By Sensei Alex Kakuyo
I discovered Blues music when I was 10 years old.
I was at my maternal grandmother’s house, watching TV when a movie called the Blues Brothers came on the screen. The premise of the movie is fairly simple—two brothers, Elwood and ‘Joliet’ Jake, are on a mission from God to raise money to save the orphanage where they grew up.
Along the way, they travel the country getting their old Blues band together. The movie featured cameos from the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I knew I was in love. The sounds coming out of the TV had me “shaking my tail feather” and dancing all over my grandmother’s couch, which was strictly forbidden.
Later, it took a bit of explaining when 10-year old me told her that I liked “Blues Brothers music.” But when she finally understood what I was talking about, she laughed; warning me that I was too young to know anything about the Blues. Naturally, that just made me like them more.
As I got older, artists like B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Mighty Sam McClain kept me company through final exams, road trips and evenings out with friends.
I started to understand my grandmother’s words. Blues music is beautiful to listen to, but that beauty is rooted in pain. And I had to grow up. I had to experience the pain of broken hearts, shattered dreams and empty bank accounts before I could appreciate what I was hearing.
When my girlfriend left me for another man, it was Gary Coleman’s, The Sky is Crying, that got me through. I was a strong, capable Marine. I wasn’t allowed to feel pain, and I wasn’t allowed to cry. So, that song cried for me. It cried every night until my heart finally healed.
When I was an over-educated, unemployed 20-something, it was Muddy Water’s, Mannish Boy that kept me company. When I couldn’t stand on my own two feet, that song stood for me. It stood up for me every day, protecting me from fear and self-doubt. So much pain, so much great music, and we can’t have one without the other. Similarly, we can’t have enlightenment without suffering
That’s why I like to picture Buddha not as a sage beneath the Bodhi tree, but as a bluesman sitting in a smoke-filled bar. We come to him with our problems, and he sings the blues in response.
“Meditate,” he sings; strumming his guitar. “Chant,” he whispers, tapping his foot to the beat. And as the Buddha takes a long, slow drag on his cigar, we sink deeper into our chairs, letting the words drift over us like Dharmic smoke.
Night after night we come back to hear him sing, and night after night he plays the same soothing songs. He doesn’t take our pain away; that would be unkind. Instead, he teaches us how to work with it, how to make it part of our practice.
Each time he steps on stage, Bluesman Buddha reminds us that life is suffering, and that’s okay. Because suffering is the sheet music for our melody, and life is the microphone for our song. He shows us that we can take our pain and change it into something good.
We can take our misery and learn to play the Blues.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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