Honkyoku are the most venerated pieces for the shakuhachi and are considered to be a Zen art form for the practice of meditation, which is sometimes called Suizen. They were mostly composed by the Komuso monks during the Edo period and many distinct regional styles developed, though few have survived to this day. Honkyoku (本曲) literally means “original/true/real music” and the word can refer to a single piece or to the genre as a whole.
Additionally, honkyoku are highly nuanced making it virtually impossible to transcribe them to staff notation. In fact, even the various Japanese systems of notation for the shakuhachi cannot convey many of the subtleties found in a honkyoku. For example, it would be like trying to infer or convey the accent of a regional dialect through written text alone. For this reason, the passing down of honkyoku must occur between teacher and student.
Honkyoku and meditation or mindfulness
Honkyoku have a unique structure that is well suited to meditation practices such as mindfulness. They typically have no set rhythm and barely any melody. The phrases are followed by moments of relative silence in which the player takes a breath. The quality of these rests can be as important as the phrases. These pauses are often called Ma which means “space”. This structure allows the player to focus on the breath, the quality of the shakuhachi sound, and the relative silence in between. Let’s take a look below (you can find a basic note chart here).
While honkyoku scores may look intimidating at first, most of my students are surprised at how fast the pick it up. Many agree that it’s much less complex than Western staff notation.
The above honkyoku is a piece called Kyorei, as arranged by Jin Nyodo. It’s widely revered as one of the most calming or meditative pieces and it’s a good first piece to learn. The small excerpt is of me playing the first 5 phrases on a large bass shakuhachi nearly 3 feet long. Jin Nyodo also played this on a large shakuhachi.
Honkyoku are read from right to left, top to bottom. You’ll notice that I’ve numbered the lines or columns for convenience. Each phrase is separated by a circle which is where one takes a breath. These breaths create that unique relative silence I mentioned above.
Honkyoku are written using the Japanese katakana alphabet. Each katakana represents a certain finger-position. For example, the character Ro (ロ) corresponds to having all finger holes covered. The relative length of a note is indicated by the diagonal lines going outward from certain notes.