Shakuhachi Zen: "In one sound, become the Buddha!"

Zen represents human effort to reach through meditation zones of thought beyond the range of verbal expression. (Hearn 1898)

‘Blowing Zen’ or suizen (吹禅) is the practice of using the shakuhachi as a tool of Zen meditation in the mostly solo repertoire of the shakuhachi or honkyoku(本曲). The phrase of the title, 'In one sound, become the Buddha!’ or ichion jôbutsu (一音成仏) is attributed to Kurosawa Kinko (1710-1771), the founder of the Kinko-ryû (琴古流).

The origins of shakuhachi zen

Buddhism entered Japan through China in the seventh century. The earliest reference between shakuhachi and Buddhism is related to Ennin (794-864), who introduced shômyô, the chanting of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism into Japan. He is said to have played the shakuhachi as an accompaniment to sutra chanting. The meditative honkyoku is thought to have evolved from Buddhist chant. Ennin founded a monastery at Tôfuku-ji (Tôfuku Temple) in Kyôtô which in the seventeen century would allow the komusô to set up a sub-temple called Myôan-ji (明暗寺-also called Meian-ji). The earliest known shakuhachi in Japan were used in gagaku, the ancient court music. Some of these shakuhachi are preserved in the Shôsô-in (正倉院), the repository of the Emperor Shômu’s (724-749) possessions in Nara. The large instrument collection in the Shôsô-in was used in 752AD during the grand opening of Tôdai-ji in Nara, a temple containing the largest indoor-seated Buddha in Asia. This ceremony was called Daibutsu Kaigen-e or ‘Opening of the Eyes of the Great Buddha.’ Outside the imposing temple, a bronze relief on a hexagonal stand features a shakuhachi playing Bodhisattva. In the ninth century the court music ensembles were standardised and the shakuhachi was among the many instruments that were no longer used.

The shakuhachi later reappeared played by itinerant entertainers and beggars called komosô (薦僧) during the early Muromachi Period (1333-1568). Komo (薦) means ‘straw-mat’ and referred to the bedding which they carried on their pilgrimages and (僧) means ‘monk’. Komo may also mean ‘illusion’ and may hint at the connection between these wandering monks and their practice of Zen which claims that the reality of life is an illusion. Yoshida Kenkô (c1283-1352) in his “Essays in Idleness” refers to the duel personality of komosô:

Willful and determined, they appear to be devoted to the way of Buddha, but they make strife and quarrel their business. Though dissolute and cruel in appearance they think lightly of death, and cling not at all to life. (Yoshida, Kenkô)

The imagined past of the komusô

The Edo Era is often referred to as a golden age of peace, simplicity and artistic endeavour. Japan was ruled by the military government of the Shoguns. They imposed a policy of isolation on the Japanese people and expelled all foreigners. It was during the Edo Period that many art forms that originated from the mainland of Asia were refined and adopted a distinctive Japanese character. These include ikebana (flower arranging), sadô (tea ceremony) and various martial arts such as kendô and jûdô. These were influenced by the simplicity and austerity of Zen. Musical instruments and styles were also crystallised into their present form. It was during this era that the shakuhachi developed its unique tonal characteristics.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the shakuhachi was performed by mendicant Zen priests called komusô (虚無僧). Ko (虚) means ‘illusion’, the new central character, mu (無) represents nothingness and ko (僧) means monk. The change of name from komosô to komusô may have resulted from the need to emphasise the Zen nature of their practice. They formed the Fuke Sect in 1671 which was dedicated to suizen. The Fuke Sect was a sub-sect of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. The Rinzai sect was introduced into Japan in AD 1191 by the Japanese monk, Eisai (1141-1215). The Rinzai sect was one of the two major sects of Zen Buddhism in Japan, the other being the Sôtô sect. They both stem for the Mahayana branch of Buddhism which originated in India but came into Japan through China. The Rinzai sect attempted to make Zen more accessible to the common people and so emphasised ‘sudden enlightenment’ as opposed to the ‘gradual enlightenment’ of the Sôtô sect. Two important aspects of the practice of the Rinzai sect included zazen (座禅) or sitting meditation and the Zen kôan(公案). A Zen kôan is a problem given by a Zen master to his student, the most famous of which is probably “what is the sound of a single hand clapping?” attributed to Hakuin (1686-1769). The purpose was to discourage students from rationalisation and to drive them toward a direct perception of self and reality. They wandered the country playing the shakuhachi under a tengai (座禅) or beehive-shaped basket hat, begging for alms. The tengai represented their separation from the world of reality.

At the beginning of the Edo Era the ranks of the komusô were swamped by master-less samurai called rônin (浪人). The monks of Zen sects were given considerable freedom by the government which may explain the popularity of the life of a komusô to rônin. The swords of rônin were confiscated and they lost their ability to travel which was closely restricted by the Tokugawa government. The options open to them were roadside begging, banditry or religious retirement. Entry into the ranks of the komusô offered all of these options. The komusô were given certain legal privileges, food and lodging. Membership of the Fuke Sect became restricted to the bushi or samurai class. A number of komusô acted as spies for the Tokugawa government. They are depicted in art and literature as scurrilous characters who used the tengai as a disguise and would use the shakuhachi as a weapon when in times of danger. However, this is in contradiction to the unique repertoire and tone that was developed during this era. The Fuke sect banned the use of the shakuhachi among non-komusô, emphasising its meditative repertoire. Even though the impetus for the formation of the Fuke sect was political, a number of komusô began to take Zen practice more seriously. The main focus of this more serious approach was at Myôan-ji in Kyoto.

The mythical past of the Fuke sect

In order to gain recognition from the Tokugawa government, the komusô had to present documents which proved its credentials as a bone fide Zen sect. The document that outlines the mythical founding of the sect in China and gives legitimacy to their Zen origins is called Kyôtaku Denki (虚鐸伝記). It traces the origin to Fuke Zenji, a recognised Zen master from the T’ang dynasty. Fuke Zenji was a student of Rinzai, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism. The following story contains a kôan given to Fuke by Rinzai:

“What would you do, if no one appeared from any direction?” Fuke answered: “Tomorrow in Dai Hi’in, there is a banquet.” The student reported the answer to Rinzai who commented: “I always suspected that this is no ordinary man. It is indeed so.” (Takehashi 1990)

The copy presented to the Tokugawa government was a forgery. However, its central story is still well known to shakuhachi players today:

Fuke-Zenji was a Zen Buddhist priest of great learning in the T’ang dynasty…Ringing a taku [bell], he would go to town and say to passers-by: “If attacked in the light, I will strike back in the light. If attacked in the dark, I will strike in the dark. If attacked from all quarters, I will strike as a whirlwind does. If attacked from the empty sky, I will thrash with a frail.” One day, a man named Chô Haku of Ho Nan province, heard these words and revered the priest Fuke for his great virtue. He appealed to the priest for permission to follow him, but the priest did not accept him. Haku had previously had a taste for playing pipes. Having listened to the sound of the priest’s bell, he at once made a bamboo flute and imitated the sound. Thereafter, he played the sound untiringly on the flute and never played other pieces. Since he made the sound of the bell on his flute, he names the flute ‘kyôtaku.’ One day Fuke walked through the streets of the town begging for a monks habit…Later he went around town shouting, I’m going to go out of the East Gate and pass on.’ The townspeople all fought with each other for the chance to follow Fuke out and watch him. But Fuke told them, “No, I won’t do it today.” He did the same thing three days running and the people no longer believed him. On the fourth day…Fuke left the town all by himself, climbed into his coffin, and had some passing strangers nail it shut for him. News of this soon spread into the town. The townspeople all fought to be the first to go and open up the coffin. When they looked inside, Fuke had vanished bodily. But they could hear the sound of a ringing bell fading into the sky. (Tsuge 1977 and Sanford 1977)

Kyôtaku (虚鐸) can be literally translated as ‘empty bell.’ This is a reference to the emptiness of mind which is the aim of Zen practice. There is also a hint of the focus on one sound as opposed to many in Chô Haku’s repeated imitation of the bell of Fuke. Like the boroboro described by Kenkô, Fuke Zenji shows a disregard for life. This is also typical of bushidô, the ‘way of the warrior’ followed by the samurai. The komusô formed their own ‘way’, chikudô or the ‘way of bamboo’. Another section of the Kyôtaku Denki relates the story of Kichiku (also known as Kyôchiku), the Zen priest who brought the tradition from China to Japan:

Kichiku was rowing a small boat in the ocean. He was there alone, admiring the bright moon above. Suddenly a thick mist rose up and enveloped the moon. Then from the depths of the mist the melody of a flute burst forth, a remote, mysterious melody, beyond the power of speech to describe. After a moment the music stopped. The obscuring mist gradually began to congeal until at last it froze into a solid lump. From this lump issued forth a second melody-a strange wondrous melody unlike any ever heard on this earth…He took up his flute and tried to play the two melodies from his dream. (Sanford 1977)

The two pieces, Mukaiji or “Flute in a Misty Sea” and Koku or “Flute Ringing in an Empty Sky” are still standard pieces of the shakuhachi repertoire. Many of the honkyoku have similar names which refer to Zen or elements in the life of a komusô. The thick mist and sold lump can be interpreted as the kyô (emptiness) and ritsu (form) of Zen practice.

Blowing zen

The shakuhachi practice of suizen or ‘blowing Zen’ is based on the meditative practice of zazen or ‘sitting Zen.’ The flow of the music is decided by the natural rhythm of the players’ breath. The shakuhachi honkyoku are characterised by their lack of a strict metrical pulse. This non-temporal rhythm is contrary to the temporal or measured rhythm of western music. The western word phrase is not applicable to shakuhachi music which depends on the breath to define its shape. The expression issokuon (一息音) or ‘one-breath tone’ refers to individual sections of honkyoku. Shakuhachi players differ to the extent to which they utilise the breathing techniques of zazen in the present. There are also different interpretations of what type of breathing the komusô used. The komusô followed the discipline of sangakku (三学句) which involved the practice of Zen, shakuhachi and fencing. An essential element of martial arts training is the cultivation of stillness and the ability to immobilise the full energy of the body and thus the breathing at unpredictable moments. This can be felt in shakuhachi playing in the sudden bursts of breath after a subdued tone or silence. An analogy could be made with the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ martial arts.

Kurosawa Kinko (1710-1771), a komusô trained at Myôan-ji travelled around the various komusô temples to collect and notate the solo pieces called honkyoku. He moved to Edo, the capital (now Tôkyô) where he became involved in teaching the shakuhachi to people not of the bushi class. The shakuhachi tradition gradually became organised along the same lines as other traditional arts of the Edo Era. The shakuhachi was used in the sankyoku ensemble music outside of the Fuke Sect in the Edo Era where it replaced the bowed lute, the kokyû. The shakuhachi was adapted because of its unique tonal characteristic. It followed the Japanese musical aesthetic in which each instrument of the ensemble could be clearly defined. This is the opposite of a western musical aesthetic in which instruments are chosen for their ability to blend with each other. These pieces are called gaikyoku and are based on popular songs of the time. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the tradition further separated as the Fuke sect was outlawed in 1871. This led to the beginning of the separation into various playing styles and guilds including the Kinko-ryû and Tôzan-ryû.

Blowing Zen in the present

The practice of Zen emphasises the process over the result. In the true practice of Zen, the subject-object dichotomy breaks down. There is no distinction between the performer, instrument, piece and performance. This can be extended to the blurring of the boundaries between the act of meditation, the person meditating and that being meditated. This could be interpreted to represent the concept that the shakuhachi is not an instrument but a zenki (禅器) or ‘tool of Zen’. Players influenced by Zen are not concerned with the tone but only the path of the breath. The tone is not meant to be beautiful but to represent Zen practice:

Do not shrink back from the unclean sound which is caused when the Great Bamboo is blown! (Hisamatsu 1823)

Shakuhachi players try to create tetteion or ‘sound in and of itself’, a concept related to Zen practice. The importance of each single note was emphasised over its relation to other notes. The changing timbre of a single tone therefore takes precedent over melodic and rhythmic elements.

There is a deep-seated attitude towards realisation of a self-sufficient musical world within the scope of even a single sound. This is the world in which sounds are created and experienced as organic and free from the instinct to build and form complicated structure. (Tsuge 1981: 110)

Shakuhachi players differ in the degree in which the founding myth of the Kyôtaku Denki and the imagined past of the komusô is taken seriously. There are still shakuhachi players who dress up like komusô and wander the streets. A descendent of the Kinko lineage, Hisamatsu Fûyô wrote some of the few remaining fragments which tell us about the komusô. In his Hitori Mondo, or “Self Questioning”, he asks himself about Zen and shakuhachi:

Q: In what way is it a Zen instrument? A: There is no event that does not have a Zen quality…following the flow of the breath it becomes your Zen practice. If it is not a Zen instrument, then what is it? (Hisamatsu 1823)