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”. Some joined the ranks of shakuhachi playing “monks” known as the Komoso or “straw mat monks” (薦層). These bamboo flute playing beggars were named for their sleeping mats which they carried on their backs. Eventually, the samūrai of nobility diverged from the “common born” Komoso. They eventually begin calling themselves the Komūso or “monks of no-thing-ness” (虚無僧). However, neither the Komoso or the Komuso were officially ordained Buddhist monks.
Therefore, the “monk” portion of their names was most likely a result of their practice of begging for alms which resembled that of ordained Zen monks to lay people. However, playing melodic musical instruments was officially forbidden for ordained Zen Buddhist monks, though in special cases, and of course perhaps in secret, some monks did play bamboo flute. Most famously was that of the notorious iconoclast Ikkyu Sojun. Ikkyu loved the sound of the bamboo flute so much that he often played it and wrote poetry about them.
The Komuso eventually named their order the Fuke shu after the Chinese monk Fuke Zenji (Zhenzhou Puhua). They developed a number of refined musical styles of playing shakuhachi and they composed many honkyoku.
Tengai “basket-hat” and other clothing items
The tengai 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, as well as the shift from Komuso temples to ryu or “schools”. For example, the honkyoku of the former Fudai temple (Fudaiji) became known as the Seien School (Seien Ryu).
The banning of the Komuso – The Meiji Restoration and the destruction of the Fuke shu
It is estimated by some 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, converting, or destruction of all 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 new government to allow secular shakuhachi music to continue.
As a result, secular music became even more popular especially with non-secular honkyoku being officially banned. Eventually, the ban on Buddhism was lifted and honkyoku and some of the Komuso’s activities were legal again. The honkyoku continued to be taught in schools with and without secular ensemble music, however, secular Sankyoku typically dominated. Subsequent generations saw an ever decreasing decline in people’s interest in the honkyoku. As a result, only a handful of regional honkyoku styles 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.