Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos' Blog

Alcvin is a professional player and teacher, and maker of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. He has studied extensively with the worlds top masters of the instrument as well as studying biwa (Japanese lute) with biwa master Yukio Tanaka. Alcvin is a composer and player of a variety of instruments and has been experimenting with new ways of playing traditional instruments as well as with synthesized and electronic music. He has taught and performed in North America, Europe and Japan, and pursues an active solo as well as collaborative career, playing with such artists as John McLaughlin, Bill Laswell, Hun Huur Tuu Mongolian Throat Singers, Toshinori Kondo, Joseph Pepe Danza, and Uzume Taiko. He has recorded both classical shakuhachi music and electronic fusion pieces, and Dharmakasa, a group he co-leads, received a Canada Council grant in 2007 to produce their full length CD of fusion/experimental works. Alcvin also runs the Bamboo-In Shakuhachi Retreat Centre on the Sunshine Coast of BC. Visit Alcvins' website.


Reflections on Teaching Shakuhachi

2010 February 3
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

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 Dojo

Shakuhachi lesson at Taniguchi sensei's dojo

Shakuhachi lesson at Taniguchi sensei's dojo, Japan.

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,

Ganbatte kudasai!

Blowing good energy to you!

Blowing good energy to you!


Shinobue

2009 September 21
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

Shinobue (known in the west as fue) is a Japanese transverse flute which emits a high-pitched sound. It is performed in hayashi (festival) and nagauta (ensemble music with koto zither and shamisen banjo ensembles), and plays important roles in noh and kabuki theatre music. It is heard in Shinto religious music such as kagura-den, as well as in traditional Japanese folk songs and more recently with taiko drum ensembles.

Many players in Japan claim that the shinobue is the only indigenous Japanese flute. But I find this hard to believe as the influence of China and Korea as well as distantly from India was so great and they have a variety of side blown flutes eg. bansuri (India), taegum (Korea), dizi, bawu (China) that may have influenced the creation of the shinobue. But the shinobue has a distinctly a Japanese sound that is intensely beatuiful.

There are two styles: uta (song) and hayashi (festival). The uta is properly tuned to the Western scale, and can be played in ensembles or as a solo instrument. The uta style is a result of the impact of western music in Japan; first with military music and then more profoundly of the piano.

The hayashi style is the older style which does not need to play ensemble music therefore the flute is not tuned accurately. It is mainly played to accompany festival/folk music.

Shinobue is made from the upper length of the shino bamboo stalk, which is a thinner spieces of phyllostachs bamboo found all over Japan. The inner bore is usually shaped with a drill then lacquered with urushi and sometimes the surface of the outside of the flute is lacquered as well. Often the two ends are bound and wrapped with rattan to keep the bamboo from splitting. Like the ryuteki (another side-blown flute used in Japanese coure music), the uta flutes have seven finger holes. Hayashi flutes have 6 holes. Other flutes are only made in one length, but since the shinobue must match the pitch of the singer and shamisen an entire set of various pitches is needed. There are 12 to 13 sizes of flute, each a semitone apart.

I first heard the shinobue in a movie by Akira Kurosawa called RAN. The player was Hiroyuki Koinuma and the piece was composed by Toru Takemitsu. It was this sound that pulled me to discover Japanese flutes and consequently led me to the shakuhachi. My first shakuhachi teacher gave me a shinobue to enjoy another timbre of flute, but he was by no means a qualified teacher. Through the years I´ve been playing shinobue on my own developing a strong embouchure and listening to various fine players. After nearly 20 years the door to the shinobue world finally opened to me and I will be taking formal lessons with Hiroyuki Koinuma himself when I go back to Japan in 2010.  Also with masters of the Wakayama-ryu style in Tokyo.

Last night Uzume Taiko Ensemble gave our first show in Germany to a packed house. It was  a great show with standing ovations, flowers, and and encore. One of the pieces I composed for two shinobue and taiko called “Fue Fubuki” (Fue Storm) . It sounded wonderful. It was the first time hearing it in a live performance so I was very pleased.

Until next time,

Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

www.bamboo-in-com

On the Road Again

2009 September 19
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

At the moment I am in Dusseldof, Germany, the starting point of my tour with the Uzume Taiko Ensemble. Our first show will be in Wuppertal  tomorrow night. We  have 20 straight shows with Mondays off.  It´s gonna be a tough tour but I´m grateful to be working playing music. With all the budget cuts to the arts going in Canada at the moment, it´s truly a blessing to have work like this.

This show is interesting for me as I will not only be playing shakuhachi but a variety of other wind instruments as well such as:  shinobue, duduk (Armenian), piri (Korean oboe),  didgeridoo, conch; as well as vocals and Vietnamese mouth harp. Shakuhachi is my core of course and it will be one of the features of this particular show. One of the very cool things about being a musician is the opportunity to play these fascinating instruments. It´s a great way to live! It´s very fulfilling and there is lots of freedom and you get to meet lots of interesting people and visit new and fascinating places. Touring one month out of the year is just right for me. I start to miss my beautiful home and wife on the Sunshine Coast of Canada!

By the way, it´s great to see Ash Dargin blogging about the didgeridoo! I´ve been playing didgeridoo almost as long as shakuhachi and it has definitely enriched my shakuhachi playing, as I often use circular breathing when I play contemporary music. One of my shakuhachi students did her PhD dissertation on the relationship between avian (bird) respiration and didgeridoo/shakuhachi playing which is very interesting. When she publishes it I will let you all know how to access it and read it.

Gratitude is at the heart of shakuhachi playing for me. I consider it a miracle that I am actualy doing what I am doing. My road has been so full of pain and suffering; but I kept on this path guided by my love for this bamboo flute. I told myself early on, “Rich or poor, I´ll keep playing shakuhachi for the rest of my life.” “Okagesame de” is a Japanese phrase which expresses the deep gratitude for existing in this world due to all one´s relationships with all the people and things in life, which expresses perfectly what I feel.

Another Japanese bamboo flute which I play is the Shinobue, which I will be writing more about in my next post. This is a Japanese side-blown flute which I will be doing more work with in the years to come. One of the other new drummers in the group, Eien Hunter Ishikawa, is a fine shinobue player and very inspiring to work with as he is a very skilled musician and has a deep connection to Japanese culture (particularly taiko drum and shinobue). The art of shinobue is an under-appreciated beauty which I hope to see more of it grown in the future. Folks such of Motofumi Yamaguchi of the famed KODO drummers of Japan, and more recently, Kaoru Watanabe (also a former member of Kodo) have been instrumental in introducing this most beautiful and unique flute to the world. I look forward to sharing some of my experiences with this flute with  you.

Until next time…

Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

www.bamboo-in.com

Shakuhachi and Self Cultivation

2009 July 5
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

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.’”

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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.

Cross-training

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.

–Alcvin

www.bamboo-in.com

Shakuhachi and Self-Cultivation

2009 June 10
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

(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!

–Alcvin 

 

Shakuhachi and Self-Cultivation

2009 June 3
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

Fishing for Kami

 

Just completed a retreat with Bruno Deschenes from Montreal. Every summer I open my home to students who want to do intensive practice of shakuhachi. Teaching is learning more about shakuahchi for me. It is part of my shakuhachi life. Although I am teaching a student, I am also learning lots from them and the process as well. In the west, there is a saying in the arts: “Those who can’t do, teach!” In Japanese (and other eastern cultures), the perception is different. Teaching is an ubiquitous part in the life of the artist. Teachers are highly respected and consequently have a high level of responsibility in the spiritual and artistic development of the student. 

I feel incredibly fortunate to live in an incredibly beautiful place to offer shakuhachi retreats. I feel it’s important to have a place amongst beautiful natural setting far from the city to have a good retreat. Walking and training amongst the ancient trees, the ocean, lakes, hills is so wonderful to connect and communicate with nature’s beauty and intelligence. In Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, there is a belief in Kami, or nature spirits that inhabit all natural phenomenon from rocks to the sky, storms, animals, plants, and humans. Although zen Buddhism was a major influence in shakuhachi practice, so was Shinto to shakuhachi. The idea of Misogi Shugyo, constant daily training, is very important in esoteric Shinto. “Rise early in the morning to greet the sun. Inhale and let yourself soar to the ends of the universe; breathe out and let the cosmos inside. Next breathe up the fecundity and vibrance of the earth. Blend the breath of earth with your own and become the breath of life itself. Your mind and body will be gladdened, depression and heartache will dissipate and you will be filled with gratitude (kansha).” Every morning we walked to the ocean and warmed our bodies up with 200 strokes of the wooden staff or sword. Then blew 100 long tones on shakuhachi then played honkyoku. It’s a wonderful way to start the day! One of the mornings while walking back home from our misogi, carrying our staffs and shakuhachi, a local lady passed us and smile, asking us if we  had a good time and if had caught anything in the ocean. I just smiled at her and said, “Yes, we had a great catch!” Bruno and and I just smiled silently at each other and I thought, “Yes, we are certainly caught a big Kami!” 

Bruno spent 4 days and nights here and I pushed him to his limit. Here was the daily schedule:

 AM

7:00  Rise

7:30  Walk; staff/ken training;RO Buki by the ocean

9:00 Breakfast, rest, free time

10:00 Shakuhachi Lesson

PM

12:00  Lunch, rest, free time, practice

1:00 Shakuhachi making

4:00  Shakuhachi Lesson

6:00  Supper, free time, rest, practice

7:30 Shakuhachi lesson

9:30 Sitting meditation

10:30  Retire


It’s great to be on a steady schedule of shugyou, shakuhachi practice, contemplation, and wonderful meals every day.  Sandra  cooked all around the clock making sure that Bruno was well-fed.

 

5 days Retreat Menu

Day 1

Dinner:

BBQ chicken

Grilled vegetables

Chocolate almond souffle

 

Day 2

 Breakfast:

Popover

Fruits

 

Lunch:

Lentil soup

Rosemary bread

Hummus

Salad

watermelon

 

Dinner:

BBQ salmon

Asparagus

Brown rice

Ice cream and fruits

 

Day 3

 Breakfast:

Blueberry muffins

Fruits

 

Lunch:

Spinach pie

Salad

Fruits

 

Dinner:

Sushi wraps

Miso soup

Pie w/ ice cream

 

Day 4

Breakfast:

Scones

fruits

 

Lunch:

Sandwich

Squash soup

fruits

 

Dinner:

Seafood pasta

Salad w/ goat cheese and cranberries

Banana bread

 

Day 5

Breakfast:

Toast

Omelette

Fruits

 

Lunch:

Picnic

wraps

banana bread

 

Dinner:

Hot pot

Brown rice

Banana soufflé

 

It’s really moving to see him put all his heart into studying shakuhachi. That’s the proper way to approach shakuhachi! Even though I push him to his limit, he never gets discouraged and finds the beauty and love in the experience. He’s been taking internet lessons with me for the last couple of years, so it is such a relief to actually have concentrated lessons face to face. So much more is imparted. Most importantly is hearing and feeling the actual sound and expression, which is very limited over the internet. Interestingly, I have more internet students now than actual face to face students!

I only offer retreats for one person at a time as I think this is the best way for a student to get concentrated attention. My intention is to teach people how to play shakuhachi to the best of their ability. Much of my teaching is giving the student a strong foundation in basic technique. If the student has enough faith in me, I guarantee that I will teach the student how to play properly and to maximize their enjoyment of the shakuhachi. Along with strong technique, I also emphasize spirituality in the experience of shakuhachi as I believe how one imagines one’s life, and their relationship with the universe, nature, spirit is the most important thing in life. Shakuhachi is merely a tool to express one’s spirit, and to train the mind and body for unifying with the cosmos in a deeper way. I want to teach the student how to play honkyoku wonderfully; but I also teach how to play ensemble music (with koto and shamisen); modern music, and improvisation if the students chooses to do so. But the emphasis is always on growing the root in honkyoku as this is the sound that should influence all other types of music one plays.

There are many teachers and styles of shakuhachi in Japan and more teachers outside of Japan are increasing. I encourage students to experience as many dimensions of shakuhachi as they can and that means having the freedom to train with more than one teacher. No one teacher can give a student all she or he needs. But I think that studying with one teacher for at least the first few years (especially if the teacher is a good one) is very beneficial for the student as one can form a strong foundation in playing and understanding the shakuhachi.  

The rest of the summer retreat schedule is booked full. If there is anyone interested in coming for a retreat next year please contact me: ramos@dccnet.com. You can see more information about Bamboo-In Shakuhachi Retreat Centre here: http://www.bamboo-in.com/about-us/temple.html.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (thank you in advance for accepting be in your group and your time)

 

Alcvin

Shakuhachi and Self Cultivation

2009 May 28
by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos

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.