The Beauty and Wonder of Blowing Zen

By David Osborn

The Shakuhachi: Everybody’s Favorite Japanese Flute
Many different kinds of flutes are used in many different genres of traditional Japanese music.  There is the wildly screeching Noh Kan, the transverse bamboo flute used in the traditional Noh drama, but unless you work hard to cultivate an esoteric appreciation for the otherworldly atmosphere and aesthetics of Noh, this flute will do nothing for you except set your nerves on edge.  Then there is another type of transverse bamboo flute, the Shino Bue, which is played with the Taiko at the Japanese Matsuri, or festivals.  The raucous sound of these traditional flute and drum bands is caricatured by the Japanese as nothing more than don, don, hyarara, don hyarara, and so on…  Let’s face it – with traditional Japanese culture being so mysterious and enigmatic to the foreigner in so many ways, many aspects of their traditional arts and aesthetics can be so as well.  In traditional Japanese music, perhaps the most notable exception to this general rule of strangeness and inscrutability seems to be the Shakuhachi, which has enchanted so many foreign visitors to Japan.  Although certain aspects of its traditional music may be exotic or misunderstood, the sheer magic and wonder of its spell is undeniable, and irresistible as well. 

The wild screeching of the Noh Kan can set your nerves on edge.  By contrast, the mellow tones of the Shakuhachi, especially in its lower register, have been used to induce a calm, meditative state; even though the higher notes of the Shakuhachi can be intense and dramatic, they are never so shrill as to be overpowering.  The incessant hyarara whistling and chirping of the Shino Bue sounds quite thin, tinny and lightweight, and doesn’t create much of an impression.  By contrast, the Shakuhachi’s tone is incredibly sweet, thick and rich, and has multiple dimensions to it, all of which can be artfully nuanced and modulated in the hands of a skillful player.  This ability of a skillful player to modulate the tone and texture of its sound, and to alter its mood and expression have given the Shakuhachi tremendous potential and versatility for interpreting many different musical genres.  Although the ways in which the Shakuhachi is woven into traditional Japanese music and culture are many and varied, there are two main dimensions to the Shakuhachi’s overall aesthetic appeal: the spiritual, or religious; and its closeness to Nature. 

Most famously, there are two leading aesthetic qualities or ideals that Japanese music, and all other traditional Japanese art forms, seek to capture and express: Wabi and Sabi, and the Shakuhachi gives ample expression to them both.  Wabi is defined as a certain understated rustic charm or elegance; and Sabi is defined as a certain rust or patina that indicates that which has aged well.  Both of these qualities and ideals arise from a Buddhist aesthetic philosophy of seeking beauty in that which is imperfect or impermanent.  Like a rustic, unassuming porcelain cup used in the tea ceremony, the Shakuhachi, even in its physical aspect, embodies these Zen ideals of Wabi and Sabi.  Its basic morphology and structure is simplicity itself – a notched bamboo pipe, open at both ends, with only five finger holes drilled into it, with its bottom end made from the root end of the bamboo stalk, portraying a humble, “grass roots” closeness to Nature.  But this outer naturalness and simplicity conceals an inner core that is the product of tireless art and craftsmanship in the engineering of the bore.   

The Incredible Musical and Expressive Versatility of the Shakuhachi 
In traditional Japanese music, there are three main genres in which the Shakuhachi is played, with the addition of a possible fourth.  The first three are Honkyoku, or the Zen inspired “original pieces”; Sankyoku, or traditional Japanese chamber music, which is usually played with three instruments – the Koto, the Shamisen and the Shakuhachi; and the Minyo, or traditional Japanese folk music.  The fourth category would be Shinkyoku or “new pieces” for Shakuhachi  and other traditional instruments.  For the traditional purists, the above genres are the only types of music that are really fitting and proper for the Shakuhachi to play, but given the instrument’s incredible expressiveness and versatility, there are those who have taken the Shakuhachi into other genres, like classical music, jazz and even avant-garde musical compositions like “November Steps” by Toru Takemitsu.  In addition to Japanese players like Hozan Yamamoto and Minoru Muraoka, the Shakuhachi has attracted a young Californian enthusiast – John Kaizan Neptune, to take the instrument into creative musical realms of his own.  So universal is the Shakuhachi’s appeal that a group of NASA scientists even selected Tsuru no Sugomori, (The Nesting of Cranes), a Honkyoku piece by the late Goro Yamaguchi, to be put on a “Golden Record” and sent into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft as a fitting sample of earth music for space aliens to discover and enjoy. -1

A Closer Look at the Shakuhachi
The Shakuhachi, as I said earlier, is simplicity itself when it comes to its basic morphology and design.  Classified in ethnomusicology as an end-blown flute, the Shakuhachi is basically an open bamboo tube with a notch cut into its top end to serve as the blowing edge, and five finger holes – four in the front and one in the back.  These five finger holes, when opened in sequence, yield a minor pentatonic scale, with the fifth and back hole duplicating the fundamental pitch an octave higher.  To facilitate the playing of the chromatic notes, certain modern players, like Minoru Muraoka, have added two extra holes, to bring the total to seven holes.  The Shakuhachi is traditionally made from a root end piece of bamboo of the variety traditionally known as Madake (meaning true or authentic bamboo in Japanese), and comprises the lowest four or five internodes of the bamboo stalk.  Because it is made from the root end of the bamboo stalk, Shakuhachi bamboo has to be dug up from the earth at its root end, and the root end bored out to connect with the upper hollow internodes. 

The notch or blowing edge, called Utaguchi  (meaning song mouth in Japanese) is formed by cutting obliquely outwards at the top end, which coincides with a bamboo node.  To make the blowing edge harder and more durable, and also to protect it from getting soggy or wet, it is inlaid with a piece of ivory, bone or water buffalo horn.  The inlay pattern can either be crescent shaped (Tozan and Meian schools of Shakuhachi playing) or trapezoidal in shape (Kinko school).  To play the Shakuhachi, the player covers the open top end of the instrument almost totally with his lower lip, leaving only a small aperture through which to blow air across the blowing edge and create the sound.  Because of the openness of the Shakuhachi’s upper end and mouthpiece, considerable embouchure and breath control are required to play the Shakuhachi.  Although this may be seen as a handicap or detriment, this free and open arrangement of the blowing edge or mouthpiece affords the player great artistic and musical freedom of expression.  In addition to half opening the finger holes, changing the blowing angle is an important method for inflecting the pitch and producing the chromatic notes and bended notes. 

The bottom end of the Shakuhachi is made out of the root end of the bamboo stalk, and as such, it flares outward in the form of a bell.  The root end is carefully sculpted, and often reveals the rootlets that radiate out from the body; in sculpting the root end, an effort is made to integrate Nature and art.  Although most of the newer Shakuhachis come in two pieces, which are connected by means of a socket joint in the middle, some older Shakuhachis, or those that remain in a more natural or unrefined state, are made just in one piece.  Although most modern Shakuhachis are painted with red or black Urushi lacquer on the inside, giving the inner bore of the instrument a shiny, glossy appearance, the outward appearance of the bore can be deceptively simple; many, if not most, Shakuhachis that are lacquered on the inside have had their bore carefully sculpted and engineered with layers of lacquer and clay, which is the traditional method for tuning the instrument.  Making a Shakuhachi in two parts allows the maker greater access to the instrument’s bore for sculpting and tuning purposes.

The word “Shakuhachi” is actually an abbreviation of “isshaku hassun”, or literally, “one foot eight inches”, or more accurately, “one and eight tenths of a foot”; this works out to 54.5 cm. in the metric system of measurement, and produces a fundamental, or lowest pitch, of the “D” above middle “C”.  This is what Shakuhachi players call a Hyojun Kan, or standard length instrument.  Shakuhachis that are longer than this standard length are called Choh Kan, or “long pipe”, whereas those that are shorter than this standard length are called Tan Kan, or “short pipe”.  This central pitch of “D”, especially the “D” above middle “C”, seems to be quite an important standard pitch in flutes around the world.  In the case of the Shakuhachi, instruments that are longer than this standard length, even by a little bit, are distinctly lower and more mellow in tone, whereas those that are shorter than this standard length, even by a little bit, are distinctly higher and brighter in tone.  Funny how that works! 

Schools of Shakuhachi Playing
The Shakuhachi is one of the world’s most difficult flutes to play, and requires tremendous breath and embouchure control, among other things, as well as a great deal of physical stamina.  A popular saying about the Shakuhachi in Japan is “Kubi furi san nen,” which means, “three years to wiggle the neck”.  In other words, it takes a whole three years before the aspiring Shakuhachi player is finally able to wiggle his neck to produce the finer, nuanced inflections of tone and pitch.  With an instrument that is so difficult to master, let alone play correctly, it’s not surprising that Shakuhachi playing has become quite an esoteric craft, which is passed on from master to pupil in various lineages or traditions.  The oldest school of Shakuhachi playing is the Kinko school, which was founded by Kurosawa Kinko (1710 – 1771), and is the most traditionally oriented of the major schools; its greatest modern exponents are Goro Yamaguchi, Aoki Reibo and Katsuya Yokoyama.  The other major school of Shakuhachi playing is the Tozan school, which was founded in Osaka in 1896 by Nakao Tozan; it is more modernist in its orientation.  In addition to these two major schools, there are a whole host of minor schools and lineages. -2   

Before the formalized schools of Shakuhachi playing were founded, the Shakuhachi was played by Buddhist monks of the Fuke sect, who often played the Shakuhachi while soliciting alms.  The pieces they played were the Koten Honkyoku, or “ancient original pieces”, which became the inspiration for the Honkyoku of the Kinko school and the other schools that followed them.  An iconic figure in the history of the Shakuhachi is the Komuso, or “priest of nothingness”, who is commonly depicted playing a Shakuhachi on a street corner with a basket over his head.  Many of the Komuso, oddly enough, were Ronin or masterless Samurai who were employed as spies.  It was the old Fuke monks who coined the term Suizen, or “Blowing Zen”.  Many of the old Honkyoku pieces employ references to Buddhist imagery and archetypes, such as Koku Reibo, or “A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky” or Shika no Tohne, or “The Distant Cry of the Deer” – as the Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park.  After obtaining their Shihan, or teacher’s license from their school, Shakuhachi players commonly take an artistic name that is rich in poetic imagery.  John Neptune, for example, took the artistic name of Kaizan, or “Sea Mountain”, since Neptune was the Greek god of the sea. 

The Magic of Blowing Zen and Japanese Spirituality
By far, what really fascinates foreigners who take up the Shakuhachi is the magic of “Blowing Zen” and playing the old Zen-inspired Honkyoku, or “original pieces”.  Both of the two major schools of Shakuhachi playing have their own repertoire of Honkyoku pieces; in the older Kinko school, the school’s founder, Kurosawa Kinko, traveled around the country collecting pieces that were being played by the Fuke sect monks of his day, whereas in the Tozan school, the school’s founder, Nakao Tozan, composed their Honkyoku pieces.  Playing a Honkyoku piece definitely takes one to a transcendent place in which the regular laws of melody and rhythm don’t apply, yet through this remarkably free structured playing, something has definitely been said by the music that is transformational.  The Honkyoku, being so free and unstructured, becomes a musical vehicle through which the player expresses his Spirit – his Ki (Qi) or Hara (belly power).  Aesthetically speaking, some Honkyoku dwell on natural themes, like Tsuru no Sugomori, or “Cranes in the Nest”, whereas others dwell on transcendent Buddhist themes of emptiness and enlightenment, like Koku Reibo, or “A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky”.  Still other Honkyoku pieces, like Hi Fu Mi Hachi Gaeshi, or “One, Two, Three, Return the Bowl” remind us that these old Buddhist Fuke monks would solicit alms by playing the Shakuhachi. 

The Japanese language, perhaps unique among all the world’s tongues, has a super-abundance of vowels; in fact, many important and substantive words are composed of vowels alone.  This has led linguists to speculate that the relationship between the right hemisphere of the brain, which processes music and pure sounds, and the left hemisphere of the brain, which processes language, may be different, and much more closely connected in Japanese people than in those who speak other languages.  Another interesting characteristic of the Japanese language that might relate to this super-abundance of vowels is the fact that there are so many onomatopoeic words in Japanese that imitate various sounds of Nature.  Even the Shakuhachi has a solfeggio system of Japanese syllables that seems to mimic, sound-wise, the various notes played on the Shakuhachi.  The lowest or fundamental pitch, with all the holes closed, is Ro, and, lo and behold, it really does sound like a Ro; the same goes for Tsu (bottom hole open), Re (bottom two holes open), Chi (bottom three holes open), and so on…  This alone can be a kind of musical meditation in itself, and the blowing of long tones builds tone and embouchure on any flute. 

In traditional Japanese society and culture, the various traditional art forms are looked upon as spiritual paths, which are denoted by the suffix Do, which is derived from the Chinese Tao, signifying “The Way”.  Another unique concept in the Japanese worldview is that of Ningen Sei, which can literally be translated as “human nature”, although the concept differs radically from the Western understanding of the phrase.  In the West, the phrase, “Oh well, that’s just human nature” is an all-purpose excuse for dismissing all types of human foibles and shortcomings, but in the Japanese worldview, human nature, or Ningen Sei, is something that is meant to be polished and cultivated, and raised to a higher level – and the traditional Japanese arts, including Shakuhachi playing, are a great vehicle for doing that.  And so, the Japanese government has designated certain individuals who have ascended to consummate mastery over their chosen art form as Ningen Kokuho, or “Human National Treasures”.  And even Shakuhachi players, like the late Hozan Yamamoto, have attained this exalted status.             

1. Gorō Yamaguchi
2. Schools And Styles Of The Shakuhachi