The shakuhachi music of the Komuso monks
Honkyoku (本曲) literally means “original music” and can refer to a single piece or to the genre as a whole. Honkyoku are the most venerated pieces of shakuhachi music because they are considered to be spiritual or meditative, most having been composed by the Komuso monks during the Edo period. Many distinct regional styles of honkyoku developed across Japan though few have survived to this day.
Honkyoku are unique in that they are mostly solo pieces with pauses of silence, which effectively makes empty-space, or relative silence, a part of the music. Honkyoku are highly nuanced making it virtually impossible to transcribe them to staff notation and even the Japanese systems of notation for the shakuhachi cannot convey many of the subtleties. For example, it would be like trying to infer or convey the accent of a regional dialect with only written text. For this reason the teaching of honkyoku has been, and remains, largely an oral tradition.
It is estimated that there were more than one-hundred Komuso shakuhachi temples across Edo period Japan, however, the Meiji Restoration abolished Buddhism which resulted in the closing, or often destruction of the Komuso temples. The Meiji government soon decided to try and ban secular shakuhachi playing as well, however, the Kinko Ryu Grandmasters Araki Kodo II (Chikuo) and Yoshida Itcho successfully petitioned the government into allowing secular shakuhachi activities to continue.
As a result, secular shakuhachi music became popular and the shakuhachi went mainstream. Eventually the ban on Buddhism was lifted and the practice of honkyoku could once again continue out in the open. However, subsequent generations saw a decline in interest for honkyoku resulting in the continuous extinction of styles up to the present day. After the Meiji restoration the Edo period honkyoku styles gradually became ryu or “schools”, typically after a few generations of teachers had passed.
Non-Japanese who seek to learn the shakuhachi have been primarily interested in the honkyoku. Outside of Japan we mostly see the propagation of post Edo period honkyoku schools which were created by such master as Jin Nyodo, Watazumi, Nishimura Koku, and Higuchi Taizan (Myoan). One exception to this is the Kinko Ryu which has spread outside of Japan with much success. The Kinko Ryu originates from the former head temple of the Fuke Shu, Ichigetsu-ji.
The styles of honkyoku that I teach
- Seien Ryu Fudai-ji (西園流 譜代寺) – founded by Kanetomo Seien I (1819-1895) in Hamamatsu city (currently located in Nagoya city), Chibu region
- Kyu Myoan (Kichiku and Shinpo Ryu) – original Kyu Myoan-ji or “Old Myoan Temple”, the first Myoan temple before Higuchi Taizan’s Myoan-ji – Kyoto city, Kansai region
- Kinpu Ryu (Kimpu Ryu or Nezasa ha) – founded by Nyui Getsuei (1833 – 1898) – Tsugaru city, Tohoku region
- Oshu-kei and Echigo Myoan-ji den (Fudai-ken aka Futai-ken, Kinjo-ji, Myoan-ji) – honkyoku from the former Oshu and Echigo areas in the North, Tohoku and Joetsu regions
- Kyushu-kei (Itcho-ken) – honkyoku from the southern island of Kyushu. Unfortunately it is very hard to tell how this style was played before Taizan’s school took over the region
- Taizan ha/Ryu “Myoan” – Higuchi Taizan (1856-1914), Kyoto
- Jin Nyodo kei – Jin Nyodo (1891 – 1966), Tokyo
- Dokyoku/Chikushinkai – Watazumi (1911-1992) and Yokoyama Katsuya (1934-2010), Tokyo