The first shakuhachi-like flutes were said to have been brought to Japan from the mainland during the Nara period (710-794 AC). These instruments were 1.08 shaku in length, which is much shorter than the later standard of 1.8 shaku (a difference of roughly 8 inches). Furthermore, they were made from the upper “pole” portion of the bamboo, as apposed to using the lower portion and root end of the bamboo, as is standard now. They were a part of Gagaku court music, however, they were replaced in the ensemble. They eventually made it into the hands of the common people, particularly the Komoso or “straw-mat monks” who would play shakuhachi for alms.
The Komoso were not ordained Buddhist monks, so “monk” was more of loose descriptor. They begged for alms like ordained monks and presumable alongside them at times. At the beginning of the 17th century the Tokugawa military government consolidated its control over most of the country which brought about peace. As a result, many samurai found themselves masterless or rōnin (浪人, “drifter” or “wanderer”).
Some of these rōnin turned to playing the shakuhachi for alms, like the Komoso. Eventually, the rōnin created their own fraternity and began calling themselves the Komuso instead of Komoso. Komuso translates as “monks of nothingness” (虚無僧). The Komuso eventually named their organization the Fuke shu after the Chinese Chan Buddhist monk Fuke Zenji (allegedly ca. 770-840 or 860). The Komuso developed a number of honkyoku which are considered a Zen art form. These pieces are felt to be spiritual or meditative in nature and some have called the act of playing Suizen or “blowing Zen”.
Playing melodic musical instruments was forbidden for ordained Zen Buddhist monks, though in special cases, and perhaps in secret, some monks did play bamboo flutes including shakuhachi. Most famously, the notorious iconoclast Ikkyu Sojun (一休宗純 1394–1481) played the pre-Fuke shu shakuhachi which was 1.08 shaku in length and made from the pole, as mentioned earlier. Ikkyu loved the sound of the shakuhachi so much that he not only often played it but he was also the first to write poetry about them.
Tengai “basket-hat” and other Komuso clothing items
The Komuso tengai or “sky/heaven cover” basket hat is perhaps the most iconic item next to the shakuhachi flute. It’s 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. According to the few historical representations we have the tengai didn’t begin to cover the whole face until late in the Edo period, perhaps even in the Meiji period.
The image to the right details the various articles of clothing worn by the average contemporary Komuso, 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 san-in or “three seals” were 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 were 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 daily affairs. Later on, they began teaching lay-people how to play the shakuhachi. The chief activities of most Komuso would have been playing honkyoku which are secular solo musical pieces anonymously composed by the Komuso for shakuhachi.
Komuso travel to other temples where different regional honkyoku styles developed. This in turn allowed for cross-pollination of regional honkyoku styles. The Komuso Kurosawa Kinko I (1710-1771) was one such individual who collect various regional honkyoku.
The Komuso would beg for alms by playing a honkyoku outside of a home or place of business. However, 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-Komuso, played the shakuhachi and participated in secular ensemble music with the koto and the shamisen (Gaikyoku/Sankyoku). Eventually, the Fuke shu allowed Komuso 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.
The banning of the Komuso – The Meiji Restoration and the destruction of the Fuke shu
The Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) was a chain of events that restored practical imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji and sought to rapidly modernize the country. One of the goals of the Meiji Restoration was to purge Japan of “foreign” Buddhism in favor of a new nationalist version of Shintoism. One of the early slogans of the Meiji Restoration was, “Sweep aside the Buddha – Smash Buddhism”. During the Meiji Restoration, the Fuke shu Komuso monk order was dissolved and most of their temples were burned or converted. This resulted in the inevitable loss of honkyoku pieces. Despite everything, secular sankyoku shakuhachi playing continued to grow in popularity and the nonsecular honkyoku were still taught and played, although to a lesser extent.
Purportedly, at one point the Meiji Empire tried to ban the shakuhachi all together, however, Araki Chikuo (Kodo II) and Yoshida Itcho succeeded in convincing the Empire to continue to allow the shakuhachi in secular settings. It was also around this time that the fully-pasted two-piece jiari type shakuhachi began evolving.
As a result, sankyoku music became even more popular due to these sweeping reforms. Eventually, the ban on Buddhism was lifted and honkyoku and some of the Komuso activities were legal again. The honkyoku continued to be taught in schools, both with and without sankyoku, however, it typically dominated public interest. Subsequent generations saw an ever decreasing decline in Japanese people’s interest in the honkyoku which continues to the present day. However, honkyoku and the jinashi shakuhachi of the komuso monks is in a full fledged Renaissance, particularly outside of Japan.