The study of “Zen” using an elongated bamboo flute, or “Kyotaku.” During the Kamakura period, (1185-1333) a Buddhist emissary to China, also known as Hōtōenmei, Hōtō-Kokushi of Kokokuji Temple in Wakayama Prefecture was given a shakuhachi as a part of his Zen practice in China, and accompanied the fourth master of the shakuhachi on his return to Japan. Through Hōtōenmei, the shakuhachi became linked to Zen and eventually developed more systematically into “SUIZEN”. In this program, we will go beyond the concept of Suizen, to study the real foundation of Zen, which is all about controlling the breath.
The study of “Zen” using an elongated bamboo flute, or “Kyotaku.”
In Tang Dynasty (9th century) China, a monk by the name of Puhuà (Fuke in Japanese) used a shakuhachi flute as a meditation tool, the act of ‘blowing Zen’ (suizen) as it was
known. The Fuke branch of Zen Buddhism is purported to have derived from the teachings of the Chinese Zen teacher Linji Yixuan ( Rinzai Gigen c. 800– 866 CE in Japanese). However, the Fuke school counts founder Puhuà, one of Linji’s contemporaries, as its founder. Fuke-style Zen was eventually brought to Japan by Shinchi Kakushin (1207–1298 CE), also known as Muhon Kakushin or Hōtō Kokushi
(posthumously), who had travelled to China for six years and studied with the famous Chan master, Wumen of the Linji lineage. Kakushin became a disciple of Chôsan, a 17th generation teacher of the Fuke sect of China.
It was Fuke’s goal to reach enlightenment through meditation on sound, and his particular sect of Rinzai Zen, Fukeshu, produced mendicant monks and lay persons known as komuso, literally ‘monks ofempty nothingness.’ Through rigorous training and lifestyle, they sought to develop kisoku, “spiritual breath,” and to eventually blow a note that would express all of reality and lead them to what they referred to as ichi-on-jobutsu, “becoming a Buddha in one note.” Although the sect flourished in the Edo period (1610 – 1868 CE) for a time, much of what we know about Puhuà himself has been since proven to be a myth.The legends of the Fuke though are often very entertaining though, as is the case with Pu-ko the Chinese Zen eccentric who ran wildly through the streets ringing a bell.One of his admirers (Chang-po) found a way to play the Zen essence of Pu-ko’s bellringing on the shakuhachi, thus creating one of the classic shakuhachi pieces, “The Empty Bell” (referring to both the Zen doctrine of emptiness and the hollowness of the flute itself).Puhuà’s sect eventually disbanded and disappeared, but left behind a body of workknow as honkyoku, ‘songs of enlightenment,’ which are practiced and performed by shakuhachi flautists worldwide (regardless of religious affiliation).The idea of “practicing” music for enlightenment has a useful application beyond its religious implementation. Although becoming one with the instrument and entering thestate of “absolute sound” (tettei-on) where one achieves ichi-on-jobutsu is traditionallythe path of suizen, my own exposure to the practice was in the context of studying Shinto kagura and/or gagaku music on the hichiriki (small, oboe-like woodwind) at Ikuta Shinto Shrine in Kobe with Shoji Mori (1998- 2001); suizen being a technique taught to me by Master Mori to develop a greater sensitivity to the sound of the instrument and its timbral relationship with the other instruments in the orchestra.The actual practice of suizen is a nine part non-sequential series of contemplations to be either guided through by a master, or used as a process of self-study for the moreadvanced student. Finding a quiet place and appropriate time to practice, one clears one’s mind and relaxes, ready to perceive the qualities of a single note or the notes within a simple phrase. It is vital to not just improvise a long string of notes, since the idea is to be completely aware of each note and its qualities.The great ZEN master Fuke, who lived in 7th century China, used a wooden bell coated in metal for meditation. One of his students, Chohaku, made the first flute in an effort toimitate the sound of Master Fuke’s bell. The word Kyotaku means “bell that make themind empty.”The early 13th century witnessed the arrival of the Fuke sect in Japan together with the bamboo flute. As the flute became more popular, preference was generally for the 1.8Shakuhachi (one shaku is approximately 30.3 cm.). Often played with other instruments, the Shakuhachi eventually became so popular that the name was adopted to refer to allbamboo flutes.At the demise of the era of the Shogun, around 1868, the Shakuhachi began to change, becoming increasingly influenced by flutes found in the West as it was made smootherand more symmetrical on the inside and able to be disassembled.Such developments in the structure of the instrument affected the way in which the flute was played for, to obtain the desired sound, the original Shakuhachi flute is played bybreathing, rather than blowing. Time and change have thus rendered the finding of anoriginal Shakuhachi flute to be an extremely rare event.Following the end of the Second World War, Koku Nishimura Tani, who eventually becoming a flute Master himself, gave the Shakuhachi flute the name ‘Kyotaku’.Accomplished in various other disciplines, he ranked as a 6th dan in Okinawa Karate and a 3rd dan in Kendo. He was the honorary director of The Ruo-yan Buddhism in China.Master Nishimura lived in Kumamoto, Japan until his death in 2002. His son, Koryu Nishimura, who lives in Kumamoto, has followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a teacher of the Kyotaku