Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Music and Spirituality by Dr. Ken Licata

People have associated music and spirituality for as long as we can tell. Some music has served to draw communities together in ritual celebration, some has served more private spiritual quests. In any case, music continues as a vibrant form of expression and a vehicle for all manner of seekers, despite the fact that there is no simple definition for either music or spirituality. Pity the poor essayist (in this case, me) who tries to intelligibly relate the two.

 For starters, let me address what makes music musical. Though we can commonly relate to the qualities of rhythm, melody and timbre, our cultural traditions have imposed various formats on their organization: scales and key signatures, songs with verses and choruses, fugues, ragas, rondos, tone rows and a zillion others. As the twentieth century developed, explorations of musical expression exceeded the traditional boundaries and led composer Edgard Varèse to expansively but simply define music as organized sound. That left room for more exotic pitch combinations and rhythms and for chance elements to become part of the fabric of music. More than once we’ve all heard (and maybe even spoken) the derisive question, “You call that music?” Well, yeah, I do. Even if it’s something I’d rather not listen to.

“Music continues as a vibrant form of expression and a vehicle for all manner of seekers, despite the fact that there is no simple definition for either music or spirituality.”

If music is difficult to pin down, spirituality is more so. For our purposes here, I’ll settle on the common thread that my own studies of religious outlooks around the world suggests: connection to a larger whole. The animism of Africa and the Americas, the monotheism of Judeo-Christendom, the dance of Shiva, the turning of the karmic wheel – all share the value of a unifying principle of existence.

Now, in what seems like a digression, let me review a bit of late nineteenth and early twentieth century physics. Wait, what? No need for white knuckles; this will be a gentler journey than you expect. In the late 1800’s, light (a kind of radiant energy) was recognized as a sort of vibration, a trembling of an electromagnetic field. Not long after, radio waves and microwaves and x-rays became understood as siblings to light, similar in nature but different in how fast the field jiggles. The speed of jiggling we call “frequency” and in the case of FM radio, it gives rise to the numbers we use to tune in a particular station. But, in a paper that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics, Einstein posited that light, at the smallest scales, also has properties that we associate with particles. And in his Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein recognized that matter, which we also associate with particles (atoms, electrons and such), is really a frozen kind of energy. His colleague, Max Planck, worked out that different amounts of energy are associated with different frequencies. Distilling out the key points here, we have energy described in terms of vibration and matter described as energy.

Two further ideas from this realm: 1) Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity showed that time, space, energy and gravity are all tied to each other and 2) Based on astronomical observation and measurement, everything in the universe traces back to a highly compressed and unified state about fourteen billion years ago. The bottom line here is that in the twentieth century, our conception of physical reality evolved to suggest that everything is connected and that material and energy are, at their heart, vibrations. This overarching unity of all existence is a physical fact and requires no supposition of supernatural forces to link things up. So, no matter what form your spiritual beliefs take, the interconnectedness of everything is there for you on a purely physical basis. The notion that science has arrived at a cosmic view that harmonizes with much of the ancient wisdom of our spiritual traditions is both ironic and satisfying.

OK, so let’s tie this package up. Sound is a kind of vibration that travels through lots of different materials. Unlike light, it requires a solid, liquid or gas to carry its vibrational energy. But, like light, it is a vibration. And we’ve seen that the universe itself is made of matter and energy that are also vibrations. Given that correspondence, I have come to see music as a celebratory form of organized vibrations that resonate with all the other vibrations that make up our reality. So, for me, music IS a kind of spirituality. Its rhythms and pitches represent a celebration that all of existence is vibration and so it was no accident that in opening this essay I described music as a “vibrant” form of expression and a vehicle. Its ability to influence our mental states brings home the basic fact that we ourselves are little collections of vibrating bits of the universe that have the ability to contemplate the whole of existence, and to sing about it, blow our horns, and bang our drums.

A native of Buffalo, New York Ken Licata received his Ph.D. in Science Education. He went on to be a science teacher and science education professor for over 30 years. An accomplished musician, Licata used his passion for music and science to touch the lives of thousands of students. Since retiring from teaching this rather humorous, spiritual character, can be seen performing with his band or on stage as a solo artist all over the Western New York area.

Meister Eckhart

 Although I am not a Christian, I find Meister Eckhart the 13th century Catholic monk, professor and mystic quite inspirational. This is a short bio from the Dominican Order. 

Bio Meister Eckhart

Johannes Eckhart was one of the greatest of Christian mystics. He was born at Hochheim in Thringen, Germany, in 1260, and entered the Dominican order when he was 15. Later he became a distinguished professor and taught at different universities.

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

- Meister Eckhart

Eckhart had a beautiful and powerful style which made him very popular in his own time. His writings also suggested a very close relationship between man and God. A relationship that seemed to bypass the church.

“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.”

- Meister Eckhart

Unfortunately this led to accusations of heresy. Eckhart defended himself by saying that he believed in the indivisibility of God. And he was merely expressing his experiences of his profound contemplation upon God. The public eminence of Eckhart protected him from any harm but after his death many of his works were condemned and suppressed.

Perhaps because of this he became a marginalised figure. However recently his works have attracted interest of God seekers both Christian and non Christian. Eckhart’s sayings speak with the authority of one who has experienced mystic union

” I AM can be spoken by no creature,

but by God alone.

I must become God and

God must become me, so completely that

we share the same “I” eternally.

Our truest “I” is God.

(From: The Wisdom of the Christian Mystics Ed T.Freke)

Also like other great mystics he uses the vividness of spiritual allegories to paradoxically point us to what lies beyond words. Eckhart also often mentions the importance of silence.

 ” In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity. “

Interestingly Eckhart uses language that exhorts the seeker to search for God within himself.

“God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.”

Meister Eckhart – Talks of Instruction

Since 1980 the Dominican Order have taken steps to reveal Meister Eckhart led an exemplary life and was a great Christian Mystic.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


A true practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism wants to Become enlightened like the Shakyamuni Buddha for the sake of all living beings. Tibetan Buddhism is a part of the Mahayana tradition and according to this tradition there are six practices to be cultivated in order to be able to reach

These practices are known as the six (transcendent) perfections, or the six paramitas. Some Buddhist teachings mention ten perfections in stead of six. 

The six perfections are: 

1. Generosity
2. Ethical discipline
3. Patience
4. Joyous effort
5. Concentration
6. Wisdom

The Six Perfections must be cultivated in order to become enlightened. Enlightenment is to become a buddha, an exalted being that has cut off the roots of ignorance and been released from cyclic existence. 

By practicing the first four perfections one generates discipline and harmony in physical and
verbal actions. According to the law of karma positive actions are necessary means in order to cultivate the fifth perfection, concentration, and harmony and stability in the mind. The practice of the first five perfections is to use skillful means and accumulate merit. Without wisdom, the sixth perfection, one will not be able to develop a buddha's exalted understanding of reality
and therefore enlightenment is impossible. 

The fourth, enthusiastic effort, is the indispensable support of all perfections. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Maha-Mangala Sutta: Blessings

The Buddha was living near Savatthi at Jetavana at Anathapindika's monastery and a very spiritual person said to him "Many deities and men longing for happiness have pondered on (the question of) blessings. Pray tell me what the highest blessings are.” This was the Buddha’s response: 

Non-association with fools, And association with wise men, Honor of respectworthy persons, This is the highest blessing.

Living in a civilized land, Having done good in the past, To set oneself in the right course, This is the highest blessing.

Great learning and skill at work, And well-practiced moral observances, Words which are well spoken, This is the highest blessing.

Taking care of father and mother, Caring for wife and children, And acting without confusion, This is the highest blessing.

Liberality and righteous conduct, The protection of relatives, Faultless actions, This is the highest blessing.

Complete abstention from evil, And abstention from drinking, And diligence in performing righteous acts , This is the highest blessing.

Reverence and humility, Contentment and gratitude, Timely hearing of the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) at the proper time, This is the highest blessing.

Patience and gentleness, Meeting with holy people, Discussion of Dharma at the right time, This is the highest blessing.

A mind unshaken by the worldly winds, sorrowless, pure, and full of peace, This is the highest blessing.

Those who act in this way Are undefeated in all circumstance And attain happiness everywhere, These are the highest blessings.