Shakuhachi Flute



The Shakuhachi as a Hōki

An aesthetic understanding of the shakuhachi's music and performance practices must include an understanding of the importance of music and sound in the principles and ideology of Buddhism. The concept of sound as a medium for enlightenment is prominent in Buddhist philosophy.

For centuries, many shakuhachi players have used the shakuhachi as a meditative tool. The komosō monks believed in the shakuhachi as a spiritual discipline: both the playing of the shakuhachi and the sounds of its tones were a medium to help attain enlightenment. The practice of suizen, or blowing zen, came from the two words sui, to blow, and zen, meditation. It is the integral ideology behind playing the shakuhachi as a religious tool, or hōki. In suizen, the shakuhachi is not played merely for entertainment or performance for an audience, but as a zen tool of meditation and inner exploration.

Numerous qualities of the shakuhachi's performance practice are conducive to its use as a hōki. The practitioner must concentrate his mind and his breath to play the long, steady tones of honkyoku. Longer flutes, chokan shakuhachi, produce low tones that can further encourage a meditative experience. To produce the different sounds of the meri and kari positions and the specific breath techniques of the shakuhachi, the practitioner must have control of his breath and embouchure in specific and subtle ways. The tone of the shakuhachi itself is meditative and the instrument is of medium volume, an appropriate symbol for a path of moderation. Just as each person's spiritual path is unique, each player creates his own individual tone because the mouth and embouchure and breath are such an inherent part of the resultant timbre. These qualities of the shakuhachi and the playing of honkyoku encourage the elements of introspection, meditation, and spiritual discipline.

Hisamatsu Fūyō (1790-1845), a pupil of the grandson of Kurosawa Kinko, wrote the only extant documents that discuss the spiritual theories and background of the shakuhachi as a hōki. Fūyō discusses the practice of suizen as a shugyō, or a religious discipline that promotes the process of liberation from the rational mind. This freedom from the rational mind, Fūyō states, will allow the practitioner to reach the level where truth is understood in the form of the "Absolute Tone," called tettei on. Fūyō reminds the practitioner to treat his shakuhachi as a living thing, something to bond with inextricably. Fūyō reminds the adept of the adage, "I become the shakuhachi, and the shakuhachi becomes me".