Killing the Buddha: Form vs. Content in Hogaku
by Christopher Yohmei Blasdel

CHRISTOPHER YOHMEI BLASDEL isan American teacher and performer living in Tokyo and the authorof The Shakuhachi: A Manual for Learning.He studied shakuhachi with Yamaguchi Goro.

Noh actors follow strictly prescribedfootsteps and movements across the stage, while the accompanyingmusicians look straight ahead, faces expressionless, singing lyricsfull of pathos.

Gagakucourt musicians sit cross-legged on a raised dais, all wearingidentical costumes and playing highly formalized musical phraseswhich blend together with stunning timbres and harmonies.

A lone shakuhachi player in black kimonobows reverently to the audience before closing his eyes and performingprofound, meditative music.

The traditional Japanese performingarts rely heavily upon form as a means to convey artistic content.A strict formalism determines much of the performance style: theposition of the instruments onstage, the performer's costume,posture and handling of the instrument, makeup of the programand even the house management. Every aspect of the productionhas a certain style.

There are variations in the style, accordingto the school or ryuha, but within each school, formalismpermeates all aspects of hogaku.

The process of learning hogaku, or keiko,is also dependant upon form. Teachers spend a great deal of lessontime on proper social etiquette and on handling oneself vis avis the artistic discipline. Formal respect must be shown towardthe teacher and the senpai (senior students).

Musical technique is also learned inthe keiko process, but unlike the Western music lesson, wherethe teacher drills the student in technique, hogaku technicalknowhow is usually picked up through years of exposure and mimicry.

Even those students who never actuallyimprove technically are, with enough years and faithful adherenceto the social forms, accorded the same respect as the musicallydeft ones.

When I began learning traditional shakuhachiyears ago as a young musician, I was perplexed by the strong emphasison form. I was enamored of the shakuhachi's musical content: adeeply Dionysian, spiritually free and meditative way of music.I wondered why I had to spend so much time on style and sufferthose who placed importance on form over content.

I had come from a time and place --the U.S. during the '70s -- where it was fashionable to destroyand deny the old forms, both social and artistic, for the sakeof rediscovering true content. I was discovering that the hogakuworld was not based solely on artistic creativity and technicalmerit.

I also saw extreme cases -- where artisticability became a slave to form, when decidedly unqualified musicianstook on socially important roles. As with any system or institution,politics and nepotism play a part in the traditional performingarts of Japan.

Although many of the sons and daughtersof Japan's outstanding performers excel in carrying on the familytradition, there are cases of offspring who, either from familypressure or their own ambition, succeed to the position of headmasterwith obviously substandard artistic abilities.

By any objective account, these playersare not commensurate with their inherited rank. The strange thingis that everyone realizes this, but as long as the social andtraditional forms are adhered to and all the rules obeyed, itis accepted. Such is the importance of maintaining social hierarchyand formality in the Japanese society.

Although this almost religious relianceon form was initially baffling, I slowly realized that formalityin the traditional performing arts is a powerful and indispensabletool of discipline which, in turn, can actually nurture content.

This was made clear to me several yearsago when I arranged for an American friend to study Tokiwazu traditionalnarrative singing and shamisen playing. After a few months ofstudy, she was asked to sing in a student recital.

She was excited but also overwhelmedbecause she knew her abilities were still very basic, and shecould barely get through the piece. She wondered why her teacherinsisted on having her appear publicly and, equally puzzling,why he had spent a whole lesson teaching her the proper stageetiquette and how to behave during the performance. Why shouldthe teacher worry about that when she couldn't even begin to singthe music?

I said that the success of Japaneseperforming arts is largely determined by form and not by content.She continued to worry, saying that her lack of singing abilitywill surely cause her to freeze up during the piece, making herbad singing even worse.

In such a case, form can be a savinggrace. Even if she could not control or perfect her singing inthe few weeks before the performance, she could learn and actout the formal stage manners.

Then, no matter what happened to hervoice, she could always fall back on a well-practiced performanceetiquette as a means to carry her through safely to the end ofthe piece. Even if she couldn't sing a note, adhering to the formwould save her from loosing face and preserve her dignity on stage.

This explanation made sense to her andmade the daunting concept of singing Tokiwazu music in front ofhundreds of people easier to accept.

During the next few weeks she concentratedon learning proper stage etiquette. She continued working on hersinging as well, but stopped worrying about whether it might beinadequate. In the end, her worries about the performance wereunfounded -- she pulled it off without a hitch. Because she feltconfident of her form, her voice followed suit and she sang betterthan ever. Her recital appearance was a great success.

Traditional forms foster growth andprovide a vessel for tempering one's abilities. That, I have learned,is why it is so necessary to respect and master them.

Nonetheless, the mark of greatness inhogaku is one who can break forms when necessary. My teacher,though considered one of the most traditional and orthodox ofall shakuhachi masters, would sometimes break tradition in hisplaying, though always very subtly. Form, for him, was just atool for getting across the content.

My youthful ideas of breaking down theformalism to gain access to true content were correct after all,but one has to learn all the forms before this can be done. Likethe old Zen koan of killing the Buddha if you see him walkingdown the road: One must be able to recognize him first.

Traditional forms of music can onlybe negated only after they are fully internalized, and this takesyears of practice and adherence to them.

The Japan Times: Apr. 22, 2001

Arrow Table of Contents- Articles
Arrow Tai Hei Shakuhachi Flute Homepage
Arrow Shakuhachi MainMenu