Shakuhachi Flute



The History of the Shakuhachi

The shakuhachi has a colourful and unusual history, originating in China at the beginning of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Transplanted into Japan in the 7th century, the shakuhachi has gone through a variety of transmutations within multiple levels of society, altering in both construction and purpose. In the course of its history, it has transformed from a delicate instrument of the gagaku orchestra into a heavy, solid flute that doubled as a weapon.

The shakuhachi was brought to Japan in the late seventh century as part of the gagaku (literally 'elegant music') orchestra. These flutes were smaller and thinner than the modern D shakuhachi. The shakuhachi was a part of the gagaku orchestra until the mid-ninth century. Although there are actual instruments preserved from this early era of history, very little is known about the music from this period. There are no manuscripts left of musical notation or instructions of playing techniques.

By the early 13th century (Kamakura period: 1185-1333), the shakuhachi was no longer played exclusively by the nobility: the instrument was played by a wide range of people from decidedly different social classes, including commoners and blind priests, considered two of the lowest classes in Japanese society. By the mid-sixteenth century, the connection between the shakuhachi and the beggar monks called komosō (priests carrying only a straw mat) became clear. The name komosō comes from the word komo, which was a simple straw mat used for sleeping and worn to keep out the rain and cold.

The beginnings of the Fuke sect are unclear and surrounded by mythology. The Fuke sect gained formal recognition by the Edo government as a Zen religious sect, creating an authorized religious group focused on the practice of playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. Even before their official recognition by the government in 1677, however, the komusō were organized into sixteen sects and had established lodges for their members' travel that later became temples.

The Fuke sect was open only to samurai. The bushi, or samurai class, was the highest social class in Japan. Members were highly educated, and it had a long history of practice in Zen Buddhism. The samurai had been constantly engaged in war since the 12th century and had relied on the precepts of Zen for spiritual support. They sponsored Zen in the temples, in Japanese culture, and in the arts. Because of the consolidation that occurred during the Edo period by the Tokugawa military government after a long period of civil wars, these masterless samurai, called ronin, no longer had work. For them, to work in another profession would have been unacceptable, and many saw no other honourable profession available to them other than begging and taking a spiritual path of renunciation as a Buddhist monk. The ronin began to join the Fuke sect in large numbers. In an attempt to separate themselves from the lower class komosō, the ronin changed their name to komusō, emphasizing the Zen qualities of the name by substituting mu, 'nothingness,' for mō, 'illusion'.

The Fuke sect was a mutually beneficial creation for the government and for the samurai. The Fuke sect allowed the ronin to combine mendicancy, a spiritual path, spying, and criminality if they desired. The komusō could continue to carry a weapon (a dagger and the thicker, heavier, Fuke Shakuhachi), could belong to a prestigious sect only open to samurai (no one else was allowed to play the instrument), had the ability to travel widely (quite difficult at the time), and could become spies for the government. In the early Edo period (1603-1868), there were about one hundred and twenty Fuke temples throughout Japan.

The komusō were given free passage on boats, free access to plays, and were by law treated with consideration by everyone who came in contact with them. The sect itself was by governmental law exempt from taxation. Even though the Fuke sect had political origins and some questionable members, the practices and lifestyle of the monks of the Fuke sect were focused on and directed toward a sincere desire for spiritual enlightenment.

As a member, the newly initiated monk received a Buddhist name, three seals, three items, and a long and short sword. The three seals and the three items were proof of a komusō's membership in the Fuke sect. The three items were a shakuhachi, a tengai hat, and the kesa. The Japanese kesa, or kasaya in Sanskrit, was a shawl worn by devotees of Buddha, originating in India in the 4th century BC and coming to Japan with Buddhism in the 7th century. The tengai was a basket-shaped hat whose purpose was to mask identity, which signified going beyond the ego and withdrawing from the material world. Made of reeds, it covered the wearer's entire face to ensure anonymity. Only the area around the eyes was not tightly woven so that the monk was able to see out. The Fuke monk was never allowed to remove his tengai hat except when he was in a Fuke temple, and only Fuke monks were allowed to wear the tengai.

The three seals included the honsoku, the kaiin, and the tsūin. The tsūin was the Fuke monk's travel permit that allowed the monk freedom of travel throughout Japan. The kaiin was an identification document that proved the monk was a member of the Fuke sect. The honsoku was a document that explained the main tenets of the sect. It explained the connection between the Fuke sect and the Chinese "founder" P'u-k'o, as well as an explanation of the use of the tendai by the Fuke monk. The honsoku varied slightly in text, but generally included the entire Chapter 29 of the Lin-chi lu, the Zen teachings of master Lin-chi, and the following explanation of the meaning of the shakuhachi.

The shakuhachi is an instrument of the Dharma and there are numerous meanings to be found in it. The shakuhachi is made of three joints of bamboo and is divided into two sections. Each of these elements symbolizes something. The three joints are the Three Powers (Heaven, Earth and Man). The (differentiation between the four) upper and (one) lower finger holes represents the sun and the moon. The five holes are also the Five Elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Space). Taken as a whole, the shakuhachi is the profound wellspring of all phenomenal things. If a man plays the shakuhachi, all things will come to him. His mind and the realm of light and dark will become one. The tengai hat is an implement of adornment of the Fuke Sect—it is an item of clothing authorized to our sect alone.

Above the holy mountain, a singular moon,
Its light reflected in myriad streams.
P'u-k'o was a solitary wind
Whose virtue still perfumes the three kingdoms
(from Sanford 1977: 422).

The wandering Fuke monk wore simple dark blue trousers and shirt or a long kimono. Around his neck he wore a kenkon-bari, a wooden sign called the "Heaven and Earth" placard (Sanford 1977: 426). On one side of the sign was the monk's spiritual name, and on the other, the words non-born, non-dying, a Buddhist saying that referred to the experience of the constant and eternal Buddha nature beyond the confines of time. This saying referred to the transience of the temporal world and the timelessness of the transcendent consciousness as understood by an enlightened person.

The daily life of the Fuke monks at the temples was quite regulated and disciplined. The komusō monks engaged in suizen meditation, zazen (seated meditation), and sutra chanting. Daily activity at the temple centred on playing the shakuhachi. The daily schedule for the monks included practicing martial arts, practicing the shakuhachi, and begging.

The compositions played by the monks were not considered music, but meditation. Suizen, or 'Blowing meditation', and enlightenment through a single sound, ichion jōbutsu, were primary concepts of the spiritual discipline of playing shakuhachi.

The monks would travel from temple to temple and exchange pieces with each other. These pieces, called honkyoku (original pieces, as opposed to gaikyoku, ensemble pieces) are the solo pieces of the shakuhachi repertoire and were later consolidated into a group of thirty-six by Kurosawa Kinko in the 18th century. Honkyoku were pieces that were a spiritual practice not only for the players but also for the listeners.

The musical techniques and qualities of honkyoku reflect its origin in the practice of suizen and Zen spiritual discipline. The rhythm is free and dictated by the breath, the form of each piece is unique, and the pieces as a group do not subscribe to a specific compositional form.

Japanese shakuhachi since the Edo period have been made from a species of bamboo found in Japan called madake. By the early 17th century, the shakuhachi had increased in length and had become thicker and heavier. This new version also incorporated the heavy root end of the madake bamboo to be bottom of the instrument, the shakuhachi bell. The instrument also lengthened as the number of nodes changed from three to five during this period. There were both acoustical advantages to these changes as well as practical ones: the instrument could now double as a weapon for the ronin and, because of its longer length, could now play the miyako bushi scale. The Fuke shakuhachi's large finger holes, which could be half and quarter holed, and larger diameter, which allowed the player to change the angle of how the breath was blown, gave the shakuhachi the ability to play virtually any note of any scale.

Kurosawa Kinko (1710-1771) was a komusō monk who travelled throughout Japan collecting honkyoku from the different Fuke-shu temples. Kinko notated and arranged these pieces, combining similar variations of the same piece and adding a higher level of musicality to others. Although honkyoku was (and still is) primarily transferred by oral transmission in a teacher-to-student method, the written notation served as a mnemonic device and a method of preservation. Kurosawa Kinko's devotion to the spiritual nature of the shakuhachi, combined with his exceptional musicianship and determination to consolidate, preserve, and notate the honkyoku of the Fuke monks, ensured the preservation of this unique music. Without his efforts, it is probable that most of this music would have been lost forever when the Fuke sect was banned in the 19th century.

Through its history, the shakuhachi has survived changing social attitudes and Western influence, and has been played by people of many classes of society. In the last century, its transplantation to the West has increased its popularity worldwide, and it has been included in contemporary genres such as jazz and cinema, while honkyoku continues to remain popular. Its current status as a popular instrument and meditative tool internationally gives every indication that it has a long future ahead both in its home country and many countries worldwide.

For more information about the shakuhachi, please see Lauren's dissertation.