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Buddhist Study

Prepare to Improvise

Illustration by proksima / Getty Images.

Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment,” writes legendary pianist Herbie Hancock. “It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.”[2]

Improvisation is the trademark of jazz. In a band, musicians play what’s in their hearts while responding to their bandmates’ creative expressions.

Performing dynamic music on the spur of the moment requires rigorous practice and extensive preparation. Musicians practice their scales and various riffs, master each tune and learn from musicians they admire. As celebrated author Mark Twain said, “I … never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.”[3]

Once onstage, performers must be in sync with what others play and the overall atmosphere. They must be ready to switch up their plans or find new ways to contribute. Confidence comes down to fortifying their spirit. 

The late esteemed saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter says of improvisation: 

Not knowing what is going to happen is what improvisation is all about. There is an element of the fear of the unknown, the fear of something different or the fear of being outside your comfort zone. …

Onstage, it’s something like being vulnerable—we forget music lessons. We want to depict moments of struggle—to have the audience see us struggling and then breaking out of those moments and creating victory, reaching for something that transcends the temporariness and unpredictability of life. Tragedy is temporary. But the mission is constant. Playing jazz gives us the courage to challenge and conquer difficulties, even under unexpected circumstances.[4]

Jazz improvisation is like a dialogue between performer and audience and among musicians. For example, if you think only about what to play next, you may get out of sync with the rest of the band. Improvisation necessitates listening with the same intensity as playing.

In line with the musical dialogue of improvisation, having conversations that foster mutual understanding and respect entails similar efforts and skill.

Ikeda Sensei engaged in in-depth discussions with some 1,600 individuals in various fields, including British historian Arnold J. Toynbee; the first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela; and the mother of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks. 

No matter with whom he spoke, he always prepared diligently. In his discussions with Hancock and Shorter, Sensei said: 

Right now, at each moment, we can demonstrate wisdom and power brimming with joy. At the same time, one needs intense training and practice to cultivate the ability to improvise successfully. Leading up to a dialogue like this, I carefully study about my partner or partners—both out of respect for them and as an expression of my sincere desire for meaningful exchange.

After this preparation, the dialogue itself is a matter of playing it by ear. Once a dialogue or musical performance begins, each unfolding moment requires absolute concentration. Buddhism emphasizes the “wisdom of the truth that functions in accordance with changing circumstances.”[5] Making use of this wisdom, one strives to create the greatest value possible. This is the marvel of improvisation.[6]

Our determination and efforts to create the greatest possible value in each situation are vital not only to musical improvisation but to our interpersonal dialogues and even life itself. Whether the tune of life is upbeat or down, by making our Buddhist faith our foundation, we will develop the improvisational skills to create harmony and peace wherever we are.

—Prepared by the SGI-USA Study Department

May 17, 2024, World Tribune, p. 10


  1. “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 376. ↩︎
  2. Herbie Hancock and Lisa Dickey, Possibilities (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 2.  ↩︎
  3. Mark Twain, Mark Twain Speaking, edited by Paul Fatout (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1976), p. 130. ↩︎
  4. Reaching Beyond: Improvisations on Jazz, Buddhism, and a Joyful Life, p. 10. ↩︎
  5. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, p. 177. ↩︎
  6. Reaching Beyond, pp. 3–4. ↩︎

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