The Komuso shakuhachi monks of the Fuke shu
Due to a number of changes during the Edo period, many samūrai found themselves rōnin or “masterless” which resulted in many becoming shakuhachi playing monks known as komuso. At the time, there were also beggars who played shakuhachi-like flutes for alms. These flute beggars were referred to as komoso or “straw mat monks” (薦層) because they carried a sleeping mat made of straw on their backs. The life of these flute playing beggars appealed to a growing number of rōnin samūrai so they began joining their ranks. Eventually, the samūrai diverged from the beggars by creating their own order and calling themselves the komūso or “monks of no-thing-ness” (虚無僧).
An official Zen Buddhist sect was formed by and for the komuso called The Fuke shu which was named after the Chinese monk Fuke Zenji (Zhenzhou Puhua). The Tokugawa Shogunate granted them official status which came with various rare privileges, such as being able to travel across borders freely. In order to become a komuso of the Fuke shu or to legally play the shakuhachi you had to be of samūrai birth with the proper identification papers, pass initiation, take oaths, and pay an entrance fee by trading their swords. They developed a number of refined musical styles of playing shakuhachi and they anonymously composed many honkyoku, which are considered spiritual or meditative pieces of music.
Tengai “basket-hat” and other clothing items
The tengai basket hat is perhaps the most iconic item next to the shakuhachi flute. It has been said that it was a tool to aid in the suppression of the ego as well as a means to help people to listen rather than be concerned with the identity or emotions of the player. It has also been speculated that it provided a disguise and a way to hide exactly how the shakuhachi was being played. The tengai hat is typically woven from either grass reed, rattan, or bamboo. Tengai have a unique head-band that is suspended and secured with string which allows the tengai to move with the motions of the player. Some say the tengai didn’t begin to cover the hole face until later in the Edo period, perhaps in the 19th century.
The second image to the right details the various articles of clothing worn by the monks which are as fallows:
- Tengai (天蓋) basket hat – ten “sky-heaven” and gai “cover”.
- Kimono (紋付) – usually mon-tsuki “five crest”.
- O-kuwara (大掛絡) – like rakusu except larger and worn over shoulder.
- Obi (帯) – kaku-obi, a stiff cotton belt for men.
- 2nd shakuhachi (usually fake these days)
- Netsuke (根付) – place to store small items.
- Kyahan (脚半) shin covers.
- Tabi (足袋) split toe socks.
- Waraji (草鞋) straw sandals.
- Hachimaki (鉢巻) head band.
- Shakuhachi (尺八) 1.8 “D/Db”.
- Tekou (手甲) hand and forearm covers.
- Gebako (偈箱) alms box which also held official papers.
- Fusa (房) tassel.
Initiation of a komuso to-be
After passing a thorough background check, paying a fee, and taking oaths, a komuso would be given the san-gu or “three tools” and san-in or “three seals”. The “three tools” were the shakuhachi flute, the tengai basket hat, and the o-kuwara shawl (rakusu/kesa). The o-kuwara shawl is much like the Zen Buddhist rakusu, however, the komuso o-kuwara is larger and worn over the shoulder, instead of in the regular position in front of the body. The “three seals” were identification papers, which included the honsoku komuso license, the kai-in personal identification papers, and the tsu-in which allowed them to cross borders. They were also given a gebako which is a lacquered wooden alms box worn about the neck in which was stored the official papers.
Activities of the komuso
While some komuso would wander, supporting themselves by playing shakuhachi for alms, others would hold positions at temples handling affairs. Later on they began teaching lay-people how to play the shakuhachi. In some cases, being a komuso was profitable while for some it would inevitably be a life of poverty. The chief activities of most komuso would have been playing honkyoku which are secular solo musical pieces anonymously composed by the komuso for shakuhachi.
The tsu-in document allowed them to cross borders freely thus providing the komuso with a rare privilege during feudal Japan. This enabled komuso to travel to other temples where different regional honkyoku styles developed. This in turn allowed for some cross-pollination of regional honkyoku styles. The komuso Kurosawa Kinko I (1710-1771) was the first to collect various styles across Japan.
They would beg for alms by playing a honkyoku outside of a home or place of business and then wait for some food or money. Some practiced something near to extortion in order to receive alms by intimidating people and loitering. It has been said that some komuso would play shakuhachi for special events such as funerals and it is assumed that they would receive some form of alms for their services.
Negative portrayals of the komuso in fiction and superstitious misconceptions
Their reputation was tarnished by the various criminal acts of some adherents. This stereotype was further fueled by negative portrayals in plays in which most komuso were depicted as violent ex-samūrai thugs or boro-boro, spies, and assassins. Komuso were also the subject of mysticism or superstitions. For example, some believed that the komuso were surrounded by the dead and brought evil spirits or bad luck. Conversely, some believed that a komuso could have a positive affect over such invisible forces. In many ways, some komuso could have been described as spiritual minstrels or priests.
Teaching of laymen and the evolution to modern day instruction
The Fuke shu tried to keep the shakuhachi exclusive to its adherents, however, many laymen, i.e., non-samūrai komuso, played the shakuhachi and participated in nonsecular ensemble music with the koto and the shamisen (Gaikyoku/Sankyoku). Eventually, the Fuke shu allowed people to teach shakuhachi to laymen for a fee. Laymen could also earn shakuhachi playing licenses and professional titles. The increasing amount of shakuhachi teaching to laymen later developed into the public shakuhachi studios or dojo that we have today, as well as the shift from komuso temples to ryu or “schools”.
The banning of the komuso – The Meiji Restoration and the destruction of the Fuke shu
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 all 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 convinced the government to allow nonsecular shakuhachi music to continue.
As a result, nonsecular music became very popular and the shakuhachi became a mainstream instrument. Eventually, the honkyoku and some komuso activities were legalized again. The honkyoku continued to be taught in schools with and without nonsecular ensemble music. However, subsequent generations saw a decline in people’s interest in the honkyoku, and when compounded with the difficulties of social change and war, the extinction of honkyoku continue up to this day. As a result, 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 such as Watazumi, Jin Nyodo, and Higuchi Taizan.