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 type 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 Western 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 nonsecular shakuhachi playing as well, however, the Kinko ryu Grandmasters Araki Kodo II (Chikuo) and Yoshida Itcho successfully petitioned the government into allowing nonsecular shakuhachi activities to continue.
As a result, nonsecular 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. Currently only six distinct regional styles of honkyoku have survived to the present, in addition to the various post Edo period styles created by individual masters.
After the Meiji restoration the Edo period honkyoku styles gradually became ryu or “schools”, typically after a few generations of teachers had passed. A teacher of a style would adopt the name of a previous teacher thus becoming the II or III head of the style. Interestingly, foreigners who seek to learn the shakuhachi have been primarily interested in the honkyoku, however, we mostly see the propagation of post Edo period honkyoku styles which were created by such master as Jin Nyodo, Watazumi, and Higuchi Taizan (Myoan). One exception to this is the Kinko ryu which has spread outside of Japan.
The six regional styles of Edo period honkyoku that have survived until today, in whole or in part
(in order of how I teach them *no link means I don’t teach them*)
- 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.
- Shimpo ryu Myoan-ji – original Kyu Myoan-ji or “Old Myoan Temple”, the first Myoan temple before Higuchi Taizan’s Myoan, Kyoto city, Kansai region.
- Kimpu ryu (Kinpu ryu or Nezasa ha) – founded by Nyui Getsui (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.
- Kinko ryu (Itchigetsu-ji and Reiho-ji) – founded by Kinko Kurosawa I (1710 – 1771), Edo city (Tokyo) Kanto region. Kinko ryu has evolved far past how it was played in the Edo period.
- Kyushu kei (Itchoken) – honkyoku from the southern island of Kyushu. Unfortunately it is very hard to tell how this style was played before Taizan’s Myoan style took over the region.
Post Edo period honkyoku styles created by individual masters
- “Myoan” Taizan ha/ryu – Higuchi Taizan (1856-1914), Kyoto.
- Jin Nyodo kei – Jin Nyodo (1891 – 1966), Tokyo.
- Dokyoku/Chikushinkai – Watazumi (1911-1992), Tokyo.
Confusion over Myoan – Higuchi Taizan’s Myoan vs Shimpu ryu or Kyu Myoan
After the destruction of Myoan-ji and end of the Edo period a Seien ryu shakuhachi master from Nagoya named Suzuki Kodo moved to Kyoto to teach Sankyoku music. He changed his name to Higuchi Taizan and after failing to succeed as a Sankyoku teacher he began rearranging various honkyoku he had learned mainly from the Seien and Kinko ryu’s. However, he had far more Gagaku students even at the height of his career teaching his honkyoku. He rented a new space in Kyoto which he named Myoan-ji after the temple that had been destroyed years earlier. It acted as, and remains, the base of operations for his style. His style actually contains none of the Shimpo ryu pieces, however, his school is most often called “Myoan” after the temple he founded in Kyoto. When the names “Myoan ryu” or “Myoan” are heard today it almost always refers to Taizan’s school.