The Soul in a Stick     





It was one of those days between seasons where the maple leaves are caught in transit at the end stage of their lives, when the sunlight shining through the clouds holds a cold clarity that can only be perceived in that span of time just before the beginning of Winter. I pedaled my bicycle down the riverside path, thoroughly content with the beauty of what I saw, content in the way that only a direct manifestation of Japan’s itinerant gods and their ostensible love of natural beauty, in sharp contrast to the orderly composition of much of the Japanese aesthetic, can make me. Could a transmigration of artistic value be occurring right under my nose, without me being objective enough to comprehend? Would my lifetime see the emergence of a new Japanese style harkening back to the primeval influence of the gods, one that reclaimed the pride of the invincible deities and placed higher value in the creations of those omniscient sowings of patterned chaos, in such contrast to the ‘art’-ificial creations of humans? I rode on towards the shakuhachi session.

            The man who greeted my fellow students and I was a laid back individual with graying hair and an easy style of speaking. He quickly established the mood of the class by quietly, in the manner that people who have practiced the zen arts all achieve, speaking to the group as if he were addressing a number of his peers who just happened to stop by his bamboo hut in the fifteenth century and asked him what the exotic instrument mute in his hands was.

            Though he did not speak much about the history of the instrument, he did have the following information to impart to us as we idled the afternoon away on the windswept gate’s cool floor.

The shakuhachi was brought to Japan from China at an undetermined time during the T’ang Dynasty, probably in the late sixth or early seventh century. It was almost solely used for Gagaku, or court music, at this time, though it did not become a permanent ornament of the court musician, falling into relative obscurity for a few hundred years. Then, some time in the thirteenth century, it was revived by the Buddhist Fuke sect as an optimal placebo for Buddhist sutra chanting, earning the name ‘Suizen,’ or ‘blowing Zen.’ Roughly four hundred years passed as this religious aspect of the shakuhachi was developed, resisting further evolution as an artistic instrument due to its sacred nature. At this time, seventeenth century Japan, feudalism was rapidly being replaced by central government and local warlords were increasingly subservient to the supreme military commander of the country, the Shogun. These warlords, having either lost much of their wealth or been defeated and killed in desperate defense of a dying cultural system, could no longer retain the large numbers of samurai who depended on them for their salaries. Many of these masterless warriors, or ronin, no longer able to fight for a living, took to the Fuke sect of Buddhism and became wandering monks who played the shakuhachi and begged for the necessities of life, monks known as ‘Komuso,’ or ‘monks of empty nothingness.’ They adorned their heads with large baskets that signified their detachment from the physical world, though this pretense was quickly abandoned when the monks were utilized by the Tokugawa government as free floating spies meant to inform the central powers of any suspicious movements or potential insurgents plotting against them. During this time the legend of the shakuhachi as an effective weapon on solitary pilgrimages came into being, though on a more constructive note the popularity of the instrument grew, becoming a hobby of the merchant class. The end of the shogunate saw the light of the shakuhachi almost completely extinguished along with the Fuke sect of Buddhism, which was so closely associated with the Tokugawa government that over the course of the Meiji Restoration it was disbanded as a remnant of the old feudalism. One segment of the Fuke sect survived, however, hiding in the recesses of a temple in Kyoto, and they preserved the religious traditions of the shakuhachi.

The main type of music played on the shakuhachi is named ‘honkyoku,’ presumably with no pun intended. This means original music, and it was associated with the idea that through the constant effort of a master of the instrument,  a note of perfect beauty and fullness would issue from the end of the piece of bamboo, causing the blower to experience instantaneous enlightenment. This pure note was the goal of all shakuhachi players who practiced the art in correlation with Zen Buddhism, those trying to develop their individual ‘Kisoku,’ or spiritual breath, en route to that ever elusive state of ‘tettei,’ or absolute sound, mentioned above. This goal is perhaps best expressed in the komuso saying ‘Ichion Jobutsu,’ which means ‘Become a Buddha in one sound.’

To digress momentarily from the train of thought this essay is currently following, I thought it would be interesting after the area study to research the sociology of music in relation to the shakuhachi. The following definition is what I found:

Music is a complex of activities, ideas and objects that are patterned into culturally meaningful sounds recognized to exist on a level different from secular communication…that the sounds of music are partially shaped by the culture of which they are a part…there are other social characteristics as well. Music is a uniquely human phenomenon which exists solely in terms of social interaction; that is, it is made by people for other people, and it is learned behavior, thus it cannot be recognized as sound alone.

            This paragraph, in my opinion, points to connections between the nature of Japanese society and the hauntingly alien sounds of the shakuhachi, both so different from the ideals of culture and music, respectively, commonly shared by most of the civilized world. Perhaps the melancholic whisperings of the shakuhachi are a glimpse of the origins of Eastern music, ergo primitive music itself, echoing down through the ages preserved in a hidden temple in Kyoto during its most precarious position. The music of the shakuhachi seems to suggest emotion, the unsteady, non-rhythmic nature of life itself, expressed by expunging the air of the lungs into a piece of hollowed out wood. One can see the first primitives seated in a circle around their tribal campfire toying with the object when suddenly it spoke. And the sound that flowed from the mouth of the thing sounded like the wonder those present felt for the world around them, for the vastness and bleakness of the never ending horizon, it sounded like the voices of the gods calling creation into being. It is here, with the shakuhachi, that I found a justly named instrument of enlightenment. One must understand the music as those who make it understand for the full force of the shakuhachi to be felt.

The teacher held his shakuhachi in his hands as someone who handles his or her most prized possession every day grasps that special thing with a comfortable reverence. After a few minutes of monologue issuing from the man, a small number of questions were asked by the students, and then the music flowed. For what seemed like a mini-eternity sharp gusts of sound poured out of the section of bamboo, abruptly halting or slowly fading away, leading all of the other listeners and myself into a very noticeable reverie that was pleasant to experience, and funny to observe. It was suddenly easy to see the religious qualities of the musical device. All who were not in the mood to ponder the course of their own life or the place of humanity on the planet still sat enraptured by the elegant, and often seemingly ‘wise’ music flowing from the teacher’s lungs, through the flute and out into the air, almost visible in front of us. It was truly an opportunity to inspect the strange abundance of spirit in Eastern art, and to yet again be fascinated by the draw it holds for members of a culture so obviously different in so many ways. This was an art that seemed about as asymmetrical as they come, something that did not rely on the balance of form and the regular flow of rhythm which many other artistic traditions of Japan utilize, in  seeming denial of the will of the most ancient residents of Nippon, the gods themselves. This chaotic ride down the back streets of our relative memories had all the flavoring of a great natural experience, something which could not have been anything other than art since it evoked a special recognition of the eternally beautiful within the almost fragile composition of our own lives. Suddenly we, the living, were each of us threads of an infinitely complex braid that never had a beginning and will continue long after this shell we each inhabit is dust. It was the fulfillment of archetypal forms brought about by our own actions, made apparent to us by the soundtrack provided by the man with the shakuhachi, beautiful to behold because each of us had no choice but to realize that we were alive and in Japan and that, in the end, was enough. Religion turned into sound, keeping pace with an idea of time that exceeds the Western conception of regularity to make room for the very nature of human perception, that life moves at different speeds for everyone. Faith is simply a love of life.

Bringing to a close my thoughts on this instrument, I will borrow from a certain John Muir, who had the following statement to make about music:


“All things make music

                                    with their lives.”


It is only a few who make lives with their music.