Thursday, August 10, 2017

Room of a Nara Komuso

The centerpiece tent pole, a Gyokusui 1.8 in C#.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Birth of a Komuso

A Komuso is born...

It had been my plan for a while to do some type of shakuhachi pilgrimage every year. The anniversary of my formal shakuhachi lessons is in April /May, so I am late this year...if doing it on the date matters.

I set off fairly early on the pilgrimage. I was nervous, and dressed in a traditional Zen monk's work clothing a Samue. Even then I was a bit self conscious, no one noticed or cared, they were dressed in western fashion, me the gaijin was dressed in traditional wear. It is an interesting world view.

The trip to Nara was simple, and fairly quick. I was traveling ahead of schedule so did not feel rushed at all. I arrived and looked around for a locker to stash my backpack. However even though early the coin lockers at the station were full. Oh well, thanks to my Sempai, I was shown another place that was setup for people to drop off luggage. He had arrived shortly after I did. I found a toilet room and changed into my kimono, after which I put on the borrowed Komuso gear from my Sempai. He had given some basic directions about what to do while wearing the "basket", theTengai. Do not talk while basket is in place, remove it on the temple grounds, when speaking lifting the basket was ok or taking it off. I found that a bit hard to remember, lift and talk. I forgot many times and thought oops! I rather liked having the basket down, I was anonymous and hidden. A no one, people saw the clothes, and heard the sounds, but me as me not so much. Not the Black guy in Japanese gear. At least in my mind.

We started slow, I followed Sempai's lead. With the Tengai in place I could listen to my playing and his. Not see the people watching, or at the least ignore them better. I was pleasantly surprised we were able to play in harmony. I have heard recording of other Komuso playing and many times the tones do not match. In the Komuso world it is not supposed to matter. My Sensei also told me that in traditional Japanese music it is not about being in tune, harmonically with other players. It is more so with Shakuhachi Komuso Playing. However my musical roots come from a different place. Disharmony of tones can be an accent but not the norm. So, I was told that it did not matter, but to a musician it did. So yeah, not having to fight a tonal discord made it easier to follow the lead of Semapi on his phrasing of the Cho Shi melody. 
We played first near the train station, then slowly walked toward the park, stopping every so often. People always took pictures. Being in the basket, I did not care. I was not me, who I was did not matter, what I was doing mattered and I could do it faceless. There is a Kyudo ceremony I have seen that the archer covers his face while shooting. This way it is not about the shooter but the shooting. Here it was not who was sharing the dharma, but the dharma. The Dharma in this case is the musical tones of Cho Shi.

Once we reached the park we had our first negative encounter. I was told negative encounters happen. Not always, but they are out there, where there is Yang there is Yin. This is the Tao/Do of life. Sh*t happens! they say in the street.

A security guard or sorts made us the target of his day's power trip. He basically told us we could not play there on the street in front of the Park. Even though we were not IN the park, it was considered part of the park. At least in his view. Sempai was quite surprised having been doing this for a number of years. Rather than hassle with this "rent-a-cop" on a power trip, we moved on and crossed the street. There was fewer people traffic, but it could not be helped. We walked on.
 We made several stops to play after that without any further incidents. Our next encounter came from a couple of tourist girls. They said we were Co-playing. Sempai corrected them that we were in fact real priests. He was from a local temple. They were surprised and wanted pictures taken with us and them. The first of several group pictures throughout the day.
I noticed most times we stop, there was always a small crowd gathered taking pictures, even as we walked some times, pictures were common. This day much much more than donations. I was not really concerned about the donations, for me it was more about being out there. Playing and doing the practice. Turning inward and doing the song under the "Tengai" got easier as the day went on. I could block out, the photo ops crowds and just play. A couple of times a few people would get really really close like they were trying to see inside. Perhaps Chinese tourist, they are not known here for being subtle. I rolled with it. When you stand in the wind, you have to expect something to get in your eye.
One of the more difficult parts was walking and playing. That became a real challenge. There was the timing of the song, the musician me was concerned about the rhythm of walking and the playing of the song, the martial artist me was concerned about the rhythm of the breath while walking and playing. Should everything match? Meanwhile my Tengai was slipping down over my head and covering my eyes, and other parts of my Kumoso wear needed constant adjustments from slipping. Add to that some knee discomfort and foot discomfort. As with sitting Zen there was more to it than meets the eye. It is not Just sitting, it is not just playing, one as to over come distractions, internal and external. One can not attach to the distractions, one just does the practice.
I noticed during our travels, the different reactions to us. Tourist took pictures, kids pointed and had kid reactions, some just ignored us. Some of the older Japanese surprised me with their reverence. They would stop and bow. That was to me touching, not seeing me, but the spirit I represented.
 One older man spoke with Semapi upon hearing us play. He said the sounds returned him to his childhood during the war. There was a legless Shakuhachi player in his town. He wanted to learn from him. However the cripple said he ( the kid) did not want to go on this path (of suffering/sadness? ). Later he was able to take lessons, but had not played in many many years. He said the spirit that we conveyed was beyond and more important than not being Japanese. I found that comforting.

In most of the tales about Komuso, it is about them wandering around playing. However it seemed the playing was about and for their enlightenment or money. They did not really do Buddhist Priest type of things. When I see and have donated to other Priest on the street they give some type of blessing to the giver. I was told when receiving a donation as Komuso, one bows and keeps playing or restarts the Cho Shi song. After the day was over, Sempai said to me, the donations you received it would be good when you got home to put it in your sacred spot and say a pray or chant over it to honor/bless those who gave. For me that struck a good cord and really gave a purpose to the collections outside of self to buy lunch or the train ticket. It was also doing something as a priest since I do not belong to a temple here or do outside charity work, here in Japan. I have not seen much of other Komusos other than for special events, so this to me gives meaning to being a Zen Priest. Something to support my vows.
 Overall it was an educational and enjoyable experience. I enjoyed having a spiritual outlet for playing and being a "Ronin" priest. I have decided to do more of this and make it a part of my Lohan Chan practice. Even if nothing happens via teaching Budo and sharing dharma that way, there is this musical dharma outlet, that is not just me playing for self enlightenment. The Modern street Komuso playing touches people, more so the elders, perhaps they need it more these days, but also praying over the donations adds positive energy to the world conditions. Maybe on some level eases someone's suffering even just in their or my head having a Priest pray.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Advice for Suizen

Provided by Oliver Aumann from his website at

How the Shakuhachi is actually used as a meditation practice (suizen 吹禅, "blowing Zen") is a topic often overlooked and seldom referred to explicitly. I have selected some of the teachings that I have received over the years from my teachers. Those hints might help you to get started if you already are a Shakuhachi player.

1) Play regularly. 
Needless to say that you need to play as much as you can. "I'm not in the mood today" etc. is a silly excuse, Shakuhachi can be played in any mood, that's the point.
2) Play by heart.
You need to memorize some pieces to be able to practice suizen. Start with short ones. Shakuhachi is about experiencing sound, not about looking at scores.
3) Play freely.
Don't get caught in the form of a piece too much. Play the way you remember it and check afterwards where you need to revise.
4) Halt and watch.
From time to time you should stop in the midway of a piece and listen/watch the quality of the silence (shikan止観). Some pieces have little hints in the notation where to stop, most don't. After playing for a while your breath will change and so will your ability to watch your mind.
5) Finish your practice without finishing your piece.
When you finish your practice session always stop in the midway of a piece. The unfinished piece will resonate through your day and your everyday life will naturally become part of your meditation.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Brief History of the Fuke Sect and Myoan Taizan-ha

Fuke (Pu’hua 770-840 or 860) sounds a bell (taku) and chants.

Chohaku uses a bamboo pipe to imitate the sound of Fuke’s bell, and creates the piece Kyotaku (“Empty Bell”).

16 generations later, the Japanese monk Kakushin (Hotto Kokushi) travels to China, learns Kyotaku, and returns to Japan in 1254.  He builds Saihoji (later known as Kokokuji) at Yura and introduces the shakuhachi piece Kyotaku to Japan.

Kichiku (Kyochiku Zenji) becomes a pupil of Kakushin.  He dreams the sounds of what he transcribes as the two shakuhachi pieces Mukaiji (Flute in a Misty Sea) and Kokuji (Flute of Emptiness). 

After Kakushin’s death, his pupil Myofu builds the Kyoreizan Myoanji temple at Shirakawa in Kyoto.  Kyochiku Zenji becomes the temple’s first abbott.  By the late 18th century, there are more than 70 komuso temples throughout Japan.

In 1705, Myoanji takes control over all the komuso temples west of the Kansai region, along with the main temple Kokokuji.  Myoanji establishes a strong relationship to stand up to temple ranking system of the Bakafu and to Ichigetsuji in the Kanto region.

When the Tokugawa central government (Bakufu) in the mid 1800s showed signs of weakness under pressure from the outside world to open trade, komuso began to lose their self-discipline: there was an increase in bogus komuso resorting to violence, extortion and vandalism.  The Bakufu at this time pass laws revoking their privileges and prohibiting begging.

Myoan monk Ozaki Shinryu (1820-88) and his pupil Kondo Soetsu (1821-67)  side with the imperial faction to “expel the barbarians”.  As a result, the 33rd kansu (head of Myoanji) Kanmyo Gendo is thrown in jail.  Shinryo is also arrested and confined.   The new government abolishes the Fuke sect in October 1871. The 34th kansu of Myoanji, Jishosakuhi,  is forced to return to secular life.  Sacred items and documents of Myoanji are moved to the Zennein temple inside the precincts of  the Rinzai temple of Tofukuji in Kyoto.

Religious mendicancy is authorized once again in 1881, resulting in a resurgence of komuso.  Tofukuji burns down this year, and the need to rebuild the temple was one of the reasons the komuso are allowed to resume their activities in 1883, which later results in the formation of the Myoan Society in 1890.  Katsuura Shozan (1856-1942) becomes head of the Kyoto branch.  Shozan brings 63 honkyoku which constitute the repertory of the Myoan Shinpo school, 45 of which he has learned directly from Ozaki Shinryu.

Higuchi Taizan (1856-1914) first studies shakuhachi with Kanemoto Seian, a clansman from the Owari fief who had studied with Gyokudo Baizan at the Fudaiji temple in Hammamatsu.  He brings the 11 Seien honkyoku he had learned to Kyoto in 1885.   Taizan is nominated as shakuhachi instructor for the Myoan Society in 1890.  Taizan masters honkyoku of various lineages including the Kinko, Kyushu, and Oshu traditions.  Of the 11 pieces associated with the Fudaiji temple, he scarcely modifies the three pieces Choshi, Renbo-nagashi, and Akita Sugagaki.  He slightly edits the pieces of Shizu, Takiochi, Koro-sugagaki, Mukaiji, and the first half of Koku.  The pieces that he extensively re-notates are Tsuru no sugomori, the second half of Koku, and Kyorei. Taizan begins studying with Araki Kodo I in 1894, and learns and adapts several pieces from Takigawa Chuka including Kadobiraki, San’ya-nagashi (renamed Yoshino no kyoku) and San’ya sugagaki (renamed Shin’ya no kyoku). In 1895 he learns from Iso Itcho at the Itchoken komuso temple in Hakata in Kyushu the pieces Kumoi no kyoku, Azuma no kyoku and Sashi.

Taizan had generally finished his work on consolidating the repertory around 1902, with finalized forms nearing completion around 1913.  Taizan modifies existing honkyoku by either change of title,  division of the pieces, addition of introductory sections, the addition or removal of certain musical figures, and the extensive omission of melodic figures.  Taizan fully engaged in the task of rearranging the music on the basis of a clear awareness of overall musical structure.  After Taizan’s death, his pupil Kobayashi Shizan (1877-1938) becomes the 36th kansu, while Taizan was recognized as the 35th kansu and the first to re-assume the role after it lapsed with Jishosakuhi in 1871.  Shizan further consolidates the repertory handed on to him by his teacher and lays down the method of performance, thereby establishing the Taizan school as a vehicle for transmission of the honkyoku handed down at the Myoanji.

In March 1950, Myoanji is granted permission to re-establish itself as the headquarters of the Fuke sect, with the Myoan Society as its parent body.  The principle of generation-to-generation instruction from master to pupil for the transmission of the Myoanji honkyoku is authorized in 1961, and a Myoan Instructors Society is formed, consisting of qualified instructors with their own teaching facilities.  A kansu is elected as necessary, to further the perspective of Taizan as a reflection of his guidance for a direct transmission in a spirit of sincerity, for the elevating insights of Suizen practice.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Visiting the Shimura Shakuhachi Museum

Members of the Koten-shakuhachi-kenkyū-kai, or Society for the Study of Classical Shakuhachi visited the Shimura Shakuhachi Museum in Osaka.

A 2.0 Kogetsu from the personal collection of Higuchi Taizan. 
Gyokusui III looks on in the background.  
Komuso Mutake prepares to play an unusual chokan of Genpu Iwazimu, a komuso from the Taisha period.

Playing a shakuhachi made by Watazumi, 
a master particularly revered in the West.

A 6.0 shakuhachi of Genpu Iwazimu.  So much caught the attention 
of those present that several makers afterward crafted their own 6.0s!

Partially in view on the table, an old Myoan shakuhachi by maker
Kondō Sōetsu and its 3D printer reproduction in yellow, which was 
very light and nearly as resonant.