each leading directly into band performances. This made for one-of-a-kind shows, and the musicians appreciated the resulting heightened quality of presence among their audience. Zimmerman says the public can expect more such collaborations in the future.

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