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Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo: My Personal Experience

Updated on July 19, 2017
Tibetan Singing Bowl
Tibetan Singing Bowl | Source

Life is a Journey

As life is a journey, so is playing an instrument a journey. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced player, the relationship you have with your instrument goes through numerous hills and valleys. For many, Zen is a spiritual path, but it is also a way to deepen study on any subject or skill. The philosophy inside Zen can be applied to any aspect of your life.This is a review of the book Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo (1959-2002). Being a well seasoned guitarist himself, as well as a student of Zen, Sudo has been able to combine a Zen philosophy with the knowledge on how to learn the guitar. But don't be mistaken.This is not a step by step method book. It is more of a guide on how to stay focused and mindful as you develop your music skills. Disclaimer: I was a friend of Phil Sudo in the 1990s. I wrote this review on a more personal level while trying to keep my objectivity.

Martial Arts

Sudo starts his book with these two sentences, "Welcome to the Zen Guitar Dojo. Please leave the door open."

Throughout the book, he uses many metaphors. The imagery of wearing the white or black belt leads you to the proper mindset of humility and being open to hold an empty cup.

The Book on Amazon

Zen Guitar
Zen Guitar

Read the enthusiastic reviews and decide if this is the path you need to go.



Sudo uses quotes from well-known guitarists and musicians that help emphasize his points. For instance, there was a quote from Bruce Springsteen in which he says he views his shows as both the most important thing and also as just another rock and roll show. This is a good example of the concept of duality. All of Phil Sudo's suggestions and guidance in approaching the guitar seem to come back full circle to the idea of "one sound, one song." My explanation of the one sound, one song concept would be nowhere near as eloquent as the way he explains it in his book. Let's just say that in a nutshell, the idea is that we all have a song inside of us that wants to come out.

Sudo divides the book into units:

Beginner's Mind




The Way of Zen Guitar

The Responsibility unit is divided into segments:

Black Belt Head

Black Belt Hand

Black Belt Heart

Then these segments are divided into individual chapters such as Know One Thing, Conviction, and Balance.

The Traveling Zen Monks

He also uses Zen anecdotes throughout his writing. Many of these centuries old stories of the traveling Zen Monks bring the student further into understanding 'the way'.

Noticing the Footprints

Oxherding Picture (1 of a series) 15th Century by Zen Monk Shubun
Oxherding Picture (1 of a series) 15th Century by Zen Monk Shubun | Source

Personal Impressions

One of my favorite chapters is on follow-through starting on page 64. The metaphor is about how a good marathon runner doesn't thinking of running to the goal, but of running through and beyond the goal.

One of Phil Sudo's points that struck a chord with me was the idea of working hard using self-discipline but not self-denial. Many times we suffer for our art. If you practice hours and hours a day in the mindset of a martyr, then you have strayed far away from your path. Technically you may get better, but the spirit won't be there. It is your frame of mind while you are playing that is important. Know one thing, do it well one time, this time, now with all the emotion and heart you have and your soul will soar.The book is well crafted. It flows easily, but is laden with layers of meaning. You could read it several times and still get more out of it each time. While rereading the book for this review, that was the case for me. You can relate to this book whether or not you are a musician. Philip Toshio Sudo is the wonderful example of a person who *is still* on the path to finding his sound and finding his song. KM

Tokyo Mon Amour 1992


Left to right: Kim Milai drums, Phil Sudo guitar, Patrick Derivaz bass -photo

I met Phil while living in New York City and together with Patrick Derivaz we created a punk trio. After we disbanded we kept in contact. We still kept in contact after he moved with his family to Maui to write "Zen Guitar." I am so honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know Phil and to have played music with him.

Your Path

Have you ever read a book on how to combine Western life with the Zen philosophy?

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Comments, Questions

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    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      6 years ago

      @DrBillSmithWriter: Thank you so much, I'm honored for the blessing.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      6 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Personal experiences lenses rock! SquidAngel blessed, as well! ;-)

    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      6 years ago

      @Vikk Simmons: I agree!

    • Vikk Simmons profile image

      'Vikk Simmons 

      6 years ago from Houston

      Enjoyed your page. I like the metaphor of the runners who aim beyond the goal. Good to keep that in mind.

    • Kim Milai profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Milai 

      6 years ago

      @jim bruce guita: Thank you so much. This means a lot coming from a fellow musician.

    • jim bruce guita profile image

      jim bruce guita 

      6 years ago

      Lots of points that struck a chord with me, like how you can practice for hours and it still doesn't sound right some days, you're just too intense. Other days, it just comes naturally.CheersJim


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