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the music

The music originally played on shakuhachi was not described as music but as a religious practice (shugyo). It consists of simple unadorned sounds which served to focus and accentuate the breath. As such the shakuhachi was considered a religious tool (hoki) and not a musical instrument. The old pieces we play today are called 'Honkyoku' or original music. Many of these pieces were played by itinerant monks while they traveled the streets of Japan begging for alms. This begging practice is called 'takahatsu' and the monks would play short pieces to ask for and give thanks for donations which they take back to the temple and share with the sangha or Buddhist brethren. During this exercise the monks, called 'Komuso' would wear a strange basket hat called a 'tengai' which both concealed their identity and symbolized their withdrawal from the world. Other pieces were liturgical in origin and were performed during religious services and perhaps to accompany Buddhist chanting. It is said that originally each temple had only a few unique pieces and that monks were not allowed to learn any other works. Eventually though, many pieces were shared as these wandering monks traveled around the country in search of enlightened teachers. These pieces gradually changed as each monk tried to learn and transmit them. Notation did not develop for many centuries and so this was purely an oral tradition. Each generation modified and polished the works that eventually became the repertoire we know today. Although most honkyoku have no recognized composer some of the pieces still retain their original temple name and it is possible to trace both the origin and the geographical transmission of many works. Occasionally great players, such as Kurasawa Kinko (17th century), Jinbo Masonuske (18th century) or the late Jin Nyodo (19th century) make it their life's work to collect, arrange and transmit these pieces, and thanks to those individuals we have a vast repertoire of masterworks that have been notated and passed along for us and future generations to enjoy. At Mujuan we continue to transmit these honkyoku as accurately as possible and keep the spirit of suizen practice alive as it becomes transplanted in this new land. I strongly encourage my students to familiarize themselves with the ancient Zen literature and place great importance on the practice of deep listening. The sound of shakuhachi is both profound and simple and the practice of these ancient meditation pieces can, over time, bring the player to a deep awareness of the spirit of Zen. One of my favorite Zen texts is a work known in the west as 'The Iron Flute', a collection of Koan or ancient stories which present real encounters of Zen masters and always pose questions which can only be answered with the whole body and mind.

'The moon floats above the pines,

And the night veranda is cold

As the ancient clear sound comes from your fingertips.

The old melody usually makes the listeners weep,

But Zen music is beyond sentiment.

Do not play again until the great sound of

Lao-Tsu accompanies you.'


Hsueh-Tou (980-1052)

From 'The Iron Flute' A Tuttle Publication.


Trans: Ruth Stroud McCandless/Nyogen Senzaki.



All content © by Stan Richardson