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 became shakuhachi playing monks known as the Komuso. However, before the Komuso came about there were already beggars who played shakuhachi-like flutes for alms called the komoso. 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 some of these rōnin samūrai so they began playing the flute as well. Eventually, the samūrai diverged from the beggars by creating their own Zen sect called the Fuke shu and they called themselves the Komūso or “monks of no-thing-ness” (虚無僧).
The Fuke shu was granted official status by the Shogun and was named after the Chinese monk Fuke Zenji (Zhenzhou Puhua). The Tokugawa Shogunate granted them various rare privileges such as being able to travel across borders freely. In order to become a Komuso of the Fuke shu and legally play the shakuhachi you had to be of samūrai birth with the proper identification papers, pass initiation, and pay an entrance fee often by trading in one’s 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 whole face until late in the Edo period, perhaps even in the Meiji period.
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 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 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 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-samūrai 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”.
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 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 honkyoku being officially banned. Eventually the ban on Buddhism was lifted and honkyoku and some of the Komuso’s activities were legalized 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.