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Gino Foti - Zen Circles

Gino Foti - Zen Circles Track Listing
  • Maggavagga (4:58)
  • The Little Stream (2:24)
  • Sumedha (5:30)
  • Suizen (4:48)
  • Nagavagga (4:03)
  • Cultivating An Invincible Core (3:02)
  • Praise The Jewel In The Lotus (7:10)
  • Mushi-dokugo (2:24)
  • Nirayavagga (3:56)
  • A Sense Of Liberation (5:10)
  • The Indestructible Hand Of Buddha (3:20)
  • Return To The Little Stream (3:57)
  • Sahassavagga (4:05)
  • Jinshin Inga (3:50)
  • Prajna Khadga (4:45)
  • Jaravagga (2:54)


Gino Foti - Bass Guitar, MIDI Bass Guitar, Keyboards, Synthesizers, Loops & Samples, Spoken Word on Dhammapada Suite, Additional Vocals on Sumedha

Original verses from the Dhammapada attributed to Gautama Buddha


"Harmonizing opposites by going back to their source is the distinctive quality of the Zen attitude, the Middle Way: embracing contradictions, making a synthesis of them, achieving balance." ~ Taisen Deshimaru

While watching a program about the art of Japanese calligraphy, I became intrigued with the ensō - the sacred circular symbol often used in Zen Buddhism.

The myriad things it can symbolize, including: the artist's frame of mind at the moment of creation, the acceptance of imperfection as a manifestation of perfection, and the cyclical nature of existence, made it an excellent concept for a world fusion album - especially for someone who uses as many eclectic influences and ethnic audio loops as I do.

In my folder of potential compositions there were various Buddhist chants & mantras, leftover from my Bhavachakra release, and I immediately focused on the ones dedicated to the Rigsum Gonpo, or Lords of the Three Families, referring to the trinity of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani, who symbolically represent the compassion, wisdom, and discipline of all Buddhas - past, present, and future.

As I began working on the two suites above, I was also re-reading some ancient texts for inspiration, and thought that recording some spoken word pieces, backed with music, would make an interesting addition. The obvious choice was to use the Dhammapada, whose verses are directly attributed to Gautama Buddha.

After experimenting with various numbers of tracks for each suite, as well as the overall project, I settled on sixteen, which conceptually represents the Bodhisattva Precepts, an essential part of Zen practice.

Composition Notes

Dhammapada - Part I: Maggavagga (The Path)

"Children, parents, and relatives are not a protection. For someone seized by death, relatives are no protection. Knowing this, the wise person, restrained by virtue, should quickly clear the path to Nirvana." ~ Gautama Buddha

The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings in verse form, attributed to Gautama Buddha, and arguably one of the best known and widely read Buddhist scriptures. The 423 verses, divided into 26 chapters, contain the fundamental principles of his teachings, beginning with the observation that everything we are is a direct result of our thoughts.

In the fifth century, the commentator Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa provided explanations for these verses, including their context within each occasion in the life of Buddha and his close disciples.

Although Maggavagga appears as the twentieth chapter in the book, it provides an excellent introduction to the foundational precepts of: shunning of passions, detachment from suffering, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path - itself, the fourth of the Noble Truths.

The synth-based background to the spoken word track is actually a leftover submix from the Bhavachakra sessions, that I pitch-shifted and time-stretched to fit better with the running time of this track.

Ensō - Part I: The Little Stream

"Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent
The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism."
~ Ryokan, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf

The traditional ensō is a symbol of a brief moment in time when the artist, with a free mind, allows their spirit to create through their physical body a zen circle. There are infinite possibilities and variations available, for example: where the circle begins and ends on the canvas, brushstroke(s), ink tone(s), type of ensō, type of shape, etc., making them a pure expression of individuality, besides their spiritual significance.

Musically, I chose a solo piano composition backed by a field recording of a stream near a Zen temple, in Kyoto, Japan that I discovered through an online search.

The title was inspired by the Buddhist term sotāpanna, or "stream-enterer", the first of the four stages of enlightenment, named after a metaphor which visualizes the Eightfold Path as a stream which leads directly to the vast ocean of Nirvana.

Bosatsu - Part I: Sumedha

Bosatsu is the Japanese translation for Bodhisattva, a being whose Buddhahood is assured, but they renounce it - temporarily - to help other sentient beings achieve salvation.

According to tradition, the bodhisattva Sumedha was the beginning of the spiritual journey that led to Gautama, in which he meets a previous Buddha called Dipankara. This encounter between present and future Buddhas is the oldest story known dealing with the path of a bodhisattva, with its moral of pure selflessness.

There are a few variations to this story, but they all agree that Sumedha, a rich Brahmin turned hermit, kneels before Dipankara, and lays his long black hair along a puddle of mud, in an act of piety.

Dipankara then reveals to Sumedha his prophecy: "In the ages of the future, you will come to be a Buddha called Shakyamuni [...] Freed from human existence, you will become an effective teacher, for the sake of the world [...] Born among the Shakyas, as the epitome of the Triple World, the Lamp of all Beings, you will be known as Gautama."

Besides the lead vocals/mantra to Gautama, this composition features bass guitar, hand percussion, synth arpeggios, keyboards ornamentation, background vocals, and temple flute audio loops leftover from the Bhavachakra sessions.

Ensō - Part II: Suizen

"Look upon the body as unreal,
an image in a mirror,
the reflection of the moon in water.
Contemplate the mind as formless,
yet bright and pure.

Not a single thought arising,
empty, yet perceptive;
still, yet illuminating;
complete like the great emptiness,
containing all that is wonderful."
~ Han Shan Te'-Ch'ing

Suizen is a Zen practice by monks who play the shakuhachi - a Japanese end-blown flute, traditionally made of bamboo - as a means of attaining self-realization. In the Fuke sect, these monks were called komuso, or "emptiness monks", known for wearing a tengai, a straw basket on their head, symbolizing the absence of ego.

This arrangement is obviously centered around a shakuhachi solo, with synthesizers adding background ambiance.

Dhammapada - Part II: Nagavagga (The Elephant)

"There is no companionship with a fool. It is better to go alone. Travel alone, at ease, doing no evil [...]" ~ Gautama Buddha

Nagavagga is the twenty-third chapter of the Dhammapada, with Buddha using an elephant as a metaphor to teach the wisdom of restraint, and why leading a solitary life is also commendable.

It also provides Buddha's answers to one of life's eternal questions: "What is happiness?"

The backing track to the spoken word features elephant bells with two different effect chains: one to highlight their beautiful natural tones, the other to provide a shimmering effect through their rich overtones.

Ensō - Part III: Cultivating An Invincible Core

"Nothing can match the strength of those whose lives have been shaped and forged through challenging and overcoming hardships. Such people fear nothing. The purpose of our Buddhist practice is to develop such strength and fortitude. To cultivate such an invincible core is in itself a victory. It is also the greatest benefit. Those who can succeed in this endeavor will savor unsurpassed happiness; they can manifest the supreme state of Buddhahood." ~ Diasaku Ikeda

Inspired by the wheel ensō - one of the seven primary types - representing movement, with everything subject to change, and all life revolving in circles, this composition is a duet of bass guitar and guqin (aka guchin, or qixianqin)

The guqin, literally "ancient stringed instrument", is a plucked seven-string Chinese zither, which has been associated with the philosopher Confucius, who is said to have been a master of the instrument. It is sometimes referred to by the Chinese as "the father of music", or "the instrument of the sages".

Its scale and tonal structure is derived from fundamental physics, based on the laws of vibration and harmonic overtone positions, with the most common tuning a pentatonic scale called zheng diao.

I decided to do something a bit different by adding a bass guitar solo section in 6/8, contrasting the others in common time, that also ventures outside the pentatonic scale, on a few measures.

Bosatsu - Part II: Praise The Jewel In The Lotus

The title is a basic translation of the six syllable mantra of compassion, om mani padme hum, which is built around one name of Avalokiteshvara - the "All-Seeing Lord" - between two sacred syllables, om and hum.

The mantra invokes the bodhisattva of compassion, usually depicted with four arms representing the "four immeasurables", and also known as: Chenrezig in Tibet, Guanyin in China, and Kannon in Japan.

Each of the syllables has a specific meaning and significance, and depending on its usage and interpretation, they can symbolize or correspond to: the six realms of existence, the six paramitas - or transcendental perfections - the six wisdoms, attributes or qualities of all Buddhas, purifying effects, and even colors - white, green, yellow, blue, red, and black.

It is said that when this mantra is recited, with proper mindfulness and understanding, that all sufferings will dissolve.

This composition features bass guitar, piano, hand percussion, classical strings, and keyboards, in addition to the lead and backing female vocals. I began with two different ideas, and eventually decided to merge them into one long arrangement.

Ensō - Part IV: Mushi-dokugo

"Always working alone, always walking alone,
The enlightened one walks the free way of Nirvana
With melody that is old and clear in spirit
And naturally elegant in style,
But with body that is tough and bony,
Passing unnoticed in the world."
~ Yoka Genkaku, Shodoka

The title, also referred to as jigo-jisho - self-enlightened, or self-certified - is a Japanese term that Zen Buddhists use to express the phenomenon known as "awakening alone, without a master".

Another solo piano piece, this time a blend of composition and improvisation, mostly inspired by Chinese and Japanese folk music.

Dhammapada - Part III: Nirayavagga (Hell)

"A foul deed is best not done. The foul deed torments one later. A good deed is best done, for having done it, one has no regret." ~ Gautama Buddha

Nirayavagga, the twenty-second chapter of the book, deals with the concept of Hell in Buddhism, and provides a glimpse of what happens to liars, adulterers, people with false beliefs, and even monks with evil dispositions when they "go to a bad rebirth".

The realm of hell beings includes a lifetime of indescribable torment and relentless pain. It has been written that the greatest suffering in the human realm cannot serve even as a remote example of the slightest agony in this one. With limited opportunities for good actions, it is very difficult to escape. Tradition has it that a life here may extend over many aeons, perhaps corresponding to the well-known human experience of "time dragging on" when we are suffering.

Given the subject matter, the complex synth bed underneath the verses is more textural and darker than the others of this suite.

Ensō - Part V: A Sense Of Liberation

"If you can smash through a single thought,
Then all deluded thinking will suddenly be stripped off.
You will feel
Like a flower in the sky that casts no shadows,
Like a bright sun emitting boundless light,
Like a limpid pond, transparent and clear.
After experiencing this,
There will be immeasurable feelings of light and ease,
And a sense of liberation.
There is nothing marvelous or extraordinary about it.
Do not rejoice and wallow in this ravishing experience.
If you do, then the Mara of Joy will possess you."
~ Han Shan Te'-Ch'ing

This composition is based around a circular/repeating chord progression, with different instruments providing both theme and melodic/harmonic variations, including: bass guitar, synthesizers, acoustic guitar, and keyboards.

Bosatsu - Part III: The Indestructible Hand Of Buddha

"Condensed within you alone,
Is the power and strength of all the Buddhas.
Manifesting in the wrathful form of the enlightened Vajra,
I pay homage to you Vajra Vidarana, the Subduer."
~ Vajravidarana Sutra

This composition is centered around another duet, this time coupling bass guitar with male vocals repeating a mantra to Vajrapani (or Shukongoshin in Japan), the "indestructible hand" who protects Gautama Buddha by defeating The Three Poisons (or The Three Fires) - delusion (or ignorance), greed (or lust), and hatred (or anger).

Vajrapani is an equal to Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri, as all "Three Great Bodhisattvas" are needed on the path to enlightenment. The power and strength (read as: discipline) of Vajrapani balances the compassion of Avalokiteshvara and the wisdom of Manjushri to help overcome the three poisons.

Ensō - Part VI: Return To The Little Stream

"Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me."
~ The Ten Bulls of Zen, 6. Riding the Bull Home

Originally a creation of the Taoist tradition, the Ten Bulls of Zen (or the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures of Zen), are a metaphor for the stages of self-realization using a herder - representing the seeker/separate self, and an bull/ox - to represent our true, primordial nature, with the entire sequence being one of the best models for describing the awakening process, or path to enlightenment.

The arrangement begins with a temple flute and hand percussion, over a different clip of the mountain stream from the second track, leading into sections featuring melodic interplay between three blended instruments, whose primary sounds are: yangchin, or yang qin - a Chinese dulcimer; erhu - a two-stringed Chinese spike fiddle; and a cello.

Dhammapada - Part IV: Sahassavagga (The Thousands)

"Better than reciting a hundred meaningless verses, is one line of Dharma, which having been heard, brings peace." ~ Gautama Buddha

Sahassavagga is the eighth chapter of the Dhammapada, that teaches all the benefits of self-conquest by following the Eightfold Path, as opposed to being led to all sorts of confusion, delusion, disappointment, or distracting experiences through "meaningless" paths.

A slowly-evolving soundscape, performed on keyboards and MIDI bass guitar, backs the eloquent words of the Buddha.

Ensō - Part VII: Jinshin Inga

"For such as, reflecting within themselves,
Testify to the truth of Self-nature,
To the truth that Self-nature is no-nature,
They have really gone beyond the ken of sophistry.
For them opens the gate of the oneness of cause and effect,
And straight runs the path of non-duality and non-trinity.
Abiding with the not-particular which is in particulars,
Whether going or returning, they remain for ever unmoved;
Taking hold of the not-thought which lies in thoughts,
In every act of theirs they hear the voice of the truth."
~ Hakuin Ekaku Zenji, Song of Meditation, Manual of Zen Buddhism

The title translates to "Deep Belief In Cause And Effect", or "The Absolute Certainty Of Cause And Effect", from a discourse by Buddhist priest Dōgen Zenji, founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, who is also renowned for his essays, poems, and various other literary works.

This arrangement is an effects-laden duet, featuring electric guitar and bass guitar in a call-and-response format, obviously symbolizing cause-and-effect, or the process of paṭicca-samuppāda - usually translated as "dependent origination", or "co-dependent origination", or even "causal interdependence" - whose twelve links I previously covered musically on Bhavachakra.

Each instrument plays four notes representing the Brahmaviharas, or abodes of Brahma, also known as "The Four Immeasurables" - the primary Buddhist virtues of: metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha - which can be translated as: benevolence, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.

Bosatsu - Part IV: Prajna Khadga

"The sword of prajna has two sharp sides, not just one. It's a double-bladed sword, sharp on both sides, so when you make a stroke of prajna it cuts two ways. When you cut through deception, you are also cutting through the ego's taking credit for that. You're left nowhere, more or less." ~ Judy Lief, The Sharp Sword of Prajna

The title refers to the double-edged sword of wisdom, wielded by Manjushri (Muihoku, or Monju Bosatsu in Japan), which is capable of destroying the darkness of ignorance through the luminous rays emanating from its blades.

Regarded as the "crown prince" of Buddhist teachings, meaning the one who can best explain the wisdom behind them all, he earned this title as the instructor to seven different Buddhas, including Shakyamuni/Gautama, as well as several bodhisattvas who were taught, transformed, and saved by him, according to Mahayana literature.

Manjushri is said to have a "gentle, melodious voice", with some Buddhist scholars associating him with Pancasikha, a heavenly musician.

This composition features similar instrumentation to Sumedha, again including some leftovers from the Bhavachakra sessions, and a synth-based "melodious" lead vocal section.

Dhammapada - Part V: Jaravagga (Old Age)

"Why the laughter? Why the joy, when flames are ever burning? Surrounded by darkness, shouldn't you search for light?" ~ Gautama Buddha

Jaravagga is the eleventh chapter of the book, best known for containing the words Buddha spoke upon enlightenment, under the Bodhi tree:

"House-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house (body) again.
All the rafters
(passions) are broken, the ridgepole (ignorance) is destroyed.
The mind, gone to the Unconstructed;
has reached the end of craving."

This chapter is an earnest teaching on the Three Marks of Existence: anatta, anicca, and dukkha, referring to: impermanence, non-self, and dissatisfaction, with the latter understood as another term for suffering, and sometimes even Nirvana.

Instead of using music as a background, I opted for a public-domain file of the Heart Sutra, recorded inside one of the Shingon temples in Kōyasan (Mount Kōya), Japan.

The Heart Sutra is highly significant to the Shingon school, as well as one of the most famous sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. Its Sanskrit title,Prajñápáramitá, translates to "The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom", regarded as the ultimate presentation of profound wisdom on the nature of emptiness.

Also, the ensō is regarded as a visual manifestation of the Heart Sutra, which works conceptually with the other tracks. There are many translations of this sutra, with slight variations:

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep Prajña Paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.
Oh Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.
Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are likewise like this.
Oh Shariputra, all Dharmas are forms of emptiness:
Not born, not destroyed; not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain.
So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness.
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena.
No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness; no ignorance and no end to ignorance,
No old age and death, no end to old age and death,
No suffering , no cause of suffering, no extinguishing,
no path, no wisdom and no gain.
No gain and thus the Bodhisattva lives Prajña Paramita,
With no hindrance in the mind.
No hindrance, therefore no fear.
Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is Nirvana.
All past, present, and future (In the three worlds) Buddhas live Prajña Paramita.
And therefore attain Añutara-Samyak-Sambodhi.
Therefore know Prajña Paramita is the great mantra,
The vivid mantra, the best mantra, the unsurpassable mantra.
It completely clears all pain.
This is the truth not a lie.
So set forth the Prajña Paramita mantra,
Set forth this mantra and say:
Gate Gate Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha! Prajna Heart Sutra!

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