The Komuso, Shakuhachi, And Zen Buddhism in Traditional Japanese Music

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Zen Buddhism is a philosophy that’s propagated all-over Asia and the world in diverse forms, but it’s established on the idea that intellect is not required in the pursuit of truth. We can explore to know about matters, but we don’t actually know them. To recognize them, we must cast away our notions of scientific investigation and coherent reasoning and rather trust on heightened consciousness and intuition about life.

Several means for attaining that state of heightened awareness of enlightenment (satori in Japanese) have been suggested. These include pondering (koan) or paradoxical enigmas (the most famed is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and the practice of zazen, seated in silent meditation. To the Fuke sect, playing the shakuhachi was also reputed a means for attaining enlightenment. For this reason, the shakuhachi wasn’t regarded a “musical instrument” by its performers, but a hoki or “spiritual tool.” The spiritual approach to the “playing” or use of the instrument is known as suizen, or “blowing Zen”

The goal of shakuhachi, according to suizen, concurs with the goal of Zen: to attain enlightenment, carrying on into limitless “knowing.” How this is done isn’t developed precisely (as it cannot be from the Zen perspective), but one basal notion is called ichoon jobutsu or “enlightenment in a single note.” As stated by to this theory, one may reach enlightenment all of a sudden when blowing a single tone.

Breathing is important in shakuhachi playing and its association with Zen. The exhaling of breath is listened upon in the dynamic level and tone quality of a pitch, at the same time, it bears with it the possible action of instant spiritual enlightenment. Thus, each instant of “performance,” whether the intake of breath or its very slow release, whether the elusive, delicate filling in of a tone or the explosion of air via the instrument, can be translated in the context of a bigger spiritual life.

The breathing pattern is crucial in determining to play the shakuhachi. Each phrase takes one entire breath, with striking shifts in dynamic level according to how quick the air is expelled. The typical set phrase in shakuhachi honkyoku music conforms to the instinctive breathing pattern, the sound getting fainter toward the end of the phrase when the air in the lungs runs out. If this dynamic pattern is interrupted by a gradual or sharper increase in volume, it creates a marked impression on the listener.

In the zen shakuhachi playing, the concept of ma (meaning “space” or “interval”) is very much observed. Basically, ma revolves around the idea that sound is enhanced by silence and silence is enhanced by sound conforming to the concepts of emptiness and space of the Zen.


Edo culture: daily life and diversions in urban Japan, 1600-1868 by Matsunosuke Nishiyama and Gerald Groemer

The shakuhachi: a manual for learning by Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, Yuko Kamisango

Musica Asiatica, Volume 6 by Allan Marett


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