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Tetteki -Tosui

Suizen Practice-The Zen Shakuhachi Flute

The moon floats above the pines
And the ancient veranda is cold
As the ancient clear sounds come to your fingertips.
The old melody usually makes the listeners weep
But Zen music is without sentiment
Do not play again until the great sound of Lao Tzu accompanies you.

Hsueh-Tou (980-1052)

Chinese Zen Master

Tetteki Tosui- Blowing the iron flute.


Distilled in this short poem is the essence of the shakuhachi practice of sui-zen (blowing zen). It is described, defined and completed. This poem serves as both a Koan and an inspiration for generations of shakuhachi players and Zen practitioners. Through these lines Hsueh-Tou reveals a depth of understanding and enlightened vision that perhaps can only be realized by adepts who are fully versed in the secrets of Zen music.

The key to understanding the significance of this poem and uncovering its many layers of meaning lies, as is the case of most Koan study, in the abandonment of some of our pre-existing notions and concepts (about music in this case).

The clue that may reveal the concepts in question can be found in the line "Zen music is without sentiment". The intimate relationship between music and sentiment is so ingrained in our culture and psyche that it seems impossible even to conceive of music without sentiment of some kind. Whether it be the emotional turmoil of a Mahler symphony or the sometimes violent histrionics of certain Rap songs, music is usually understood as one of the most abstract art forms capable of expressing sentiments and feelings beyond the scope of even the most poetic written language. What then can Hsueh-Tou possibly mean by stating that "Zen music is without sentiment"?

One way to approach this puzzle is to deny that Zen music is really music at all, and to describe it as a way of "sound meditation". Evidently this cannot sufficiently explain the verse either, since Hsueh-Tou clearly alludes not only to music but to sentiment in the line "the old melody usually makes the listeners weep".

At first glance it appears as though Hsueh-Tou is contradicting himself in these two lines. Is this just another Zen paradox? This would seem to be the case if it were not for the fact that this poem is directed not to the listener, but to the player, a distinction which has far greater significance when speaking of "Zen music" than of what we usually understand as music. Hsueh-Tou is pointing to the fundamental difference in perspective between "the old melody" as experienced by the listener and "the ancient clear sound" that is realized by the player.

Having had the opportunity on many occasions to demonstrate Shakuhachi Sui-zen pieces as well as performing art music I am often surprised at the listeners' reactions to this ancient music. Emotions of sadness and loneliness, are often accompanied by tears and other deeply physical responses. Indeed my own reaction on first hearing the haunting sound of the late Yamaguchi Goro playing Koku Reibo was similarly emotional. I once asked my teacher and friend Yoshio Kurahashi, what was it that first enticed him to study shakuhachi? His answer was simple, "The sound." He clearly felt a strong sentiment for shakuhachi music! So what is Hsueh-Tou talking about?

The practice of Suizen, like Zazen, is not about sentiment or non-sentiment. It is about practice, about doing and being fully engaged, right here, right now.

The actual practice of Suizen can only begin to be understood, and only after many years, by the one who is practicing. Of course, a concert pianist has a different understanding than his audience, but to some degree his art depends on the listeners experience. They are sharing an emotional rapport and in the true meaning of the piece and the composer's intention can be experienced and understood.

Zen music is very different. It is a fact that most of the ancient shakuhachi Zen pieces particularly those of the ancient Meian style are not meant for an audience, nor for entertainment of any kind. They are just Zen practice, played alone or sometimes in a small group or Sangha. Any sentiment, emotional or otherwise, either involved or evoked by the practice is entirely extra, but not something to try to avoid.

This practice is alluded to in the last line of the poem "Do not play again until the great sound of Lao Tsu accompanies you". Discovering what this sound is, and realizing it is the essence of Suizen, is "the sound of one hand clapping", or "the sound of the iron bar flute", alluded to in those most famous Koans.

It should be obvious from the preceding discussion that the usual approach to teaching or learning a musical instrument would be entirely inappropriate if applied to the practice of Suizen. The normal approach used in teaching music is to learn and study various exercises and then practice them so that one may make progress. Then to move on to more difficult techniques, and some day become a performer, entertainer or an artist and express oneself, one's feelings and interpretations of pieces in a way enjoyable by oneself and especially others. Of course it is quite possible to study shakuhachi music, even Zen music of the old Meian style, using this approach, but from a Zen standpoint we may end up practicing for the wrong reasons, developing our ego and self esteem, far from the meaning of Zen practice.

I tell my students, particularly beginning students, that I experience as much difficulty as they do when playing shakuhachi. They mostly look at me in disbelief, but I am very serious about this point. What I mean by this is perhaps not what we usually mean by difficulty. Certainly I can usually produce more solid sound, execute breathing techniques properly, control my pitch and tone better than my students. This is no different than the usual relationship between teacher and student on any instrument. If that is all there is to playing shakuhachi honkyoku music then it is really just an instrument for music "Gaki" and not a religious tool "Hoki". The difficulty I experience along with my students has nothing to do with executing techniques or making sound, it has to do with a fundamental practice in Zen meditation, attachment and non-attachment.

If we become attached to the results of our practice, to sound better, to move quicker, to have better control, whatever your practice may be, you may well be practicing for the sake of your ego. This attachment may bind you and is a hindrance to deeper spiritual practice. The practice of Suizen is just to blow, nothing else, just being here with the sound, the techniques, right now playing the shakuhachi in the midst of conditions, without any thought of progress, or even any thought of enlightenment.

The essential component of learning and practicing shakuhach as a way of meditation. It is not just to develop skill and good sound, but to develop right attitude, to enter the practice completely, following your teacher's guidance with a calm, concentrated and compassionate mind. The state of mind needed is just to play, to hear the expression of the breath as sound, as it is, in each moment, without discrimination or judgment, just blowing. To blow one sound with the right attitude is Zen. Just this one note of Zen is the hardest practice of all and has been compared to "playing the iron flute upside down" or to "playing the no hole flute".

The goal of the Suizen practicioner must be " Ichi-on Jobutsu " (enlightenment in a single sound). If my students cannot grasp this point then I usually recommend that they take up the harmonica--it's much easier.

Stan 'Kakudo' Richardson

Dir: Mujuan Shakuhachi Dojo

Texas Branch


All content © by Stan Richardson