Shakuhachi and Self Cultivation

2009 July 5

Bamboo Aripana

“The symbolic representation of the cosmos as a bamboo grove–an image of fertility and of family life, which grows up round an ancestor like a clump of bamboo round the first shoot–demonstrates that everyone must find that aspect of divinity most appropriate to him/herself. Some plants–the bamboo, for example–most particularly manifest one or another aspect of the Supreme Being, whom the Bhagavad Gita has say: ‘When one of my faithful desires with all his faith to worship me in a particular form, I take that form.’”


I’ve been working a lot on making shakuhachi lately. The process of shakuhachi making is much like playing: that you need to practice a lot to refine your skill! It’s also meaningful in reflecting upon the human condition. It’s a process of transformation from group mind/soul to the individual mind/soul. Rebirth. It’s a shaping of emptiness of the bore. And it is purifying, cleaning of the surface of the skin, and the strata of one’s being. The smallest change in details can affect the sound in a major way. I recommend a lovely book written by Tarchin Hearn called “Something Beautiful for the World: a shakuhachi sadhana”. My meeting Tarchin was very synchronistic which I’ll tell you in another post.

One of my teachers in Japan once told me “Shakuhachi is whatever you make it.” This was very liberating for me to hear this during my training in Japan, being immersed in the whole culture of shakuhachi in Japan which can be quite intense, with pressure to conform to your style and group for your whole life. But I know it was important to get deep into the the practice, to master the techniques in order to transcend it. But it takes years. One of the dangers of that is that you identify so much with your style that you close your mind off to other ways of being/playing. Thanks to the raw shakuhachi (a.k.a. hocchiku), my mind was opened to a deeper level of shakuhachi.

For me shakuhachi is a reflection of the self. It’s really a mundane mystery, like a tool to clear and energize the heart/mind and train the body especially the lips. The martial arts of the lips! (That’s no exaggeration!) It’s an umbilical cord to the universe. I choose to make it an instrument for shaping one’s spirit. In the East there is the concept of Ki (in Chinese: chi/qi) This is the life essence; the energy of the universe manifesting itself in various ways such as the air we breath, emotions, psychic and physical energy, natural phenomenon like weather, growth energy of plants, animals, etc. Shakuhachi practices carving the matrix of air we inhabit to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony and profundity. We also carve our spirit to become strong in overcoming our difficulties, and to maintain a calm mind amidst the distractions of life.

The Way of Bamboo (Take no Michi)

A long time ago, bamboo spoke to me starting a dialog that has deepened profoundly. I’ve been traveling the path of bamboo for nearly half my life now. It is my root for seeing the divinity in all things, and so my gratitude is great for shakuhachi. It has given me all that I have. The beauty is beyond words. It is an ethical instrument which has had a positive effect on me in general. I want to credit shakuhachi for helping me greatly to be:

-more humble

-more respectful and appreciative of everything

-more expressive of my spirit through music and art

-more equanimous and in control of my emotions

-more happy, confident, and joyful

In order for the player to unite with the playee, one has to practice long years to dissolve the ego into the sea of illusion. In the beginning, there is too much self-consciousness to successfully bridge the gap between subject and object. Only through steady practice can one merge. Eventually you’ll forget about the audience, your body, environment, and all there will be left is breathing. Breathing is the highest truth. Controlled breathing unifies all aspects of the mind. In shakuhachi, the source of all is the Great Silence, “MA”, which gives life and depth to the original pieces (honkyoku). It is the silence that we are always coming from and approaching to.

One of the patriarchs of the style I practice is an idiosyncratic shakuhachi-playing genius, Watazumi Doso, who was known to be the ultimate iconoclast with a monstrous ego. His stories of how he disrupts the social order are legendary amongst shakuhachi players. Although I’ve never met him, there is something about him that I am attracted to. It is his his hidden beauty under the his surface of ugliness. His raw passion and love for shakuhachi and independent, rebellious, creative spirit. Strange man, but fascinating like all great artists are. I thank him for what he has done for the shakuhachi, but feel the pain that he must  have endured struggling with his inner demons!

The Dark Side of Shakuhachi

Although Watazumi Doso had a dark side which he embodied in his music, there is also a negative aspect I believe of the shakuhachi experience;  it is how attached one can become to the shakuhachi to the point of affecting one’s moral decisions. This is kind of obsession that  can manifest itself in the desire to steal from others. I’ve seen people become so absorbed in it that they get too greedy and disregard other people’s feelings in life. I love shakuhachi and feel a kindred spirit of others who play, but I would give shakuhachi up if it started to hurt others. I’ve heard of students who take advantage of a teacher’s kindness by not paying for lessons. Desire can really corrupt. And even those who use religious teachings to manipulate others into doing what they want. And then there who those who are so ego-driven that they disregard anyone who is in their way stepping on and barreling them off their path without a shred of remorse. It’s a de-evolution of spirit. Ego working it’s insidious ways. It reminds me of the rogues who corrupted the original shakuhachi in old Japan. Shakuhachi was originally a tool to reach enlightenment utilized by Komuso monks of the Fuke sect of blowing zen. But eventually rogues and outlaws somehow joined the sect and started using the shakuhachi as a weapon to strike fear into people. It was these folks who corrupted the sect to the point where the government felt a need to abolish it. So the same human impurities continue to possess us. Shakuhachi is whatever you choose it to be. I prefer to view it as an object for goodness, peace, and harmony. I must admit, I too felt the obsession, but realized the sickness of it and willed myself not to be so attached to it all. There is a great temptation to spend all of  one’s my money on the acquisition of flutes as shakuhachi can be very expensive. I don’’t view the fact that they’re expensive as necessarily negative. It’s just a test to overcome an obstacle on the Path. I started out with quite inferior flutes which I played on for years. Since my object was more on the greater experience rather than the money, I could only dream of having and playing these exquisite musical instruments. But I kept playing and struggled with what I had. I kept my focus for many years and through the natural power of attraction and synchronicity these fine instrument and great experiences eventually came into my life to evolve me as a shakuhachi lover. It’s a natural occurrence, but it still blows my mind.

This love of the shakuhachi means becoming totally absorbed in it to the point of losing one’s self, at which point you access the deep, mysterious power of the cosmos. But the danger is to be too attached to it, which can turn one into a “hungry ghost” which can hurt oneself and others. So, gentleness and humility as well as strength of will are needed to navigate on this path.


Once I was a multi-instrumentalist playing instruments such as guitar, keyboards, percussions, brass instruments, etc. But when I found the shakuhachi I quickly found how “jealous” the shakuhachi can be. What I mean is that I found that in order for me to really make any significant progress in shakuhachi I would have to completely focus solely on the shakuhachi (especially in the initial years of learning). It wasn’t until after 7 years of practice that I started “cross-training” in other instruments, but only to help improve my shakuhachi sense. I studied the biwa (Japanese Lute) and singing to help me feel the essence of Japaanese music and tonalities. Instruments that have been used especially for self-cultivation has been a great interest of mine since I first started studying shakuhachi, and the biwa is one of these instruments. So having the opportunity to study with a great teacher of this instrument was an incredible realization. I also began studying other forms of percussion and came back to western music which has helped my shakuhachi playing. My most recent instrument of study is the guqin, the Chinese 7-stringed zither which has a long history of self-cultivation and is helping me understand from another cultural perspective, music as a meditatve practice. It’s very exciting! Other beneficial cross-training activities that benefit shakuhachi are martial arts like aikido and kendo; tai chi chuan, kyudo; and other physical excercises like chi gong, swimming, running, walking, rock climbing, gardening, cooking….but be careful to protect your hands from injury!

I’m still learning and remembering Shoshin every day.


5 Comments leave one →
2009 July 5
Wanbli WiWohpe permalink

Hau ! Wopila ! Thank You For More Thoughts To Carry.

2009 July 20

Thank you Alcvin

2009 July 31

Hau Wanbli WiWohpe! I’m so glad that you have connected with Herajika-shiku, Elk Bamboo! I love the videos you posted on you tube! Have a great summer!


2009 July 31

Hau Wanbli WiWohpe! I’m so glad that you have connected with Herajika-chiku, Elk Bamboo! I love the videos you posted on you tube! Have a great summer!


2009 August 15
Wanbli WiWohpe permalink

You came to me in a Dream at the Sundance. Wopila. Thank You.

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