Shakuhachi and Self-Cultivation

2009 June 10

(Note: although the following views are from the perspective of a shakuhachi player, I believe they may applicable to any instrumental/spiritual path.)

Shoshin Solstice

This morning I had a dream. I was somewhere, maybe in Japan in what looked like the house of shakuhachi master, Kaoru Kakizakai sensei in Chichibu, Saitama, Japan. I was writing on a wall that had a chalkboard on it. The surrounding walls and floor were a beautiful brown wood, finely polished and there was a hint of lovely tatami aroma somewhere. Kakizakai sensei was near me dressed in his black and grey kimono. I was writing something about shakuhachi in a happy state. Then Kakizakai sensei walks away and says, “Sorry for bothering you.” I immediately took him by his arm and pulled him aside and sat him down on the nearest couch with tears in my eyes speaking from my heart in the most sincerest way I can,”Sensei, although I’ve studied with many teachers in my life, it is you who have made the deepest effect on my shakuhachi life. You gave me the foundation I needed to grow as an authentic shakuhachi artist. Thank you for your teaching. I can never thank you enough!” I am sobbing quite heavily while I say this because it is truly what I felt. Then I awoke with my eyes still flowing with tears. I would like to send this feeling of gratitude to all the teachers I’ve had.

As we approach the summer solstice, it is a great time to be reminded of  the roots of shakuhachi. The shakuhachi came to Japan from China in the  ca. 6th Century and went through various manifestations until it was transformed by a small group of zen Buddhist monks into the root-ended, 5-holed bamboo flute that we know today. The first formal piece of honkyoku composed is a piece called Kyorei or empty bell, expressing the ringing bell of Fuke Zenji, the Chinese monk who’s name the legendary shakuhachi-playing sect in Japan was dedicated to. 

Honshirabe is the first honkyoku that we are taught in the school of Katsuya Yokoyama. The meaning is “Original Tuning” or “Search for the Origin”. Another pronunciation of this piece is “Choshi”. It was used by the komuso monks of old as a warm up before playing other longer pieces. Each school has their own style and they all venerate it as being the easiest piece yet the most difficult at the same time that one must absolutely memorize. Although it is the shortest piece in the repertoire it has all the most basic techniques in it that one uses in honkyoku in its most concentrated form. It also is referring to the state of mental and spiritual inquiry into “Who am I? Where does this sound come from; where does it go?”  The answer-less questions. 


Remembering  Shoshin

Studying shakuhachi is intense sonic stylization by the use of technique and principle. There is a Japanese saying, “Itsumo shoshin Omoidashite” which translates as “Always remember beginner’s mind.” Sho means “first” or “beginning”. Shin means heart/mind/spirit” or “attitude”. Therfore Shoshin refers to the heart of a complete beginner when starting shakuhachi training. Shoshin is the essential state of mind in zen. It is indicates openess to all possibilities, freshness, spontaneity as well as modesty, sincerity, and purity.

In Japan, pursuing any artistic discipline is expected to be quiet severe and difficult requiring many years of dedicated training to master. By keeping Shoshin one can find a spirit of endurance, sacrifice, devotion, and self control.

The state attained through spiritual realization, the highest state of shakuhachi, is often expressed as Ichi On Jobutsu, or Buddhahood in a single tone. It is represented by the sound of wind blowing across a decaying bamboo stalk, natural, empty, and unassuming, reflecting all sounds of the universe itself. It is also understood as a sequence of breaths that keep us alive, The breath is LIFE itself, and we can’t predict when we will die. The state of Ichi On Jobutsu is the merging of the opposites where player, the played (instrument), and playee (audience) have no distinction. However there is an important distinction between a static piece of bamboo (flute) and this dynamic state of mind. 

Of course, Jobutsu may be attained through other spiritual disciplines. What makes shakuhachi unique, however, is found in the simultaneous and inseperable embodiment of mind, technique, and breath sound.

Aikido master, Kazuo Chiba sensei says, “Shoshin is the mind or attitude required to follow the teaching. This means embodying sincerity, meekness, humility, thirst for seeking the Path, unaffected by  a mind of selfishness, judgement, or discrimination. It is like pure white silk before it is dyed. It is also an important condition for the first stage in which a beginner learns to embody the basics precisely point by point, line by line, with an immovable faith in the teaching.”

Even an advanced level player should always remember the mindset she/he had when first starting to maintain an attitude of openness and growth.


MA and Tameh

MA is dynamic space that supports creation. Unlike in western music which emphasizes a profusion of notes, rhythms and harmonic progression, shakuhachi honkyoku emphasizes absolute timing, space or interval as expressed in the phrase “zettai no ma,” and  is necessary to play honkyoku properly. The samurai warriors of old understood this since it was imperative that their timing in a sword fight must be perfect or they could be killed. Likewise, in playing honkyoku the player must create exact appropriate spaces between notes and phrases when these occur. It is an idea which changes with each moment.

Tameh describes a sense of timing within the phrases of honkyoku. It is a fulfillment of the phrase to create a state of non-expectation with highest tension. It is the feeling of the archer’s bow just at the point of letting the arrow loose. Or the point of collapse of the water breaking through a dam. Of the sensation of snow as it falls from the bending bamboo stalk. Through constant and intense practice with a teacher transference of knowledge can be achieved.


Hara and Tanden (The Centre of Power)

The hara is the point, the gateway where man and the universe meet. Keep a conscious awareness of the breathing process felt in the belly. Just behind and below your navel (belly button) is the tanden, which is felt as a spiritual ball of energy. We really don’t know where the tanden is but by visualizing it, we can take advantage of it. Developing a strong hara is the secret to shakuhachi playing. When you focus on your hara and tanden instead of your chest (and head), your discriminating mind slows down and you can relax in the expanded world of pure being. Thoughts gradually dissipate on their own without inner conflict. That’s why Buddhas in the East are depicted with big bellies. This is the key to meditation and spiritual power.

In Daily Life

Enjoyment and appreciation is important in playing shakuhachi. Since the mind usually goes to what we are doing, one must feel good, relaxed, and a gentleness toward life. In order to get the most out of your shakuhachi practice Ive listed some steps:

1. Train hard. Concentrate on the basics. Condition your mind and body. Absorb all you can from your sensei.

2. As your skill and confidence level increase. Attend seminars, try other teachers, and play with as many people as you can. Above all, keep and open mind.

3. When you find that special teacher (and this may be more that once in your life) follow your heart. Do what you feel to be right. Train for yourself first. To do less is to be dishonest with yourself and others.

 4. Life. Wondering about it is functional, peaceful warfare. A beginning of a deeper wakefulness. 


Itsumo shoshin omoidashite!



5 Comments leave one →
2009 June 11
Wanbli WiWohpe permalink


2009 June 11
Wanbli WiWohpe permalink

I enjoy your words, I know I cannot follow “The Way” as it requires meekness. I cannot be meek. Our Way, Lakol Wicohan, asks us for a deep Humility, and requires us to see clearly, the gulf between meekness and Humility.

Truly, I have found through Sacrifice and Suffering that Humility often calls for us to defeat meekness within ourselves.

Toksa Ake’.

2009 June 11

Ohayou gozaimasu!

We all have different philosophies and through our experiences we choose what we feel is best. I think Chiba sensei was trying to emphasize humility and the non-violent aspect of his martial artform (aikido); and to only use those particularly powerful techniques only for self defense. And of course he was speaking from within the “in group” of the Aikido culture. If some drunk redneck were to come into that circle of aikidoists and disrupt things, I don’t think he would be meek at all!

Sadly enough, I think meekness in society was a natural, peaceful way for many indigenous societies all over the world and that may have contributed to their susceptibility to be overpowered and oppressed by the European colonists; I understand that when your culture is under the threat of extinction, then meekness is not a wise thing to embody. The Japanese certainly were not meek in their reaction to European colonization of Asia; nor were the Southern Filipinos from the Japanese colonization of the Philippines, and many other others who way of life was threatened.

Mata yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

2009 June 11
Wanbli WiWohpe permalink

“Sadly enough, I think meekness in society was a natural, peaceful way for many indigenous societies all over the world and that may have contributed to their susceptibility to be overpowered and oppressed by the European colonists; I understand that when your culture is under the threat of extinction, then meekness is not a wise thing to embody.–Ryuzen”

You are very wise. Your blog and my response to it, have been in my Being all day, and your words sum up my sense of it all. I so appreciate that you are alive. Wopila Lila Tanka. Wanbli WiWohpe, Lakota Elk Dreamer.

2009 June 23

I find myself constantly struggling to balance freedom and discipline in my practice. Your words inspire me.

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