Veronza Bowers: In search of a sound – lessons from bamboo

Veronza Bowers, now 46 years in federal prison, survives and enables others to heal by blowing his beloved Shakuhachi bamboo flute. He writes about how he learned of its magical healing power: “A small piece of bamboo, 1-foot-8-inches long, had opened doorways which had previously been welded shut. Shakuhachi had done in one and a half hours what no human being had done in three years.”

by Veronza Bowers

In the spring of 1985, I was gifted with a beautiful wooden recorder from a friend from Lebanon. I immediately fell in love with its sound. That sound led me to the C-concert flute and a long horizontally held bamboo flute. I spent many hours each day blowing and learning.

In the evenings, because I lived in a single occupancy cell, I would practice softly blowing my bamboo. On the wall, I had a bigger than life-sized picture of the beautiful Winnie Mandela – just her face with those big pools of Black African Magic Woman’s eyes casting a spell on me.

I would just get lost in her eyes and blow ever so softly. From that blowing, a sweet melody was born and became a song with a jazz band and I called it “Ode To Winnie” – with lyrics. We entered a talent show and won first place and had to do an encore, to a standing ovation.

In 1987, I was transferred from USP Lompoc in California to a state prison in Washington and couldn’t take my instruments and found myself NEEDING TO BLOW. While thumbing through a Mother Jones magazine, I ran across an advertisement of a man who made bamboo flutes and Shakuhachi. Never having heard of Shakuhachi, I ordered a bamboo flute from Monty Levenson – and thus began a lifetime friendship.

Whoooaaa, the sound of breath sliding across bamboo was sooo much different from the sounds of my silver flute and wooden recorder. But in order to play it required that I spend a lot of time stretching my fingers wider apart to be able to cover the holes. I was too impatient for that, so I contacted Monty and told him that I wanted to exchange it for one of his student model Shakuhachi.

When my Shakuhachi arrived, I didn’t have a clue as to how to even produce a sound. I spent weeks trying to figure it out, blowing across each of the four holes on the top side of my 1-foot-8-inch piece of bamboo. THAT couldn’t be the way to make music with it. Then one day it was as though my Shakuhachi said, “Blow me like you used to blow soda pop bottles when you were a little boy.”

Ahhh, THAT was THE sound I’d been searching for! From that day on, the bamboo of the Shakuhachi became my teacher, my Sen-sei! I would blow for hours each day. I would blow one single note (one sound, if you will) and hold it for as long as I could, making it as whole and as beautiful and sweet as I could. With my eyes closed, I would watch and listen to that single note expand to its fullness and gradually fade into a haunting, yet as beautiful and sweet SILENCE.

Then, in 1990, I was transferred to USP Terre Haute, Indiana. There I established a meditation group and called it Meditation Healing with Shakuhachi. The following is an account written by me in 1990 of an amazing healing experience we all participated in. It was published in The Annals of the International Shakuhachi Society and in The Journal of Noetic Science – quite an honor.

Veronza says he wanted the tree in the picture because it was as far “away from all of this concrete and steel as I could get.”

Meditation healing with Shakuhachi

I have lived the past 24 [now 46] years of my life as a federal prisoner with the Bureau of Prisons number 35316-136 appended to my name. For those of you who have never been inside a maximum security penitentiary, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine it is a place where the plaintive sounds of Shakuhachi can be heard. Ah! But it is true.

I am honored and happy to be able to share with you a story about a young man – whom doctors had told would never walk again – and a piece of bamboo. This is a story of the human spirit and will at their finest, and a story of the healing power that is within Shakuhachi. In 1987, this young man (let’s call him Punchy) was shot in the back in Detroit, Michigan. The shot and subsequent operation left him completely paralyzed from the waist down. Call it coincidence, fate or simply the way things happen, but in that very same year I was introduced to Shakuhachi by a man named Monty H. Levenson, Shakuhachi maker and now dear friend.

Three years later, on the recreation yard of Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary in Indiana, I first saw Punchy – he, being pushed in his wheelchair around the quarter mile track; me, sitting under the shade of a lone tree blowing my Shakuhachi. I closed my eyes and continued to blow. The song in my heart reflected what I had just seen and my Shakuhachi began to cry.

After about two weeks of watching Punchy go for his daily ride, I made arrangements through one of his drivers to meet him. I explained to Punchy that I practiced an ancient art called Hands on Healing. I explained about Touch for Health, Acupressure, Tsubo Therapy, Shiatsu Therapy, Jin Shin Do, Massage Therapy and Meditation Healing using sounds and colors.

We talked about Chi and the circulation of energy, chakras, stretching as well as other kinds of physical therapy and exercise. I looked into his eyes and told him I’d like to try to help him. Although he had never heard of such things and was unable to hide his skepticism, he agreed.

Where? How to begin? That was the burning question in my mind as we made arrangements to meet the following afternoon. I knew that I would have to examine his entire body from head to toe and would have to work with him daily for quite a long time. We would have to be committed to each other and to ourselves. This would involve much work, way beyond physical therapy.

As agreed, we began the following day. After a solid month – six days a week, two and a half hours a day – of breathing exercises, acupressure treatments, stretching etc., we were basically where we were when we started. Punchy was locked up inside of himself where I could not touch.

I knew that unless he would allow me to come in, unless he could open up and share with me his deepest pain, no amount of massage and manipulation of muscles, no amount of stimulation of nerves, no amount of stretching, no amount of anything would result in an improvement of his condition.

Were the doctors, with their professional diagnosis, correct in their approach? Or was Punchy, a young man, who had so much energy inside of himself, being sentenced to a wheelchair for the rest of his life? Is it true that the solution – if there is a solution – to any problem lies within the problem itself? A breakthrough was needed.

I had recently started conducting meditation sessions with members of our Rastafarian Community in the chapel during which I blow Shakuhachi. I asked Punchy to attend. For this special session I gathered together seven men, all physically strong and emotionally and spiritually well-balanced.

The seven men would represent the Sun, the Moon, Mother Earth and the Four Directions – North, East, South and West. I explained to them Punchy’s condition and what was needed of each man as well as all of them as a collective body. The following is part of a Self-Monitoring Cross-Consciousness account of our first meditation healing session written immediately following the session by Darrell, one of the participants.

Veronza in about 1990

“A wounded Brother was placed on his back in the center of the room. We were instructed to form a circle around him, lying on our backs with our heads nearest to him and focus upon channeling positive energy so that he might be healed.

“We were instructed to breathe in a rhythmic and harmonious flow, inhaling deeply to the count of five and exhaling deeply to the count of five until we were in perfect unison. A flute began to play. With my eyes closed, I can hear the melody uttering words of transient delight, making it hard to resist complete relaxation. I have given myself totally to the Wounded One.

“There is a light. I used it to focus on as I attempted to channel my energy towards the Wounded One. I concentrated on the lower half of his body, for he was unable to walk. The light was drawing near and growing dim, the musical sounds freeing me from anxiety. The light now, ever so near and dimmer still, as the sounds of winds from the flute hovered over my body. I am conscious as my body releases the tension from the controlled breathing and begins to act upon its own to recover its natural pace. The hollow sounds of beauty making me ever so comfortable as the dimness of the light slowly turned to a red.

“The flute player is standing over me. I am aware of his presence, but why am I moaning? Why can I not respond to acknowledge him? Where am I? Can I help my wounded Brother, and who and where are the drummers? My body won’t respond, but I am conscious. I can hear everything and the breaths of everyone; we are all breathing out of time. Everyone has lost the rhythm except the flutist. He has acted as a tour guide down the pathway of total redness, almost leading me towards serenity, if it weren’t for the pain. What pain? Whose pain? So much pain – but why am I still moaning? Where am I?

“It appears that I have allowed the flutist, the tour guide, to take me beyond the realms of my control. I can sense serenity, but the pain. Oh! The pain! And why do feel as if I’m not alone? The corridor, or pathway, which has turned blue some time ago is now glowing and has a strange aura. The silence broke. ‘Rub your hands together’ It was the familiar voice of the tour guide, and I made motions with my hands, which, which was all I could do to make him aware that the command had been heard.

“I didn’t quite know how to function, for I was distant, incoherent and a slight bit delirious; but I could sense that he knew, for I was still trapped in space. ‘Rub your hands together so they generate energy, and then rub the warmth over your face. Wash your face with energy.’ I was able to comprehend the fact that this was, no doubt, a command, and I found myself obedient, my body began to respond, my eyes opened. It was over.”

After the session had ended and everyone else had returned to this plane, Punchy was still out. When he finally awoke, he blurted out, “What happened? Where I been?” Everyone laughed.

I was terribly excited and anxious to talk with the Brother who had been moaning and rolling his head back and forth. I needed to know what he had seen, what he had experienced. He and I got together immediately after everyone had left the chapel. As I blew Shakuhachi at the top of the stairwell, he recorded what you have just read.

Ahhh! The breakthrough! On so many levels. A small piece of bamboo, 1-foot-8-inches long, had opened doorways which had previously been welded shut. Shakuhachi had done in one and a half hours what no human being had done in three years. Shakuhachi had made it possible, via Darrell’s psychic bonding with Punchy, to connect with and to deeply understand Punchy’s psychological and spiritual pain. During our next working session, Punchy and I discussed all that we had both learned and for the first time he opened up completely.

From then on, we began each working session with Shakuhachi. A healthy diet with vitamins, a combination of disciplines mentioned earlier, meditation and circulation of Chi, weight lifting for upper body strength, stretching, stretching and more stretching for leg strength – the strength of the tiger lies in his flexibility – and a determined will, all combined so that by the end of the summer, 10 months after our first meditation healing session, on Dec, 10, 1990, Punchy could do 100 full squats non-stop, walk five steps on his own, and walk behind his wheelchair with me sitting in it and push me one full lap around the quarter-mile track on the yard.

I wish I had more space to share with you the details of this inspiring struggle of a young man determined to walk again and the neverending mystery that is Shakuhachi. I am deeply thankful to my dear friend Monty for introducing me to Shakuhachi, and I am eternally grateful to Shakuhachi for so graciously accepting my breath and for allowing me to be an extension through which healing can pass. [This entire article, which first appeared in Kyoto Journal No. 32, Summer 1996, can be seen on my website with photos in color.]

Good friends and members of Veronza’s “Inner Strength” class are Omar in the white kufi, Prince Heru in the black kufi, Teko with dreadlocks and Timmy. Veronza says of Omar and Prince Heru, “These two Brothers really looked out for me and helped me survive in my fight for my life against two deadly beings, cancer and pneumonia.”

Healing the healer

In 1998, I was transferred to FCI Coleman, Florida, the first medium custody prison I was sent to after having been in maximum security USPs for 27 years. Shortly after my arrival, I established the All Faith Meditation Group.

Once the warden saw that we were serious and many men joined with us, he allowed us to have a five-day Meditation Retreat. That attracted the attention of the Dharma instructor of the Gateless Gate Meditation Center in Gainesville, Florida.

To the honor and delight of all of us he brought with him a Rimpoche (Monk) from Tibet – and 38 men of our group attended. I was given the honor of blowing Shakuhachi for the first and last hour of each session for the entire retreat.

Upon hearing the first note of my Shakuhachi, the Rimpoche was moved to tears. Later, through his interpreter, he said: “I was so overwhelmed by the beauty and purity of that single sound, my tears flowed freely from my thankful heart. It reminded me of home.” He bowed and I bowed – and we all bowed to him and he bowed to us.

In May of 2017, I was diagnosed as having lymphoma (a cancer that attacks and invades the lymphatic system), and transferred to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., to undergo chemotherapy. My white cell blood count became so low my immune system was compromised and I contracted pneumonia. I was moved from the fourth floor to the fifth and hooked up to an IV machine that pumped antibiotics into my bloodstream. (For a detailed account, please see “Veronza, don’t die in prison!” in the Bay View.)

A good friend of mine was in a room – a cell – three doors down from me. I went to visit him and was shocked and pained to see how the cancer had eaten away his body, and his legs and stomach were sooo badly swollen. Sighhh. He was in a constant and terrible pain.

I went back to my room/cell and fetched my Shakuhachi. Even though I was very weak myself from the pneumonia, I leaned against a wall in his room/cell, closed my eyes and just BLEW my Shakuhachi. After about 10 minutes, I opened my eyes and saw my friend smiling, even as tears streamed down his face. He said: “Brother Veronza, that was sooo beautiful. ALL of my pain just went away. It was like those sounds was a river and the pain got washed away by the current.”

From that day on until he was moved into the hospice area, despite my own weakness, I would will myself to go to his room/cell and BLOW Shakuhachi for him – and for me – and for all the other sick and dying men in rooms/cells on that floor. My friend passed away – all alone in hospice.

There is sooo much more I’d love to share with you about my wondrous journey with Shakuhachi and the effects it has and continues to have on me and the people who have been touched and moved by its sounds and SILENCES.

But for now, I just want to thank my dear friend Monty Levenson for introducing me to Shakuhachi – and I thank the bamboo that is Shakuhachi for being my Sen-sei and teaching me to blow and for accepting my breath and allowing me to be a vessel through which healing and peace can pass on to others.

In Emptiness and Nothingness

Veronza Bowers, Jr. (Daoud)

Send our brother some love and light: Veronza Bowers, 35316-136, Butner Federal Medical Center, P.O. Box 1600, Butner NC 27509, and visit his website, www.veronza.org. Veronza has served more than 46 years in the federal Bureau of Prisons, 15 of them past his mandatory parole release date of April 7, 2004. Learn more at Jericho.

Listen carefully to hear Veronza’s voice and that of his Shakuhachi.