Meticulous form for air
Breath turned sonic
Welcome, I’m a shakuhachi teacher and craftsman. In lessons, I pass down the honkyoku which were mostly composed by the Komuso monks. As for my journey, it began when I started crafting bamboo flutes in my teens as a complement to my meditation practice. The shakuhachi was the first instrument that I studied under a teacher and I never looked back.
My YouTube video on how to play
In the above video, I attempt to show how to sound a shakuhachi. Of course, more in-depth, personalized instruction occurs in live shakuhachi lessons over Skype video chat. But hopefully this helps people to begin. I also authored an instructional book called Your Shakuhachi Journey which some have found very helpful.
Do you need a shakuhachi? The Bell
I craft and play jinashi shakuhachi which are mostly natural bamboo on the inside. Conversely, contemporary jiari style shakuhachi are mostly plaster or glue on the inside. Jiari quickly became standard but jinashi are enjoying a full-fledged renaissance in recent times. Crafting jinashi is all about working with what nature gives you (conversely, crafting jiari largely turns the bamboo into a shell or vessel for plaster or glue). Crafting quality jinashi is especially challenging due to the vast variability of bamboo and the inherent restrictions of working with the natural inner bore. For these reasons, acquiring quality madaké bamboo for jinashi is immensely important. However, jinashi can offer an entirely unequaled experience.
“What are shakuhachi?”
A. The utaguchi (歌口) tone-edge on the front and the chin-rest portion on the back
B. Finger-holes 1 through 5 (the 5th thumb-hole is on the back)
C. The bottom root-end which voices the fundamental
Note: Some shakuhachi have a joint between finger-holes 3 and 4
Shakuhachi (尺八) are end-blown flutes played with embouchure which is a specific shaping of the lips and mouth in order to control air-flow and pressure. Unlike Native American flutes and recorders they don’t have a fipple mouth-piece to direct the air-stream. While far more difficult, the reward is that the player can have much more control over the sound. The shakuhachi has six tone-holes, five of which are finger-holes, and it can play a little over two octaves. The natural scale is the minor pentatonic, however, players can access many more notes by adjusting the pitch in various ways.
For example, by lowering the head the player can bring their lips closer to the tone-edge which flattens the pitch. The finger-holes can also be covered to various degrees to flatten the pitch which is called finger-shading. These two techniques are often combined which is called meri (メり). Additionally, the head and the lips can be moved in a number of ways to create vibrato and other sound effects. In short, it’s the ability to manipulate the sound to a high degree that makes it such a unique and expressive instrument.
A Brief History of the Shakuhachi
The first shakuhachi-like flutes were said to have been brought to Japan from the mainland during the Nara period (710-794 AC). These instruments were 1.08 shaku in length, which is much shorter than the later standard of 1.8 shaku (a difference of roughly 8 inches). Furthermore, they were made from the upper “pole” portion of the bamboo, as apposed to using the lower portion and root end of the bamboo, as is standard now. They were a part of Gagaku court music, however, they were replaced in the ensemble. They eventually made it into the hands of the common people, particularly the Komoso or “straw-mat monks” who would play shakuhachi for alms.
The Komoso were not ordained Buddhist monks, so “monk” was more of loose descriptor. They begged for alms like ordained monks and presumable alongside them at times. At the beginning of the 17th century the Tokugawa military government consolidated its control over most of the country which brought about peace. As a result, many samurai found themselves masterless or rōnin (浪人, “drifter” or “wanderer”).
Some of these rōnin turned to playing the shakuhachi for alms, like the Komoso. Eventually, the rōnin created their own fraternity and began calling themselves the Komuso instead of Komoso. Komuso translates as “monks of nothingness” (虚無僧). The Komuso eventually named their organization the Fuke shu after the Chinese Chan Buddhist monk Fuke Zenji (allegedly ca. 770-840 or 860). The Komuso developed a number of honkyoku which are considered a Zen art form. These pieces are felt to be spiritual or meditative in nature and some have called the act of playing Suizen or “blowing Zen”.