Preston L. Houser
Shakuhachi: Music of Myth and Memory

Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
-T. S. Eliot Four Quartets

When Mahatma Gandhi first heardthe sound of the shakuhachi, he supposedly wept and said he hadfinally heard the voice of the dead. True or not, this littlefable succeeds in epitomizing the ethereal quality that many peopleexperience when they first hear the sound of the Japanese bambooflute. The esoteric sound and the primitive nature of the shakuhachiappeal to our sense of the divine, the mystical, and the timeless.The portability of the instrument corresponds to the portablepurity of religious introspection. No batteries, no speakers,no baggage, no moving parts-the shakuhachi manifests a simplicityand integrity of activity which is matched only by meditation.

For many, the shakuhachi is a mythical instrument in that itexists primarily away from itself-that is to say, in the imagination.Everyone knows what the shakuhachi looks and sounds like but relativelyfew have actually touched an original instrument or heard thenatural sound. If seen at all, the shakuhachi is usually tuckedaway in the corners of old paintings and illustrations; if heardat all, it is heard from speakers, perhaps as background musicto a samurai movie or a restaurant specializing in traditionalJapanese cuisine. Still, the shakuhachi remains a reverberatingpoint of reference of one's experience in Japan.

A descendant of the early Edo flute, the hitoyogiri, and distantcousin to the Indian bansri and the Persian nay, the shakuhachiis an end-blown flute approximately 54.4 cm long-the name denotesthe length, one shaku (app. 30 cm) point eight-and is made fromthe root section of a vanishing species of bamboo, madake. Theshakuhachi is both a solo instrument as well as an integral partof ensemble performances which include the koto and shamisen.There are two main schools of shakuhachi musicianship, the kinkoand tozan: the former more traditional, the latter makes use ofmodern Western music theory in its composition. But it is primarilyas a solo instrument that the shakuhachi is best appreciated.

For both the traditional and modern styles, tone productionis a critical part of playing the shakuhachi. The shakuhachi musician,through a complex combination of fingering, breathing, and manipulatingmouth and head position, is capable of producing 64 tones an octave(as opposed to a mere twelve in Western music). Given the importanceof breathing, fingering, and muscle (diaphragm) control, the physicaldexterity necessary to produce shakuhachi music extends beyondthe mouthpiece all the way down to the solar plexus of the player.A popular expression suggests that it takes at least three yearsto learn to use one's neck properly! The body of the musicianis utilized to help produce the unique sound of the shakuhachi.Therefore, the sound of each flute is as individual as the bamboo,the maker, the musician, and the listener.

The shakuhachi musician, in solo performance of the koten honkyokuor "original pieces," attempts to interpret musicallythe experience and consciousness of Zen meditation. Three compositionscomprise the basis from which all solo shakuhachi music derives:Koku, Mukaiji, and Kyorei. Like Zen masters who appropriated thename of a mountain or temple for spiritual identification, thesethree classic honkyoku compositions maintain a connection withspecific Zen temples. All three pieces have a distinctly Zen,or "empty," feeling to them, and have been passed onfrom teacher to student for generations as a kind of karmic currencyas well as an aid to meditation.

Meditational shakuhachi practice is referred to as suizen,or "blowing Zen." Monks who practice suizen (often portrayedas wearing baskets over their heads to insure anonymity) are referredto as komosô "straw mat monks," or komôsô"empty illusion monks," or komusô "monksof emptiness," of the fuke-shu Buddhist sect which beganin T'ang Dynasty China. The history of the Fuke-shu sect in Japanis described in the Kyotaku Denki Jo, a document prepared in 1614;but since the Kyotaku Denki Jo was probably constructed in orderfor the fuke-shu to win social status as a bona fide religioussect, its authenticity is suspect. (The document was probablymore of an exercise in political legitimization than historicalaccuracy.) In 1871, the Tokugawa clan officially banned the fuke-shubecause it was suspected that too many ruffians and spies hadinfiltrated the sect, and had merely affected the appearance ofshakuhachi-playing Zen monks for questionable motives. From thattime on shakuhachi music was to be performed for secular purposesonly and the fuke-shu sect in Japan was no longer-it if ever was-a"pure" organization of musicians.

Nevertheless, the "purity" which characterizes shakuhachimusic has more to do with the individual than with an institution.Listeners and performers alike bring to this music their deepestaspirations. Reflected in the often sonorous, sometimes shrillnotes of the flute, they hear the song of their soul. A childwill hear a children's song; the young will hear a love song;the old a religious song. Work songs, harvest songs-a doctor mayhear a healing song; a teacher may hear a teaching song. Throughtraditional shakuhachi music, we hear the memory and mythologyof our innermost natures, as well as our personal and collectivehistories. Perhaps this is what Gandhi meant when he said thatthe shakuhachi reminded him of the voice of the dead.

Music is never far from religion; indeed, the two practicesare often inseparable. The spiritual quality of shakuhachi musicis so inclusive that extraneous sounds actually contribute tothe overall musical experience. The sound of the wind or a templebell, insects and birds, a ringing telephone, a car horn, children-allthese sounds become part of the totalizing image of the shakuhachiand our acceptance of such "discordant" sounds as apart of music ironically makes the world a more harmonious place.The shakuhachi musician, through the practice of suizen, aspiresto a spiritual apotheosis through music, as expressed in the saying,ichion jobutsu, which loosely translates as "one sound becomeBuddha." When listening to the sound of the bamboo flute,our individual and collective spirit is manifest as a single tone,a single breath; music and meditation are melded into a singleactivity where the mundane and the miraculous become synonymous,where the living and the dead share the same voice, where ourshore (samsara) and the other shore (nirvana) are momentarilyjoined by a delicate thread of sound.

Notable shakuhachi masters in Japan include Yamaguchi Goro,Aoki Reibo, Matusmura Homei, and Yokuyama Katsuya; their recordingsare issued and reissued. Another player worthy of mention is theAmerican John Kaizan Neptune who has expanded the musical possibilitiesof the shakuhachi into more modern, impressionistic areas; amongmy favorite records of his are Tokyoshpere. Those interested inpursuing kinko style shakuhachi studies in the Kansai area maycontact Kurahashi Yoshio of the Muju-an Shakuhachi Dojo. Kurahashi-senseiteaches in Kyoto and Osaka. There are wooden practice shakuhachifor sale at most major department stores, but buying a bambooshakuhachi without the assistance of a teacher can be a confusing,not to mention expensive, enterprise. One place to get qualitypractice flutes at reasonable prices is through long-time Californiashakuhachi maker and archivist Monty Levenson of Tai Hei Shakuhachi(on the web:

Thisarticle first appeared in Kansai Time Out #251, January,1998.
Preston Houser has been studying Kinko shakuhachiwith Yoshio Kurahashi Sensei in Kyoto for the past 17 years. Heperforms frequently in Japan and America. Author of the CD-ROMKyoto Gardens,he is also a regular contributor to Kansai Time Out and KyotoJournal.

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