Reflections on Teaching Shakuhachi
Well, it’s been a while! I hope everyone’s winter is going as well as possible. My winter has been quite introspective, but busy nonetheless with teaching and flute making. So writing has been on the back burner. But now that the weather is getting bit warmer, my brain is revving up with it so I feel like writing again.
I am so thankful for the shakuhachi as it has made my life deeper and has opened me up to worlds of beauty and wonder.
It seems today that everything is so disconnected, fragmented, split apart; everything from families, to minds and bodies, to our relationship with nature and the cosmos. Ironically, the internet is creating a strange kind of unity with consciousnesses and countries and cultures that is quite fascinating to observe. With the rapid rise of popularity of the internet, most of my students now, I teach via internet. This is a kind of mixed blessing because since I live so far from the city it is very convenient for me to stay at home to teach, but much is lost in this process. Such is the way of life today. Traditionally shakuhachi is taught face to face, teacher and student together. The student listens and repeats whatever the teacher plays. This process goes on until the student learns the piece. In the old days, no notation was used and there was no explanation of how to do the techniques or difficult passages. That was up to the student to work out. It was not uncommon to take us much as 3 years to learn one piece. Today we use notation and use much talking to explain technical details. And now internet is becoming a common practice and it is really great for those who don’t live near a teacher. So anyone, anywhere in the world can learn shakuhachi now! However, there is no substituting the pleasure and benefit of actually learning face to face. On the internet (e.g. using Skype, iChat, etc.) one cannot hear and feel the actual sound or the teacher so it is difficult to really know if the proper sound is being produced. Also, it is impossible to play together since there is a slight delay in the connection and so it is impossible to feel the mind/breath flow of the teacher and piece which is important in the learning process. So to solve this problem, I record the piece on mp3 for the student and they can play on their own in their own time. But person to person is the best way to learn so I offer retreats at my home for students to come and train. If money was not an issue, I would teach students for free and build a shakuhachi monastery where people can live and learn shakuhachi for free in exchange for their personal donations or whatever they can offer. The only prerequisite is a deep desire to learn shakuhachi.
I am eternally grateful for all the students I have. They are the ones keeping the tradition of shakuhachi alive and flowing. I learn something new from every student and it deepens my relationship with the honkyoku (original pieces).
When you become a student of shakuhachi, you also become a member of an international community that is growing every day. This community extends throughout the world. It consists of hundreds of your fellow students.
The word dojo literally means “place of the Way”. The dojo is a place of learning; a place to respect, keep clean, and to care for. A place to be made special for practicing a special art.
Shakuhachi can be taught anywhere and everywhere; in living rooms, garages, community centres, next to a running river, in your living room on the internet. It is important to remember that the place where shakuhachi is practiced becomes, at least symbolically, a dojo, a sacred space, and should be treated as such. This is part of the reality and tradition of shakuhachi. Eventually you will come to appreciate its inner value.
The student sits in front of the teacher. Traditionally in Japan, seiza (“sitting with legs folded sitting on your feet”) is often practiced. For most westerners (and modern Japanese), this is very difficult. So sitting on chairs, isuzo, is usually done. Loose fitting clothing should be worn to enhance the free flow of energy through the body. Many teachers teach strictly privately in a private room. Others practice a more open form of teaching where all the students gather in one room as the teacher teaches each student one at a time while the other students observe the lesson and wait their turn. The lesson begins with a formal bow and the expression of onegaishimasu, which means “please” or “I ask a favor” and at the end of the lesson arigatou gozaimashita, or “thank you” is said.
Without a qualified teacher to guide one in the shakuhachi path, it can be extremely frustrating and slow, and will perhaps lead one to quit before ever witnessing your art blossom. Even with a teacher, seeing progress can be quite slow. Patience is so essential. A common phrase in Japan which all teachers say to students when one undertakes a difficult path is, ganbatte kudasai, which roughly translates as “hang in there, do your ultimate best”. So true for shakuhachi!
In the end, the study of shakuhachi is what you make it. The world of shakuhachi is deep and broad. You can tread a purely musical, intellectual road with it or you can dive into the profound realms of meditation and spiritual development. Each student maintains control of their individual training level. Shakuhachi can be enjoyed by both the player and listener but to understand the shakuhachi one must hold and blow the instrument. You must listen to the sounds of nature because it will continually provide you with different stimuli and a feeling for the traditional pieces. During the learning process, you must always strive to keep an open mind. By doing this your technique will become more diverse and take on more meaning.
One of the hardest things to overcome for the beginning student is the feeling that you are not “good” enough in playing. This is erroneous thinking. Shakuhachi is a most humbling path. It requires great patience and the ability to let go much of what we have learned in the past and open ourselves to a new and different way. We must re-learn our most basic skills of breathing, listening, sitting, and moving. This may be the most challenging and perhaps the most rewarding of experiences. Learning something of great quality never comes quickly. Just as a finely crafted piece of art takes time to create, the learning of shakuhachi requires years of study. We must develop patience with ourselves and then add to that by learning patience and understanding of others.
Until my next post,