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In an old Zen story it has been said that a certain monk name Kakua was asked to appear before the Emperor and explain the essence of Zen. Kakua arrived at the court and stood quietly before the Emperor and all his esteemed advisors and courtesans who had all gathered to hear this renowned teacher. After standing for a long period in silence, during which time the court grew agitated, Kakua removed a bamboo flute from the folds of his robe, blew one short single tone, bowed politely and left. He returned to the mountains where he was seldom heard from again.
This short story, in its direct and amusing way, aptly defines the principle which I chose for these ramblings, Ichi-on Jobutsu. It also points directly to the relationship between my practice, shakuhachi suizen, and the principles of Zen Buddhism.
The term, Ichi-on Jobutsu, is usually translated as "enlightenment in a single sound". This often leads to the misunderstanding that in "sui-zen" or "blowing zen" we shakuhachi players are seeking enlightenment through the performance of so called Zen music. While it may be true in many instances, I prefer the following interpretation which presents a subtle but quite profound difference: "in a single sound there is (already) enlightenment". Practicing shakuhachi sui-zen is one of many ways to realize this truth.
Sui-zen Music, zen-blowing.
The shakuhachi is a simple bamboo pipe played by a group of Buddhist monks called the Fuke-shu. It has a repertoire of music intended to bring the mind directly into spiritual contemplation. The act of blowing the bamboo, "sui-zen", is a direct extension of yogic breathing patterns encountered in many eastern contemplative disciplines and is designed to lengthen the out-breath. In this the case, the practice focuses the breath or spirit, the body and the mind on the production and awareness of sound. The shakuhachi, by its nature, is extremely difficult to play and thus requires deep concentration and a great deal of practice. This difficulty also has a physical component as making any sound at all requires great breath control and deep abdominal breathing. Add to this the proper seiza (kneeling) posture required in zazen and the demands on the player to remain composed become quite significant. After prolonged practice, however, this difficulty becomes a source of great strength and the player can begin to focus his attention more on the sound.
Many of the ancient meditative pieces are quite simple in structure, allowing complete attention on the process of producing and receiving sound. Each tone is played with equal focus and importance, and with an empty and an open mind, listening deeply to the sound produced.
Eventually, the breath, the posture, and the movement of the fingers and heart become unified and interdependent and the sound seems to happen by itself. At this point the real work of meditation can begin. The sound is conceived in the mind, sometimes by perceiving the notation. The conception then leaves the mind, enters the lungs and the fingers, passes through the bamboo as breath, exits as sound, enters the outside world and the returns to the mind through the ears. The fingers feel the vibration of the bamboo and the spirit is stilled. A following space we call "ma" emphasizes the stillness. As the sound of the previous tone or phrase dies away, another breath is taken, and the cycle continues until the piece comes to an end. All of this takes place in a precise way, passed down through many generations of teachers and students, over many centuries, thereby realizing a direct spiritual connection between countless sui-zen practitioners across time, space, and cultural barriers.
The instrument used in this practice, the shakuhachi, has a long and colorful history. There is little doubt that the flute originally came from China to Japan around 500 to 580 A.D. Some instruments dating from 752 A.D. are still preserved in the Shosoin repository at Todai-ji in Nara; and, it is thought that these shakuhachi were played at the consecration of the Great Buddha in Nara in 754 A.D. A 9th century document mentions that Prince Taiho, and a high ranking Buddhist cleric, Jikaku Taishi, of the Tendai sect, enjoyed playing shakuhachi. This is perhaps the first record of a cleric playing shakuhachi and it is claimed that he studied for many years in China.
The shakuhachi appears intermittently in documentation over the next few centuries and is mentioned in the literature of the Muromachi period (1338-1575) as being played by mendicant priests. Several Buddhist sects appeared during this period and some are reported to have sought recognition and protection from the military government established at Kamakura in 1185 A.D.
In addition to these established sects certain vagrant and wandering monks known originally as Komosu (priests with straw mats) played shakuhachi as part of their daily takahatsu or begging practice. These Komosu (later called Komuso - priests in straw hats), in keeping with monastic tradition, wore a special basket hat called tengai (literally, heavenly covering) which covered their faces and identities and they wandered around the streets of old Edo soliciting alms.
One such monk was Kakushin (Kakua) a Japanese monk who studied Rinzai Zen of the Fuke sect in China established the temple, Kokoku-ji in Yura (Kishu province). Later two others were founded in Kisen, Ichigetsu-ji in Kogane, and Reiho-ji in Ome. These two temples became the main headquarters for regulating the Fuke-shu in Japan and continuing the tradition of using the shakuhachi as a religious tool (hoki).
Kakushin is said to have brought from China the piece Kyorei or Kyotaku. His disciple Kichiku zenji (Kyochiku) composed the two pieces Koku and Mukaiji, which, along with Kyorei, are generally considered to be the oldest and most revered sacred pieces. They have survived to the present day, although most certainly they have evolved and changed over time.
It was not until 1614 that the central military government of Japan, the Bakufu, officially recognized the Fuke-shu. During the 17th and 18th centuries they established as many as 120 temples.
This edict from the government stated that: all Fuke-shu members should belong to the Samurai class, they could carry a short sword only, they were exempt from taxes and they could travel freely throughout Japan. Some stories claim that a few of these monks were imposters and were actually spies working for the government. At this time the instrument was modified slightly to include the heavy root end of the bamboo so that it might also be used as a handy club for protection.
In 1847 the Shogun Tokugawa Ideyoshi, after struggling to bring the Fuke-shu under his control, finally abolished the 1614 edict. He disenfranchised the Fuke-shu and allowed all classes of people to become Komuso. They gradually declined and in 1871, at the time of the Meiji Reformation, they were abolished altogether.
Some attempts have been made to revive the Komuso practices in recent years and in 1883 the Meian-Kyokai was conceived as part of the Rinzai Zen tradition. This group has worked diligently to re-establish the traditions and music of the ancient Fuke temples . Fortunately they have preserved many of the pieces which we still play today and with continued effort we can share them with the world and with generations of spiritual seekers who can open their hearts and minds to the wonderful sounds of this remarkable and simple instrument.