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Komuso spirituality | The meaningless of Zen in Shakuhachi | Shakuhachi and Bushido
How to Breathe | Kinko and Tozan


image A Brief History of the Shakuhachi by David J. Duncavage

The shakuhachi is an end-blown bamboo flute varying from 1.3 to over 3 feet in length. It came into Japan from China at the end of the 7th century. From this period until as late as the 12th century it was used in gagaku (court music). Little is known of the music that was played on the shakuhachi at this time, although there are some flutes from this period preserved at Shoso-In in Nara, Japan. These flutes have 6 finger holes, and were made from thin walled bamboo.

During the period between the 12th and 16th centuries, the shakuhachi is reported to have been played by a wide range of people, including: mendicant monks, the Emperor Go-Komatsu (1408), and the famous Rinzai Zen Master Ikkyu of Daitoku-ji in northern Kyoto (1394-1482). This shakuhachi was later referred to as the hitoyogiri to distinguish it from the longer, heavier, and bigger bore flutes that the mendicant monks eventually developed.

These mendicant monks were later called komoso (straw mat monk), a name descriptive of their life of homeless poverty. Their numbers gradually increased, due in large part to an influx of ronin (lordless samurai) who grew in number during the period of civil wars (15-16th centuries), and especially after the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, solidified his rule over Japan in the early 17th century.

It was during the rigid, but peaceful order of Tokugawa rule known as the Edo Period, that the komoso banded together and formed a formal religious sect claiming ties back to Fuke, an eccentric Chinese Zen monk who lived during the 9th century. The government went along with the story and the Fuke sect was established in 1614 as a branch of Rinzai Zen.

At this time the komoso changed their name to komuso (monks of empty nothingness), and through a special arrangement with the government, won the sole right to solicit alms by playing the shakuhachi. During this period the shakuhachi began to be made from the root section of bamboo. This method of construction greatly improved the acoustic properties of the flute as well as making it a suitable means for self-defence while on solitary pilgrimages.

The special relationship between the Fuke sect and the Tokugawa government led to the sect's dissolution in 1871 following the government's collapse during the Meiji Restoration begun in 1868. Fuke shakuhachi went underground only to surface in 1883 in the establishment of the Myoan Society at the Fuke Temple, Myoan-ji, in the old capital city of Kyoto. This society and its many players are responsible for the transmission of the Fuke shakuhachi tradition to this very day.

Komuso Sprituality

image The komuso played the shakuhachi in conjunction with the practice of zazen (sitting zen) and called this suizen (blowing zen). Playing the shakuhachi was a form of sutra chanting in the Fuke Temples. As such, the shakuhachi was not considered a musical instrument but a religious tool. What resulted from this practice was a large body of music called honkyoku (original music).

In the purest honkyoku, primary attention is given to each breath-sound rather than to various musical elements like melodic progression. The komuso centred their practice of shakuhachi on developing what they called their kisoku (spiritual breath) to such a degree that they would enter the state of tettei on (absolute sound) with the bamboo and everything else. Their aim was to experience enlightenment through the shakuhachi . This goal is perhaps best expressed in a komuso saying, Ichion Jobutsu: Become a Buddha in one sound.

Although there are a number of common honkyoku, many still exist which have characteristics peculiar to the Temple of origin. Regardless, however, of what Temple a honkyoku comes from, they are all a testament of the komuso 's search to blow that one sound which would lead the monk, and those listening, they believed, to enlightenment.

The Meaninglessness of Zen in Shakuhachi

Suizen and Honkyoku According to the fundamental experience of Zen the aspect of shakuhachi (Japanese vertical 5-holed bamboo flute) in relation to Zen is meaninglessness, but the playing of Honkyoku occupies a unique position in religious world music. Sui-zen (blowing zen, or blowing meditation) is the practice of playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute as a means of attaining self-realization. The monks of old Japan who practiced suizen were called Komuso, or Monks of Nothingness and Emptiness (Ko: emptiness, mu: nothingness, so: monk or priest).

These monks belonged to a Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect called Fuke-shu, named after the legendary Tang Dynasty Chinese monk who first used a bamboo flute as a meditation tool. The pieces on which suizen are based are called Honkyoku, or original pieces and were basically solo, with a few exceptions. In playing honkyoku the state of mind was the most essential element, rather than musical enjoyment, therefore it wasn't music per se. Indeed, it was was prohibited for Komuso to play with O-koto (horizontal harp) and Shamisen (three-stringed banjo-like instrument) in those days.

image The monks blew shakuhachi for their own enlightenment not for entertainment. However, since Zen Buddhism puts no accent in devotion to a deity or god, their music contains no sense of praise of faith. This is what is so unique about suizen as opposed to other religious music's.

It was not a practice connected as closely to the life and death struggle as tea ceremony, martial arts, or meditation was; which may lessen its meaningfulness in relation to the Zen experience. But it was close enough to spirituality to have an impact on the religious landscape of Japan. Today, honkyoku has evolved (some say devolved) into music which is both profound and beautiful in its expression.

Very few people today actually understand or practice suizen in its true form. But honkyoku has turned out to be one of the most popular forms of music in the contemporary music scene today (in and out of Japan). There are various reasons for this. Many who have passed down the traditional honkyoku in modern times were not professional Shakuhachi players insisting on keeping the practice of suizen by playing only Honkyoku.

Since these were mostly intellectuals isolated from the central musical scene in modern Japan where radical westernisation took place, they concentrated on nurturing the spiritual side of Honkyoku. But it was only a matter of time until western musical ideas affected honkyoku as well, which ironically was important to its survival. New forms of Honkyoku began to appear which were much more dynamic and lively but still based on the original ideal of suizen.

Hideo Sekino said, "When we conceive The Art as the underlying spiritual representation of the ancient legend of the Komuso, the modern creation of Honkyoku might have been the very effort to revive the dying legend from the overwhelming westernisation in modern Japan."


Shakuhachi & Bushido.

After the death of Hideyori Toyotomi in ca.1610 the Tokugawa family came under control ushering Japan into the Edo period, an unprecedented stretch of peace which lasted 250 years. This was the golden age of the Shakuhachi and other Japanese arts which enjoyed support from the government, forming the base of today's "traditional Japan". During this time, the Shakuhachi underwent a transformation from a 6-holed, thin piece of bamboo, to the 5-holed, root-ended bamboo flute that is most common today.

Many samurai at that time who's masters were defeated by Tokugawa were forbidden to carry swords and were left homeless. These were the "ronin" (masterless samurai), many of whom joined the ranks of the Komuso monks for spiritual focus as well as a chance to carry a weapon again, namely, the club-like Shakuhachi. Earlier, this sect of monks (formerly known as Komoso, straw mat monks) attracted various riff-raff and beggars; but since the establishment of the Fuke-shu with its strict code of discipline (and support from the Tokugawa government), membership became exclusive to only those with samurai ranking, and the use of Shakuhachi was limited to only the Komuso.

They travelled from place to place on pilgrimages to the various Komuso temples throughout Japan, playing their Shakuhachi for alms and meditation, concealed from the outer world by a large basket-like hat (tengai) that completely covered their faces. They were given special passes by the government which allowed them free access across any border in Japan and on boats across bodies of water. Consequently, many Komuso were used by the government as spies.

The influence of Zen on the spiritual and aesthetic landscape of Japan was profound. Zen which simply means "meditation" (from the Sanskrit 'dhyana') appealed to the intellectual, ruling class, therefore was supported and permeated just about every art form at the time. From Zen came the ideas of spiritual selflessness and concentration of the mind. In the Samurai tradition of Bushido (Warrior Way) one dedicated his entire life to the protection and well-being of his master and was trained in such a way as to merge totally with one's weapon (e.g. the sword) as well as the environment and the opponent so as to have victory over him.

When many of the samurai's swords were confiscated by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Ronin found it very easy to fit into the Komuso way since the concentration needed to learn Shakuhachi was similar to their sword training, and, the shape of the Edo period Shakuhachi resembled a hand held weapon, and no doubt was used as one as well! In the daily life of the Komuso monks, the day included morning zazen (sitting zen), suizen, begging, and martial arts training. In the rural Aomori district of northern Tohoku, Japan, one of the most famous schools was the Kimpu School (Nezasa-ha) which developed a unique technique of breathing called "komi-buki" or "concentrated or packed breath", where an intentional steady, pulse-rhythm is created while blowing the Shakuhachi by contracting and relaxing the diaphragm.

It is said that it came about when after the Komuso Monks finished a hard training in their martial arts, which included jiujutsu (soft technique) and kenpo (sword play) they would play their shakuhachi immediately afterwards, and the pulsing sound would be from their shallow breath and fast beating hearts. A lesser known fact was shakuhachi's connection with the Shogun's Ninja (surveillance/assassin) force, a subject which deserves more research. One famous Ninja named Sugawara Yoshiteru who became a komuso first in Kyoto and then in Edo often dedicated his performances to the Tokugawa Daimyo. Due to his skills as a Ninja, Sugawara became something of a small daimyo himself. He was permitted to build his own temple in Niigata, which became Echigomeianji. He composed the piece Echigomeian-hachigaeshi.

Perhaps the most significant 20th century honkyoku persona was Watazumi-do So who combined a martial arts-like physical regimen complete with detailed breath exercises with Shakuhachi practice. His disciple, Yokoyama Katsuya is one of the most important professional shakuhachi players focussing on transmission of Honkyoku today.

During the Meiji Reformation, the Fuke-shu of Komuso was abolished and many secret characteristics of this group were lost. Because of this historical loss we'll never know entirely the reality of the Komuso. However, their instrument, the Shakuhachi has survived the westernization policy of the Meiji government. It's use as a religious instrument (hoki) is now a musical one (gakki) utilizing western musical scale as well as Japanese, and played in ensembles, a practice which was previously prohibited.

Today, in our post-modern age, shakuhachi music is appearing to those hemmed in by their material world. There is a renewed interest in a holistic approach to playing shakuhachi where mind, body, and spirit are developed along with musical ability. People like Riley Lee in Australia and Ray Brooks in B.C. Canada give breath and honkyoku workshops all around the world and seek to integrate the whole person with one's environment and playing, just as the Komuso of old did.

Many contemporary musicians are looking back at and discovering the beauty and enormous expression of traditional instruments, and the traditional style of playing Shakuhachi. Shakuhachi music uses many notes which do not fall within the standard western musical temperment. It makes active use of "non-musical" sounds or noise such as blowing, windy sounds, simulated animal sounds, as well as no sound, or the silence between the notes (ma), which is a very important element in performance and symbolizes emptiness, selflessness, the basis of the life motto of the Komuso "Coming from nowhere, going to nowhere like the wind". It also expresses that all things are related in this intricate web of change we call life.

How to Breathe

image Recommended way to play SHAKUHACHI.

When taken, the basic posture shown

1. Put on your chin to mouthpiece of the flute (See image to the left)

2. Make a gap, about 1 mm, between upper lip and the mouthpiece.

3. Try breathing while pursing your both lips to make a sound. (Sounds or not sound in the initial). Don't take efforts to make sounds intentionally, breathing knack is that you make a large fire to firewood from a small fire by breathing is very important.

4. Put a breath air into the inside of the flute, air blow shall be evenly separated to inside and outside.

5. Making sound while all holes are closed is very difficult at least initial stage, then try blowing while all holes are opened. A sound has come then close 5th hole and make a next sound. Make subsequent sounds by such manner.

6. Close exactly hole which must be closed while make a sound. Sound or not sound in the initial trying is always caused by not closed holes exactly but don't worry.

Many practices will give you good sounds in the mean time naturally.

Kinko and Tozan

The following descriptions are only a cursory look into these two schools of shakuhachi. The lineages of these two schools is extremely complex. So I will only touch on some basic information and a few key figures. For a more extensive and complete study, please refer to Adreas Gutzwiller's dissertation on the Kinko Ryu, Christopher Yohmei Blasdel's book, Shakuhachi: A Manual For Learning, and Riley Lee's Phd. dissertation on transmission of honkyoku.


Kurosawa Kinko (1710-1771) , founder of the Kinko style of shakuhachi, was a komuso monk born into a samurai family. He was responsible for taking the honkyoku of the past, which was concerned mainly with meditation, and adding a higher degree of musicality to it. He travelled all over Japan and collected 33 honkyoku pieces, which now make up the core of the Kinko style of shakuhachi. He also improved the instrument, perhaps improving the bore structure to access certain tones easier. It wasn't until the second generation of the Kinko family that the delineation of a Kinko style was recognized since there were no styles of shakuhachi during his time.

During the Meiji restoration (1871) the sect of shakuhachi monks (Fuke-shu) was banned by the government. It's use as a ritual tool was outlawed, but musically, it was enjoying great popularity among the secular classes, being used in ensemble with koto and shamisen (sankyoku). However, the shakuhachi was in serious threat of becoming obsolete, so the two men responsible for taking shakuhachi into the modern world were, Yoshida Itcho and Araki Kodo of the Kinko style. They persuaded the government to let anyone play shakuhachi as a musical instrument, thus making it accessible to everyone. It was through their efforts that the musical popularity of the shakuhachi spread after it was outlawed as a religious tool.

One of Araki Kodo's most significant accomplishments was the development of a system of notation for the music of the shakuhachi utilizing the katagana script, which is read vetically (up to down, and right to left). Also, a system of dots and lines was created to indicate rhythm and tempo when gaikyoku (outside pieces) were played.

Three generations later, the disciple of Kodo II, Junsuke Kawase I (1870-1957) improved on the the notation even more making it easier to read and more accessible to the public. He organized the Chikuyu Sha shakuhahchi organization which became the largest organization within the Kinko style and has membership throughout the country and the world. It is his music which became the standard for all Kinko players.


Nakao Tozan (1876-1956), founder of the Tozan style of shakuhachi, was born in Osaka. He came from a musical family, his mother being a daughter of a famous shamisen master, Terauchi Daikengyo of Kyoto. He learned how to play shamisen as a child and learned how to play shakuhachi on his own. When he was in his late teens he joined the Myoan Society of shakuhachi monks and developed technique with them.

In his early 20's he opened up his first shakuhachi studio in Osaka. This was the beginning of the Tozan style. In 1904 he began composing pieces for the shakuhachi which later became the honkyoku of the Tozan style. He was very knowlegeable about western music, creating new performance and teaching methods, and revising the music for shakuhachi. Consequently, he was very successful at popularizing the shakuhachi, attracting a large following, especially among the youth of Kansai. He moved the Tokyo in 1922 and collaborated with the famous koto composer, Miyagi Michiyo; but Kansai still remains the centre of the Tozan school.

Comparison between Kinko and Tozan styles

Unlike the Tozan school, the Kinko style has no central organization (ie moto). This has allowed the Kinko style to enjoy more diversification and freedom of expression. Students of the Kinko style who were proficient enough usually broke off and formed their own sects and created their own gaikyoku and notation styles (but was usually based on the original script of Araki Kodo I).

Both styles however emphasize musicality rather than suizen (blowing meditation). Both place high emphasis on gaikyoku training, especially playing with an ensemble of jiuta shamisen and Ikuta style koto. Furthermore, both styles have always had a positive attitude towards new music and are active in the contemporary music scene.

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