The Shakuhachi is a flute; a melodious wind-blown instrument. The Shakuhachi is an instrument that originated from Asia and is crafted using the bamboo tree. In this article we will delve into the essential aspects of this ancient flute; starting with an understanding of its unique history, some of the technical details of how it is crafted and played and its role and applications within spirituality, mindfulness and meditation practice in Zen Buddhism.
The Origins of the Shakuhachi Flute
The Shakuhachi flute originated in China and spread to Japan around the 7th century. Japan is where it became more recognized, most notably between 17th – 18th centuries which is the time period of the Japanese komusō monks. These monks were practitioners of Zen, with a particular focus on ego dissolution and non-attachment as a means to attaining enlightenment. They were known to play Shakuhachi flute music as they travelled around the streets of Japan in pilgrimage, begging for alms (charitable donations) and wearing straw baskets on their heads to symbolize their non-attachment to personal identity. It is interesting to note that around the time of the komusō monks the political climate in Japan (which restricted travel for most people) resulted in individuals who were not actual monks using the attire of the komusō monks as a disguise to travel around. This attracted some controversy surrounding the Shakuhachi as some say they carried the flute and utilized it as both an instrument and a weapon of defense; to validate the identity of a traveler as a komusō monk, people carrying this flute and wearing monk attire were sometimes asked to play complex Shakuhachi compositions.
The Shakuhachi flute and many of these compositions have survived throughout history to exist notably in our present-day reality. Various sets of compositions form the schools of Shakuhachi (Kinko Ryu, Meian Ryu and Tozan Ryu). In modern times Shakuhachi has spread beyond just traditional and modern Japanese music. Today the music of this flute is popularly used in film and video game soundtracks as well as still being widely considered an instrument of Zen practice especially for those who choose to dedicate time learning how to play it.
The technical details of the Shakuhachi
The very name of this instrument translates to its technical specifications; Shakuhachi points to the instrument being 1.8shaku or 54.54cm in size. Shaku refers to an ancient unit of measurement and hachi means 8/10ths of a shaku. It is traditionally crafted from bamboo which is hollowed and organically shaped. The root end of the Bamboo tree is used in order to naturally achieve the desired flared shape. It has five holes (four top holes and one thumb hole) which are used to create more tonal variety.
The Shakuhachi is played as end-blown flute by directing a stream of air through the cut end.There is usually a small insert at this blowing end made of bone, ivory, hardwood or plastic. The Shakuhachi flute is a simple instrument that can be used to create an extensive variety of sounds through various embouchures and fingerings. It can be a challenging instrument to learn to play and the process of learning is usually guided by a master Shakuhachi player as a teacher who passes down the subtleties of the presence and knowledge needed to play this ancient instrument.
The Shakuhachi as Zen
Knowing a little more about the history and origins of this flute we can now consider its role in Zen Buddhism. Although the Shakuhachi has some contrasting uses (being used martial instrument) its primary use was, and is an instrument that is linked to the practice within Zen known as Suizen or Blowing Meditation. Suizen was practiced by the komusō monks and involves the playing of the Shakuhachi for the purpose of enlightenment or deeper self-realization. The playing of this flute is a meditation in focus and presence. The ability to produce sound from a Shakuhachi as well as the type of sound produce is inextricably dependant on the breath of the player. Breathing being a core element of both meditation practice and the playing of the Shakuhachi transforms the playing of this instrument into an embodied meditation practice. Initially, a calm breath is required to produce sound energy within the instrument and the player will need to practice mindfulness and presence to get into the rhythm of calm breathing.
The sounds produced from the flute can be an auditory indicator or mirror of the inner state of the player, reflecting the Qi (life-force energy) of the player. The goal is not perfection but presence. Playing the Shakuhachi is an embodiment that reflects each present moment through the sound produced. The playing of the Shakuhachi is a practice of naturally, simply and without judgment observing the present, the inner state or energy of the moment as the player deepens in practice.
Just as the Shakuhachi flute was used by the komusō monks as a Zen practice it is still understood and used for this today by many of its players. Like any valuable practice, it takes dedication to experience the full benefits and playing this instrument can most definitely be a worthwhile commitment. Even if you choose only to be an appreciator of Shakuhachi music the energy of this flute and its player can most definitely be felt. It is likely that you have already listened to and been subconsciously and emotively moved by Shakuhachi music within the soundtrack of a guided meditation, film or video game you’ve played. Now that you have gained a more nuanced understanding of this captivating instrument you may want to listen to and absorb the sounds with fuller presence, we suggest visiting the Music of Wisdom YouTube channel and listening to the second half of the powerful 432Hz Deep Healing Meditation Music composition.
__Written by Music Of Wisdom team