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 heard the sound of the shakuhachi, he supposedly wept and said he had finally heard the voice of the dead. True or not, this little anecdote succeeds in epitomizing the ethereal quality that many people experience when they first hear the sound of the Japanese bamboo flute. The esoteric sound and the primitive nature of the shakuhachi appeal to our sense of the divine, the mystical, and the timeless. The portability of the instrument corresponds to the ascetic purity of religious introspection. No batteries, no speakers, no accessories, no moving parts—the shakuhachi manifests a simplicity and integrity of activity which is matched only by meditation.

For many Japanese, the shakuhachi is a mythical instrument in that it exists primarily away from itself—that is to say, in the imagination. Everyone knows what the shakuhachi looks and sounds like but relatively few have actually touched an original instrument or heard the natural sound. If seen at all, the shakuhachi is usually tucked away in the corners of old paintings and illustrations; if heard at all, an airy tone resonates from speakers, perhaps as background soundtrack to a samurai movie,  or a restaurant specializing in traditional Japanese cuisine, or increasingly for funerals. Still, the shakuhachi remains a reverberating point of reference of one’s experience in Japan, and more and more throughout the world.

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

For both the traditional and modern styles, tone production is a critical part of playing the shakuhachi. The shakuhachi musician, through a complex combination of fingering, breathing, posture, as well as careful manipulation of mouth and head position, is capable of producing 64 tones an octave (as opposed to a mere twelve in Western music). Given the importance of breathing, fingering, and muscle (diaphragm) control, the physical dexterity necessary to produce shakuhachi music extends beyond the mouthpiece all the way down to the solar plexus of the player. A popular expression suggests that it takes at least three years to learn to use one’s neck properly! The body of the musician is 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 honkyoku or “original pieces,” attempts to interpret musically the experience and consciousness of Zen meditation. Three compositions comprise the basis from which all solo shakuhachi music derives: “Koku,” “Mukaiji,” and “Kyorei.”  Like Zen masters who appropriated the name of a mountain or temple for spiritual identification, these three classic honkyoku compositions maintain a connection with specific Zen temples. All three pieces have a distinctly Zen, or “empty,” feeling to them, and have been passed on from teacher to student for generations as a kind of karmic currency as well as an aid to meditation.

Meditational shakuhachi practice is referred to as suizen, or “blowing Zen.” Monks who practice suizen (often portrayed as wearing baskets over their heads to ensure anonymity) are referred to as komosô “straw mat monks,” or komôsô “empty illusion monks,” or komusô “monks of emptiness,” of the Fuke Buddhist sect which began in T’ang Dynasty China. The history of the Fuke sect in Japan is described in the Kyotaku Denki Jo, a document prepared in 1614; but since the Kyotaku Denki Jo was probably constructed in order for the group to win social status as a bona fide religious sect, its authenticity is suspect. (The document was probably more of an exercise in political legitimization than historical accuracy.) In 1871, the Tokugawa clan officially banned the Fuke sect because it was thought that too many ruffians and spies had infiltrated the community, and had merely affected the appearance of shakuhachi-playing Zen monks for questionable motives. From that time on shakuhachi music was to be performed for secular purposes only and the Fuke sect in Japan was no longer—it if ever was—a “pure” organization of monks and musicians.

Nevertheless, the “purity” which characterizes shakuhachi music has more to do with the individual than with an institution. Listeners and performers alike bring to this music their deepest aspirations. Reflected in the often sonorous, sometimes shrill notes of the flute, they hear the song of the soul. A child will hear a children’s song; the young will hear a love song; the old a religious song. Work songs, harvest songs—a doctor may hear a healing song; a teacher may hear a teaching song. Through traditional shakuhachi music, we hear the memory and mythology of our innermost natures, as well as our personal and collective histories. Perhaps this is what Gandhi meant when he said that the shakuhachi reminded him of the voice of the dead.

Music is never far from religion; for most people, the experiences are inseparable. The spiritual quality of shakuhachi music is so inclusive that extraneous sounds actually contribute to the overall musical experience. The sound of the wind or a temple bell, insects and birds, a ringing telephone, a car horn, children—all these sounds become part of the totalizing image of the shakuhachi.  Indeed, our acceptance of such “discordant” sounds as a part of music ironically, according to John Cage, makes the world a more harmonious place. The shakuhachi musician, through the practice of suizen, aspires to a spiritual apotheosis through music, as expressed in the saying, ichion jobutsu, which loosely translates as “one sound become Buddha.” 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 single activity where the mundane and the miraculous become synonymous, where the living and the dead share the same voice, where our shore (samsara) and the other shore (nirvana) are momentarily joined by a delicate thread of sound.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Kansai Time Out #251, January, 1998.


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