When I was a kid my Dad shared the Japanese art of bonsai with me. There was a lot that I didn’t understand about the art since I was just a kid but I remember gaining an appreciation for the beauty of nature. In my teens I became obsessed with the martial arts which eventually led to me learning about mushin or “no mind” in Miyamoto Musashi‘s, Book of Five Rings.
But it was a chance encounter with a Buddhist refugee that changed my course at the age of about 16. This monk, who’s name I never learned, was walking back and forth on the beach boardwalk one day. This was a rare sight to see in a small town, although to my surprise no one but myself seemed to care. So I watched him without him noticing, or so I thought, for a good while. After he stopped walking he called me over shouting, “You!” I feigned ignorance instantly embarrassed realizing that he must’ve spotted me spying on him, so I asked him timidly, Me? and he shouted back, Yes!
As I walked over he thrust out his hand so I put mine in his and I instantly started asking him questions. I asked him everything you could imagine but he didn’t answer a single question. He just nodded his head smiling, all the while squeezing the life out of my hand and rubbing my knuckles together pretty hard as he shook my hand fiercely up and down. My knuckles were raw from practicing martial arts but it still took me a good amount of unanswered questions before I looked down to see what was happening to my poor hand. When I stopped talking the grinding became more and more gentle and I was transfixed.
His shaking of my hand also slowed, and slowed, and slowed… and as soon as all movement stopped, he tossed my hand away and shouted, Good luck! I bowed, he didn’t but was still smiling, and I practically ran away. Despite all my seeking in the years that followed, not unlike my equally fervent questions for the monk that day, that teaching or “showing” turned out to be all I could have ever really required, besides regular vipassana meditation. No amount of books or speeches could ever come within a mile of that hand shake. But the seeker, or the illusion that there is a seeker and something to strive after, must be exhausted sometimes; the hand ground to mincemeat to finally stop and really notice.
After that encounter my interest in meditation quickly led me away from the martial arts and I began practicing bonsai again. One day, the person that I bought bonsai supplies from offered me a bunch of bamboo that he had cut down so I took some off of his hands. I learned that I could make flutes from the bamboo which made me remember that, when I was a kid, I really enjoyed climbing up trees and playing simple melodies on a recorder. Now I was presented with a chance to make my own instruments but I hadn’t played real flutes before (flutes without a fipple mouth-piece). After struggling to make my first sideways-style (transverse) bamboo flutes I quickly realized that I would need to purchase some professionally made examples.
I commissioned some simple bamboo flutes, one of which was a very large base with four finger-holes tuned to the minor pentatonic scale, the same as the shakuhachi. I really fell in love with this particular flute and felt deeply that bamboo flutes were the instrument for me. I was around 17 years old at the time and little did I know that I would spend the years to come completely immersed in bamboo flutes, specifically the shakuhachi.
When I finally tried my hand at making an end-blown shakuhachi-like flute I immediately found that it was the direction that I wanted to go in. In 2004 at age 18 I went ahead and purchased the only real shakuhachi that I could afford which was the plastic shakuhachi YUU,a replica of a jiari style shakuhachi.
In the summer of 2006 I was fortunate enough to be able to move to New York City, Manhattan, to live in an apartment building with one of my older siblings. I decided to move there when I saw that a shakuhachi teacher would be within walking distance of our apartment on The Lower East Side. I was completely naïve and had no idea what New York City would be like. I had no monetary or moral support for my decision to pursue the shakuhachi, having come from a single parent household of meager means to begin with.
However, during my time in New York City I was fortunate enough to completely support myself by continuing to sell my bamboo flutes online which enabled me to study shakuhachi full-time. I studied under Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin and periodically under Kurahashi Yodo II, both masters of the Jin Nyodo style.
Eventually, I would take three lessons a week, walking from The Lower East Side over to The West Village through throngs of people to have a lesson with my teacher Ronnie. The first day I showed up in a button-up shirt and Ronnie opened the door wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt with a big grin on his face welcoming me in. I had imagined that I’d be in a class with other students but I quickly found myself totally alone across from the teacher. Ronnie taught in the traditional Japanese way, sitting seiza (on the knees) without much in the way of verbal explanation, just playing and light conversation. So I would also stay afterward to watch at least two other students have their lessons to try and puzzle-out how they were getting such good sounds.
When Kurahashi Yodo II would come to town I would walk over The Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn to study from him as well.
One thing that struck me about shakuhachi in The Big City was that most people played jiari shakuhachi and many of these instruments were prohibitively expensive. I was only able to play instruments that were loaned to me on a payment basis by Ronnie. The prohibitive costs, at least for someone of limited income, and the elitism that came along with it were things that I took note of. I decided that I wanted to champion jinashi but not just as “side instruments” like novelty items, which was largely the feeling people had about them at that time, but as shakuhachi that one could learn on and grow to perform and teach with.
I began experimenting with copying jiari and jinashi shakuhachi bores to try and think of a way to make and provide quality jinashi shakuhachi for a truly reasonable price.
In the spring of 2008 I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a trip to Japan with my teacher Ronnie. It was mostly a tourist type of trip but part of the objective was to try and secure an apprenticeship with a Kinko Ryu jiari shakuhachi maker. The apprenticeship fell through when the shakuhachi maker decided that he was too busy with family to take me on.
Shortly after my return to New York City I found out that my mother was ill. I left New York City and my lessons to help her. I was very close to completing the Jin Nyodo repertoire and receiving my official license (Shihan) but I ultimately ended up taking a different path.
In 2009 I discovered that there were large quantities of madaké or “Japanese timber bamboo“ growing in the United States which is the species of bamboo used to make shakuhachi. I was the first US shakuhachi maker to highlight this domestic resource and use it almost exclusively.
After harvesting and handcrafting hundreds of jinashi shakuhachi, from both domestically grown and Japanese grown bamboo, I realized that quality examples were more rare than I thought they would be, especially 1.8’s, the standard size/key for shakuhachi. I couldn’t even keep up with a meager demand for expensive $2000-$3000 dollar 1.8’s because nature only gave me about 5 or less a year. Furthermore, most people could not afford these prices anyway.
The bamboo alone has to be painstakingly dug up by the roots which is very hard labor, heated over hot coals carefully, lovingly dried in the sun for a month, and then further dried in storage for 2 years or more. After all of this, a piece could prove to be unsuitable once the nodes are opened up and the preliminary work is done on the finger holes. At this rate, $3,000 begins to look like a bargain I believe, even if most of us cannot afford it.
So I returned to my idea of copying a jinashi shakuhachi but this time I would copy one both inside and out, with the goal of producing affordable replicas.
I now knew that this would be the only way that most people would ever play a high quality 1.8 jinashi shakuhachi, regardless of their budget. In 2013 I released the first iteration which I called The Bell Shakuhachi. This was the first ever copy of a jinashi shakuhachi. However, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result and decided to improve the process and make an even better shakuhachi to copy.
It took me five more years, and over a decade all together, to complete the project. In November of 2018 I finally re-released the new Bell Shakuhachi which has since been embraced by all levels of shakuhachi players around the world.
As for my studies of the music, to go back in time a bit, in 2011 I began studying again but this time I learned the distinct regional styles of Honkyoku from Justin Senryu Williams. Justin’s more hands-on teaching approach shaped me into a better player than I thought my self capable of, which of course enabled me to craft shakuhachi at a higher level. I don’t know what I would’ve done without his guidance. I’ve since been teaching these regional styles to people around the world, mostly over video chat.
This is the path that I am treading through the bamboo grove and I thank you for taking the time to read about it. I hope that your journey with the shakuhachi will be a deeply rewarding one.
If you would like further guidance I invite you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I look forward to hearing from you. Jon~