Shakuhachi and Self Cultivation
Hello Flute Portal!
I’d first like to thank Geoffrey Ellis for accepting me to be included amongst the roster of these esteemed flute artists! I’m very honored to be here. Being a shakuhachi flute player I naturally have a fondness and interest in flutes of the world so reading about other flute traditions gives me great joy. I feel I have come to a wonderful oasis of beauty and learning which will benefit me as a player and human being. Likewise, I hope my presence here will benefit those who read my blog. First I’d like to introduce myself and then use this venue for delving into certain ideas that have been at the core of why I play the shakuhachi bamboo flute.
My name is Alcvin Ramos. “Ryuzen” (Dragon Meditation) is the name given me by my shakuhachi teacher, Yoshinobu Taniguchi. In my career I have also studied with several other masters including Katsuya Yokoyama, Kaoru Kakizakai, Teruo Furuya, Atsuya Okuda, Akikazu Nakamura, and Kifu Mitsuhashi, just to name a few. I have been playing shakuhachi for about 20 years now. The underlying reason I do shakuhachi is basically an existential one: who am I in this world and what is my path in life? I observed the state of people living in society from the not so wealthy to wealthy, having the tendency to collect vast amounts of stuff. Long ago I asked myself, “How much is enough? How do I live a balanced life?” The Buddhist idea of Right Livelihood–of living a life that is ethical and beneficial for my spiritual development, helped me to choose my vocation.
I came to see that there was no relationship to how much money one makes and being truly happy. It seems like we live in a society of “addictions”. The more we get the more we crave. Spending time in a monastery taught me many important things, but I felt I needed more of a balance between society and my work. Therefore I needed to find something that made me truly happy. What could I see myself doing for the rest of life? The only thing I could think of was shakuhachi. So I chose to become a shakuhachi flute player and teacher. It seemed interesting and exciting as well as gentle on the environment and to society. But how to successfully make a living at it was another question.
The first step was to increase my skill level. The shakuhachi has a reputation of being the most difficult instrument in the world to master. So I trained very intensely with masters in Japan and attended as many workshops and lectures as possible, practicing several hours a day, working to master the honkyoku, classical zen pieces for shakuhachi. I also entered several competitions and performances in Japan to test my skill and hear critiques (and compliments) from high level players which was indispensable to my learning. I also spent time studying the art of making shakuhachi with recognized masters in order to gain a more intimate knowledge of the physics of the flute, and the process of creating a flute from harvesting bamboo to the finished instrument.
After several years of playing and studying, I applied for a shihan (master) teaching license from Katsuya Yokoyama in Japan, one of the greatest shakuhachi masters in modern history. This license would qualify me to teach shakuhachi. I was fortunate enough to receive this honor. Recently I just received my daishihan (grand master) title from Yoshinobu Taniguchi, another one of Japan’s greatest shakuhachi senseis, which was an incredible gift for me!
The next step was to find a way to make a living doing shakuhachi back home in North America. I had thought I could only do honkyoku (spiritual pieces) but I quickly found that I had to be a musician to be recognized in the west. So I had a to re-learn western music in order to communicate with other musicians. Fortunately I studied western classical music (piano, voice, trumpet) as a youth and quickly picked up what I had forgot. Once I arrived in Canada I quickly worked to establish myself in the local music scene collaborating with many different musicians from various genres. Each new musician became a teacher of mine, influencing me, and teaching me new worlds of sound and expression. But I’d have to say, the most important component of my vocation continues to be my practice of meditation (Zen) which teaches me to listen to the sounds of nature and the universe more deeply; and to intensely focus on my path. From a young age I have always been fascinated by esoteric things so the idea of shakuhachi as a tool for self-cultivation (which is the original purpose for the Komuso monks to play shakuhachi), combining it with spiritual practice continues to guide me on my path.
Everything that I derive from my shakuhachi path is nectar to my life. More importantly, I aim to live a more and more frugal and simple life. I only buy what I need and discard what I don’t need. I enjoy fully whatever comes into my life and refuse to be addicted to the thrill of acquiring more and more things (only more bamboo!). I realized if I concentrate on what I love, everything else flows naturally. I am deeply grateful for living in a place and time that grants us the freedom to live a truly balanced life.
Shakuhchai as a Way of Life
For me, shakuhachi is a way of life. Just one minor path amongst the millions of others in the human experience. How does one live a shakhachi life? First one must love the sound of the shakuhachi. To love it is to hear it being played. Then one must play it and love the playing of it. To love playing shakuhachi, one must have discipline to practice with a teacher, the classical solo meditation repertoire, honkyoku. Without honkyoku there wouldn’t be shakuhachi. Honkyoku is the essential sound of the shakuhachi which countless players before have contributed to its tradition.
Living a shakuhachi life also means being connected to Japan. To play shakuhachi, one must have an intuitive respect for Japanese culture and arts. Honkyoku and shakuhachi are inseperable from learning certain aspects of Japanese culture. If one cannot respect those aspects, then one is missing a vital part of shakuhachi. Being in relationship with a teacher is one of those aspects. It is important have a teacher (or teachers) to keep learning from and being inspired to play. This idea of “relationship” extends also to nature, the elements, to one’s self, and to the universe. When one plays, one is breathing in the atmosphere, the same air, this matrix that we all live in and projecting thoughts, energy, emotion from one’s spirit, affecting and communicating with all beings around.
Living shakuhachi also means deriving your livelihood from either teaching, playing, or making shakuhachi. In today’s world, this requires one to be a musician or craftsman. To teach shakuhachi, one must have studied with a teacher and have knowledge of teaching techniques. A teacher must charge for lessons to derive his or her living. Other ways of making a living are recording music to sell, giving performances, lectures, and making flutes to sell. There is nothing un-spiritual about this. This is good since it forces one to practice and keep one’s skill level up.
One can live like a Komoso, living on the street and playing for food. But it is extremely difficult. Since there are no more government-supported temples to support Komuso activities, it is impossible to live like the Komuso of the Edo (17th Century Japan) period.
Of course one can have a normal day job and still enjoy shakuhachi deeply.
Since there are an infinite number of things one can address about the shakuhachi, I will try to limit my blogs to how shakuhachi relates to self cultivation, which I believe lies at the core of the practice and which drew me to this incredible flute in the first place.